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Landing on planet B-52s 

We catch up with the voice that gave “Rock Lobster” its claws: talking to Fred Schneider on Olympics, stolen ham and B-52s memories.

There's no mistaking that voice. The nasal pitch. The comforting southern drawl mixed with New Jersey sass. A partier's Allen Ginsberg, Fred Schneider's new wave song-speech ranks up there with Darth Vader and Pee-wee Herman as one of the most iconic voices in modern pop culture. You want to keep him talking on the phone, even when he's gently teasing about the awful Vancouver Olympics' closing ceremonies: "My god," he laughs---emphasis on "gawwd"---while calling from New York. "We were all sitting there and our jaws dropped and they stayed there the whole time."

Schneider's rat-a-tat delivery, along with Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson's goddess-given gift of harmonizing, shot The B-52s into party song orbit. If any tune could survive a trip in the hot tub time machine, it's "Love Shack;" 20 years later that rusted tin roof is still a popular dance-floor weapon wielded by wedding DJs.

But the band didn't start off with dreams of casino shows, banquet hall dances and Flintstones movie appearances. It was a rebellious punk reaction to boredom, combined with fruity drinks. There wasn't much of a music scene in the now-mythical college town of Athens, Georgia, when the five Bs---including Wilson's brother Ricky and drummer Keith Strickland--- played their first show at a friend's Valentine's Day house party in 1977.

"When we started off, our instruments were retro because that's all we could afford to use," says Schneider, who also wrote poetry and is still a constant note scribbler. "Ricky had a Sears guitar---that thing was really cheap. The case it came in was the speaker."

Soon The B-52s were leaving the south for shows at New York's infamous CBGBs and Max's Kansas City. The record deal followed, a hip-shaker of tight pants and cowbells, harmonies and vintage shift dresses brought to order by Ricky's surf-guitar prowess.

"We just put all our sensibilities together and a real sense of humour. And I'm totally into word play and all that stuff," says Schneider about the early success. "I don't know, it was just the right combination, and it was nothing that anybody had ever heard, especially in Georgia."

Though the band had the visual and performance instincts of art school bands like Devo and Talking Heads---David Byrne did produce 1982's Mesopotamia---Schneider says The B-52s had other motives: "We just wanted to get the party started and keep them wanting more."

Even if the band didn't have the artistic pedigree of other scenesters, they certainly caught the attention of one. According to legend, after Lennon heard "Rock Lobster" in a disco, he decided to end his hiatus from music, a rumour which Strickland confirmed for British mag Q: "Cindy does this scream that was inspired by Yoko Ono. John heard it in some club in the Bahamas, and the story goes that he calls up Yoko and says, 'Get the axe out---they're ready for us again!'" A couple of years ago, Ono appeared on stage to perform her own caterwauls for The B-52s' 25th anniversary.

In 1985, Ricky Wilson passed away from an AIDS-related illness. When the band reformed three years later, with Strickland now on guitar, they released Cosmic Thing: "Love Shack" and "Roam" were huge commercial hits. These days, The B-52s aren't recording any new material, though there's a live album, recorded in Australia, in the works. That pink air on Planet Claire must contain some sweet age-defying properties because even though the bouffants are down, the four Bs have barely aged. Schneider says that he doesn't think their live show has changed much either, back from when they played atop a kitchen table at an Athens party. "It's all about the music, it's not about props and wigs and crap like that."

Schneider has returned to those kitchen-party DIY days with his new project, The Superions. "We're a no-budget group," says Schneider. "It's just the three of us and ProTools." In their current promo photos, The Superions wear six-dollar Olympics t-shirts from Target. Their latest shoot was taken at a cheap shopping mall studio with Styrofoam sets.

Schneider met the other members of planet Superion, Noah Brodie and Dan Marshall, vinyl nuts like him, through a mutual friend who owns a Florida record store. "We got along really well and they're as silly as I am---I mean, creative---and I just started hanging with them and staying with them in Orlando," he says. "One day they had a track, and wanted me to put words to it and off the top of my head I came up with 'Totally Nude Island.' It's started out having a great time and turned into a side career."

It's familiar territory: catchy B-movie outer space fantasies set to spoken word and electro-disco beats. The trio released a seven-song remix EP, Totally Nude, in January. The single "Who Threw That Ham at Me?" is a groovy roller-disco version of the shoplifting meat-down-the-pants urban legend. "Ham" got a lot of attention in November, because the day after it was released, Food Network chef Paula Deen was accidentally smacked in the face with a frozen ham at a charity event. Just a happy coincidence, says Schneider, at least for the band.

"Ham" also introduces a new dance move: "Disco garbage can." With the simplicity of Rock Lobster's "down, down, down..." even two-stepping Uncle Bob can lift an imaginary trash lid on and off his head. It was a last-minute creation at the video shoot, Schneider says, but the move serves its purpose well: "It gets people laughing and exercising. It's better than Wii Fit."

Schneider is currently working on three albums for The Superions, including seasonal Halloween and Christmas records, revisiting old inspirations that predate The B-52s. He warns though that they may not be suitable for children. "We might have to do two versions of the songs for airplay," he says. "Some of it won't be played on the air---it's just too weird."

You won't find most of most of his favourite music on mainstream radio either, but Schneider says there are bands, like Peaches, Gravy Train and Quintron, still out there, having B-52s-sized fun. "I've always just liked the outsiders anyway."

Th B-52s
March 19-20, $70, 8pm

Schooner Room, Casino Nova Scotia


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