[21 July 2014]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
Lots of trouble! Lots of bubble! This is the song that made John Lennon want to make music again.
“Rock Lobster” is a landmark song on several fronts. For one, it was the B-52’s first-ever single, released in 1978, and the song that gained them a cult following prior to landing their record deal. Even more than that, “Rock Lobster” has endured the test of time better than more seriously-minded fare from the same era, getting somewhat of a revival during its use in a 2005 episode of Family Guy, and Yoko Ono has even joined the band onstage to make creature noises more than a few times. Between this and “Love Shack”, “Rock Lobster” is one of the B-52’s most iconic songs, bar none.
Much as how “Planet Claire” worked due to the fact that this silly situation was given a relatively straight-faced treatment, the B-52’s attack “Rock Lobster” with an impish glee. There’s a bit of a wink and a nod in the delivery here, showcasing just how utterly absurd the situation is, but their commitment to their performance is what ultimately brings every single out-there element of the song to life.
Written by vocalist Fred Schneider and guitarist Ricky Wilson, “Rock Lobster” uses surf-rock as its genre base, with ‘60s-friendly elements like a Farfisa organ brought in to provide the deliberately nostalgic vibe that was the band’s trademark at the time. The tone of track isn’t all bright and chipper: it’s actually a bit down-trodden despite its tempo, but that only serves to give a “serious” contrast to lines like “His ear lobe fell in the deep!” As with a majority of the songs on this album, there is not much of a “narrative” to these tracks so much as it is a series of thematically-linked non sequiturs, although if you really wanted to put the line “Pass the tanning butter!” in some sort of dramatic arc, you are assuredly welcome to try.
While no one will ever deny that “Rock Lobster” is anything less than a (brilliant) novelty song, the fact that it’s structured like a party anthem only gives its verses extra verve. There are two moments wherein the drums drop out, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson’s voices reach high octaves, and Schneider shouts “Down! Down!” as Ricky Wilson’s guitar furiously descends down the chromatic scale. These moments are, in fact, energy releases, ways to stop and rally the listener before bringing all the energy right back into that main guitar riff. If the song was the same parts done over and over again, its energy would invariably plateau, but these breaks, along with the gradual increase of wackiness, is what gives “Rock Lobster” its zest.
The original (and preferred) album cut runs a whopping 6:50, but it never once outstays its welcome. Although lines like “Boys in binkins” and “Everybody’s fruggin’” only add to the free-for-all dementia of the lyrics, the most memorable part of “Rock Lobster” is the final section wherein Schneider begins naming various sea creatures—some real, most imagined—and Kate and Cindy provide the sound effects for what a “dog-fish’ and “sea-robin” sound like. This is the part that Yoko Ono often imitates on stage so darn well. It’s also the moment where the song pushes away from camp and veers off into pure absurdism, but in doing so, “Rock Lobster” is infused with not one great line but several, and because the band didn’t open with “There goes a narwhal!” their gradual build up to this moment is strangely logical. Anyone can write a wacky song, but, especially on this album, the B-52’s showed that you have to earn that pay off, and with this song in particular, earn it they did.
Despite the inclusion of amazing songs like the proto-punk classic “52 Girls” and the indelible “Dance This Mess Around”, it was “Rock Lobster” that served as the group’s calling card in those early days, and ultimately was the song that put it on the map. It initially reached all the way up to #58 on the US Billboard Hot 100, and was also a Top 40 hit in the UK, Australia, and even topped the Canadian RPM music poll. A clever re-release by the label in 1986 expanded the song’s goodwill even further, vaulting the song all the way up #12 in the UK Singles Chart, where it is the band’s second-highest charting track there behind “Love Shack”.
Outside of the song’s use in numerous video game soundtracks and potato-baking parties the world over, it was, as the top of this article noted, the song that actually got John Lennon back into recording after he took a great deal of time off to raise his son Sean. “It sounds just like Ono’s music”, he said to Rolling Stone, “so I said to meself, ‘It’s time to get out the old axe and wake the wife up!’” In subsequent interviews, the B-52’s said they were “honored” to have inspired John Lennon’s songwriting resurgance, but all that does is show that with a concept as out-and-out wacky as “Rock Lobster” is, sometimes mindless party jams not only hold their own place in popular culture; sometimes they may very well help define it.