The Absurd Mystery of The B-52's "Private Idaho"

The B-52's in 1980
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Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

After blowing people’s minds with their 1979 self-titled debut album and its signature single, “Rock Lobster,” the B-52’s returned the following year with their second LP Wild Planet, and one needed only hear the record’s first single to know the band wasn’t suffering from a sophomore slump…even if the meaning of the song in question wasn’t nearly as easy to discern.

READ MORE: How The B-52's "Rock Lobster" Surfaced

Credited to all five members of the band (Kate Pierson, Fred Schneider, Keith Strickland, Cindy Wilson, and Ricky Wilson), “Private Idaho” is – and we cannot emphasize this enough – not in any way a dismissal of or an insult to the state of Idaho. Indeed, the B-52’s had never even played a show in the state until 2011, and when they finally did so, it was a big enough event that a reporter from The Idaho Statesman made a point of interviewing Schneider to ask him exactly what the deal was with the song.

“Idaho is pretty mysterious to all of us," Schneider told the Statesman. "I know it's a beautiful state, but then I know there's also a lot of crazy right-wingers and all that stuff...The song's about all different things. It's not like a parody of Idaho or anything."

As far as the actual composition of the song, Pierson told The A.V. Club in 2011 that “Fred came up with the title [and] started out with 'You’re living in your own private Idaho,’ and I came up with, ‘Underground like a wild potato / Don’t go on the patio / Beware of the pool.’ It’s all sort of dark and mysterious – and silly, too, in a way. But where it takes about ‘watch out for signs that say "Hidden Driveway,"’ and then the pool, I guess it’s really kind of a reference to the subconscious being like living in your own world.”

Pierson also revealed that the reference to the radium clock in the lyrics was tied to a clock factory in Athens with a dark secret.

“[The clocks] had glow-in-the-dark dials, and these women were dying of cancer, and I don’t know when this was, exactly, but I remember it was in the news about how the women who were painting the radium onto these dials, they were licking their brushes before they dipped the brushes into the radium,” said Pierson. “So that was a reference to that, and kind of a reference to, I guess, environmental pollution and toxic things. So it has this dark feeling, in a way. And yet we sing it with such glee!”

“Private Idaho” provided The B-52’s with the second Hot 100 appearance of their career, with the single climbing to No. 74, but the song did far better in the clubs: the tune ascended all the way to No. 5 on Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play chart.

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