The B52s on Innovation

Sunday 23 June, I saw the B52s perform at Paradiso, Amsterdam as part of their final world tour. They formed in Athens, Georgia in 1976, so it’s been a long innings, with all 3 remaining founding members starting to get old.

On the checklist of bands I have always wanted to see, the B52s are the only ones left that it was actually possible to see. And I loved the show, but even while it was going on, I was struck by how carefully and cleverly it was done. The band has always been hard to categorise. Loved by mainstream pop fans and fringe art lovers alike, their sound is a lesson in itself.

1. Do what you love, love what you do

Trashy, quirky, just plain weird, The B52s were never going to be mistaken for conventional music stars. So they didn’t even try. The expressed who they were to the fullest extent and infected all they came in contact with that madness. By doing nothing with half measures, they became a full measure of success with no personal compromise.

2. Stand out from the crowd

When there is an accepted norm for what it takes to be successful, the last thing on earth you should do is follow that norm. Half of what got the B52s the attention they always did, was the fact that they were always different. Uncategorizable, inexplicable but instantly recognisable.

3. Play with what you’ve got (no-one else has it)

When he became part of the band, singer Fred Schneider had almost no musical or singing experience. His vocal delivery was developed from reciting poetry over guitars. This is what laid the basis for the unique call and response style vocals the band repeatedly used. It’s part of what made them unique.

4. Deliver. Always

One of the keys to the longevity of the B52s is that they gained a ferocious reputation for their live shows and for their fan engagement. Simply put, they delivered, time after time after time. After 40 years of playing Rock Lobster, they must have hated that song, but you’d never guess it from seeing it live.

5. Know when to stop

This world tour is their last ever. Their last studio album, Funplex, was released in 2008. Obviously, nothing knew was coming. Fred is 68, Kate 71 and Cindy 62. While they were still able to deliver vocally during this show, you can hear that this won’t last much longer. They’ve gone out in a blaze of glory.

The band’s sound was in no strict sense unique: rather it was a combination of surf guitar and dance music. But this, in combination with Pierson’s amazing vocals, Fred’s weirdness and some unconventional guitar tunings was enough to set them apart from the rest of the crowd in the late 70s, even during the arrival and combination of the scene by Punk.

The lesson is that to be innovative and differentiate yourself from the crowd, you don’t need to have that one big idea. In fact, it is often way more useful to have a series of smaller ideas. But it’s not even the ideas really. It’s what you do with them, how you behave after that.

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