Hero Worship: Remembering Ricky Wilson of The B-52’s
The guitarist would have turned 70 today
It was October 12, 1985, the day that B-52’s’ guitarist and key composer Ricky Wilson died of AIDS, crippling the Athens, Georgia-based group both personally and professionally.
The fact that the B-52’s were the ultimate New Wave, let’s-have-a-party band of the ’80s — the upbeat, whacked-out, wigged-out chroniclers of kitsch, the guys and gals who percolated with campy feel-good vibes, the creators of a fanciful universe better than our own – only accentuated the irony of the real-world loss. That something so tragic and final was interjected into this upbeat band’s life and, certainly, the lives of its fans.
The front-folks in the B-52’s were the flamboyant ones: Singer-Cindy Wilson (Ricky’s sister) and singer-keyboardist Kate Pierson – the ones with the beehive hairdos (hence the band’s Southern slang name) and singer Fred Schneider. But Wilson’s oft-minor key surf guitar licks were central to the band’s other-worldly sound. (Add to that some cheesy Farfisa organ riffs, the giddy call-and-response male/female vocals.)
He played a Mosrite guitar and favored distinctive open tunings, sometimes playing with just four or five strings, reportedly saying “I just tune the strings ‘til I hear something I like, and then something comes out. I don’t write anything down. I have no idea how the tunings go.” There are some folks who put his innovative guitar chops up there in the post-punk pantheon with Keith Levene (PiL) and Andy Gill (Gang of Four). Asked to list his influences Wilson once put down: Children’s records, The Mamas & The Papas, Escarita & The Voola.
The last album Wilson played on was Bouncing Off the Satellites, recorded in 1985, while Wilson was suffering from AIDS. He played on four of the tracks; drummer Keith Strickland, learning Wilson’s style, played on the other six. The album was not released until 1986 and by that point the band was on hiatus.
Strickland was the only bandmate who knew about Wilson’s illness, later saying the guitarist was “very protective, particularly of Cindy and his family” due to the public’s reaction to AIDS. (If you weren’t around or don’t recall, it was the Reagan era and the AIDS epidemic ramped up considerable hatred toward gay men among certain segments of the populace – you know, they deserve it, those heathens!) Strickland was one of Wilson’s best friends – they’d played in a pre-Bs band, Black Narcissus, from 1969-1971 and had bummed around Europe together in the mid-‘70s. Wilson had come out to Strickland when they were both teens.
VIDEO: The B-52’s “Rock Lobster”
Wilson’s illness more or less forced him out of the closet. If it matters, Schneider and Strickland are also gay, Pierson, though married to a woman, identifies as bisexual and Cindy Wilson is straight.
Did Wilson’s death mean the band was done? Or was it trying to figure out how to cope and carry on?
In 2019, Strickland looked back on those times, talking with Grammy Awards writer Lior Phillips: “We felt that the band was finished. We couldn’t imagine continuing without him. So, we each went our separate ways.”
But they came back together. As Strickland had taken over Wilson’s role, Zack Alford took Strickland’s seat at the drum kit.
The B-52’s officially resurfaced in 1989 with the Cosmic Thing album and that’s when we in the press started to speak with them again. It wasn’t exactly like talking to the guys in New Order after Ian Curtis’s suicide and Joy Division’s demise – I did that, too – but sorta. The elephant in the room, yes, but it had to be discussed.
On the occasion of what would have been Wilson’s 70th birthday, March 19, we’ll revisit that transitional era.
I spoke with singer Schneider in 1989. “After Ricky died, we didn’t know what we were going to do because it was such a loss,” he said. “We didn’t know if we could replace Ricky and everybody was just so devastated, we just put everything aside. After a while, we finally decided to get together and jam, the four of us. There was no way we could replace Ricky. We just wanted to see what we would come up with. Since Keith writes, it was just natural for him to do it. And once we start jamming, Keith gets more ideas — it just bounces back and forth.”
What they came up with was the strong, infectious Cosmic Thing, a spirited upbeat album that picked up where the band left off and sent a clear signal: The Bs were back with the singles “Roam” and “Love Shack” leading the way.
VIDEO: The B-52’s “Roam”
How, one wonders, did they avoid the melancholy they so obviously felt?
“Well, we didn’t want it to be sad at all,” said Schneider of the music. “We had been through all the grief and we’re still grieving — we’re still depressed and whatever — but we didn’t want that to carry over into the music. We just let our subconscious take over; we just jammed with miles and miles of tape and then structured songs from the interesting parts on the jams.
“We have some ballads, some serious songs. I think, finally, with this album people will see all the different facets that might have been ignored by critics in the past. But we’re still going to do a real positive, upbeat, humorous, and I hope, exciting show.”
“Not having Ricky behind me was really scary,” says Cindy Wilson. “I didn’t think I could live without Ricky. Cosmic Thing was a blessing. We went from the small band to the big band.”
Indeed, in fleshing out their sound, over the years in the post-Ricky Wilson period, the B’s added bassist Sara Lee, ex of the Gang of Four, giving the group its first bass guitarist. They also added keyboardist Pat Irwin, ex-of The Raybeats. They changed management and enlisted hot producers Don Was and Nile Rodgers.
“We’ve got a real powerhouse,” said Schneider. “We have such a strong rhythm section and I think our vocals have gotten a lot better.” The three supplemental musicians are part of the touring lineup; Schneider hoped to keep using them on records as well.
Was there still humor? Camp?
Sure. “Nowadays,” sighed Schneider, “if you put humor in your music, I guess you’re considered camp, and our style isn’t too subtle. I don’t see us as being camp, although I guess on stage, we want to entertain people and make ’em laugh and we will make fools of ourselves.”
Still, Schneider — who often talks up ecological issues and who, with the other band members — is a bit put off when the band is perceived as lightweight. The David Byrne-produced mini-album Mesopotamia mini-album was their first stab at seriousness, and certain socio-political themes waft through the Cosmic Thing, too.
“Once you’re labeled,” Schneider says, “you can’t get out of the label. We were pretty campy at times, but it was sort of the first step. Basically, we had no money — we were one of the brokest bands going in Athens — and we just bought clothes from the thrift store and we chose things that were loud and made us laugh. They were just so ridiculous they were great/awful. I’ll wear an awful polyester outfit that’s so horrible it’s funny . . . but I don’t necessarily think it’s wonderful.”
The B-52’s were such a dancefloor delight in the new wave scene of the late- ‘70s and early ‘80s. Tunes such as “Rock Lobster,” “Dance This Mess Around,” “Party Out of Bounds” and “Private Idaho,” to name a few.
Schneider said they held up well. “You can’t date ’em. I mean, they’re from that period, but we’re modifying them. And, we haven’t played in five years, so our old things haven’t gotten stale to us. ‘Dance This Mess Around’ starts out the same as it always does, but we changed the beat and made it more rockin’. We’re stretching out ‘Mesopotamia,’ jamming on stage; we have this real funky middle breakdown. And the songs will evolve as we play.”
On their first tour after Wilson’s death, Schneider said he was pleasantly pleased, if a bit surprised, by the audience response “We were thinking people were just going to look at us as some group that came and went,” Schneider admitted, “although we never thought in those terms. We don’t immerse ourselves in the ‘rock’ lifestyle. We’re lucky in that we’ve always had this core of fans who’ve been supportive from the beginning.”
“Somebody loves us!” he exclaims, allowing a laugh, one of the interview’s precious few. Clearly, Ricky Wilson’s death is still very close. When Schneider says “we feel like a whole new band with a whole new outlook,” his voice remains flat. This is not a new band by choice. But Cosmic Thing suggests it is a new band that will kick out the jams, old and new.
VIDEO: The B-52’s “Legal Tender”
But in 1992, the band went away again. In the spring of 1998, I spoke with Cindy Wilson
“I think,” she says, “it might be the right mood this summer,” figuring and the reconstituted, rejuvenated B-52’s are primed to ride yet another wave.
But must you go away for so long in order for the public to miss you?
“Absolutely. I mean, I had to get away,” said a chipper Wilson. “I could imagine even the fans had to.”
The B-52s are calling their current swing through America’s outdoor amphitheaters the “Time Capsule Tour.” Their album is “Time Capsule: Songs for a Future Generation,” an 18-track best-of collection with hits like “Rock Lobster,” “Roam,” and “Love Shack,” plus two new tunes, “Debbie” and “Hallucinating Pluto.”
The B-52s had one improbable comeback in 1989 with Cosmic Thing. Could they, perhaps, rise from dormancy once again? Can boomer parents and their teenage kids both do the Camel Walk to the B-52s of ’98?
“We’re still dancing, thank God,” said Wilson. “When you come to the show, you’re going to have to get up. We’ve got these go-go cages . . . ” Select fans will get the chance to shimmer and shine in those cages.
OK, but are the B-52s still relevant?
“Well, that’s a good question,” Wilson says. “I don’t know, exactly, but if dancing and having a good time is irrelevant, then I think that’s terrible. But, yes, people want to hear our songs, and I think it’s been long enough where it will be fun and fresh again.”
“I think, basically, it doesn’t take much for us to want to get back together,” Wilson added. “But you have to have a reason and, to be honest, money was the first reason. And perfectly cool. But I think it went beyond that to actually be — for me and I suspect everybody else — a lot of fun.”
For a moment, let Wilson take you back to the early days, 1978, when the campy, wide-eyed B-52s crashed the dingy, but hip, New York punk scene and found the jaded punks too fashionably disaffected to dance. The Bs were miffed.
“The Hurrah’s show,” said Wilson, mentioning a famed, long-defunct club, “that’s when I knew something was going on, right after `52 Girls.’ That’s what spread the news, for us becoming a . . . thing. It was going to be a regular show and we looked out the window and there was a line around the block. We flipped out. Bells rang. Things were happening. This was the moment for me. It’s funny ’cause I remember Ricky just freaking out and getting so nervous. He lost it that night. . .. I cherish the old days, when it was fun and small.”
The B-52s of today are a bigger, if more nebulous, entity. Session players and pals — bassist Tracy Wormworth, drummer Charlie Drayden and Irwin — flesh out the band now.
“There are plateaus,” said Wilson, looking back on the B’s. “For any musician, any rocker. It’s just what you go through. There were pitfalls and changes — some exciting changes.
Wilson dropped out of the Bs after the Cosmic Thing tour. She wanted to go out on a high note; she wanted to have a baby, move from New York back to Georgia. She admitted, “I was kind of burnt out. And there were a few squabbles in the band. I wasn’t having as much fun. In rock ‘n’ roll, it’s crucial, for me anyway, to have fun.” Wilson gave the band a year’s notice and was replaced by Julee Cruise, who toured with the Bs in 1992-93. (Cruise died in June, 2022.)
Wilson came back to the fold, she says, in a casual manner. She began to jam with the band. The time seemed right. They did some corporate gigs — that is, accepting big bucks to play conventions for private companies and their employees — and “it was kind of like us getting used to doing it. It unified us, to where we had a goal. Now all the other stuff is falling in.”
The B-52s are implicitly asking you to decide: What is timeless, classic? What is faded, dated? Is a kitsch sensibility and a fascination with creatures from outer space pop-worthy?
“We never lost that,” said Wilson, of their fixations. Of their serio-comic weave — causes and a rock beat, she adds, “One’s just the style of the band and, I guess, one’s just your conscience, what you believe. I never had a problem with mixing, never thought it was a problem. Human beings are multilayered and nobody’s a cartoon. It’s a moment of time.”
The B-52s retired from touring in 2022 – going out with KC and the Sunshine Band opening for them – but not from doing one-offs here and there. As Schneider posted on his Facebook page in mid-March, announcing a June 17 gig at the Stone Pony Summer Stage in Asbury Park, NJ, “Well like I said, we will be doing shows, just not touring …”
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