REDUX: Those First Impressions – The B-52s Debut Single

blast-from-the-past-header

July 12, 2011

DB Records | UK | 7″ | 1978 | DB-52

B-52s: Rock Lobster US 7″ [1978]

  1. Rock Lobster [1st version – 4:30]
  2. 52 Girls [1st version – 3:20]

This was a single that practically fired the shot heard ’round the world regarding the American South’s contributions to the New Wave. I first ran across the B-52s when I saw their Warner Brothers debut album in 1979 with its garish cover art. I was mesmerized by it every time I perused the albums at the local K-Mart. Judging by the cover, it was either the best album in the world or the worst. I couldn’t decide. Months went by and I was paralyzed; I was drawn to it but I had not heard a note from it and $6.98 was a lot of money to risk to a wet nosed punk like myself. I was ecstatic when I saw the band would be on Saturday Night Live one week early in 1980. I watched and I immediately went out and bought! They really were as amazing as the cover portended.

It was some time later that I heard their indie debut single version of the iconic “Rock Lobster” played on the mandatory Dr. Demento radio show some time later. This was something different and exotic! I needed to get my hands on this early 45 and managed to do so… only a dozen years later! By the early 90s regular trips to Atlanta made it easy to pick up the 45, albeit at “collector’s prices.” Atlanta’s Danny Beard was the impresario who recorded and released “Rock Lobster” to immediate interest and acclaim. Word has it he sold 20,000 copies of the single. He even released it in the UK complete with a small spindle hole! Beard operated DB out of his amazing store Wax N’ Facts, and this record was what started him off. Pylon, Love Tractor, The Method Actors, and Guadalcanal Diary all followed in the B-52s wake at DB and paved the way for others to blaze a trail from the “New South” to the turntables of hipsters the world over.

The early version of “Rock Lobster” has some differences from the version eventually released on Warner Brothers a year later. The track’s timing is a succinct 4:30 as opposed to the almost seven minute monster on their album, so there’s a lot of groove missing. Some lyrics are different and the list of sea creatures mentioned by Fred Schneider during the bridge is quite different, as are the animal noises made by Cindy Wilson. Kevin Dunn’s production captures the band in all of their kitschy glory quite effectively, but Chris Blackwell’s later $$$ production can’t help but sound more impressive. What hasn’t changed, however, is the caliber of the band’s performances. They were on a mission from the very beginning and they’re the same wacky sauce no matter how much money was thrown at them – at least at this stage of the game. In a few years, all bets would be off.

I would imagine that either one of two things account for the large difference in running time. Either the band recorded the 45 and after playing the song countless times, evolved the arrangement into something longer and more crowd pleasing. Or the band intentionally truncated the running time of the song to fit better on a 45. Almost seven minutes on a 45 side will sound really thin, and that would be the kiss of death for the B-52s, who demand a sound as punchy as their image.

The flipside contains a version of “52 Girls” that is much closer than the A-side to what eventually was re-recorded on their debut album. The arrangement is more or less identical as are the lyrics, so there is less cachet to version 1 of “52 Girls.” One thing remains, no matter which version you listen to; our ears had not quite heard anything like the B-52s at that time. Their blend of furious yet minimal surf guitar, Yoko Ono, and uh… Fred Schneider’s nelly sprechtgesang was an unprecedented hybrid mixture.

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About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | media design • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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2 Responses to REDUX: Those First Impressions – The B-52s Debut Single

  1. I have this specific 45 (along with REM’s first one), can’t remember if I got it from the band or DB. I was fortunate enough to be a participant in the “scene” of Athens in 1978 as I was living with my mother in Mableton (City of Tomorrow) and frequently drove the 90-minute journey to hang with the college kids and drink at clubs where they didn’t ID you. It happened to be the prime of the legendary scene there and I went to a lot of shows. What I remember about it most was the intimacy (the 40 Watt Club back then was a big black closet, and a lot of shows were just at people’s houses), the community (all the musicians went to each others’ shows) and the vibe, which was just not like anything else. Pylon is what I would call the “purest” Athens sound, but many of the best bands that sprang up through the 70s and 80s together made for a really amazing scene, complimented by some fine record stores (where you would find the later rock stars working as clerks or managers).

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      chasinvictoria – I thought we met in 1979 and as I recall, you were introduced to me as someone who had moved into town from Miami. I thought you lived in Mableton after you graduated high school, ca. 1980. I can’t keep when you were in Miami during that ’80 – ’82 period, but I have the tapes to prove it in a box at home.

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