Transcript 150–Rock Lobster

NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.


Hey, Cuz! Welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs. And today, we’re dining on some Rock Lobster.  


Hi there! I’m Claude Call. I’ve got trivia right after this.

[CFR Promo]

Mike and I got together on an episode, which you can hear on his show as episode 15, or on my episode after next, that’ll be number 152 if you’re not listening in real time. If you’re a fan of Gordon Lightfoot, you’re really going to enjoy that show. And if you’re not, listen anyway and you may gain some deeper appreciation for his material. I know this: there are few things more gratifying than getting a message from someone who says, “I don’t like this song but the story you told about it was interesting.” So check it out, it’s Carefree Highway Revisited in your favorite podcatcher.


Since we’re covering a B-52s song today, let’s do a little B-52s trivia. There’s a song that appeared on the initial pressing of their 1983 album Whammy that doesn’t appear on subsequent releases. What song disappeared from the Whammy album, and why?  Believe it or not, there’s a weird little hint that you get during the show. However…

I’ll have the answer to that question, and a little bit more, of course, near the end of the program.

I remember watching Saturday Night Live as a high schooler the night the B-52s first premiered on the show in February of 1980. And the thing about their performance that I remember best is that it was just so…stark. It had such an underproduced feel, and it was kind of weird, and the girls had those beehive hairdos, and I was fascinated by all of this.

And as it happened, “Rock Lobster” was that first B-52s song I saw, and heard, that night. But let’s back up just a little bit more.

The B-52s hail from Athens, Georgia, during a time when that seemed to be where a lot of bands came from. But while most of those acts emerged from Athens, siblings Cindy and Ricky Wilson, and drummer Keith Strickland actually grew up there. Fred Schneider and Kate Pierson had each come down from their own little orbits in New Jersey for different reasons, but because of mutual friends they began to spend time together. One night, according to Cindy Wilson, the five of them all went to a Chinese restaurant together and because they didn’t have a ton of money, they pooled together what they had to get a gigantic rum drink with a Sterno-based volcano in the middle. And because they’d spent their money on this drink, they couldn’t afford food. So they were just having themselves a great time and later on that night they just started jamming together.

One evening, as the B’s themselves tell the story, Schneider had gone to a disco in Atlanta called 2001, and it was kind of a low-end place, so because they didn’t have a light show, they were projecting slides of strange things on the walls, like puppies and babies and lobsters on the grill, and hot dogs. So he starts thinking “Rock this, rock that…rock Lobster!”

Now, according to Kate Pierson, Ricky Wilson was sitting around the house just noodling around on his guitar when Keith Strickland walked in. Wilson said, “Keith, I wrote the stupidest guitar line,” and played what’s now one of rock’s better-known riffs.


And the crazy thing is, when he was doing it, he’d recently lost two strings on his guitar, so he’s playing it as two parts; one on two strings and one on the other two. So Fred Schneider had this odd little poem that he’s speak-singing, Ricky Wilson has this four-stringed riff, and he and Keith Strickland started jamming. Then Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson start in with the fish sounds. However: the B’s were big fans of Yoko Ono, genuinely, and they put a little bit of a Yoko spin on the fish sounds as homage to her.

Now, there are two versions of the song out there. The first one came out in 1978 on DB records, and as you can hear, it’s a lot faster and a little more lo-fi than their second recording which came out a year later. You might also notice that in addition to the lower overall quality, there’s no bass being played on the record. The second single from 1979, from their debut album, runs 6:49 on the album and it’s cut down to 4:52 for the single, and cut further, down to 3:57 for the radio airplay. The bass on the second version is provided by Kate Pierson’s Korg synthesizer.

Now, here’s the funny part: remember how I said that when I first saw the B-52s on TV, I thought they sounded sparse? Well, as it turns out, that was their opinion of the overall sound of that first album. They recorded it and when they played it back, that was their first reaction as well: they sounded sparse. But they decided that “sparse” was going to be the hallmark of their sound. And it did catch on, in the sense that they did gather enough fans to catch the attention of Saturday Night Live, which at the time was probably the hippest show on television. It pushed sales of the album, and the single, and while it didn’t exactly burn up the charts, it did peak at Number 56 on the Billboard Hot 100. Having said that, it was a total smash in Canada, making it all the way to the top of the RPM Singles chart, and it also reached the Top 40 in New Zealand and the UK.

But there’s one fan of the song, and the group, that bears special attention. Former Beatle John Lennon had spent close to four years completely withdrawn from the music industry. After the birth of his boy Sean, he spent his time as a self-described “house husband,” baking bread and taking care of the boy. But in the summer of 1980, while he was in a dance club in Bermuda, he noticed that upstairs in the club they were playing disco, but downstairs, they were playing “Rock Lobster.” Lennon told Rolling Stone Magazine that he heard it for the first time that night. The surreal lyrics and the warbling screams of the fish noises reminded him of Yoko’s music—and with good reason! So he decided it was time to break out his guitar and get back in the studio. Lennon said over a three week period he and Yoko wrote about 25 songs, some of which became the Double Fantasy album, the last one he’d release during his lifetime.

Now, of course the band was thrilled not only to have inspired John Lennon to get back into the studio, but to get the opportunity to meet their own inspiration—a kind of full-circle thing. In fact, when the B’s did a 25th anniversary show, Yoko Ono joined them onstage. Here’s a clip of that show. As they get to the “down! Down! Break, Schneider introduces Yoko and she begins singing with them a few moments later.


Now, the story about “Rock Lobster” inspiring John Lennon to get back in the studio might sound like the stuff of urban legend to you, but Yoko herself confirmed it in a 2013 interview with Songfacts Dot Com. She said he thought that they could put together an album with her as an equal partner and they wouldn’t get the same amount of flack that they got up until then. And I think that’s generally true for Double Fantasy; there was still a little bit of “why is she on the record anyway?” going on, but I’d also argue that she made some adjustments to make her music a little more accessible, and there was much less animosity.

As far as covers of the song, There are maybe a dozen of them out there, in a bunch of different genres, from rockabilly, to heavy metal to Hawaiian Tiki style. But one of the band’s favorites? You can’t get on a record, or a CD, and it’s not the entire song. It appears in a fourth-season episode of the show Family Guy, titled “The Cleveland-Loretta Quagmire.”


And finally, it’s worth noting that the band Panic! At the Disco sampled the riff for their 2016 song “Don’t Threaten Me With a Good Time. Panic’s frontman Brendan Urie is a huge fan of the B-52s and when the sample cleared the legal process, he was a very happy camper indeed.



And now it’s time to answer our trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you about the song that disappeared from the B-52s album Whammy.


That track would be “Don’t Worry,” which was a tribute to—guess who! Yoko Ono! In fact, it was originally recorded for a tribute album to Yoko for her 50th birthday. John Lennon supposedly started the project and does appear on the album in a track that first appeared on Double Fantasy, but he died before its release in 1984. At any rate, the track wasn’t used so they added it to their own album Whammy. Now, while it wasn’t a cover in the true sense of the word, they gave some credit to Yoko Ono in the liner notes because it was inspired by her 1971 song “Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mommy’s Only Looking For a Hand in the Snow)”. What they didn’t realize, unfortunately, that in doing this they had to give royalties to Yoko. So when Yoko’s lawyers found out—and I need to stress that this was their action, not hers—when the lawyers found out that they’d done this without consulting them or Yoko, they demanded huge amounts of money, enough that the band nearly went broke. Now, Yoko was always a fan of the band and so far as I know maintains good relations with them, so it’s no hard feelings there. The B52s agreed to replace the track with “Moon 83” on future pressings. “Moon 83” is a remix of their earlier song “There’s a Moon in the Sky (Called the Moon”), which was the B-side of “Legal Tender.” Weirdly enough, the Swedish pressing of the album doesn’t give any credit to Yoko, so the album remained in print as-is in Sweden.


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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when we take another look at Christmas songs that don’t get the attention they used to.

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