The B-52's

The B-52’s and Their Unique First Album (Between the Grooves)

We dance this mess around, get out our lava lamps, and explore why the B-52’s 1979 debut album is one of the best pop records ever made.

The B-52's
The B-52's
Warner Bros.
6 July 1979

4. “Rock Lobster”

Lots of trouble! Lots of bubble! This is the song that made John Lennon want to make music again. No, really.

“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 the 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 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 the 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 nonsequiturs, 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 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 payoff, 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 it all the way up #12 in the UK Singles Chart, where it is the band’s second-highest charting track 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 resurgence, 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.

5. “Lava”

An ongoing theme to the B-52’s eponymous debut from 1979, is how with its raw production and performances that completely commit to the absurdism in the lyrics. There is an immediate, potent effect that is achieved with each and every one of these songs, as if the band somehow congealed out melted platform shoes and tacky lamps in order to become a perfect antithesis to disco’s self-serious sanctimony, favoring the gritty instead of the lush and wacky instead of the romantic.

They were art-pop weirdos on the crest of the New Wave wave, and because they believed so wholeheartedly in their songs about rock lobsters and creatures coming from Planet Claire, they exuded confidence that they were never able to recapture, as in this record and this one alone, they created a world that was inhabited only by the B-52’s and their lucky listeners. As an album, The B-52’s worked because it played its own internal logic that’s simultaneously indecipherable and also completely relatable in its own wacky way.

Thus, after a flawless four-song stretch on the LP’s a-side, it’s side b that opens with “Lava”, one of the most openly sexual tunes the group has ever written. Written by the entire band with all the vocalists to the forefront, “Lava” marries another classic Ricky Wilson guitar chug to a single-note key plink that syncopates nicely with the drums. It starts off groovy but takes a bit of a minor-key turn in the pre-chorus, showcasing that strange bit of menace that the group never brought up in any album since then. At times, it got a bit dark musically, and when Fred Schneider puts an end to any lies about Planet Claire by screaming at you in the album’s opening track.

It shows that even amidst songs that list off both girls’ names and fictional dances, that playful atmosphere came at a cost. Because the menace mixed with the merriness in unexpected ways, The B-52’s develops a unique tension that carries over from song to song, the lyrics often hinting at some deeper emotions at play before covering them up in wordplay and sound effects. Again, this was an effect achieved by the band only here and, quite frankly, it never wound up being bettered.

So while the astonishing “Dance This Mess Around” slithered and teased, “Lava” goes straight in for the kill, barely masking its carnal intent on the lyrics:

“My love may be as high as the highest volcano
But the altitude is way too high
Well it get so cold when you look at me that way — yeah
I just wanna have that hot lava
Lovin’ me away”

– “Lava”

Of course, this is the B-52’s we’re talking about here, and it wouldn’t be them without the occasional bizarre tangent, which we get in the song’s final verse, Schneider shouts out “I’m gonna let it go / Let it flow like Pompeii or Herculaneum!” Then, as the song crashes in towards its finale, the vocalists all take turns making cries and screams that rise in intensity as Wilson strums his guitar with even more ferocious intensity, and then the climax happens, and in a light sight and a muted riff, everyone just says “Yeah”.

There is no greater meaning to be gleaned from this song, but there doesn’t need to be either. In their later years, the group played around with innuendo (“I’m gonna kiss your PINEAPPLE!” from “Strobe Light” immediately comes to mind), but were never this playfully vulgar again. While the song never was released as a single or gained the same notoriety as deep album tracks like “Dance This Mess Around”, it is still a fan favorite. It also had the misfortune of being included in the band’s terrible Party Mix! EP from 1981, where the only major notable addition is a crazy sax solo that is at one point filtered through a wah pedal. But as is the case with virtually every song that appeared on that record, the remix barely holds a molten candle to the original. It may add some volcano sound effects in there, but nothing beats the original recording with lines like “I gotta lotta lava love locked up inside of me”.

6. “There’s a Moon in the Sky (Called the Moon)”

Crystallized inside the recording of the B-52’s first album is a nervy, gritty, and surprisingly supple New Wave energy that was wacky as it was sexy, smart as it was fun, kitsch as it was considered. It is a near-flawless album, and one of the best pop records ever made. Although there were still great songs throughout their career (and a very decent attempt to reclaim what made this 1979 album special with their 1980 follow-up Wild Planet), the nine tracks that make up this eponymous effort are as close to perfect as you could possibly get.

Yet, if there is a single “weak track” to be found on The B-52’s, it would be the second song on this LP’s b-side: “There’s a Moon in the Sky (Called the Moon)”.

Obviously, the song’s faults aren’t in the title, because that is an incredible name for a song. Instead, what makes “Moon” suffer in comparison to so many great, iconic tracks is exactly that: context. Had a song of this nature been included on 1983’s Whammy! or 1986’s Bouncing Off the Satellites, it would’ve been an immediate highlight. However, within the context of the album, “Moon” unfortunately comes off more as a pastiche of other great elements we’ve already heard on the disc, lacking that “wow” factor that makes every other song here an absolute keeper.

Right from the opening keyboard riff, we hear immediate aural echoes of “Planet Claire”, the album’s epic opener, and as Ricky Wilson’s guitar strums come into play, we realize something is a little different this time around: the keyboard is used as the lead instrument, with Wilson simply adding a bit of color and texture. While, on a purely sonic level, one would imagine that this switching of instrument leads would make for a nice break in the action, it actually does the exact opposite effect, pushing forth the main melody that is far blander than anything else on the disc.

There are two reasons as to why this is the case: for one, Fred Schneider, for all his personality, is not a great keyboardist but knows a good deal about texturing. The single-note rhythmic pulse he adds to “Lava” and the surprisingly effective toy piano plinks that color “Dance This Mess Around” are elements that give the songs their depth and character. Here, the riff plays out its welcome mighty fast, which leads us to the second reason why “Moon” lacks the shine that makes the rest of the LP glow: a restrained Ricky Wilson. With his unique key changes, his well-considered arpeggios, and his subtle changes to his guitar tone, Wilson ultimately makes the best B-52’s song absolutely shine, interjecting with a unique identity that was easy to appreciate but hard to imitate. By being relegated to mere rhythm guitarist here, his charm as an instrumentalist is put on a tight muzzle, and the song suffers as a result.

What’s more, on a lyrical front, we don’t hear the same absurdist buy-in that makes the rest of the group’s nonsequiturs sound as surprisingly grounded as they are. The angry rebuttal Schneider gives during “Planet Claire”, the vague peek into the world of a woman scorned on “Dance This Mess Around”, etc. — every song on this album had at least one emotional or somewhat jarring element that gave the disc its tension. On “Moon”, it’s just all wackiness up and down without any sense of center. There’s a party on the moon with all the other planets showing up, you shouldn’t feel out of place, etc. It’s the start of an inclusionary lyrical trope that the group would go back to time and time again (most notably on “Love Shack”), but even “Rock Lobster” started only slightly off-kilter before going into its delightfully nonsensical throes. Here, there are no level changes in the imagery — it’s all standard-issue weird from the get-go, with no discernible peak.

Yet, this by itself doesn’t make “Moon” a bad song, no. In terms of its quality, it feels like it would actually sound right at home on the fairly confused Whammy!, but when surrounded by so many notable home runs, “Moon” feels like the odd man out, a b-side that snuck its way onto the album’s actual b-side. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with it, one does with it somewhat stuck up for itself more or at least was given a little bit more time inside the songwriting oven. As it stands, it’s only a lesser moment on The B-52’s, but in truth, how could it not be when surrounded by peaks as glorious as these?