Before becoming a fan of independent music, what did you make of the B52s? Depending on when/how you were introduced to the B52s, you may have approached the situation like I did: very confused. In the late-80s, when I first heard “Rock Lobster,” there was no reference point. I was pre-rock music and had no idea what was going on. I didn’t even know they were a pop group and not like a Sharon, Lois and Bram situation.
Little did I also know that they were part of a progressive and avant-garde musical and cultural movement a decade prior. I was introduced to “Rock Lobster” as we were preparing our end-of-summer musical number for the day camp I’d attended the summer leading up to 5th grade. Our camp counselor selected the music and we were all to create sets and costumes of sea creatures, which was an area of focus for this particular day camp. I think I got a hold of a special clear plastic recycling bag (required usage in the early days of residential recycling pickup) and shredded it to be a jellyfish. Other kids cut and painted cardboard boxes into shapes of anemones, sharks, and coral. My mom, who’d attended our evening performance of our song-and-dance number was tickled by the song and seemed to understand what was going on a lot more than I had. Having been born in the late-middle 1940s, she grew up in the era of novelty recordings, so she had a reference point I lacked.
Maybe? I don’t know what the B52s’ motivations were in writing a song about a beach party inspired by something Fred Schneider saw at Atlanta dance club. Actually, now that I type that, I know it’s not that complicated, but I didn’t know it wasn’t that complicated for a long time. I understand that whole scene and what lead up to the B52s’ breakthrough very recently from Audibling Cool Town by Elizabeth Grace Hale, which takes the reader/listener through the history of how a tiny little Georgia college town became a musical and counter-cultural epicenter in the rather conservative late 70s and early 80s. Though seemingly bereft of a political bent as we know it, they were really laying the groundwork for the art of identity expression. I didn’t get it as a kid and a teenager, but the kitsch at the center of the B52s musical and visual brand was in itself a fairly radical statement of feminist and queer liberation.
I next became aware of the B52s and their place in popular culture when MTV started playing the music video for “Love Shack” in a revival context like three years after it was released in 1989. I can’t figure out why this happened, but it enjoyed frequent airplay during my heavy MTV-watching period, c. 1991-1994 and I grew to accept the Bs as a normal part of the pop cultural landscape. It was easier to understand them then, when the kinds of imagery they’d been slinging in mainstream pop culture since 1989 was being normalized through contemporary artists such as Dee Lite and some of the burgeoning alt-rock outfits like Jesus Jones and REM. Then they laid an egg and released “Good Stuff” off the album of the same name without Cindy Wilson and the whole operation went to pieces.
Time marched on. I returned to the B52s in college about the same time I started exploring other punk-adjacent 80s pop outfits, picked up a copy of their self-titled debut (still their best as far as I’m concerned) as well as their greatest hits collection. Those remain the only copies of B52s recordings I have in tangible media, which may make you wonder how “Rock Lobster” ended up so high up on my list.
Fast forward to a scant few years ago on some no-account Friday night, in which Pete and I were watching music videos on YouTube. I wondered whether there was a video for “Rock Lobster” and ran across the version linked here. It’s labeled in the Rhino records’ YouTube channel as the official video for “Rock Lobster,” so you’d think it would be the studio version*, but it is NOT, it is a live performance clocking a staggering 7:06 in length.
*The studio version is 6:49 in length officially, but the single version is 4:56 and there’s an unofficial video floating around the YouTubes that features the single version that looks significantly lower-quality than this one, so it makes sense that this one receives the “official” label. It doesn’t appear that the Bs have their own YouTube channel and their videos seem exclusive to Rhino, which makes absolutely no sense.
This version of and the accompanying video for “Rock Lobster” is my favorite B52s and elevated the Bs from a band I think are cute and funny but of whom I’m not a particular fan, to a significant source of inspiration to me. It’s so gritty, it looks like a 70s movie. Fred Schneider is skinny and serpentine, tireless in his need to move, sporting a mustache very much of its time. Cindy and Kate are wearing wigs that are weird enough to be obviously wigs but not the more flamboyant and colorful beehives they’d be known for later on. Their makeup is outstanding--they would have been right in style in the last five years in an intentionally retro look, but in 1978, it doubtlessly seemed otherworldly (as intended). It also strikes me as amateurish for a stage production, but nobody else was doing this in their time, so they had to figure it out themselves. The same can be said of their almost subtly period attire. They aren’t poufy skirts and don’t sport a loud print or sequins as they would in later incarnations. They look like aliens on the original Star Trek series. Everyone is sweating. The club in which they’re playing is packed and fairly tiny and the crowd is BOUNCING and I can almost feel the floor of the apparent dive bar buckling underneath them. The band and the audience are ONE. Of anything that exists on YouTube from the 70s and early 80s, this is the one where I feel like I’m actually there. These people could be my friends.
The performance itself is stellar and led me, after all these years, to finally understand “Rock Lobster.” And it’s all about Fred’s cowbell. As the song does on studio versions, between verses, it slows down and almost seems to lose enough momentum to fully stop before the signature keyboard riff starts up from the beginning. You’re not sure if you trust this keyboard, but once Fred starts his cowbell again, we’re all on board, having received the signal that WE ARE NOT YET DONE. And then, like a whole other “Rock Lobster” starts up again. Each verse is a different song in and of itself. There’s nothing like it. The best one begins at about 4:29, with Fred, nothing but convincing in its finality starts with the “ROCK LOBSTA! DOWN, DOWN, DOWN, DOWN” and by the time the song grinds to a stop, everyone’s on their knees and you’re sure THIS time, it’s really ending because they’re still winding down at 4:53, when the band snaps to attention and starts again! Then we hit the bridge, delivered with exactly the same amount of energy as they did in verse one. Watching this particular live performance as a performer myself is what finally clicked with me and “Rock Lobster.” It is the most fun you can possibly have as both a performer and an observer.
The lyrics and inspiration for the song are completely irrelevant in the context of this band’s personal approach to a party. Nobody was better. I finally got to see them almost exactly a year ago at the Anthem in DC. We had tickets in the balcony (if you are also 5’2”, you understand why we opted out of the floor) and I was seated next to a self-described DC scene veteran who wouldn’t stop prattling on about everything wrong with each performer’s act (OMD and Berlin opened for the Bs). This almost ruined my night to the point where we actually got up and found somewhere else to stand during the B52s’ set. “They’re just trying to be young again,” said this 60 year-old man who did lights at the 9:30 Club for like 10 minutes in 1984. I checked their ages on Wikipedia after the performance and Kate Pierson is now 72 YEARS OLD, making her a still-impressive 71 years old at the time. At this point in their careers, their costumes and sets probably cost more than my house and during “Rock Lobster,” they had a person wearing a giant lobster costume with them on stage. If I am doing anything 10 percent as cool as that when I’m 71, I would consider it a life well spent.