How the B-52’s’ ‘Rock Lobster’ Brought John Lennon Back to Music
In the mid-to-late '70s, John Lennon wasn’t playing music. He wasn’t thinking much about music. He was trying to be a good father to son Sean. He’d lost interest in trying to persuade people to listen to the work he’d done with wife Yoko Ono, and his last release had been in 1974.
Around five years later, he exploded back into action in a matter of moments.
“I was at a dance club one night in Bermuda,” Lennon told Rolling Stone in an interview recorded three days before his death in 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.”
In particular, Cindy Wilson’s scream toward the end of the song was reminiscent of Ono’s approach. “I said to meself, ‘It’s time to get out the old ax and wake the wife up!’” Lennon said.
Almost immediately he and Ono started working. He’d write a song and sing it to her on the phone; in New York, she’d come up with a song of her own as a reply. The result was Double Fantasy, the last full album Lennon ever worked on before his death in December 1980.
Watch the B-52's' 'Rock Lobster' Video
It’s a story that circulated for some time, but B-52's' guitarist and original drummer Keith Strickland said in 2012 he eventually had to uncover some solid evidence. He found it in the form of an audio interview on YouTube.
While it’s not clear if it’s the same interview used by Rolling Stone, one recording includes Lennon saying people tried to turn him onto contemporary music of the late ‘70s, but only the “kooky” stuff really appealed to him.
“Aha, they’ve finally caught up to what we were trying to do all the time, which is another form of expression!” he said, name-checking “Rock Lobster.” “And we thought, ‘This time, surely, they’re gonna understand it!’” He asked fans to listen to something current and compare it to his output with Ono: “See if we weren’t on the right track in 1969.”
Listen to John Lennon Discuss the B-52's' 'Rock Lobster"
"I just wanted to hear it with my own ears," Strickland said. “That was really something. I've always been a huge Beatles fan. ... Yoko was such an inspiration for us in the early days. That's definitely an homage to Yoko when Cindy does that scream at the end” of "Rock Lobster."
Strickland called the "she broke up the Beatles" argument "bullshit," and noted "there was this whole generation of kids that just loved her. We just thought she was fantastic, so it felt good that we were kind of able to give back and say, ‘Look, we love what you did.’ And they heard that. Then, in turn, it inspired John to continue writing.”
Ono told Songfacts that the stories were most definitely true. “Listening to the B-52's, John said he realized that my time had come,” she explained. “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.”
In 2002 Ono made a surprise appearance with the band. “The audience didn't know, and we started doing ‘Rock Lobster,’ and then she comes out and does the scream," Strickland recalled. “It was so exciting. It was one of the highlights of our career for me.”
Watch the B-52's and Yoko Ono Perform 'Rock Lobster'
“Constipated for five years, and then diarrhea for three weeks!” Lennon laughed during his last interview, discussing how quickly he completed his writing tasks. He recited an old story once told to him by Ono about a king who commissions a painting from an artist, pays in advance and then runs out patience after 10 years.
"A messenger comes back and tells him, ‘The king’s waiting for his painting,’ and the painter says, ‘Oh, hold on,’ and whips it off right in front of him and says, ‘Here,'" Lennon said. "And the messenger says, ‘What’s this? The king paid you 20,000 bucks for this shit, and you knock it off in five minutes?’ And the painter replies, ‘Yeah, but I spent 10 years thinking about it.’ And there’s no way I could have written the Double Fantasy songs without those five years.”