"Pass the tanning butter!" The making of an unlikely surf-rock hit

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1978: an offbeat quintet from Athens, Georgia create an unlikely surf-rock hit. “Yeah, this was the dangerous one… We had to stop shows because plaster was falling from the ceiling!”

Originally published in Uncut’s May 2015 issue

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Even in the melting pot of the American new wave scene, The B-52s’ debut single stood out. Equal parts funny, weird and artfully avant-garde, “Rock Lobster” is still the greatest nonsensical six-and-a-half-minute psychedelic surf-rock song about marine life. “Well, there’s not any songs like it,” laughs vocalist Fred Schneider. The quintet bonded over a flaming volcano cocktail in a Chinese restaurant in Athens, Georgia, in late 1976, and quickly pieced together the song that helped secure them an audience on New York’s alternative scene.

“Nothing with the band was ever thought out or calculated,” says drummer Keith Strickland today. “Even the way we dressed was just how we dressed when we went to parties before the band started. I think that’s what made it work, ’cos it was just who we were.”

Formed from an open-tuned riff written by the group’s late guitarist Ricky Wilson and wry sprechgesang poetry from Schneider, all topped off with raucous fish impressions from Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson, “Rock Lobster” even has the honour of having sparked John Lennon’s return to the studio in the late ’70s. Recognising Yoko Ono’s influence on Cindy’s wild screams, Lennon became convinced the music world was now ready for him and his wife, and swiftly began work on Double Fantasy. “We started out as a party band,” says Schneider, “and we all had a good sense of humour. But we don’t do our songs in a funny way, we want to kick ass. We want to rock.”

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KEITH STRICKLAND (drums): I’d been friends with Ricky since we were 16 in high school. I would play his guitar sometimes, but I would often break a string, and instead of replacing it I’d just retune the guitar to some open tuning. This was much to Ricky’s annoyance… I said, “Try playing it like this.” And he finally tried it. The next day I walked in, and he’s playing the guitar and laughing. I go, “What’s so funny?” and he says, “I’ve just written the most stupid guitar riff ever.” And he plays the “Rock Lobster” riff. He knew it was good, but he also thought it was funny – that was Ricky’s sense of humour.

FRED SCHNEIDER (vocals, songwriting): I first heard the riff when we started jamming. I’d had the idea for the title – I was at this disco in Atlanta, called 2001 Disco, and instead of a light show they had a really cheap, cheesy slideshow. They’d show slides of puppies, lobsters on the grill, hamburgers, children… I mean, it wasn’t a pervy place [laughs], but it definitely wasn’t an expensive, deluxe place. And I just thought “rock this, rock that… rock lobster”. So we went into our studio, which was an unheated bloodletting room in the African-American part of town, in a funeral parlour.

STRICKLAND: I would just jam along with Ricky. Kate wasn’t playing bass on the keyboard yet, so it was just drums and guitar; very White Stripes!

SCHNEIDER: The way we worked was to jam for a long time. If we thought we had something, Ricky and Keith would take it back on their tape recorder, and then they’d come back and play it for us, and show us parts and we’d see if it worked for us. I just thought, “Okay, so this is the title, imagine something and then just start singing about it…” Sometimes pot would help, too [laughs]. It just gradually grew and then it wound up at six and a half minutes long…

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