Fred Schneider on the B-52's Early Struggles: "My Voice Was Considered Commercial Radio Poison"

The B-52's aren't considered the world's greatest party band for nothing.
The B-52's aren't considered the world's greatest party band for nothing. Photo by Pieter M. Van Hattem
You can thank Fred Schneider for the B-52's smash hit "Love Shack." If it wasn’t for Schneider’s moving and grooving, no one would have ever heard the song.

“The radio wouldn’t touch it, and the record company didn’t understand it,” he says. “So while Kate [Pierson] and Cindy [Wilson] did sound checks, I had to go around with the A&R person and beg radio stations to play it.”

The problem?

“They thought it was too weird,” he says. “And my voice was considered commercial radio poison.”

Weird? Maybe. Radio poison? Not so much.

The song, prominently featuring Schneider's talk-singy vocal style, became a Billboard Top 10 hit, taking home two Moonmen (subsequently renamed the more inclusive Moon Person) at the 1990 MTV Video Music Awards and beating out fan faves Aerosmith and Red Hot Chili Peppers.

“So, hah!” Schneider says, quite literally getting the last laugh.

The B-52's made their mark on the music world in the late '70s through a groovy mix of bizarre lyrics and even more bizarre sounds. Cult favorites such as 1978’s “Rock Lobster” — along with fun and silly tunes like “Dance This Mess Around,” “Wig,” Roam,” and “Private Idaho” — made the B-52’s a thinking man’s party band.

With kitschy bouffants, feather boas, miniskirts, go-go boots, and glittery eyelashes, the group will celebrate its 40th anniversary and the 30th anniversary of its hit album Cosmic Thing next Thursday, August 29, at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. The band will be joined by special guests Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and Berlin.

“People say, ‘How can you sing ‘Rock Lobster’ again?' But the thing is, it’s a fun song to do, and I change my stage pattern every night... to make the band laugh,” Schneider says. “And if the audience gets it, they laugh. We have a lot of fun onstage.”

The spaced-out “Planet Claire” has become so iconic that fans created a petition to name a dwarf planet near Neptune after the song. The title came from a scrap of paper Schneider found on a table — one of many wacky ways he and his bandmates come up with ideas.

“Some of the songs came from poems I wrote for my final project for creative writing,” he says of a class he took just before dropping out of college. “The teacher said, ‘I don’t understand any of this, but I know you’re sincere,’ so he gave me an A. And then, later on, we used some of it for songs like ‘There’s a Moon in the Sky’ and others.”

Other songs have slightly darker beginnings. “There was a crazy person, actually a serial killer... and his nickname was Junebug,” Schneider says of the inspiration for the title of the eponymous song. “The way we work is just so different than anybody else.”

Schneider says ideas just sort of flow out of him, and the same holds true for Pierson and Wilson, which is why each pursues solo projects outside of the band. “I like surrealism and Dadaism, and that totally inspires me,” he says. “That’s why our songs are sort of surreal sometimes. I definitely don’t write the more commercial songs.”

Schneider has always marched to the beat of his own cowbell. He embraced vegetarianism and animal rights before the ideas were fashionable.

“A friend had said, ‘Hey, do you really want to hurt animals and kill them to eat them?’ And I said nope, and I just stopped eating meat, fish, and chicken one day and never went back,” he says of the decision he made in the early '70s.
Since then, Schneider has partnered with PETA to encourage people to go vegan and to “hurt as few animals as possible and leave as small a footprint on the Earth as you can,” he says.

Though Schneider likes to eat plants, he is the self-proclaimed “world’s worst gardener.” But he does have a coffee roastery inside an artsy second home in Deland, Florida, where he roasts beans for his online subscription coffee service,

“It’s going really well,” he says. “I put two together and came up with Fred’s Monster Blend.”

He says he wants to start spending more time at his place just north of Orlando, especially because he has no pets to take care of at his home in Long Island.

“I travel too much,” he says. “I like my friends’ pets — you can love ‘em and leave ‘em, like my nieces and nephews.”

Schneider, now 68, is charming and endearing with an infectious laugh that makes everyone around him feel like they are in on a hilarious joke. But he wasn’t always so jovial.

“I really didn’t have a happy childhood until I went to Athens,” he says of moving to Georgia, where he formed the B-52’s with Pierson, Wilson, Keith Strickland, and Ricky Wilson, who died in 1985. "The home thing wasn’t that great. I loved my mom and all that, but I didn’t get along with my father at all.”

Fortunately, he met a like-minded goofball in fifth grade and learned that playing around and being funny made dealing with the stress at home more bearable.

“When I’m with people, I like to joke around," he says. "I like to laugh, and I like to make people laugh.”

Still, he says, there is a common misperception about him. “I’m not as wild and crazy as I am onstage. If I get a little tipsy, I can dance on a table, but I’m basically pretty reserved.”

A high-profile documentary and the band’s first official book are set to drop next year. And between his solo work, touring with the B-52's, getting his coffee company going, and killing his lawn, he says he keeps busy.

“I’m pretty content,” he says, adding he’s looking forward to a little relaxation when he retires. “But I don’t know when that will be. They’re already booking shows for next year, so I guess they’ll be wheeling me out onstage eventually.”

The B-52's. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, August 29, at Au-Rene Theater at Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale; 954-462-0222; Tickets cost $59.50 to $128.50 via
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Wendy Rhodes is a lover of rock 'n' roll and all things vegan. She has witnessed a green flash, kissed a live shark, and stood atop an active volcano. She is always open to new story ideas.