The B-52's 'Cosmic Thing' at 30: How the Band Overcame Loss and Found Catharsis at the 'Love Shack'
Once The B-52's released their underrated fourth LP Bouncing Off The Satellites in the wake of the death of guitarist Ricky Wilson, the impact of losing such a key member on the frontlines of the AIDS epidemic made it difficult to think about recording new music. For a moment, "She Brakes For Rainbows" seemed like the last song we'd ever hear from the Athens, GA new wave heroes.
"After Ricky died, we felt that the band was finished," admits Keith Strickland, who co-wrote "Rainbows" with Wilson and also took over his major role in the band as lead guitarist. "We couldn't imagine going on without him."
"When Ricky died, it was very uncertain if we would continue or if we could continue," remembers Kate Pierson, who along with Ricky's sister Cindy Wilson comprises the iconic vocal harmonies of the band. "We all just withdrew into our own worlds for a little while and then we began communicating again. So during that time Keith moved upstate and I also bought a house up here as well. We were neighbors across the pond."
Strickland, who was living in Manhattan at the time (as was singer Fred Schneider and Wilson and her husband), felt a need to relocate from his citified surroundings. And just as such greats as Bob Dylan and Sonny Rollins had done in the past, he chose to head to Woodstock, long before it became the go-to transplant for Metro area expats.
"After Ricky died, I just wanted to get out of New York City," he tells Billboard. "I was also studying Buddhism and had on occasion attended teachings and events at the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra Monastery in Woodstock. I had always wanted to live in the mountains, so I thought Woodstock would be an excellent place for me to live."
As it turned out, Strickland was on to something. The town of Woodstock has long been a rustic getaway residence for such music icons as Bob Dylan, Todd Rundgren, Paul Butterfield and Jack DeJohnette. And for one of the B-52's chief songwriters, who just lost the Lennon to his McCartney, living in such a holistic habitat indeed opened up his creative pores in short order, creating the roots of what would become Cosmic Thing, released 30 years ago on June 27, 1989.
"I moved to Woodstock in the summer of 1986 and rented a little cabin on a pond off Wittenberg Road that was covered with lily pads and abundant with wildlife," explains Strickland. "It was idyllic and very healing. I wrote the instrumental portion of the songs. I would record a multi-track of music, and Kate, Fred and Cindy would improvise over it, and together, we would arrange their lyrics and melodies with the music. I remember starting the track for 'June Bug' with wildlife sounds that I'd recorded on the pond."
"Keith is a very underrated musician," Schneider tells Billboard. "The music he brought us for Cosmic, we thought, was brilliant and inspiring. There was some trepidation about doing another record, but once we heard the music and got to jamming, everything fell into place really quickly."
Pierson also moved to Woodstock, though she now lives in nearby Phoenicia, where she runs the Lazy Meadow resort motel with her wife Monica. The singer also saw it as a place of catharsis in the wake of Ricky Wilson's death.
"For Keith and me, it was a sense of peace we found up here," she reveals. "Just being in this small town, it was the same as it was in Athens. They both have a similar spirit in that it's very liberal and there's a lot of interesting musicians who live here. Being in the country while working on Cosmic Thing gave us the easygoing, porch swing life we had in Athens that we needed to make these songs."
Eventually all four surviving members of the B-52's would agree to find an apt studio location to begin fleshing out the cache of songs that would become Cosmic Thing. They chose two distinct locations: Sigma Sound Studios in New York City, where they would cut the majority of the material with Nile Rodgers of Chic. But for four songs, they went to Dreamland Studios in West Hurley, a little town in northern Ulster County not too far from Woodstock, and record with Don Was, who came in almost immediately on the back of his work on Bonnie Raitt's Grammy-winning classic Nick of Time.
"I remember working on Cosmic Thing like I remember summer camp when I was a kid," Was tells Billboard. "I had just wrapped Nick of Time and headed to New York. And here I was at Dreamland, I remember sitting out back there at night. The nights were beautiful, and you could hear all the crickets. It was lovely, man. I don't remember any stress. I recall driving one night we saw the Northern Lights at a Zen monestary up on a mountain. I remember it as a very moving and warm experience up there."
"I remember one night up at the studio, we had a UFO sighting," adds Wilson. "Fred and I were standing in the front yard and saw this light in the sky that was shaking and twirling around and around, kind of like in a unity pattern and jumping all around. We could not figure out what it was, but it stuck around for a little while and then left."
"Dreamland turned out to be the perfect studio for us," recalls Strickland. "The big room sounds great. I remember when we were recording 'Love Shack,' a lightning storm knocked out the electricity in the middle of the song during the bass breakdown. So we took a dinner break, went to the Gypsy Wolf Mexican Restaurant in Woodstock. Then returned to the studio and listened to the last take, and realized how good it sounded, so we quickly went for another take and spliced to the two together."
"I remember Don Was sitting in the kitchen and we all sat around the kitchen table and listened to cassettes on a portable cassette player," adds Pierson. "Then we'd go and drive around in the car and listen on the car stereo, because that's the way most people were listening to music at the time."
The region would continue to serve as a harbinger of healing and salvation for the band when they found the location for what would trump "Rock Lobster" as the singular hit of their careers. The "Love Shack" was indeed a little ole place nestled in the deep woods of Plattekill, NY, in southern Ulster County, where their unwitting local fans had no idea some MTV video history was going down inside a wildly designed, multi-colored house owned by ceramic artists Phillip Maberry and Scott Walker.
"Our friend Tommy and the famous hairdresser Danilo, they told us when they heard the song 'Love Shack' and we were gonna do a video they said 'Oh my God, you have to do the video in this house. It literally is the Love Shack," Pierson recalls. "So I went to the director and told him we have to shoot at this house. I had gone up there though I didn't know Phillip and Scott lived in this house, which was a literal shack. And they had the checkerboard roof, and two goats named Kate and Cindy. There was an amazing garden and it was in this sorta grotto with stone all around."
"It was actually already painted in those bright and fanciful colors," Strickland remembers. "We invited friends from the city to join us. It was a beautiful summer's day in the Hudson Valley."
"It was a perfect place to film," adds Wilson. "It was a glorious day, and all the colors in the house all popped. It was amazing."
However, the video's director Adam Bernstein, who would later go on to direct episodes of such television blockbusters as Breaking Bad, Orange Is The New Black and 30 Rock, didn't seem interested in shooting the video beyond the five boroughs at first.
"We all loved it, but the director wanted to do it in a studio in New York, not have to schlep upstate," Pierson explains. "But once they saw it, they were like, 'Oh yes, this is it.' So they made these signs that say 'Stay Away Fools' and 'Love Rules' and put the goats in the video. And we invited all our friends and had a party. The video was just one big party. We started out really early in the morning and it turned into this rave. RuPaul got the dance line going, and it almost felt like we weren't being videotaped."
"It was indeed a party," Strickland agrees. "We wanted to recreate the Soul Train dance line, but the video director didn't get the process. So RuPaul, who was there, directed that scene."
"It was great having RuPaul in it," adds Schneider in regards to the drag legend's public debut on the set of the video. "I had met him years before on the 14th St. bus. But the police, however, didn't like us up there."
And given just how ubiquitous "Love Shack" remains 30 years later, especially as a wedding standard as essential to the night as the "Chicken Dance," it's hard to believe the song almost didn't make the finished album.
"We finished all the songs we had to do a day early, so we had this extra day to do something," remembers Was. "So they said, 'We have this other thing, but its 15 minutes long and we haven't figured it out.' I remember sitting on the steps outside the studio and thinking about this thing they were improvising about a love shack and going, 'Well maybe that's the chorus.'"
"I remember how 'Love Shack' wasn't put together yet, and Don said how it needed a chorus," interjects Pierson. "It wasn't even gonna make the album because it wasn't solidified. But after we added that chorus, Bingo, here it is; it sounds like a hit. But we didn't aim to write hits, we aimed to heal ourselves and channel Ricky's spirit. That was the goal, and I knew his presence was there."
"So we started rearranging the lyrics like a puzzle, and we were able to get it down to three and a half minutes with a chorus and some semblance of a plot line and cut it," explains Was. "The first take was killer except when we got to the tin roof rusted part. Cindy started with this exuberance that shocked everybody. I don't know what that line means; I don't think anybody knew what that line means (laughs). But 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."
"We had a hard time selling 'Love Shack' at first," admits Schneider. "I remember our A&R guy taking me around while Kate and Cindy would do soundcheck and we would go to radio stations basically to beg them to play the song. Even the record company thought it was too weird. I thought it was the most accessible thing we had done. College radio embraced it immediately, but mainstream wouldn't touch it until they saw how well it was doing. We went to No. 1 in several markets, though in America we were beat out by Milli Vanilli and Paula Abdul, both of whom were accused of not singing on their hit songs!"
It's a wonder to look back on the roots of Cosmic Thing on its 30th anniversary, commemorated with the release of a deluxe edition of the album by Rhino Records that includes a killer live show from The Woodlands, TX, in 1990 as the bonus disc (along with an expanded version of the classic LP that includes remixes of the album's triad of hits in "Love Shack," "Channel Z" and "Roam"). It might not be as ubiquitous to the Woodstock region as, say, The Band's Music From Big Pink, Bob Dylan's The Basement Tapes or The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album, but the catharsis experienced during the creation of Cosmic Thing couldn't have been achieved anywhere else.
"Cosmic Thing wasn't a plan to do this big comeback for Ricky," Pierson explains. "It really was a healing thing. It was about doing it together as a means to heal, because after Ricky died we have this amazing, precious thing that was each other still. So we figured let's get together and try this again. And the vibe of being at Dreamland in Ulster County to record this album was magic."