Almost 35 years after the B-52s formed, the seemingly ageless group is still kicking it. Openly gay Keith Strickland and his fellow B-52s colleagues Fred Schneider (also gay), Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson will perform at Chastain Park next week alongside Blondie, combining classics hits such as “Love Shack” with newer material.
Although the band still tours regularly, they decided a few years back to do a new album.
“I think the idea was to come up with ideas to sing live,” says Strickland. “We needed new material and just decided to do it.”
Inspired by dance/electronica, Strickland’s goal was to do something in that vein but still “keep it in our style.” The ensuing 2008 album “Funplex” was the band’s first in 16 years, since 1992’s “Good Stuff.” It debuted at number #11 on the Billboards chart.
The B-52s and Blondie
He feels the B-52s fan base has remained steady over the years and admits he is always happy when he sees younger people who have become followers.
It’s particularly fun when he sees audience members who weren’t even born when the group started now familiar with all of the band’s music.
Formed in 1976, the B-52s began with Strickland playing drums, but the dynamics of the band changed when member Ricky Wilson died of AIDS back in 1985. At that point, Strickland moved from drummer to guitar. Wilson’s death was a blow and a surprise to the group, but they rebounded with their seminal album “Cosmic Thing.”
The band was somewhat under the radar, Strickland says, until they entered the mainstream with that album.
“We did this to entertain ourselves,” he says. “We had no idea we’d be doing this as a career.”
‘The world has changed around us’
A lot has changed politically since the group began playing together in Athens, Ga., but they haven’t changed their views.
“We’ve had the same political views; the world has changed around us, in a positive way,” Strickland says.
One difference for them, though, was being more upfront.
“We felt the need to speak with more directness,” he says. “I came out in 1992; I felt the need to come out because of the climate. Up until then, I had never been asked. I felt the need to be more open with the media. I talked to a gay magazine out of New York — I don’t even think it’s around anymore. Before then, [the issue] had never come up.”
Strickland and Ricky Wilson met in high school.
“That was the early ‘70s and in those days people were more open,” Strickland recalls. “It was an open environment, a liberal town.”
Wilson was out and so were several other friends, both in high school and college. Their group of friends — artists, musicians, photographers —formed a tight, accepting group.
“Many kids don’t have that,” admits Strickland.
He feels it is somewhat harder these days to be an individual in the music industry, having to fit in boxes or be what producers want. That is a problem none of the B-52s had to face.
“I don’t know that it is easier,” he says. “If you fit into a nice package, it works. It’s harder to be in a band like ours and have commercial success. On the tour bus we’ve talked about it — how would Dylan do in the days of ‘American Idol?’ It’s difficult to happen now. You can’t be too challenging, you have to be like something you’ve heard before, have to be safe. It’s very homogenized; the emphasis is not being original.”
His advice to today’s artists on whether to come out?
“I don’t know that it hurts or not — it depends on the artist you’re gonna be,” he says. “You will find your fan base. Be genuine. If you want to represent yourself as someone else, it will be hard to — you can’t switch. But it’s difficult. I can empathize.”
Strickland was very happy when Proposition 8, the California voter initiative that banned gay marriage, was overturned by a federal judge earlier this month.
“I believe it was the right thing for the judge to do,” he says. “(Gay marriage) should be legal in all states.”
Top photo: It’s been more than three decades since the B-52s burst out of Athens, Ga., on a musical journey that continues to win new fans. (Photo by Joseph Cultice)