In the latter half of the 1970s, while the punk scene was morphing into the more erudite spawn of post-punk and new wave in the UK – a change illustrated best by observing Johnny Rotten’s Sex Pistols making way for the era of Public Image and Howard Devoto leaving Buzzcocks to form Magazine. Similarly, some interesting sounds in the same vein were making their debuts across the pond in America, including New York’s new-wave giants Talking Heads and Blondie. It was at this point too, that the B-52’s had begun to make a name for themselves in their hometown of Athens, Georgia.
The group formed in 1976 when longtime friends Ricky Wilson and Keith Strickland became closer with Ricky’s sister Cindy Wilson. The trio became acquainted with Fred Schneider and Kate Pierson through mutual friends and one evening in October 1976, the group were sharing a flaming volcano cocktail at a Chinese restaurant in Athens when they drunkenly decided to form a band. They stuck to their word and met up for a jamming session shortly after, despite Ricky and Keith being the only members with any real musical experience. The two began to write songs for the band, and as a group, they started to craft their unique sound which gained its identity from the colourful mix of vocals from Fred Schneider’s almost yelping voice and Cindy and Kate’s harmonising soulful accompaniment.
The band toyed with a number of different ideas for their name, with Tina-Trons and Fellini’s Children as notable candidates, but finally settled with the B-52’s, which was derived from the jocular name for a particular beehive hairstyle that resembles the shape of the nose of a B-52 bomber aircraft. It wasn’t until Valentine’s Day in 1977 that the band played their first gig at a small venue with Ricky playing his guitar and Keith drumming over a pre-recorded keyboard arrangement. The gig was a success, despite their lacking precision and experience, and the group began to meet up regularly, gradually becoming more focused on making a name for themselves.
Between 1977 and 1979, the band rose to prominence amid the quirky youth that seemed to swarm Athens thanks to the local University of Georgia. They would play frequent packed-out gigs at venues across Athens first, later conquering the state. Their music was a strange mix of diverse influences ranging from old-school soul to 1960s pop music; when mixed with choppy punk style guitar riffs, it was a winning combination that was complimented by their equally eccentric aesthetic. The girls would sport the trademark beehive hair arrangements which somehow fit in perfectly when coupled with the often outlandishly loud and colourful choices of clothing.
By 1979, the band were well on their way to stardom and global success with the release of their masterpiece self-titled debut album. The album included many of the group’s early hits that they would play during their formative shows in Athens, including ‘Planet Claire’, ‘Rock Lobster’ and ‘52 Girls’. The platinum-selling album has since gone down in history as one of the finest in the new-wave genre, and to add to the accolade, shortly after its release John Lennon was among the big names to cite it as a personal favourite.
Take a trip back to 1978 below to see rare footage from one of the earliest B-52’s gigs in Athens, Georgia.