Tuesday, March 23, 2010

March 23: King Missile, "Detachable Penis"

Artist: King Missile
Song: "Detachable Penis"
Album: Happy Hour
Year: 1992

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While none will argue the difficulty of "making it big" with a mainstream sound, there is no question that the one thing that presents a greater challenge is finding widespread success with a unique, non-traditional sound.  During many periods of sadly stale music, anything that is the least bit different from the mainstream gets pushed far to the side and rarely sees the light of day beyond a cult following.  However, there are similar number of eras in music history where such wild creativity has been seen as a good thing, and it allowed some of the most truly strange bands ever to gain some time in the spotlight.  Without question, one of the finest and most exciting periods of encouraged musical creativity was in the early 1990's, and the then-new sounds that were emerging set the stage for the music scene of the next two decades.  Though many of the bands of this era were definitely original, there were few, if any, that were more outright weird than New York City avant-rockers, King Missile.  By the time the band released their 1992 breakthrough record, Happy Hour, they had already released a number of records and gone through a handful of lineup changes.  Yet it is this record that stands as their finest moment, and from the strangely psychedelic "(Why Are We) Trapped?" to the utterly insane "Martin Scorsese," there has truly never been another band that even remotely sounded like King Missile.  Furthermore, there has never been another radio single that was as risqué or as outright unpredictable as the bands' 1992 surprise hit, the unmistakable "Detachable Penis."

The name of the track alone not only immediately brings the song to mind, but it also makes one consider just "how" the song became a hit, as it clearly defies all logic of what it means to be "radio friendly."  The song falls somewhere between mellow heavy metal and beat-rock, and in many ways, the bands' sound completely defies description, as there has never been another group that had even a remotely similar sound.  "Detachable Penis" is powered by the distorted and delayed guitar of Dave Rick, and he highlights the song with brief overlain solos that slide brilliantly behind the vocals.  Doubling up the powerful, yet simple riff is organ playing from Chris Xefos, who also handles bass guitar duties on the song.  While the bassline is both strong and gives the song a great groove, it is in large part due to the somewhat wild keyboards that the song gains its distinctive sound.  Rounding out the musicians strong of King Missile is drummer Roger Murdock, and his jazzy approach is one of the keys to the songs' beat-like feel.  One also cannot overlook the brilliant production work of Mark Kramer, who also worked with everyone from Butthole Surfers (of which he was a member) to GWAR to White Zombie, and his unique ear for sound plays a major factor in the overall feel of all of Happy Hour.  The way in which Kramer sets the wild guitar solos against the almost plain, steady riff is a fantastic, yet simple musical contrast, and the overall manner in which he keeps the music steady, yet set back in the mix helps to highlight the stunning vocal performance and lyrics that truly make "Detachable Penis" an unforgettable musical experience.

While the "new" lineup of King Missile performs brilliantly throughout the song, there is simply no way to get past the fact that "Detachable Penis" is all about the sensational vocal delivery and lyrical content, both from John S. Hall.  As the bands' founder and only consistent member, there is rarely any question as to "whose" musical vehicle this is, and the beat-style poetry which he delivers on every track makes their sound completely unique.  With a steady, deadpan vocal delivery, there has rarely been a song that so perfectly epitomized the ability to have the lyrics so starkly contrasted from the music, and yet somehow making them fit perfectly together.  While Hall certainly takes a page from the delivery style of David Byrne, the odd, nonchalant attitude that is found within his vocals creates a brilliant contrast to the seemingly silly lyrics which he delivers.  Clearly not one for being subtle, "Detachable Penis" is a tale of just that, a man who wakes up with a massive hangover only to realize that his most treasured organ has gone missing.  The song spins an amusing, absurd story of his quest to find his missing part as he searches seemingly all of Manhattan's East Village.  Dropping a number of references to various spots around the city, the matter-of-fact way in which Hall calmly retells this tragic tale is truly so wonderfully ridiculous that it becomes one of the most captivating songs ever recorded.  Finally finding his missing appendage, Hall gives a bit of a sense of pride when he describes being able to haggle down the man who was selling it, before lamenting that, though he certainly sees the advantage of "having it permanently attached," he finishes off the tale by letting the listener know that, "...even though sometimes it's a pain in the ass, I like having a detachable penis."

There is simply nothing that could have prepared the world for "Detachable Penis," and in many ways, it is completely inexplicable that it found such widespread commercial success.  Cracking into the top twenty-five on the singles charts, the song is without question one of the most memorable songs of the entire decade, and there has never been another song that sounded similar.  Though in retrospect, one can make the case that it was the success of "Detachable Penis" that led to the downfall and eventual breakup of King Missile, one can similarly see the song as breaking down a number of barriers, as the fact that it was played largely uncensored on radio stations across the country perfectly captures the overall relaxed and adventurous state of music at the time.  Combining brilliant beat-poetry style lyrics and vocals with a mesmerizing, yet simple musical pattern, King Missile brought the world music the likes of which had never been heard, and while many bands before had released songs with subtle references, "Detachable Penis" leaves nothing to interpretation, and is one of the most hilariously extraordinary recordings ever made.  From the base idea of having a part that could be detached to the absolutely hysterical idea of being able to "...rent it out when I didn't need it...," John S. Hall uses this song to prove that he is without question one of the most uniquely talented lyricists of his generation, and one can easily make the argument that had it not been for these truly underrated lyrics, the song would have been nothing more than a novelty.  Without question one of the most memorable songs of the era, both musically and lyrically, there has never been another song that quite compares to the unusually fantastic sound found on King Missile's unlikely 1992 hit, "Detachable Penis."

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