In 1989, if you were hanging out of a University of Georgia frat house window, tailgating before the Iron Bowl, or inside any ol’ bar with a halfway decent jukebox, chances are almost 100 percent you heard the campy soul jump of the B-52’s “Love Shack,” the instant classic from the Athens, Georgia-bred band’s fifth album, Cosmic Thing. And it’s more than likely you were singing along. With Cosmic Thing, the B-52’s went from Southern-fried party band to world-wide party band extraordinaire. “Love Shack,” inspired by a cabin outside of Athens where the band members hung out in the 1970s, and follow-up single “Roam” both cracked the top five. The album became the B-52’s biggest commercial success, eventually going quadruple-platinum and peaking at number four on the Billboard albums chart.
Cosmic Thing turns a ripe thirty years old this June, and Rhino Records is commemorating the occasion on Friday, June 28, with an expanded edition re-release that includes extended liner notes, never-seen-before photos, as well as a live recording from a 1990 show in Dallas featuring early hits like “Rock Lobster” and “Private Idaho.”
That the album was born out of devastating sadness makes its iconic status all the more remarkable. In 1985, the band’s musical driving force, guitarist Ricky Wilson, died from AIDS-related complications. The album that the band had finished with Wilson before his death, 1986’s Bouncing Off the Satellites, bombed commercially, and members Fred Schneider and Kate Pierson retreated separately to houses in Woodstock, New York, while Keith Strickland and Cindy Wilson—Ricky’s sister—holed up in New York City.
But in late 1987, Strickland began to write new music, first as a grief-soothing balm. Then, he slowly began to share his ideas with Schneider and Pierson, who eagerly welcomed what became a flood of creativity, and the band returned to the studio to record the new material. (Cindy took some cajoling and by her own account often burst into tears during sessions.) Working with producers Nile Rodgers and Don Was, the band took almost a year to complete Cosmic Thing, and amazingly, “Love Shack”—considered a throwaway track by Strickland, who had assumed most of the writing duties—was tacked on near the end of the process and cut in one day.
While Cosmic Thing established the B-52’s as one of the top acts to come out of the new wave era, its influence reached far beyond the sales charts. In 1989, the AIDS epidemic was still ripping through the nation’s gay communities (more than 100,000 cases were diagnosed that year alone) and the band—whose members are all gay save for Cindy—became vocal AIDS activists. They also helped pave the way for other gay performers, such as their Athens pal Michael Stipe of R.E.M., to feel emboldened in going public with their sexuality. With Schneider’s singular showmanship, Wilson and Pierson’s harmonies and beehive hairdos, and the carnival-like videos, the B-52’s made it seemingly okay to be different or weird.
“People come up to me and tell me how they were in a dark place and our music helped them out,” Cindy told G&G last year. “It was truly important in that community. You know our sound instantly when you hear it.”
Cosmic Thing remains a pop culture touchstone today. A recent episode of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” featured two contestants doing a lip-sync routine to “Love Shack” in front of guest judges the B-52’s themselves (repaying the favor for RuPaul, who appeared in the original “Love Shack” video). Though Strickland retired from the band in 2012, Schneider, Pierson, and Wilson have continued to perform live, and will launch a full North American headlining tour on August 1. Fellow ’80s stalwarts OMD and Berlin round out the triple bill.
For tickets and more info, visit theb52s.com.