Many B-52's songs have fun, whimsical lyrics, and this is one of them. It's about a beach party where someone encounters a rock lobster (which is also known as a crayfish, but that wouldn't sound as good), and hijinx ensue.
The B-52's Fred Schneider stopped eating crustaceans at the age of four after going crabbing with family in New Jersey and watching them being boiled alive. He explained in a video he narrated for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that he got the idea for this song when he was at an Atlanta disco where a projector displayed images of lobsters on a grill. He thought, "Rock this, rock that... rock lobster!" The band jammed on the title and "Rock Lobster" was created.
John Lennon heard this song playing in a Bermuda disco in 1979. It reminded him of Yoko Ono's music so much that it inspired him to return to the recording studio after a five-year retirement. The B52s' guitarist Keith Strickland recalled to Q
magazine that at the end of the song, "Cindy does this scream that was inspired by Yoko Ono. John heard it in some club in the Bahamas, and the story goes that he calls up Yoko and says, Get the axe out – they're ready for us again! Yoko has said that she and John were listening to us in the weeks before he died."
Yoko confirmed the story in her 2013 Songfacts interview
. She recalled: "Listening to the B-52's, John said he realized that my time had come. So he could record an album by making me an equal partner and we won't get flack like we used to up to then."
This was the first single the B-52's released. They recorded it on a shoestring budget at Mountain Studios in Atlanta in February 1978, and released the track as a single on DB Records in April. Danny Beard, who owned the label, recalls spending about $700 on the single in a session where a key on Pierson's Farfisa organ didn't work. The recording was rough but effective: it earned airplay and established the band as quirky, innovative, thrift-store punk rockers with pop appeal. Warner Bros. Records signed them and had them record a full album, complete with a new version of "Rock Lobster," in Nassau, Bahamas with producer Chris Blackwell. The album was issued in 1979 along with the single, which reached its US chart peak of #56 in May 1980. In the UK, where the band initially had a stronger following, it reached #37 in August 1979. When the song was re-issued in the UK in 1986, it reached #12.
The song has a vintage feel thanks to the Farfisa organ played by Kate Pierson and the surf guitar sound Ricky Wilson created, both throwbacks to '60s music.
Fred Schneider and B-52's guitarist Ricky Wilson were listed as the writers on this track, but at some point the other three band members - Kate Pierson, Cindy Wilson and Keith Strickland - were added to the credits.
In 1985, Wilson became one of the first celebrities to die from AIDS-related causes. He was 32.
This song has one of the most famous bass lines of all time, but it wasn't done with a bass guitar. Guitarist Ricky Wilson came up with the riff, and Kate Pierson played it on Korg SB-100 Synthe-Bass, a little machine with a big sound that can also be heard on early Soft Cell recordings, including "Tainted Love
The original 1978 version runs 4:37; the album version released in 1979 goes 6:49, with the single edited down to 4:52.
Fred Schneider mentions several unusual sea creatures near the end of the song, including a narwhal, which is a rarely seen whale-like creature with a horn that makes it look like some kind of aquatic unicorn (one shows up in cartoon form in the movie Elf). The the best of our knowledge, "Rock Lobster" is the only Hot 100 hit where a narwhal shows up in the lyric.
Other creatures mentioned: sting ray, manta ray, jellyfish, dogfish, catfish, sea robin, piranha, bikini whale. As Schneider sings, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson approximate their calls with some impressive vocalizations.
This reached #1 on the Canadian charts in 1980, following Blondie's "Call Me
" and preceding The Pretenders' "Brass In Pocket
." It held the pole position for one week.
This is one of the great cowbell songs; drummer Keith Strickland is credited with playing it on the recording, but when performed live, Fred Schneider would play it.
A video was made for this song in 1979, combining stock footage with various band antics. MTV was still two years away, but the video helped promote the song throughout Europe. The group got their star turn on MTV a decade later, when "Love Shack
" became one of the most popular clips on the network.
The song appeared in the movies One-Trick Pony (1980), Lobster Man from Mars (1989) and Knocked Up (2007); it was used in episodes of My Name Is Earl ("Joy in a Bubble" - 2008) and Glee ("The Hurt Locker: Part 1" - 2015).
The song is also a favorite on the show Family Guy, where the character Peter Griffin performs it on guitar in two episodes, first in a 2005 episode where he plays it (inappropriately) to cheer up Cleveland, then in a 2011 episode where it plays to a lobster with the lyrics changed to "Iraq Lobster."