Many B-52s 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.
Fred Schneider of The B-52s stopped eating crustaceans at the age of four after going crabbing with his family in New Jersey and watching the crabs get 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 called 2001 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.
Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson's fish noises on this song are an homage to Yoko Ono, whose work is filled with these kind of screams and blurts. Yoko performed these parts when she joined the band at their 25th Anniversary concert at Irving Plaza in New York City on February 4, 2002.
The Yoko Ono influence on this song was clear to John Lennon, who heard it playing in a Bermuda disco in 1979. It reminded him of Yoko's music so much that it inspired him to return to the recording studio after a five-year retirement, resulting in the 1980 album Double Fantasy
, Lennon's last before he was murdered.
The B-52s' 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-52s, 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-52s 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-52s 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 appears in cartoon form in the movie Elf). To 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, Wilson and Pierson approximate their calls with some impressive vocalizations.
Speaking with the Toronto radio station Boom 97.3, Fred Schneider explained how the song came together: "We jammed on it for hours and hours and miles and miles of reel-to-reel tape. Keith and Ricky went and spliced ideas together, brought them to Kate, Cindy and I, and we put in our six cents and we came up with this six minute and forty-eight second song. We have a hard time editing ourselves, but who cares?"
"We always just did things our own way," he continued. "You don't have any preconceived notions. I was writing lyrics with Keith on the way into the studio, but then I changed my lines and stuff and then the girls added their noises at the end."
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.
Kent - Toronto, Canada
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 by 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."
The B-52s performed this on Saturday Night Live, January 26, 1980. This gave the song a big boost; in May, it reached its US peak of #56.
Ricky Wilson didn't have high expectations for the riff when he came up with it. His sister Cindy Wilson told the CBC
: "I came home one day, and Ricky was just working on his guitar, and he was just laughing to himself. He says, 'I just made up the stupidest riff there ever was.'"
Panic! at the Disco sampled the famous "Rock Lobster" riff on their 2016 track "Don't Threaten Me With A Good Time
." Panic! frontman Brendon Urie is a big fan of the B-52s; he was thrilled when he found out the sample cleared.