30 Years Ago: The B-52’s Struggle to Carry On With ‘Bouncing off the Satellites’
After 1983's Whammy failed to keep up the momentum of their first two records, the B-52's looked to rebound. But Bouncing off the Satellites arrived on Sept. 8, 1986 with a tragedy that had struck the band shortly after the sessions concluded.
Guitarist Ricky Wilson, whose sister, Cindy, is one of the band's singers, was diagnosed with AIDS during the recording of Whammy, but only told multi-instrumentalist Keith Strickland. By the summer of 1985, when sessions for Satellites began, he was in the last stages of his life.
Sadly, his input was not all it could have been had he been healthy. Despite it all, he worked to complete the record without giving anything away to the other members. "I wasn't aware of what was happening," singer Fred Schneider told Rolling Stone in 1990. "I thought that he'd been so nervous — we were under so much pressure, he was losing weight and ... He was fine one week, and then the next week I found out he was gone."
He died of the horrible disease on Oct. 12, 1985. Ricky had been not only one of the main writers in the band, but in many ways, their driving force. "He really had a vision about him," Cindy added. "He was one of the strongest elements of the B-52's in the beginning, the conception. He was everything. I adored my brother, he was more than a brother — he was a mentor. He was the coolest person alive."
Bouncing off the Satellites found the band falling even further. It's not that it was a bad album, it just couldn't help but pale in comparison to what made that first one-two punch so special. Released as the album's first single, "Summer of Love" fared well in dance clubs, but received little fanfare elsewhere. "Girl From Ipanema Goes to Greenland" followed a similar path, still failing to set the world alight. Both songs were catchy and full of enough B-52-isms to make fans happy, but something was missing.
As was so common of the era, the blame can be laid at the hands of the producer, in this case Tony Mansfield. His style was very much in tune with the times, but like so many, its sound is almost instantly dated and worn out. Unlike the first couple of albums, which still sound fresh to this day, the approach on Satellites is unavoidably past sell-by date..
If "Detour Thru Your Mind," one of the album's best songs, had the wallop of the early albums, it would smack you in the head, instead it politely asks your permission. The manic surge had been washed away, or at least suppressed. Ditto for "Wig," which should have burst out the way "Strobe Light" did on Wild Planet. The claws were trimmed and the sass declassed.
The album failed to live up to the three previous full-length albums the band had issued, barely edging into the Top 100 of Billboard's album chart, and its poor showing wasn't helped by the fact that they were, justifiably, too distraught to tour. It would be two more years before they would begin to recover, not only emotionally but in the public's hearts as well. 1989 would see them have their greatest success with Cosmic Thing, which spawned the massive hits "Love Shack" and "Roam." All the while, however, Ricky's spirit stayed with them.
"He had the greatest sense of humor and uniqueness about him," recalled sister Cindy. "He was really a character," continued Schneider. "He was very quiet, shy, real shy. But once you got him laughing, he wouldn't stop."
"It's funny how the human mind works when you're in shock," added Cindy. "You go through denial, and you go through so many phases -- you kind of feel numb, and that happens for about a year. You're crying every day, but then the real sorrow comes when you realize, 'Hey, he's not just gone away on a trip. He's never coming back.'"
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