Everybody knows that the B-52's have always been a party band. That much was obvious from the first wigged-out notes of "Rock Lobster," the 1978 single that launched the band's career, and the band has maintained that attitude ever since, thanks to singles like "Love Shack," "Deadbeat club" and "tell It Like It T-I-Is."
But what people probably don't realize is that, for most of its existence, this world-class party band was strictly a private affair.
"Before the 'Cosmic Thing' album, we had never, ever worked with anyone," explains singer Kate Pierson, over the phone from a rehearsal site at Lake Placid, New York. "We were so insular and so contained. Just the thought of playing with anyone else -- or even having a producer come in [before recording] -- was kind of scary. We always had everything done beforehand."
Needless to say, things have changed considerably over the last three years. Now there are essentially two B-52's -- the creative core of Pierson, Keith Strickland and Fred Schneider, which is responsible for the writing and (with some studio help) the recording, as well as an expanded, eight-piece lineup that handles all the live shows.
It is, says Pierson, an ideal way to work. "We have a lot of different musicians playing on this album," she says. "And live, hell, it just jells. It's just so great to be able to play with other people. It really helps us expand.
"Before, I always played the bass on a keyboard. That was very much part of our sound, that kind of rinky-dink organ and keyboard bass. I'm just so happy to come to the point where we have a real rhythm section, really happening."
Still, it's worth noting that the B-52's didn't simply stumble into this new way of making music. Truth is, they were pushed -- first by the death of guitarist Ricky Wilson in 1985, and then by the departure last year of his sister, Cindy.
Ricky Wilson's death (from an AIDS-related cancer) shook up the band's creative process, a loss that was overcome in large part thanks to Strickland. But Cindy's decision to split threatened the very sound of the B-52's. After all, Cindy and Kate's vocal blend was always a key component in the group's aural identity, and while Kate could compensate in the studio through overdubs, finding someone to fill Cindy's shoes on the road was a challenge none of the three particularly relished.
"It was real worrisome when Cindy left," admits Pierson. "We knew she was going to leave for quite a while, I think, because she kept telling us that she wanted to go back and be with her family in Georgia. She'd been a B-52 since she was 19 and she really wanted to do something different. So I knew for a long time that she wanted to leave, and I kind of accepted that.
"But the idea of touring without Cindy was harder, even, than writing the new stuff. Because I felt like Fred and Keith and I could do that. But it seemed unthinkable in a way to have someone else there -- how could it work? We're all such strong presences in the band."
Naturally, a number of names were suggested to the B's, but one stood out -- "Twin Peaks" chanteuse Julee Cruise. "The idea of it really struck us before we even met her, because she has her own identity," says Pierson. "The worry was, does she sing in that airy style all the time?"
Fortunately, no. "She can really belt out a tune," Pierson enthuses. "Julee's really worked out great. She sings in a lot of different styles."
Pierson adds that she thinks her band is the better for the change. "I mean, when Ricky died, that was devastating," she says. "We didn't think we would continue. That really forced us to regroup, and it became a real healing process.
"We also were determined after that to become more overtly political, and socially involved," she adds. "It really shook us up and made us realize that our friendship and the band and our relationships and everything, how precious life is. It really made us want to speak out."
That doesn't mean the band is playing down its party-hearty attitude, mind. But as Pierson explains, the B-52's want their listeners to be think about why they're partying. "I wish I could remember who said this, but there's a quote: 'If there's no dancing at the revolution, I'm not going,' " she says.
"It's not being flippant, like, 'We just want to party-party.' I think there's a sense of urgency in the party aspect; it's not like party while you can, but there's a certain intensity to living. Even when you're having a good time, there's an awareness of the suffering that happens in the world.
"I don't think there's ever going to be an elimination of suffering in the world completely," she adds. "The best thing you can do is try to help, and work towards the positive, to make things better."
When: Sept. 6 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Merriweather Post Pavilion.
Tickets: $18.50 lawn (pavilion sold out).
Call: (410) 730-2424 for information, (410) 481-7328 for tickets.