Fred Schneider - vocals, toy piano, keyboard bass, percussion, walkie-talkie; Kate Pierson - vocals, organ, keyboard bass; Cindy Wilson - vocals, bongos, tambourine, glockenspiel; Ricky Wilson- guitar, various effects; Keith Strickland - drums, percussion
Canada's legendary 1980 Heatwave Festival was the brainchild of concert promoter John Brower, who was based in Toronto. Brower established his reputation a decade prior, as the man behind the 1969 Rock and Roll Revival concert at Varsity Stadium (AKA "Live Peace In Toronto," which featured John Lennon's debut live performance outside The Beatles) and the three-day Woodstock-esque Strawberry Fields Festival held at Ontario's Mosport Park the following summer. For Canadians, as well as thousands of Americans and Europeans who traveled to this event, Brower's Heatwave Festival would become one of Canada's most memorable musical events.
Held at Mosport Park, a 500 acre auto racing facility located approximately 100 kilometers east of Toronto, the aptly named Heatwave Festival took place on a hot August Saturday and presented the cream of the crop of post-punk new wave bands, just as many were breaking big internationally. Promoted as the "New Wave Woodstock" or as the poster for the event proclaimed, "The 1980s Big Beat Rock And Roll Party," nearly 100, 000 fans would converge that day to witness some of the greatest American, British and Canadian bands to emerge in recent years all on the same stage.
The first major outdoor new wave musical event to be held anywhere, nearly 85,000 fans would purchase the $20 tickets to hear the likes of Rockpile with Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds, The B-52s, The Pretenders, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello and The Clash, along with Canada's own Teenage Head and The Kings and with lesser known groups like Holly and the Italians and The Rumour (Graham Parker's former group) also performing that day.
Like the original Woodstock Festival, Heatwave presented an incredible roster for that moment in time, but was likewise fraught with logistical and legal problems and would end in financial failure. When headliners, The Clash, pulled out at the last minute, rumors began spreading about the integrity of the festival. During this pre-Internet era, mass communication was difficult at best and wild speculation was running rampant about who else might cancel or who might replace The Clash. Lines were also being drawn, with the inevitable cries of "sellout" being aimed at some of the bands on the bill. On the plus side, unlike Woodstock, Mother Nature was quite cooperative and the festival took place under sunny blue skies on a hot summer Saturday, with thousands camping out the night before and already settled in by sunrise on the day of the concert. Other than the heat, for the audience it was a relatively comfortable experience for most of the day, until Brower himself became responsible for one of the logistical issues. During a backstage radio interview with his friend, Dan Aykroyd (in character as Elwood Blues), Aykroyd humorously encouraged Brower to put all the radio listeners on the guest list. Going with the flow, Brower laughingly agreed that it was a bright idea and within 90 minutes, another 15,000 ticketless fans turned up, swelling the crowd to estimates of 100,000 by sundown, just as the Talking Heads were taking the stage.
During the late 1970s, many of these bands had developed and diversified considerably. Another generation of serious talent was emerging, but they were still experiencing only modest commercial impact. Prior to 1980, most of these groups were heard only on college radio stations and had little experience performing beyond the college and club circuit. Few had ever performed before a crowd of this magnitude and several had never even played outdoors. Much had changed in the past several months; The Pretenders were now scoring Top 10 singles and Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, The B-52s and Teenage Head also had albums and singles charting. Within the next year, MTV would also begin championing videos by many of these groups while significantly altering the music industry landscape. The Heatwave Festival captured the zeitgeist during this transitional moment in music history and presented inspired performances by all of these groups, several of which remain career highlights to the present day.
Released the previous year, The B-52s' self-titled debut album and the single that preceded it, "Rock Lobster," had begun scoring the band international attention and a performance on Saturday Night Live in January of 1980 had raised the band's profile considerably. The group's unconventional and highly eccentric songs and the striking oversized bouffant hairdos of Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson had brought the band more recognition than they ever expected, particularly in Canada, where their debut album first went platinum. Three months prior to this performance, "Rock Lobster" had also climbed the Canadian RPM charts to hit the #1 position (the only country where it made it to #1), making them one of the most highly anticipated acts on the bill. Performing between The Pretenders and Talking Heads, presented here is the entire B-52s set from that afternoon, capturing the group just four days prior to the release of their second album, Wild Planet.
Performing the strongest material from their first album and debuting much of the Wild Planet material before the largest live audience they had experienced up to this point, this set remains one of the highlights in The B-52s' early career. This newly transferred and mastered recording clearly captures the band's eccentric and campy blend of girl group, surf, garage band and television influences. The flamboyant vocals of front man Fred Schneider and the unconventional harmony singing of Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson are indeed weird in every sense of the word, but their relentless kinetic energy and the propulsive dance beat emphasis of their songs is irresistible. Above all else, The B-52s' music is designed to get listeners on their feet and dancing and, in that regard, they most certainly deliver. This recording captures all of these elements during a peak moment and provides listeners with the closest thing to a professionally recorded live album of the original quintet lineup that has ever surfaced.
The Morse code beeps and pings of "Planet Claire" announce the arrival of The B-52s on The Heatwave Festival stage. With its menacing opening riff, borrowed from Henry Mancini's "Peter Gunn Theme," followed by the sci-fi movie Farfisa organ sounds of Kate Pierson, Fred Schneider breaks into the truly wacky lyrics as the group unleashes a hypnotic groove to open the set.
Two delightfully twisted numbers follow, beginning with "6060-842" from the first album, a warped tale of a telephone number written on a restroom wall. Cindy and Kate's vocal microphone balance gets some tweaking during this number, but by the end of the song the vocal mix improves substantially and all is well by the time they tear into "Devil In My Car," the first of the new Wild Planet songs. Essentially a car song gone out of control, this provides listeners with a taste of Cindy and Kate's unconventional and unselfconscious harmony singing, which despite its weirdness conveys plenty of passion.
Returning to first album material, "52 Girls" is next, featuring a prime example of Ricky Wilson's propulsive surf guitar grooves (played on a 4 string guitar in a bizarre tuning) while Cindy and Kate spew forth a litany of girl names in rapid succession. Two new numbers follow, first in the form of "Quiche Lorraine" featuring some of Fred's most ridiculously funny lyrics ever. Performed in a stiff stereotypical broadcaster's voice, Fred narrates the story of a dyed green miniature poodle's trip to a dog park and its unloyal desertion of its owner for a Great Dane! "Dirty Back Road," an uncharacteristically dreamy and melodic number turns up next. Here, the snaky rhythm of Ricky Wilson's guitar and Keith Strickland's steady drumming provides the foundation for Cindy and Kate's unconventional harmonies to soar.
It's at this point that The B-52s really begin hitting their stride, beginning with a return to the first album for a totally charged reading of "Lava." With Fred and the girls trading come on lines and lyrics chocked full of sexual innuendo, the band launch into volcanic overdrive, with Ricky Wilson's guitar building up to Fred and Kate belting out the climactic lyric, "My love's erupting like a red hot volcano!"
Four of the best songs from the forthcoming Wild Planet are performed next and all are superb performances. The first, "Give Me Back My Man," is a tour-de-force showcasing Cindy Wilson. Crooning a broad, expressive melodic line over a droning minor key James Bond-esque guitar riff, Cindy passionately vacillates between seduction and desperation. The second is an altogether different seduction number revolving around Fred calling his lover up for an invitation to make love in the trippy fragmented glow of his strobe light. With its memorable start and stop structure and hilarious call and response lyrics between Fred and the girls, "Strobe Light" is another delight.
Next up is what would turn out to be the most widely popular song off of Wild Planet, the band's ode to being oblivious, "Private Idaho." With its jittery dance rhythm and a bit of the Twilight Zone television show theme included in its structure, "Private Idaho" captures the B-52s at their most manic. Another fine example of Ricky Wilson's scorching guitar work and the band's knack for weirdly compelling vocal arrangements follows in the driving, off-kilter "Running Around."
The B-52s head toward the finish line by returning to the first album, beginning with the song that launched their career, "Rock Lobster." The ultimate beach party dancing anthem of the 1980s, this contains all the elements that made the B-52s stand out from the beginning, with Kate Pierson's keyboard bass line and Ricky Wilson's syncopated surf guitar providing the propulsion. Featuring some of their best girl group-style harmonies and some of the most unconventional vocals ever, this is one powerful performance. Following the unforgettable sequence where Fred shouts out various sea creatures and the girls trade off responses with bizarre vocal inflections, the audience audibly goes wild, particularly when Cindy unleashes her Yoko Ono-like howl.
The set concludes with the B-52s' hyper-kinetic celebration of dancing, "Dance This Mess Around." Another ultimate party song, Fred, Cindy and Kate entice the audience into doing all 16 dances, turning the audience on to dances only they know, like the Hip-o-crit, the Aqua-Velva and the Escalator. With Cindy's intense screaming and the entire band radiating pure energy, one would be hard-pressed to deny that this is some of the most upbeat and just plain fun music of all time! The Heatwave audience certainly think so and the eruption of applause is a testament, eventually goading the band back for an encore.
They cap it off with the song that will lead off the forthcoming album, "Party Out Of Bounds." Irresistibly danceable, this last loopy number features the group ruminating on a party gone out of control and reveling in the chaos that occurs when party crashers descend upon your house.
At a time when many bands were obsessed with stylishness or vulgarity, The B-52s were celebrating the kitschiest aspects of early 1960s pop culture, from wacky hairdos and dance crazes to B-movie sci-fi and party activities. Their skewed mixture of pop, surf, punk, dance rhythms and vocal experimentation made them unlike any other group before or since. That inventive and colorful blend permeates every minute of this recording, which captures one of the most irresistible performances ever by the original lineup.
-Written by Alan Bershaw