For 40 years, The B-52s have been bringing a new wave dance party to clubs, ballrooms, theaters, arenas and amphitheaters across the country.
“We just like to keep the energy high, get the audience on their feet and having a good time,” said singer Fred Schneider, who’s also been known to bang on a cowbell. “I’ve never heard any complaints about our live show. Never.”
That show aims at getting people up to dance, even if it’s in a stuffy concert hall where patrons usually sit and appreciate the music.
“People usually stand up anyway,” Schneider said. “We’re not a sit-down band.”
Odds are few will be seated when the band performs at 7 p.m. Friday at Starlight Theatre. Its catchy combo of dance and surf music, filled with unusually tuned and played guitars, is irresistibly danceable. And quirkier songs, like “Quiche Lorraine” and “Mesopotamia,” will bring smiles and even more fun.
That sound and the songs, Schneider said, come from the combination of elements brought by each member of the original B-52s lineup: singers himself, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson, with Cindy’s brother Ricky Wilson and Keith Strickland on guitars.
“Keith and Ricky were very original musicians,” Schneider said. “Ricky (who died in 1985) had three strings on his guitar, sometimes four. He was very creative. He liked Joni Mitchell a lot and used open tuning. He was really admired by a lot of guitarists. Keith plays a variety of instruments and he’s amazing at it.
“I wrote poetry in high school and college that was sort of surreal and humorous. I brought that aspect to the lyrics,” he said. “Kate liked folk music and played guitar. Cindy liked to sing. She’s a creative poet too. We all brought that together.”
They brought it together in Athens, Ga., in 1976, legendarily jamming for their first time after sharing a flaming volcano drink at a Chinese restaurant.
“I was visiting from Atlanta,” Schneider said. “I was really bored living in Atlanta. I decided, after we jammed and saw all my friends, to move to Athens. Then we got together to jam (regularly). There was actually nothing to do in Athens.”
Really, nothing to do in Athens? The usual view of Athens in the late ‘70s is it had a thriving music community that produced bands like R.E.M. and drew others to the college town.
“Not at all,” Schneider said. “There was no scene whatsoever. We had to play the folk club. They didn’t want us until we sold out.”
The quintet’s first gig came on Feb. 14, 1977.
“I had some friends who were having a Valentine’s party and they asked me if we’d play it,” Schneider said. “We didn’t even have a name yet. I told them, ‘We have a gig if we want it.’ We took it and played the same set twice.”
Taking its name from a ‘40s beehive hairdo that resembled the nose cone on the B-52 bomber, dressing thrift-store chic and delivering its humorous, quirky music, the group played in Athens and Atlanta.
Then it ventured out to, among other places, New York, where it played now legendary clubs CBGB and The Mudd Club, becoming the first Athens band to get national attention.
“When record labels started coming to Athens and Atlanta trying to get us to sign their crappy contracts, we knew something was going on here,” Schneider said. “Once we signed with Warners (Warner Bros. Records), it was ‘Here we go.’ We’ve had a good run and we’re still going strong.”
In the middle of that run, 1989 to be precise, came “Love Shack,” the band’s biggest hit — a song that Schneider saved from being abandoned during the recording process.
“I wouldn’t let it go,” he said. “They were sort of giving up on it. I thought, ‘We’ve got to do something with this.’ (Producer) Don Was came up with the idea of putting two parts together. It wasn’t anything brilliant. But it worked.”
Indeed it worked. But “Love Shack” was far from an instant hit.
“Radio wouldn’t take it at first except for college and independent, which is why we always have time for college and independent now,” Schneider said. “I don’t think our record label knew what to do with it. We had to beg radio stations to play ‘Love Shack.’ Now you can’t get away from it.”
Schneider can’t escape “Love Shack,” “Roam,” “Rock Lobster,” “Private Idaho” or any of The B-52s classics. That, however, doesn’t bother him.
“I spend more time thinking about stage patter than I do about whether I like this song or not,” he said. “I want to say something that can get people to go ‘What is he talking about?’ And then come out with a song.”
Now, four decades in, The B-52s are at a musical peak, reached through hundreds of performances over the years.
The B-52s shows will include all the songs that fans want to hear and dance to. What they don’t include is new material. The band’s most recent album was 2008’s “Funplex,” the disc on which it changed its name from The B-52’s to The B-52s.
“It’s that and getting better at what we do. Especially after voice lessons, I learned quite a few things,” he said. “My voice has gotten quite powerful after that. We really work well together.”
The B-52s perform at 7 p.m. at Starlight Theatre.