The B-52’s: Pioneers of LGBTQI+ activism in the new wave scene

The punk and new wave scene of the late ‘70s and ‘80s is often seen as dominated by the angry voices of straight white men. The bands from that era usually picked out by the mainstream music press would certainly reflect that theory. In 1976, however, a band formed in Athens, Georgia, over a fishbowl cocktail that would go on to become not just one of the greatest bands to come out of that scene, but one of the greatest LGBTQI+ bands in history. The B-52’s, over the course of their history (1976-present), have created some of the most brilliantly original songs of the 20th century. Borrowing from a plethora of genres such as doo-wop, surf, psychedelia and everything in-between, The B-52’s are true originals – which is pretty rare to find. 

The B-52’s are far too often viewed as a mere novelty band; judging them solely on ‘Rock Lobster’ or ‘Love Shack’, their most commercially successful singles, is like judging The Cure based on ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, or writing off the entire Devo discography after listening to ‘Whip It’. Their first two albums in particular consist of some of the strongest tunes to come out of that era of new wave. From the high energy of ’52 Girls’, to the experimental fever dream of ‘Quiche Lorraine’, and the ’50s surf inspired ‘Give Me Back My Man’ – do yourself a favour and listen to a B-52’s album in its entirety. You will come out of that experience a better person.

Throughout their history the B-52’s have been fearlessly themselves, going against the grain of the punk scene that bores them. The art school kids from Athens swapped mohawks for beehives, bondage trousers for vintage dresses, and it was all the more defiant. Their kitsch and campy sensibilities endeared them to LGBTQI+ audiences in a way which was not really seen by many other new wave bands – at least, not to the same extent. By the time they released their first album in 1979, ‘punk’ had become a conformist fashion trend, much of the new music being released had congealed into the same boring sound concerned with cliched macho adolescent anger. The B-52’s, however, never bought into those ideals to begin with – they were always unapologetically non-conformist. 

The B-52’s. Credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty Images.

Four of the five original band members identified as being a part of the LGBTQI+ community; they certainly embraced their sexuality, but were never defined by it. In fact, vocalist, lyricist, and organ player Kate Pierson said they never considered themselves to be a “queer” band, “We just thought of ourselves as just plain queer — as in eccentric,” which might explain why the B-52’s are so criminally overlooked when exploring the history of LGBTQI+ within music. 

After losing founding member Ricky Wilson to health complications related to HIV/AIDS in 1985, the band took it upon themselves to spread awareness about the crisis, producing a public service announcement for AMFAR (The Foundation for AIDS Research) called ‘Art Against AIDS’, featuring a plethora of other notable artists of the time. The AIDS crisis was peaking and the criminal treatment of the disease from Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US meant that very little was being done to curve the crisis. Even basic information on AIDS was still fairly scarce in 1987; homosexuality in general was often still seen as perverted or just generally wrong – you need only look at The Sun’s newspaper headlines around this time to distinguish just how bad things were. By standing up, speaking out against AIDS, and providing information to a countless number of people, The B-52’s were doing an incredibly important service. 

The impact of The B-52’s on the LGBTQI+ community, and pop culture in general, is profound and long-lasting. More recently, fearlessly flamboyant frontman Fred Schneider appeared on two separate albums by Jinkx Monsoon, winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race season 5. Iconic drag queen Juno Birch also recently shared a lip sync video of ‘Give Me Back My Man’, which is well worth your time. The history of the LGBTQI+ community and the history of the B-52’s are woven into each other – they definitely deserve more credit than being seen only as the creators of ‘Love Shack’. 

Juno Birch Drag performance – Give me back my man by B52s via Juno Birch on YouTube.

The B-52’s have always been, and should be remembered as, an indescribably incredible band who embraced, but were never defined by, their sexuality and have constantly supported the LGBTQI+ community and all those who identify with it. Pierson, speaking to lesbian/bisexual women’s publication AfterEllen, puts it best in the quote: “One of the things The B-52s wanted to accomplish was for people to embrace their difference and encourage people to be who they are and accept themselves.”

Header image: The B-52’s. Credit: George DuBose via Billboard.