“Rock Lobster” jolted John Lennon out of his life’s longest and deepest creative drought.
The former Beatle had last released an album of original material in 1974. He bought time and met contractual obligations by issuing covers and compilation albums in 1975. Then, he decided to become a full-time dad. He did not touch a guitar for more than four years.
Lennon remembered, “I was at a dance club one night in Bermuda” in June 1980. “Upstairs, they were playing disco, and downstairs, I suddenly heard ‘Rock Lobster’ by the B-52’s for the first time. Do you know it? It sounds just like Yoko’s music, so I said to meself, ‘It’s time to get out the old axe and wake the wife up!’ We wrote about twenty-five songs during those three weeks, and we’ve recorded enough for another album.”
“Rock Lobster” lit a fuse of inspiration that flared into Lennon’s 2-LP set Double Fantasy (1980), plus a posthumous release, Milk and Honey (1984). Without the B-52’s, our world might lack “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy),” “Watching the Wheels,” “Woman,” “(Just Like) Starting Over,” and “Nobody Told Me.”
What element of “Rock Lobster” really grabbed the ex-Beatle? Not Ricky Wilson’s epic surf guitar riff. Nor Kate Pierson’s exotic Farfisa organ. Nor Keith Strickland’s sturdy drumming augmented by more cowbell. Not even Fred Schneider’s bizarre spoken word delivery of loopy lyrics.
Lennon found inspiration in Pierson and Cindy Wilson’s weird backing vocals, in the otherworldly ululations that punctuate Schneider’s narration and answer the scat call of “Skadoobada.” And, in the song’s climactic final minute, as Schneider names several sea creatures, Kate and Cindy take turns voicing silly sound effects to represent various real and imaginary rays, fishes and whales.
As he sat listening in that Bermuda bar, Lennon immediately recognized the band’s affectionate homage to his wife. “I said, ‘That’s Yoko!… I thought there were two records going at once or something. Because it was so her. I mean, this person had studied her…. I called [Yoko] and I said, ‘You won’t believe this, but I was in a disco and there was somebody doing your voice. This time, they’re ready for us!’”
Lennon evidently overestimated the world’s readiness for Yoko’s music. Thanks partly to new wave influences, her compositions for Double Fantasy compare favorably to much of her earlier (and subsequent) work, but that sets a low bar and damns with faint praise. For most listeners, Yoko’s tracks still comprise unwelcome filler amid Lennon’s vastly superior songs.
We cannot possibly adore her as deeply and uncritically as her husband clearly did.
In February 2002, Yoko Ono joined the B-52’s onstage in New York to sing “Rock Lobster,” the song she inspired that in turn inspired Lennon’s last great compositions. (You can hear that performance here.)
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