It was 1956 when Fairchild Air Force base got its first batch of B-52s -- giant death machines that, just in case, could drop a nuke wherever needed. A few years later, in a seemingly unrelated development, a Chicago hairdresser created a sensation when she launched the beehive hairdo. The new 'do was quickly immortalized by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the cool kids started calling it "the B-52" after the aircraft's bodacious nose cone.
Maybe that conflation of bombers and beauty was our first postwar mash-up of pop culture, out-of-nowhere social trends and dark irony -- the kind of thing we know here in the 21st century as "kitsch." So when a bunch of slackers in Athens, Ga., named their band after the hairstyle -- well, that was like turning the kitsch meter up to 11.
I first came into contact with the B-52s back in the late-1970s, flipping through the stacks at the old Odyssey Records in the now-demolished Rookery Building. I remember seeing the band, dressed in thrift-store chic, the girls with beehives, looking back at me from the garish yellow cover of their debut album, The B-52s -- almost as weirdly alluring as the cover of Devo's record from that same era Are We Not Men? I didn't buy either, of course -- I stuck with Van Halen's debut and Highway to Hell. Spokane was that kind of town.
I found the charms of the B-52s later, during college, when party music was at a premium. Now, all these years later, with the band kicking off an ambitious touring schedule here in Spokane, you can see what a unique course the B-52s flew. In the late-1970s, when there was punk and there was disco, the B-52s had a different flight plan, songs that celebrated the dance crazes of the 1950s, headless space aliens and, yes, even our own poor, misunderstood Idaho. That didn't make them huge as a band, but they were huge as a cultural phenomenon. (Their hairdos alone seem to have inspired everyone from Amy Winehouse to Marge Simpson.)
Ironic, retro (before it was cool) and a bit avant garde -- the B-52s were an art band you could dance to.
The group -- Fred Schneider, Keith Strickland, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson -- is actually trying to make its second comeback. In 1989, after falling apart following the death of founding member Ricky Wilson and a few lackluster records, they hired super-producer Niles Rodgers and released Cosmic Thing, featuring the mega-hit "Love Shack." Few songs have incited more booty-shaking at wedding receptions and sweaty nightclubs. (And for the record, the line in the song is "tin roof... rusted," and no, the band can't really explain what it means.)
Now, with their first new record in 16 years (Funplex) out this week, the B-52s are ready for take-off again. Their first big hit back in 1978, "Rock Lobster," landed a cameo in the film Knocked Up, they were featured in the New York Times recently, and this summer they'll join Cyndi Lauper and Joan Jett on the "True Colors" tour booked into sports arenas across the land. But just their second gig of their second comeback is right here, at Northern Quest Casino on Saturday -- only a few miles from where those big, bad B-52s used to live. How's that for a kitchsy coincidence?
The B-52s play the Northern Quest Casino on Saturday, March 29, at 8:30 pm. $45-$60. A few tickets remained as of press time: $45-$60. Call 340-6700.