Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 38 / 21 September 2017
 

Fred Schneider

BARtab

The B-52s frontman talks music, loss, and love shacks


The B-52s: Cindy Wilson, Fred Schneider and Kate Pierson. photo: Pieter M van Hattem
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It's been four decades since The B-52s formed at a casual party in Athens, Georgia. Their first recording sold out its run of 2,000 copies, and after being signed by DB Records in 1978, they soon became a hit with their space-age party vibe and unique retro-future sound. In a phone interview from Lenox, Massachusetts, while on tour, front man talked about the band's legacy, their unique style, and other subjects with his wry sense of humor.

Next week, the B-52s will perform three Northern California concerts, and Schneider recalled the last times they had performed in San Francisco.

"It's been a while," said Schneider of their 2013 show at The Fillmore. "We usually play outside San Francisco, and I haven't been in the city since then."

Despite a few different line-ups over the years (cofounding member Keith Strickland is still in the band, but has stopped touring), the band has retained its iconic status as the definitive self-titled 'party band.'

From "Love Shack" to "Rock Lobster," ­their biggest hits­, and so many other fun songs have become embedded into pop culture. With Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson's soaring harmonies grounded by's spoken-sung baritone, plus Keith Strickland's drums and other instrumentals, the B-52s' music remains the key to bringing joy to any gathering or music mix.

Schneider acknowledged his band's reputation for uplifting songs as having withstood the test of pop culture time. "We started out as a party band and we're still a party band, with a message," he said.

Those messages include fundraising for AIDS nonprofits, fighting for animal rights, and politics. Ironically, for the band known for its song about a lobster, Schneider hasn't eaten them since he was a child.

"My family used to go crabbing in New Jersey, and that did it for me."

Born Frederick William Schneider III in Newark, New Jersey, the artist, 65, started off reciting his own poetry. His Athens, Georgia college days led to an impromptu performance at a Chinese restaurant with Cindy Wilson, her brother Ricky Wilson, Kate Pierson and Keith Strickland. Their first real gig was at a Valentine's Day party in 1977.

Asked about the fun nature of the band's music, Schneider explained it simply.

The B-52s performing in Barcelona in 2013.

"We want people to have a good time," he said. "We started out playing at people's parties. We have political songs, and we'd rather discuss politics than clothing. People don't wanna be hit over the head with a message, though."

In the days of the band's early growth, the early 1980s, dressing up in the New Wave styles was often a political statement, a counter to the Reagan-era conservatism. Bands like The B-52s represented a cool alternative to mainstream culture, even as they were being absorbed into it.

"We didn't have money in those days, so we shopped at thrift stores," said Schneider of the band's look, and the beehive hairdos of Wilson and Pierson. "My first look that I had for a while –until David Byrne stole it– was a seersucker suit and white shoes and glasses."

The B-52s were among the first bands bring to attention to the AIDS pandemic after Wilson's brother Ricky, part of the original band, became ill and died from AIDS in 1985.

"We still do a lot for charities," said Schneider. "We've raised more than a million and a half dollars for various AIDS organizations. We're always donating time and band memorabilia."

For some later fans, their first impressions of The B-52s came from the 1989 hit single "Love Shack" and its wacky music video, which featured drag pals RuPaul and Wigstock founder Lady Bunny, "all the characters," Schneider said. "We still keep in touch. Now Bunny does a cruise. Her show is so trashy; it's great. Anything less from her would still be filthy."

Fred Schneider onstage. photo: Liesl Dano

Asked about the numerous B-52s tribute bands, Schneider mentioned Hey, Lady. "They probably make more money than we did going on tour in the beginning!"

Schneider said they don't expect performance royalties from tribute bands. "Gimme a T-shirt; I'll be happy."

When not working or touring with the B-52s, Schneider has recorded and performed with a trio, The Superions, as well as a solo album Just Fred, and other works.

Schneider's collaborations are interesting as well.

"Working with Patti LaBelle was a dream come true," he said. "My ex-manager at the time said, 'Why do you wanna work with her? She's a has-been!' And within a month, the biggest record of her career came out. So, I didn't listen to him any more."

Upcoming projects for Schneider include songs written for camp icon Elvira. "I wrote two songs, 'The 13 Nights of Halloween,' which is like 'The Twelve Days of Christmas,' only better, and 'Two Big Pumpkins,' about her pumpkin patch."

A recent Foo Fighters performance-collaboration of a cover of The B-52s' "Planet Claire" was unexpected. Schneider explains, "I was friends with their stylist, and Claire Danes, who is a mutual friend, and they said, 'Oh, let's go see them.' But I didn't realize they had already prepared for me to sing. I thought, 'Oh, these kids aren't going to know who I am. But they did."

The B-52s in the late 1970s.

Which brings up the inter-generational appreciation for The B-52s. Folks who grew up with them, younger people, and even older fans' kids, appreciate them as well.

"We don't curse, or anything like that," said Schneider. "If anything, it's adult tongue-in-cheek humor, with my stage patter, that hopefully goes over the kids' heads. We've always said that everyone's invited to our party."

Not that Schneider didn't endure a bit of censorship for his solo work. The music video for his wacky song "Monster (in my Pants)", which featured the late Ethyl Eichelberger and Keith Haring, was refused airplay by MTV.

"That was ridiculous," said Schneider. "They said the hot dog with a hat looked like a penis. Oh, please. I also think Warner Brothers [their record label, and Schneider's solo label] didn't want me to stray from the band. But I wanted to do my own thing, too."

Schneider commented on the exclusion the band endured from corporate media in their early days.

"They hardly played us in the beginning. We were always on at three in the morning. They also didn't play any African American artists, hardly."

He noted how irrelevant such avenues are now for real musicians.

"That's over with, on MTV," he said. "These days, that's human tacos on the beach, with hot naked kids squirted with mustard and ketchup."

Fred Schneider’s 1996 solo album, Just Fred.

Despite the lack of TV music promotion, Fred and the band have made the most of their popularity, with quite a few amusing cameos in films and TV shows.

Asked which was his favorite, he replied, "The Flintstones was fabulous. They treated us like royalty. They gave us cars to use, but then we realized none of us wanted to drive. I loved it; Hollywood star treatment."

His other cameos include The Rugrats movie. "I'm the kid that farts. I also did The Cleveland Show last year; I voice-overed an African American bank teller who sounds like Fred Schneider. That was really stretching it as an actor."

Oh, and don't forget Schneider's line of coffee, Fred's Monster Blend.

And look forward to a new Superions album, one of many side projects he works on in between tours with The B-52s. "We were The Del Morons, but someone said they wouldn't take us seriously, even though we're ridiculous."

 

Fred Schneider (right) with Noah Brodie and Dan Marshall as The Superions.

Politics of dancing

Along with the mirth and joy in the band's lyrics and sound, Schneider isn't shy about noting his band's message.

He called Athens, Georgia, where The B-52s were formed, "a great college town, but the rest of it was racist as hell, and it's getting like that again, thanks to that awful Donald Trump. I think he's going to scare a lot of people into voting for Hillary Clinton when they see how demented his followers are."

Asked why he thinks so many Republican candidates have a history of playing liberal musicians' songs without permission, he said, "If we find out that someone like that is using it, we stop it immediately. Rush Limbaugh was using 'Good Stuff' and we had that stopped. Luckily, our friends are more internet-savvy, and let us know right away."

Although some may not consider it a political act, for many fans, The B-52s represented a queer presence in music, even before Schneider came out publicly, or band mate Kate Pierson married her partner Monica Coleman.

As a teenager, Schneider telling his mother he was gay was less of a big deal. As he's said, she was housecleaning, told him she knew, and she then continued vacuuming.

Fred Schneider on stage in 2015.

"I was probably stoned, too," Schneider sighed.

Asked if he and his band mates noticed their LGBT fan base in the early days, Schneider agreed.

"There was always just a wild mix of people, who were considered losers in their homes," he said. "We had gays, straights, kids considered nerdy; we just embraced everybody. We were artists who didn't go to art school. Unlike other bands who graduated and wrote arty shit, we just had our own universe to utilize. A lot of our friends were kindred spirits and we meet them everywhere."

Schneider said that by being themselves, they attracted others who needed a band like them.

"We get fans from, Bumfucke, Egypt, who say, 'Thank god you came around, because I thought I was the only person different in a lot of ways; beaten up in high school, and all that. So, it makes us feel good. We hear that quite a bit."

 

The B-52s perform Sept. 16 at The Sunset Center, Carmel by the Sea ($78-$135, 8pm) proceeds benefit Beacon House; Sept.17 at Rodney Strong Vineyards, Healdsburg ($89-$129, 5pm); and Sept. 18 at the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center, Valencia ($74-$110, 7pm). www.theb52s.com






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