On the last day of Riot Fest, the B-52s played what was billed as their final Chicago show. Founding members Cindy Wilson, Fred Schneider, and Kate Pierson rocked out with their touring band, opening with “Planet Claire” and running through a set of the best-known tunes from their 41-year discography. Schneider bounced around in a hoodie and T-shirt, while Wilson and Pierson wore shimmering spangled dresses and their signature beehive hairdos.
The packed, sweaty crowd didn’t seem to care about the spitting rain and uneven acoustics. At one point, Schneider saw someone in the crowd spraying water in the air and quipped, “What are you spraying them with? I hope it’s perfume!” A small group of fans began moshing almost the moment the music started, and a few people even crowd surfed—including one, incongruously, during “Roam.”
The high point for me was “Give Me Back My Man,” the second single from the 1980 album Wild Planet, with Wilson’s deep vocals and Schneider’s precise glockenspiel. Of course the B-52s slogged through a perfunctory rendition of “Love Shack” (breaking briefly into War’s “Low Rider”), and they closed with a satisfyingly energetic performance of their very first single, 1978’s “Rock Lobster.”
As warm a reception as Chicago gave the B-52s, they have a deeper connection to the city’s music scene than most of the folks dancing their mess around in Douglas Park probably realized. Their sound helped shape house music, one of Chicago’s most widespread cultural exports.
“I got into the B-52s, probably ’79ish, definitely into ’80,” recalls DJ Jesse Saunders, 57, who created the first house music record, “On and On,” in 1984. “They’re one of my favorite groups, actually.”
At around the same time Saunders discovered the B-52s, he and other members of the Chosen Few DJ crew provided mixes for Herb Kent‘s Punk Out radio show on WXFM. In his autobiography, Kent says he first got the idea for Punk Out after seeing black teens at a club “jumping up and down” to new-wave records. Many people in the record industry saw new wave as a potential underground replacement for disco, which had peaked commercially.
The B-52s, of course, are a band that sound like no other. With his strident pronouncements, Schneider can seem like a demented TV announcer, while Wilson and Pierson’s close harmonies hark back to American roots music. The group’s raw blend of soul, surf, and synth-pop is perfect for parties, while their Dada-like lyrics and 1950s throwback styles satirize the heteronormative conformity of the not-so-distant past.
“Side A of the B-52s’ first album, we just played it nonstop,” recalls DJ Lori Branch, 57, who hosts the radio show Vintage House on WNUR. “If you listened to a lot of the early, early house music and techno, it’s new wave! It’s just packaged a little differently.”
In 1982, Saunders was spinning at the Playground, an influential teen club at 1347 S. Michigan. “I used to do a whole set of Devo, B-52s, ‘Love Is a Battlefield,’ all of that kind of stuff,” he says. “Men Without Hats, you name it. I was always into alternative styles anyway. It was the one place where I could get away with playing anything and everything.”
Saunders’s early dance-music productions with Vince Lawrence have a definite new-wave flavor, and when he listens to the B-52s, he hears the exchange going both ways. “You can hear a lot of those edgy electronic influences,” he says. “One of my favorite songs by them was actually ‘Mesopotamia.’ I used to play that to death! I mean, I would probably play that two or three times a night, ’cause I loved it so much.” Saunders created rhythm tracks as DJ tools, allowing him to segue between fast songs such as “Rock Lobster” and cuts with more typical R&B tempos.
Similarly, in Detroit, the B-52s became popular among African American teens through late-night radio. Influential DJ the Electrifying Mojo, whose hugely popular show ran through the mid-80s, played their music alongside Prince and the Time.
“Detroit, we are a new-wave city,” says DJ, producer, and former record-store owner Rick Wilhite. “Of course the roller-skating rink was dominated by B-52s records. That’s where we learned a lot of that music, here in Detroit. You’d be surprised how many people in Detroit know the words to their music. You can turn the record off, and they could sing the whole thing without turning it back on! Yeah, we’re real keen on that music.”
Wilhite points out that several current Detroit DJs have created edits of B-52s songs—and some of them may find their way to vinyl in the next year. I ask why techno and house DJs in Detroit still want to spin the B-52s. “It’s just hot music! And it hasn’t been heard in a minute,” Wilhite responds. “In the late 80s, 90s, B-52s, in Detroit, you could hear it almost every week.”
A few hours before the B-52s’ Riot Fest set, the Village People performed on the same stage. The B-52s and the Village People are both icons in LGBTQ+ culture, in no small part because of how they embody camp, but the Village People were a studio group fronted by models, epitomizing everything rock fans hated about disco.
“It wasn’t something that translated as well,” Branch explains. The Village People, she says, wouldn’t typically be played at house parties. “It was just a little too pop and over-the-top. B-52s was more gritty. Even though ‘Rock Lobster’ was a hit, it still felt underground to us because of the venues where it was played, and you didn’t expect to hear it.”
I ask Branch what she likes about the B-52s’ sound. “These high-pitched voices, these interesting breaks, these stripped-down instrumental elements,” she says. “There’s something about stripping away all of the musical parts that helped to flesh out your set.
“Disco is very musical,” Branch continues. “We were kids, though, so we wanted to bang our heads a bit. You’re able to take the set in a different dimension by throwing in something like a B-52s or a Queen or Devo or ‘Trans-Europe Express’ or something like that—that gives quite a different sound, makes you turn in a direction that’s surprising. You wanted that. You wanted to be surprised.”
It might really be true that the B-52s are retiring from the road—founding member Keith Strickland already has, and Pierson, Wilson, and Schneider are all in their 60s and 70s. But even if they never return to Chicago, they’ve given the city’s musical culture a gift that could outlive all of us. v