The B-52s at 40: An Oral History of Their Awesomely Bizarre Beach Party Breakthrough 'Rock Lobster'
On the eve of their 40th anniversary tour, the B-52s reflect on their breakthrough smash that bewitched everyone from John Lennon to the creators of Family Guy
They say that if you give a monkey infinite time with a typewriter, eventually it would produce the complete works of Shakespeare. The same could never happen with “Rock Lobster.” The confluence of influences is too unique to ever occur again in nature. Who would think to blend a Carrollian poem about crustaceans with atonal caterwauling, piercing Farfisa organ stabs, vintage Jersey Shore suntan lotion slogans, and a seriously raunchy riff played on a four-stringed guitar? Such a singular pop concoction could have only emerged out of the beehived heads of the B-52s.
First released in April 1978, the song heralded the group’s arrival on the national scene, taking over radios like an alternate universe Beach Blanket Bingo theme tune beamed to Earth from the Planet Kitsch. It also established the Georgia quintet’s reputation as a beloved groovy-a-go-go party band without parallel, kicking off a stream of hits, albums and concerts that continues to this day. On the eve of their 40th anniversary tour with co-headliners Culture Club, B-52s bandmates Kate Pierson, Fred Schneider and Cindy Wilson look back at their unlikely breakthrough track.
1976. Athens, Georgia. The antebellum metropolis would one day evolve into a major artistic mecca, fostering bands like R.E.M., Widespread Panic and the Indigo Girls, but at the time it was little more than a college town bordered by tracts of farmland. Liberal? Sure. Particularly happening? Not really. Like-minded people needed to stick together — like the future B-52s. Vocalist Cindy Wilson had been raised in Athens, along with her brother, the late guitarist Ricky Wilson, and his high school classmate, drummer Keith Strickland. Lyricist and sprechgesang enthusiast Fred Schneider had moved down from New Jersey to study forestry at the University of Georgia, and another Garden State native, keyboardist and singer Kate Pierson, arrived following an extended European excursion. All five were there for their own unique reasons, yet fervent imaginations and a shared sense of fun brought them together.
Cindy Wilson: It started when we were just hanging out. I was living with Ricky and I’d known Keith Strickland forever. Ricky and Keith had been in Europe for a while hitchhiking and bumming around. When they came back, Ricky and I moved in together. We’d just met Kate and Fred, and I knew Owen Scott, who Kate was going out with.
Kate Pierson: I drifted down there [to Athens]. I had traveled through Europe and I moved down there to do a “back to the land” thing. I had goats and chickens. Then I met the rest of the band and we started our jamming and everything.
Wilson: One night we went out to a Chinese restaurant. We didn’t have much money so we kind of all chipped in to get this gigantic rum drink with a volcano in the middle and a moat around it. It was a very potent rum drink, and we were all drinking it from the straws. The Sterno was going — it was very fun.
Pierson: We couldn’t afford food so we got a Flaming Volcano at Hunan Chinese restaurant. And after that we started jamming.
Wilson: We had lots of great ideas and we were rolling on the floor just laughing. It was just so much fun. We kind of knew something was going on, something was happening. There was a good energy going on.
Pierson: It was basically a band with three singers. That’s not something you plan out but that’s the way the jam went that night. We kept that format, the way we jammed that first night, high on Flaming Volcano. It was one drink — we could only afford one drink — but it must have been pretty powerful. [laughs]
Fred Schneider: We rented a rehearsal space. It was the bloodletting room for an old African-American funeral parlor. There was a part of town called the Hot Corner, which the right-wing religious [groups] managed to do away with — the whole thriving black area that had restaurants and barber shops and everything. We also rehearsed at a place called the Morton Theatre, where Bessie Smith had actually played. It had no electricity so we had to plug into the restaurant next door, and it had no heat. Kate had to play keyboard with gloves on.
Pierson: It’s funny, people think of Athens as music central, but it really had nothing happening. It was a farmer’s town. The university was very separate, and it didn’t really have a student-y downtown. There were two feed stores; there was a farmer’s hardware. There really was barely a music scene. So we weren’t influenced by local music.
Schneider: We brought our own ideas. I had taken creative writing in college and did a book of poetry for my final project because I knew I was dropping out. I was really influenced by the Dada and surrealist writers: John Lennon and his book Spaniard in the Works, Edward Lear — I love Edward Lear. We didn’t really listen to the Top 40 ever. We listened to the Velvet Underground and James Brown. I love Motown; my favorite band of all time is Martha and the Vandellas.
Pierson: A friend of ours had ordered Patti Smith’s single, “Piss Factory.” We were, of course, aware of the Sex Pistols. Because of the [nearby] University of Georgia library, we had checked out pygmy music and had a picnic where we listened to the Aka pygmies. We loved Perez Prado, we listened to [Junior Walker & the All Stars’] “Shotgun,” James Brown. We loved Captain Beefheart.
Wilson: Everybody came from a different place but everything was very creative and open-minded. Also, everybody had probably had taken acid at one time or another, so we were kind of in the same stream. [laughs]
Pierson: Most of the way we wrote was by jamming together. Sometimes we’d all swap instruments. We had Brian Eno’s cards, Oblique Strategies. We used those in the studio sometimes. But mostly Keith and Ricky did the instrumentation, and Fred and Cindy would jam on vocals. And because I played keyboard I wound up playing the bass parts and the keyboard parts.
Schneider: We really put a lot into our songs. It would take us a long time, and it was so hard for us to edit because we felt we had so many good parts. So a lot of our early songs were really long. We didn’t fade songs back in the early days. It was punky rock — there wasn’t really New Wave yet. We were sorta like late punk.
Wilson: “Rock Lobster” started with Fred’s wonderful images. The story was, he went to a disco in Atlanta and it was real rinky dinky and they were showing slides of strange things like lobsters and dip. It sounds like a trip, to tell you the truth, but he said that it actually happened. Fred is a wordsmith, you know? He loves these playful images and words. So that was one of the first songs that we did.
Schneider: I went to this disco in Atlanta called 2001 and they had no money for a light show I guess, so they had slides of puppies and babies and hot dogs and lobsters on a grill. And I thought, “Rock lobster! Rock this, rock that, rock lobster!”
Pierson: He saw crustaceans and puppies and things projected on the wall, so he had an inspiration that “Rock Lobster” would be a great song title. Fred used to get stoned and he and Keith would jam on poetry. This was something that Fred had worked into a little poem, his “Rock Lobster” lyrics.
Schneider: I never sang in high school or college or anything. The lyrics I wrote, I sort of started by reciting and gradually started singing more…There was this ridiculous commercial: “Pass the butter pleaseeeee.” Some tanning butter.
Pierson: Meanwhile, Ricky Wison was sitting in this house that we jammed in, that he and Cindy rented. We all hung out there and were working on “Rock Lobster” when Keith Strickland walked in. Ricky had just been playing something on guitar and he said, “Keith, I wrote the stupidest guitar line.” [demonstrates] One of the best riffs of all time to this day! … Joni Mitchell was a big inspiration, especially to Ricky. He was inspired by her open tuning, and “Rock Lobster” had two strings missing. So Ricky was really playing this riff as two parts, which is still pretty mysterious to me. He was just playing the two parts, one on two strings and one on the other two, but he made it work.
Wilson: I remember coming home from Kress’ luncheonette counter and Ricky was in the living room working on some music. I came through the door and he was snickering to himself. And I said, “What’s going on?” He said, “I just wrote the stupidest riff.” I said, “What?!” He said, “Yeah, listen to this.” And it was [demonstrates]. We both laughed. But Ricky’s guitar playing made it a powerful song, musically.
Pierson: Keith would play instrumentation and Fred would do a poem. And Ricky had that riff, so we put it together. Then we jammed. Cindy and I added the fish sounds — [demonstrates inimitable ululation] — that sound Cindy does at the end. But we also incorporated some [Yoko] Ono-isms in our fish sound. She was really an inspiration to us. We listened to Elephant’s Memory and we were into Yoko, genuinely. So that was like an homage to Yoko. It was just all out of jamming, because nobody would sit down and go, “Hey, let’s add Yoko Ono fish sounds.”
Wilson: When you’re jamming and hook onto the stream of consciousness, it gets kind of mystic in a way. Kate and I didn’t do the normal harmonies, we were singing out some really crazy stuff.
Pierson: We hit a lot of intervals — thirds, fourths and fifths. A lot of harmonies are very parallel but our harmonies dip and intertwine and I think there’s an Appalachian influence, too. Our harmonies were derived by jamming, and when we’d jam the harmonies would intertwine. Sometimes I’d start the higher harmonies and I’d dip down and Cindy would dip up! So we would do it just like the jam. We wouldn’t change it and say, “Well, it makes more sense if I stay on the high part.” We would actually just do it the way the jam was and that lent a unique quality. Sometimes when we jam, we’d do it on cassette tape. I still have these tapes — though they’re not very good quality.
Schneider: After miles of tape and jamming, because it would take us a long time to write songs, “Rock Lobster” emerged at six minutes and 40 seconds. [laughs].
Pierson: Our first show, where we performed it, was in 1977 on Valentine’s Day. We had maybe five songs that we just repeated. We had percussion on a tape and performed with this tape recorder. We were ahead of our time.
Schneider: We knew we would be a party band early on, because the first gig we did was a party that my friends had. We didn’t have a band name yet but I said I was in a band and they wanted us to play. So I went back and everyone said, “Yeah, let’s do it.”
Pierson: We were really doing this for our own fun and we thought, “Well, maybe someone will like it.” And it turned out, when we first played, our friends just went crazy.
Wilson: Everybody was dancing. The house party was in one of these old Victorian-type houses. You start dancing and the whole house starts to sway! So everybody was dancing and it was a totally cool scene. I met my future husband and started my career the same night at that party. The planets were aligned pretty good. It was awesome.
The B-52s first recorded “Rock Lobster” in the spring of 1978 as a seven-inch single for DB Records, an independent Atlanta label. A first run of 2,000 copies were pressed — they sold out almost instantly.
Schneider: The first version is crisper and pokier. Commercial radio wouldn’t touch it, but the independent single turned out to be, I think, the biggest selling independent single that year.
Wilson: It was the DB version that had “52 Girls” on the B-side. That’s what got our name out there. It sold us in the markets in Manhattan and the New York area and different cities. There also was word of mouth. As soon as we put the single out there, we went on a small little tour and played in Minneapolis, Cleveland, even Toronto — just that whole Northeast thing. And we were feeling things starting to happen. I remember going up to Hurrah in New York City. We were really green! The best we were hoping for was to play for people and to go up to New York.
Pierson: Friends of ours pioneered up there. A friend of ours moved up there from Athens. She lived up on First Avenue or Avenue C. We went to a party at her house and the front door was smashed in and there were candles — she didn’t have electricity. It was scary in parts, but you could live there. You could afford to live someplace and be an artist.
Schneider: It was dead from 23rd Street down. Broadway was dark. It wasn’t exactly safe. You had to have someone watch your car, because we drove up in Ricky and Cindy’s parents’ station wagon. We stayed at the Iroquois, and at the time you’d get a two-bedroom suite for 60 bucks a night, back when that area was pretty iffy. We were pretty iffy, but we were excited.
Pierson: There were all these great clubs. There was a scene buzzing — the whole punk scene and New Wave scene with bands playing all the time. You would hear of a band and go listen to them because everyone was talking about different bands to go see. When we first started to play, it was the whole punk thing and people were leaning against the walls with their arms folded in leather jackets. But then when we played, people started dancing. We kind of started this whole New Wave dance craze. In clubs like Hurrah, Danceteria, and Mudd Club, people would be dancing and dancing. That was such a fun scene. Lots of downtown artists like Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf were mixing with musicians, and it was just a very cross-pollinated scene.
Schneider: We did some literary festival and William Burroughs showed up. So did Frank Zappa. And then David Bowie came to one of our shows, and that was like the thrill of a lifetime. And Chris [Franz] and Tina [Weymouth] from Talking Heads came to see us, and Debbie Harry and Chris Stein [of Blondie], they promoted us when they went on tour, because “Heart of Glass” came out and they really became huge.
Pierson: It was such a whirlwind because we recorded our first song in Athens, and then we played in New York City at Max’s Kansas City and then CBGBs. We built our momentum going back and forth. We would go up there and play, then just drive right back to Athens and practice and maybe write another couple of songs. And then we’d go back up to New York City and play again! By 1979 we’d created this word of mouth interest and fan base, so people were coming to see us. We were playing at Hurrah in New York and we looked out the windows and Ricky said, “What are all those people doing out there?” And they said, “That’s the line for your show!”
Wilson: We had just done a sound check and looked out the window of the club and there was this line around the block. So we knew something was going on and we said, “Holy moly!” Ricky was real shy and he got so nervous. We were all kind of like, “Oh my God!” And they were going to shoot a film of us there doing “Rock Lobster.” We were so excited. It was in the early days and there was all that going on.
Pierson: Suddenly it exploded. The record companies started coming down to Athens, and of course all we thought was, “Oh, they’re just going to take us to dinner.” We finally signed with Chris and Tina’s manager, who then got us signed to Warner Brothers and Island Records. Chris Blackwell produced the record — we recorded at his studio and stayed at his house. He owned the label, so it was one-stop shopping there.
Schneider: Chris allowed us just to set up and we played live, all mic’d. He just wanted to capture how we sounded live, but [engineer] Robert Ash did most of the recording. It only took three weeks [to record the debut album]. We had a lot of downtime and Chris was a great host and everything —fabulous house. But Robert did most of the work and then Chris would come in and see how things were going.
Pierson: To his credit, he sorta stepped back and said, “I want you to sound exactly like you do live.” Even though Ricky could play guitar better on “52 Girls,” I used to play that second part, so he wanted me to play that. We would do what we did onstage because he wanted it to sound like us — very sparse. And we were really kind of disappointed when we heard the final record because we wanted it to sound more. But that was a really genius move on his part to realize that our sound was so unique and eccentric and sparse. It really captured us.
Schneider: After we heard it we thought, “My God, this sounds so rinky dink!” I guess that’s how we sounded, but I thought we had a bigger sound than that. That’s why I came up with putting “Play It Loud” on the front [label]. The name of the album isn’t “Play It Loud,” it was just “You should play this loud!” There’s not much reverb or anything. It’s pretty much in your face.
Pierson: We were freaked out: “It sounds so sparse! We don’t sound good!” We wanted bigger and better! Then it took a while for us to realize, “This is how we sound and this is the gift we have.” We had an eccentric, spartan sound. You could hear everything almost separated; everything was kind of up front. It wasn’t filled in with a lot of reverb. You could hear Ricky’s guitar, and it was biting. The Farfisa wailed. Also, having three vocalists, you can’t have too much going on because there’s all that interplay. So it didn’t have a lot of special sauce on it.
The second — and best-known — version of “Rock Lobster” would serve as the lead single on the B-52’s self-titled debut, released in July 1979. The radio edit ultimately became their first entry on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at number 56. While not exactly a run-away smash, the song earned favorable reviews. Perhaps more importantly, the band’s singular sound, eye-catching fashion and infectious exuberance left a strong impression on all who encountered them. When the group was offered a spot on the hippest show on television, it gave them instant access to the mainstream.
Wilson: Saturday Night Live was what really got us out there on the national scene. I keep hearing from fans when I’m out on my solo tour: “Yeah, Saturday Night Live, I remember seeing that when I was a little kid and it blew my mind.” That was pretty fun. People thought we were from a different planet.
Pierson: I remember Saturday Night Live; one thing is that Ricky suggested that none of us smile. Not that we were ever going to smile because we were so nervous! None of us were going to crack a smile. The nervousness translated into this sort of attitude when people saw us. I think we look very alien. People were like, “Where are they from?” Athens could have been Mars to a lot of people. It looked really different, but we were nervous. We didn’t smile or seem relaxed, so our dancing was really stiff and our faces had this punk attitude. So really it was a nervous default, it wasn’t anything we tried to put on.
Schneider: I think we were all paralyzed with fear. I know I was! We were all paralyzed, because we’d never done TV before. Even doing radio was nerve-wracking. Nowadays everyone’s camera-ready, whereas back then it was like, “Oh my God, TV!?” We probably look nervous, but we just did what we did. I know Terri Garr wasn’t too thrilled with it because she went on Johnny Carson a couple of nights later and said, “And there was this band called the B-52s and they did this song called ‘Rock Lobster’…” She was Miss Lite FM anyway. And Johnny said, “To each his own!”
Pierson: Our motto was, “We’re gonna do this as long as we have fun.” And not all of it was fun. It isn’t easy to maintain that, but we had already written most of the second album, luckily, because we’d been going back and forth to from New York City to Athens all those years. So that got us past the sophomore slump.
Schneider: [The label] knew what they got is what they got. There wasn’t any way that we’d conform to anything.
Wilson: We had a little bit of people trying to tell us what to do, but that didn’t really fly in B-52 world. [laughs] We had to be true to ourselves. We are what we are, and that’s what makes us kind of unique and interesting. I always kind of thought of us as an art band.
Schneider: Back then they had these things called Abrams [audience research] stations. I have a paper from one —“If you want to appeal to people who drive Mercedes-Benz and Cadillac, you play Linda Ronstadt. If you want to appeal to people who borrow their friend’s cars, play B-52s, DEVO…” That was the “Rock Lobster” era in the very early ‘80s.
Pierson: We followed our own path. We realized that we were different and we were just going to do what we do, and jam and keep our own kind of pace. We didn’t bow to the pace that a record label would want. We took breaks and took time to write because of our jamming process. We didn’t intend to be “number one” or be on the charts. We were just amazed that people liked us.
One of these people was John Lennon. The former Beatle had spent the latter half of the ’70s completely removed from the music industry. He preferred instead to spend his days as a self-described “house husband,” baking bread and caring for his young son, Sean. For nearly four years he barely touched a guitar and largely ignored contemporary music. But in the summer of 1980, while on a rare vacation apart from wife Yoko Ono, he heard a song that reignited his creative spark.
“I was at a dance club one night in Bermuda. Upstairs, they were playing disco, and downstairs I suddenly heard ‘Rock Lobster’ by the B-52’s for the first time,” Lennon told Rolling Stone in one of the last interviews before his death on Dec. 8, 1980. With surreal lyrics that read like a lost verse from “I Am the Walrus,” plus Wilson and Pierson’s Plastic Ono Band-style primal screams, it’s easy to see the attraction. “It sounds just like Yoko’s music, so I said to meself, ‘It’s time to get out the old axe and wake the wife up!’ We wrote about 25 songs during those three weeks,” he added. The result was Double Fantasy, the first collaborative album with his soulmate — and the last album he released during his lifetime.
Wilson: The word is that John and Sean were in the Caribbean someplace and “Rock Lobster” came on. They heard the Yoko scream and John said, “Yoko, we gotta start recording again!” That’s the story. And we, of course, were thrilled to hear it.
Pierson: I was a huge Beatles fan. I still have a button that says, “I love John.” John Lennon was my idol, and to hear him say that he heard us and was inspired to write Double Fantasy, I couldn’t have been more blown away. It was just incredible that he even knew about us, let alone inspired him. It didn’t even sink in until I read the interview. Before that we had just sort of heard about it. I think we were away on tour and people said, “Oh, John said such and such,” and we were like, “What?!” It really didn’t sink in until a little bit later and I actually read the words. It was incredible.
Wilson: I never got to meet John, but I remember where I was when he passed. We were playing in Paris when he got shot, and it was like Kennedy getting shot. It felt like that. But later on we were so happy that we influenced or inspired him. I don’t know if this is the truth or not, but my gut feeling is that he wanted to be playful again. Music is supposed to be creative and playful — you enjoy it! I think that’s where he came from originally. He’s one of my favorite artists. So is Yoko.
Pierson: Yoko was such an inspiration to us. This really hit John Lennon as something to do together with her. I love Yoko’s songs on Double Fantasy, too.
Schneider: I love Yoko’s work — we all did — so it was just a thrill. Then we got to meet Yoko. She’s become very friendly and I see her a couple times a year.
Wilson: She came onstage and helped us on our 25th anniversary. She came up onstage and helped us do the sounds, which was such a treat. It was so cool! I was like, “Oh my God! I’m right next to Yoko Ono!”
Pierson: It was sort of the coming together of the dream. When she got there onstage and started doing her amazing artistic wailing, we stood in awe. Fred and I went to her birthday party years later, and we were wailing there too, and she said, “Wow, you guys really go for it.” Maybe we were wailing a little too much, but we had so much fun. She’s a big inspiration.
Schneider: So it’s full circle or something. Someone influences you, and you influence them, or share a similar sensibility. “Rock Lobster” does have a pretty surreal story.
More than a surreal story, it has a permanent place in the pantheon of pop. In 2004 “Rock Lobster” was voted as one of Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, clocking in at a formidable number 147 (beating out Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” and “Me and Bobby McGee” sung by Janis Joplin). Today it lives on as a radio mainstay, a soundtrack staple, and one of the B-52’s signature tunes.
Wilson: I’ve heard even Prince did a homage to the riff later on. It was so much fun to hear. “Rock Lobster” just keeps on doing it. It pops up in the doggonest ways in movies. I think it was in a sex scene [in Knocked Up] at some point. [laughs] And Family Guy, of course! That was hilarious.
Pierson: When we play that song, it just does something electric and primal to people. They just go berserk. We play “Rock Lobster” and a spontaneous mosh pit happens. Not on some of our other songs, but this is a mosh pit-inspiring song! It’s a strange song, and it’s been dismissed. I’ve heard it being dismissed as, “Oh, it’s just a list and it’s stupid and it had inane lyrics.” But if you think about it, it has references to “boys in bikinis, girls on surfboards,” so it has all of these references to kind of sexual role-play. And environmental things, possibly. You can read a lot of things into it. It tweaks your mind.