Can We Talk About?…is a weekly series that’s going straight to Gay Hell!
Where does the time go (besides down the goddamn drain)? Can you believe that 30 years ago today, The B-52s scored their biggest hit with “Love Shack,” the second single from their fifth studio album, Cosmic Thing?
The Athens, Ga.-based new wave band had made quite the splash a decade before with 1978’s “Rock Lobster”—it only inspired John Lennon to pull his shit together and get back to making music. If that isn’t enough of an honor, Rolling Stone ranked both the song and their eponymous debut album among the greatest of all time.
The B-52s—so named for the bomber-like beehives of members Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson—pumped out a steady stream of tunes in the intervening years, but they struggled after the death of their guitarist, and Cindy’s older brother, Ricky Wilson, who passed away from AIDS-related complications in 1985.
For Cosmic Thing, their first album without Wilson, the band enlisted the help of producers Don Was and Chic’s Nile Rodgers, who gave the LP a shiny, funky gloss.
“After Ricky died, we didn’t think we’d keep going, but we didn’t know,” bisexual vocalist-keyboardist Pierson told The A.V. Club in 2011. “When we first got together to do it, though, it was very tentative, and we had no kind of aspirations to make this a hit or to make it happy or sad. We just thought… Well, I think we just realized how precious life is… We were devastated, and just felt like we couldn’t go on, but when we started getting together to write, we realized it was healing. Incredibly healing.”
“It took about a year to write Cosmic Thing,” guitarist Keith Strickland told Rolling Stone last year on the occasion of the band’s 40th anniversary. “We spent a lot of time just talking, and we needed that. We were our own support group after Ricky’s passing, which was a very traumatic thing for all of us and, in particular, for Cindy.”
Though they never intended to make “Love Shack” such a bubbly, undeniable party anthem, they ended up crafting one of the quintessential feel-good bops for the ages (one that became so ubiquitous at high school dances and weddings and everywhere else that it could occasionally test your nerves). It’s easily one of the most sing-alongable songs to dance its way onto the radio, and remains a perennial karaoke jam for anyone who wants to yell out “Tin roof! RUSTED!” during the track’s iconic break.
That little tidbit was in fact improvised by vocalist Cindy Wilson. “When we were jamming on ’Love Shack,’ some of the instrumentation was pre-recorded, and all of a sudden it stopped, just as Cindy was in full throttle, yelling, ’Tin roof rusted!,’” Pierson recalled to The A.V. Club. “The tape had stopped, but she kept going. And that’s actually how we got that part. It wasn’t planned. It just happened.”
“I didn’t hear what Cindy said,” queer frontman Fred Schneider tells NewNowNext. “So I said, ’You’re what?’ And she said ’Tin roof, rusted.’ I guess her idea of the love shack had a tin roof, like so many Southern shacks!”
According to Pierson, “People always wondered what she was saying, and there are all sorts of interpretations, but one of the most popular is that it means you’re pregnant. I have no idea how people got that idea. I’ve never heard that particular expression, and I don’t even know how it came up, but I hear it all the time now!”
One thought on where that idea originated: Pop-Up Video. VH1’s popular music video trivia show featured all sorts of factoids about videos, not all of them true, and I distinctly remember that being one of them: tin roof rusted as some sort of regional Athens slang for being knocked up. Turns out it was just some random non sequitur born of nostalgia and too much damn funk.
“I had the idea for ’Love Shack,’” Fred Schneider told Rolling Stone. “There was a place outside of Athens called the Hawaiian Ha-Le. It was an African-American club that had a lot of good shows. It looked like a shack, you wouldn’t expect it to be what it was, and when you opened the door, it was a wild band playing.”
According to Cindy Wilson, the club had “a tin roof that was old and rusty,” and patrons often formed Soul Train lines in it. Pierson said the Hawaiian Ha-Le “was kind of like the juke joint in The Color Purple” where they hung out with all sorts of bohemian, hippie types.
While “Love Shack” is a rousing barnburner for the masses now, it had a rocky start. “Believe me, commercial radio and our label didn’t embrace it at first,” Schneider tells NewNowNext. “Thank goddess for alternative and college radio!”
Also a big help: its insane music video, which was filmed at the home and studio of ceramic artists Phillip Maberry and Scott Walker in Highland in New York’s Hudson Valley, and which featured a young, Afro’d, crop-topped, hot-panted RuPaul.
“He was already really working on his look, his star look,” Schneider said of Ru back in 2017. “He got the line-dance going, that’s for sure!”
The band didn’t know how to do a Soul Train line, so Ru whipped everybody into shape.
“It wasn’t going right. So I had to step in and say, ‘OK, listen. This is how you do a Soul Train line.’ It’s like two wheels that are sort of smashing pasta out; it’s like a pasta machine,” the Emmy snatcher ruvealed to Billboard. “The two wheels have to be rotating. So when the two people are going down the middle, the line is actually in rotation, so it replenishes the two new people that come down the middle. They were very impressed by the fact that I was able to do that.”
Wilson explained how the future supermodel of the world shimmied his way into their funky little shack to Billboard.
Ru was a drag queen in Atlanta, and a bunch of people came up to New York and we all started hanging out. That was a cool era for us, as well as a really hard time: the AIDS crisis, and losing so many friends back in the mid-’80s, in the early days of New York. It was really wonderful, because it was love and friends, and there was a wonderful sense of coming together, being silly and hoping for the future.
In a full-circle moment, RuPaul returned the favor to the band, appointing them judges on his titular Drag Race.
The video, not to mention the song’s infectiousness, helped propel the B-52s to unprecedented success. “Love Shack” reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and garnered an MTV Video Music Award for Best Group Video. Rolling Stone also named it the 246th greatest song of all time.
Three decades later, the “Love Shack” is still where it’s at and is guaranteed to get any party—queer or straight—started.
Though the Soul Train line is optional.