It’s safe to say that none of us were cool in high school. Or middle school. Or college, honestly. Maybe some of us were more popular, but look back at yourself then. Maybe you were the most popular kid in school, but you were still a weird, confused teenager.
Most of us still aren’t cool, but it doesn’t matter so much now. Part of that is getting more comfortable with what you like and not worrying too much about what that says about you. Like a lot of people, I spent large chunks of my youth pretending I didn’t like things that made me happy and pretending to like things that made me uncomfortable. Some people never get over that. Some do. I still struggle with it in my forties. It’s a battle, and I think it really begins right around the time we hit puberty.
It’s a strange time. Suddenly you’re a person, but you’re a weird person because you’re not fully formed. And some part of you recognizes that. And we don’t know enough yet to know that we’re always going to be works in progress, and that a lot of the adults trying to instruct us never got too far down that road themselves. And the fact that you don’t know who you are yet doesn’t feel like a natural part of the learning process. Not to me, at least. To me, it felt like a failure.
But there are things out there that let you open the door on yourself and embrace that part of you that doesn’t know if it’s safe to come out. The part that’s scared to say that you like what you like.
“Rock Lobster” told me that I liked stuff that was weird—probably because I was weird—and that was just fine.
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“Rock Lobster” is a song that speaks to the inner dork in all of us. It leans so hard into its own strangeness without ever losing its sense of fun that it sweeps you right along, even though the part of you that wants to be cool is violently protesting. What the hell are those bizarre animal noises? Why do the lyrics make no sense? And why am I still having fun?
This is a song for that part of my brain that thinks joke shops and whoopee cushions are a gas. The part that wants to pull over for roadside attractions like the world’s biggest ball of twine. Simply put, it’s an incredibly cool song as long as I’m able to let the weirdo in me out long enough to enjoy it.
The early days. (photo: George Dubose)
The B-52’s came into my world in the summer of 1989, when “Love Shack” started dominating every radio in the country. You couldn’t go anywhere without hearing it that year. It’s a song that’s always resonated for me with the sound of summer, and it was a track that pretty much anyone could enjoy.
I was ten, and I assumed the song came from a brand new band. But the B-52’s had over a decade of history in the music business when that single, and the accompanying album Cosmic Thing, dropped. The album wasn’t their breakthrough, but their comeback following the devastating early death of guitarist Ricky Wilson. The band had just reformed the previous year, and came through with such a raucous energy and bubble gum joy that it was be easy to mistake them for a shiny new group, rather than a tight ensemble of veterans finally getting their due.
“Love Shack” is a great tune, and an easy one to access. “Rock Lobster,” on the other hand, makes you ask a little more about yourself.
The two songs share a great rock and roll feeling and a huge sense of fun. But the fun on “Rock Lobster” is far more demented. The main riffs cross Ricky Wilson’s surf guitar with Kate Pierson’s organ riffs that sound like Ray Manzarak rewrote the score for Dracula. Then there’s Fred Schneider’s spoken/sung lyrics and the rising alien doo-wop of Pierson and Cindy Wilson’s backing vocals. It’s wild and oddball and great fun. And then shit gets really weird.
The second half rides on Wilson’s driving guitar as Schneider’s description of the beach party gets augmented by high pitched animal sounds from Pierson and Wilson.
Watch out for that piranha!
AY AY AY AY AY AY AY AY WOOOOOOO!!!
There goes a narwhal!
AY YOU AY YOU!
And it’s all too freakin bizarre. It’s Salvador Dali on a surfboard. It’s Frankie and Annette on mescaline.
I absolutely adore it.
There’s a hazard in launching on a song this unique. Like the song, you risk being a one-off. Your band might never get that magic or that energy back again. I’m always impressed by bands that start off with a completely original sound and then continue to build on it rather than stalling out or sinking into self-parody. That’s even more of a risk when your first hit can nearly be categorized as a novelty song. But the B-52’s haven’t gone anywhere. Forty years on, they’re still playing together, and it’s gotta be a kick to look back and see it all starting with this track.
I don’t think they had any idea it would be a hit. Or a classic. They made a song they wanted to make and it happened to be brilliant. I love the fearlessness of that. It’s not like they were working from a template on this song. They just decided to get bizarre and trusted that having fun with it was enough.
I’m proud of artists for doing that. I think musicians that have this kind of weird fun don’t get enough credit. The work isn’t taken as seriously, because it’s goofy. But often times it takes a lot more guts to be Weird Al Yankovic than it does to be Mick Jagger.
I can recognize the kind of daring it took to go full speed into a song like “Rock Lobster” now. But I’m glad that my teenage self, pain in the ass that he was, recognized it too. That he didn’t try to run away from something enjoyable just because it was strange. I recognized part of myself in it, a part I liked. A part that wanted to enjoy what I enjoyed and have fun with my own weirdness and not be ashamed of it. Little by little, that door opened up. And sometimes a song like this was part of it.
I think that’s pretty cool.