"Basically I met everyone at parties," recalled Pierson. "In Athens everyone meets everyone. I remember one party, a friend of mine pointed and said, 'See that guy over there? He has the best collection of shirts in Athens.' That was Fred. . . . He wanted to have a garden, so he used to come out to my place and hoe. I had this beautiful old farmhouse for $15 a month. It was just a beautiful place. Some blackberry wine stowed under the house.
"So that was the thing that really brought us together," she continued, recalling the circle of friends the band would enshrine more than a decade later in "The Deadbeat Club."
"Athens is a big dance party town, so we would go and be a party terrorist gang. We just danced wild and we all became a clique. . . . A bunch of people that would all hang out together and go cruise parties. . . . We had kind of dead-end jobs. There was a little lull there. We used to hang out and drink ice tea. It was kind of like European cafe society, only in Athens, Ga."
The five eventually got around to playing together for fun, and they made their public debut at a Valentine's Day party in 1977. When it looked like it might become a career rather than a lark, the B-52's relocated to New York and released "Rock Lobster" as in independent single in 1978. They were signed by Sire Records and released their debut album in '79.
After taking the pop world by storm for a couple of years, the band bottomed out in '86.
"Bouncing off the Satellites," the last album that Ricky Wilson played on, came out in 1986, shortly after his death. The record wasn't up to the band's standards, and, with Ricky gone, they couldn't tour to support it. It went virtually unnoticed beyond their core audience, and the B-52's were widely presumed dead.
"Well, you know," said Strickland with a shrug, "when you disappear for three years and people don't hear from you. . . . I mean, we felt like this was the conclusion of the band. But we never said, 'This is it, it's over, we're not doing anything anymore.' We just left it open ended."
Added Pierson, "We were friends to start with, so it's not like we didn't see each other. We kept hanging out together and we finally felt like making music."
The first impetus came in 1987 when the band agreed to emcee a benefit concert in Washington for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). There they detected some real interest from fans in hearing the '52's again.
"We realized, 'Gosh, people still really want to see us,' " Strickland said. "We thought how great it would be to perform at such benefits and get more involved with helping out in different areas, such as PETA and the environment and AIDS. Those are the three causes that we're most involved with at this point. That was a big motivating factor in getting the band back together."
They convened early in 1988 in their New York rehearsal space and re-established their old methodology: Strickland--working without Wilson for the first time--brought in a backing track, and everyone jammed on melody and lyrics until the song formed. The first product was "Junebug," one of "Cosmic Thing's" Southern-themed songs.
"It's real stream-of-consciousness-oriented," Pierson said of the process, "and we bounce off each other and we let the doors of the collective unconscious open and we kind of get into a state where we jam and let it all flow out. When we started writing the songs a theme developed, this kind of Southern theme. We didn't realize it either until after like the third song."
When they finally had the right balance of introspective and upbeat material, they recorded with producers Nile Rodgers and Don Was. Strickland, originally the drummer, had assumed Ricky Wilson's guitar role, and hired drummers played on the record (on stage, the basic quartet is augmented by three touring musicians).
The goals on the record: enthusiasm, a live band sound, and a sharper focus on the social and environmental causes the band had previously propagated in more metaphorical terms.
"We did want the political concerns in the band to come out more," Pierson said. "We've always been involved and conscious of things that were happening in the world, and we've been involved with different environmental groups and we've joined a lot of groups. . . . It's such an emergency situation now that it was really in the forefront of our minds and we really wanted it to be more overt. The subliminal way it came out in former songs just wasn't overt enough."
That side of the band has always been overshadowed by the wacky image--"The 'W' word," they call it with mock horror. But Pierson thinks even that side of the B-52's had a serious aspect.