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The queen’s speech: Jake Shears on The B-52s’ Love Shack

As the 1970s mutated into the 1980s, The B-52s were one of America’s pre-eminent outré outfits. Self-described as “The World’s Greatest Party Band,” the combo had been responsible for putting Athens, Georgia on the musical map with their cosmic satire of pop: unapologetically trailer park style and kaleidoscopic grasp of all things colourful and camp. The band were part of a unique lineage that has its roots in the histrionic, outlandish performance style first made popular by the likes of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins or fellow Georgian Little Richard.

Even though their aesthetic remains singular, The B52s‘ general sensibility — a kind of mannered quirkiness mixed with subject matter often either obliquely or specifically queer — is something that would influence the next several generations of rock bands trailing out of the American South. The band’s sound — surf rock meets post-punk meets a hysterical girl group on acid — would not only make the band famous, it would crack open the door for a variety of bands from then-locals R.E.M. to contemporary bands like Deerhunter. The B-52s exemplify the ability to turn one’s weaknesses into charms, to both embrace and subvert traditions and turn them into revolutionary art.

Probably their most enduring ear worm, and the party anthem for the summer of ’89 (a good eight years after the band basically invented the remix album), Love Shack has lost none of its manic, zany charm, thank feck.

A sugar rush high-energy stomper with audacious vocals by Athens miscreants Kate Pierson, Cindy Wilson and Fred Schneider, this most signature of signature songs is an effervescent thrill ride and as fabulously fun as it was upon release.

Witty, nostalgic and whimsical, and featuring a guest spot by the Uptown Horns, the single soared topped the charts in Australia, Ireland and New Zealand, reached number two in Britain and No. 3 on the American Billboard chart, the first time the veteran band’s quirky dance-rock had ever infiltrated the mainstream.

A young pre-teen from Mesa, Arizona who came to call himself Jake Shears was furiously taking notes:

“I was aged 12 when Love Shack came out. It was everywhere and was a game-changer for me. It was the first time I’d heard a gay man in music. Fred didn’t come out until 1992, but he didn’t need to. It was just the sound of an unabashed, unapologetically gay man at a time when it wasn’t part of the conversation. He was so interesting because he was more of an MC than a conventional singer. There wasn’t anything really sexual about the B-52’s but if you look at the lyrics to Dirty Back Road they’re obviously about butt fucking. There’s a silly sexuality to them.

“I just knew when I heard Fred for the first time that I had something in common with whatever I was hearing. I got the Cosmic Thing album and from that moment I was a huge fan. I’d find pictures and make collages, write letters to them and fantasise: ‘Maybe we could go out to lunch sometime?‘ I thought they were so cool, especially because it was otherwise such a lame time in pop music.”

Steve Pafford

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