KEXP is celebrating our 50th anniversary this year, and we're looking back at the last half-century of music. Each week in 2022, KEXP pays homage to a different year, and our writers are commemorating a song from that year that resonates with them. This week, KEXP's Janice Headley looks back at the tragedy and triumph behind The B-52s smash hit "Love Shack."
Read or listen to the piece below.
An off-the-cuff exclamation made by vocalist Cindy Wilson during a jam session for a track The B-52s were trying to work out. They almost dismissed the effort entirely. All the other songs for their fifth full-length album Cosmic Thing were done, and this one was clocking in at 15-minutes long and didn’t even have a chorus yet.
But they had an extra day in the studio. And, with the guidance of producer Don Was, they stuck with it. And it’s a good thing they did, because “Love Shack” would go on to score the long-running Athens, GA group their first ever top ten hit in the summer of 1989. It was a triumph for the band who thought they’d never dance again after the tragic death of founding member (and Cindy’s brother) Ricky Wilson, in 1985.
The B-52s would not exist if not for Ricky’s vision and love of music. As a teen, he taught himself how to play guitar using the tutorials on the University of Georgia’s television station, begging his younger sister to sing harmonies with him. He was 16-years-old when he met musician Keith Strickland, and the two became inseparable. Keith was the first person Ricky felt safe enough to come out to.
"And it was really cute how he did it,” Strickland told The Advocate in 2008. “He sat me down on a sofa and he said, 'Ricky Wilson is gay.' At first, because he was speaking in the third person, I was a little confused. But then I was like, OK, that's cool. I think it was six months later that I came out." (It wasn’t until 1992 that Keith came out publicly though, crushing my dream of ever becoming Mrs. Strickland. This would repeat itself with another Athens, GA icon: R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe. Look, I was young, give me a break.)
After observing street musicians during a trip together to Europe, Ricky and Keith returned to Athens, inspired to start a band. They recruited Cindy, of course, and their friends Kate Pierson and Fred Schneider as vocalists, debuting the group in 1977 at a friend’s Valentine’s Day party. From the very start, they embraced the eccentric, wearing ‘60s polyester outfits dug up at the thrift store and huge wigs that would become their namesake. (Local reference: the conical shape of the “beehive” bouffant-style hairdo is said to resemble the distinctive nose of the Boeing B-52 Strategic Bomber.)
After penning now-classics like “Rock Lobster” and “52 Girls,” they headed to New York, quickly becoming the darlings of the new wave scene, coaxing smiles out of the leather-clad, cigarette-smoking, too-cool New Yorkers at lauded rock clubs like CBGB and Max's Kansas City. (“Somehow, punk fans really liked us,” Schneider told Billboard back in 2018.)
Their first three albums — The B-52s (1979), Wild Planet (1980), Whammy! (1983) — flirted with the charts, but the party came to an end when Ricky learned he had contracted HIV, a virus so new that it wasn’t even called that at the time.
“It was frightening,” Schneider remembered in his Billboard interview. “Back then, it was called GRID [Gay-Related Immune Deficiency]. I don’t think they had the term ‘HIV.’ You’d see people with [the marks of] Kaposi’s sarcoma. No one knew if they had it or how you got it.” He added, “You wanted to keep it hidden, because people would just be weird to you.”
This was true for Ricky Wilson, who only confided in Keith, the best friend he came out to when they were just teenagers. A terrible stigma surrounded the disease. HIV-infected individuals, or even people perceived to be infected with HIV, were being beaten up and ostracized. People were so afraid of the discrimination, they wouldn’t even get tested for HIV. Like in the early days of COVID, there was a lot of fear and misinformation out there. And deaths.
Warner Bros. Records were pressuring the band for a new album, so Ricky felt he had to persevere. But when they reconvened in the studio for their fourth full-length, Bouncing off the Satellites, it was obvious that something was wrong. Ricky was losing an alarming amount of weight.
“I wasn’t aware of what was happening,” Fred told Rolling Stone in 1990. “I thought that he’d been so nervous – we were under such pressure, he was losing weight.”
“I asked Ricky if he was sick,” Cindy reflected. “I tend to think now that maybe in some way he was trying to protect himself in not accepting it totally.”
Eventually things got so bad, he couldn’t deny it any longer. Before the album was finished, Ricky was admitted to Memorial Sloane Kettering Hospital in New York City. By the time Cindy found out, he had already slipped into a coma.
“Ricky didn't tell me what was going on,” she revealed to Australian newspaper The Age in 2009. “I can't tell you what was in his mind. I was shocked and a lot of things I had to deal with because Ricky didn't confide in me. It kind of threw me for a loop when all of a sudden I got a phone call from the hospital saying 'your brother's dying.’ And then I never did get to say goodbye to him. So, it really screwed me up.”
Ricky Wilson died from AIDS on October 12, 1985 at the age of 32. However, due to the stigma of the illness at the time, the official cause of death is listed as “lymphatic cancer.” AIDS had only just recently entered the public eye with the death of actor Rock Hudson, a cinematic heartthrob during the 1950s and '60s. Hudson is often cited as the first example of a celebrity openly disclosing his AIDS diagnosis and the first major celebrity to die from an AIDS-related illness. He died just a week before Ricky.
Kate told Al Jazeera America in 2015: “...A decision was made by Ricky and Cindy's family — her uncle wanted to protect their father, and so he said, 'Let's not mention that Ricky had AIDS.' ...We didn't know he had AIDS until he passed away. So, we were told to be silent, and that was very, very difficult. People thought we were ashamed, which we weren't, and it was a very, very difficult time.” (She includes that they later learned Ricky’s father “totally knew and was totally accepting,” and the band became huge advocates in AIDS activism, producing a public service announcement for AMFAR [The Foundation For AIDS Research] in 1987.)
“There was a lot of fear around it and a lot of ignorance,” Keith remembered in his interview with The Advocate. “People just didn't know. What is this? How do you get it? But he was very brave, very brave, and went very quickly. They just didn't have the drugs they have now.“
In the midst of their grief, Bouncing off the Satellites was shelved for a year. Keith worked on overdubs for the recorded tracks with a few session musicians, but The B-52s did not tour, and they refused interviews and TV appearances. (Heartlessly, the label did insist on a music video for “Girl from Ipanema Goes to Greenland” – spot Ricky in the moon at 1:51.) Everyone agreed on a hiatus, but wondered if they’d ever be a band again.
Years passed while the band members sat with their sorrow. Keith moved to the peaceful mountains of Woodstock, NY to heal, and slowly began playing music again. Throughout the band’s career, he would play drums, bass, keyboards, but he never considered himself a guitarist. But now, he would play guitar, and imagine Ricky sitting beside him, playing too.
“I always considered Ricky as a teacher,” he told Spin in 1990. “I learned so much from him. I would come up with things on my own and he would listen to them. He was always encouraging me to write, so I really depended on his criticism. After his death, I didn’t have that confidence there. He always felt like the musical catalyst in the band. I mean, we all have a big part in what we do, but Ricky had this very special originality.”
Kate, Fred, and Cindy started to visit Keith at his quiet little cabin by a lilypad-blanketed pond. He would play these instrumentals he’d been crafting, and his friends would improvise lyrics on top of it. Cosmic Thing began to coalesce.
“It was just a healing process,” Kate told Rock Cellar in 1998. “It helped conjure Ricky’s spirit back into the mix and we felt that when we were jamming together. When we were playing together, we realized how priceless it was that we still had each other and we had this great music and we could still do it.”
One of the songs they tried to hammer out together was “Love Shack,” which had surprisingly solemn beginnings. “We did so many versions of that,” Keith said to Spin. “The first one was very lilting and melancholic, almost sad, very longing. We thought it was a little too heavy in that direction, so we did a different version — just kept going all over the place with it. When we were jamming in the studio, I just put on the drum machine and played bass guitar.”
Like many songs on Cosmic Thing, the lyrics find the band looking back to simpler times together in Athens, GA, and in this case, remembering an actual shack where Kate used to live, located off the (as she sings) Atlanta Highway.
“It was an old building with a metal roof that had aged and was rusted," Cindy explained to MLive in 2018. “I was using that image when we were jamming. All of a sudden we're singing to the tape and it ran out. I just kept going because I was so into it and said ‘tin roof, rusted’ and they thought it was funny and a good way to end it. It was just a vision in my head of my love shack."
(Sadly, the rusted roof is all that remains of the actual Love Shack. It burned down in 2004.)
Producer Don Was remembers, “The first take was killer except when we got to the ‘tin roof rusted’ part. Cindy started with this exuberance that shocked everybody… She infused it with so much feeling, it threw everybody. I think she even choked up at the end of the line. It was really deep, and we tried to do it over and over and we couldn’t get the feeling we had in that first take. It took me all night to figure it out before I realized everything should be punched in right after the ‘tin roof rusted’ line, because we never got that thing back again, that manic energy.”
That manic energy made it an instant classic, propelling it to #3 on the Billboard charts, the highest ranking song of the band’s career to date. Yet, for all its party-fueled vibrance, there is a bittersweetness to its success.
“We didn’t aim to write hits, we aimed to heal ourselves and channel Ricky’s spirit,” Kate insisted. “That was the goal, and I knew his presence was there.”
“It was really ironic that ‘Love Shack’, which is one of the happiest songs and [most] successful songs we did, came out of a time of real despair,” Cindy told The Age. “With Ricky, I have to say when we were doing it, when we were writing it, it really felt like his presence was there anyway. And that was really important. Cosmic Thing was something we really had to do.”
After 40 years, The B-52’s are retiring from the road after one last tour. “The Final Tour Ever of Planet Earth” lands in Seattle on Monday, August 22nd at McCaw Hall.
KEXP is celebrating its 50th anniversary as a radio station this year. To honor that celebration, each week we’re looking back on one year of music during the past five decades. This week, we’re celebrating the year 2003 with blink-182’s “I Miss You.” Dusty Henry reflects on teenage break-ups, and …
KEXP is celebrating our 50th anniversary this year, and we're looking back at the last half-century of music. Each week, KEXP pays homage to a different year. This week, we’re celebrating the year 1985. KEXP's Janice Headley reflects on the recent Kate Bush resurgence, and asks the KEXP community, …
KEXP is celebrating our 50th anniversary this year, and we're looking back at the last half-century of music. Each week in 2022, KEXP pays homage to a different year, and our writers are commemorating a song from that year that resonates with them. This week, we’re celebrating the year 2013. KEXP’s…