The meaty truths behind a monster hit
It's easy to forget just how weird the landscape of popular music was in the early-to-mid-'90s. The success of bands like R.E.M., the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and especially Nirvana had convinced major labels that "alternative" was the next big thing, and those labels decided they had to start signing bands that could fit the bill. But major-label conceptions of "alternative" turned out to mean anything from Better Than Ezra to Butt Trumpet. The Flaming Lips, Butthole Surfers, Ween, Primus, and the Meat Puppets all scored at least minor radio hits, but few weirdo-rock success stories better speak to just how warped pop music had become than King Missile's "Detachable Penis," a musical tale of a man who loses his prized package while drunk at a party, only to find it later being hawked by a street vendor in New York's East Village.
Released in the final weeks of 1992 and delivered to MTV in 1993, the whole story is relayed in deadpan spoken word by the band's frontman and founder John S. Hall. Hall was a sardonic New York City poet, who'd formed the band in the mid-'80s in order to make his spoken-word performances more dynamic. He recruited a guitarist who went by the moniker Dogbowl, and later a saxophonist and a drummer. That lineup recorded two oddball psychedelic folk/spoken-word albums as King Missile (Dog Fly Religion) with the outré producer Mark Kramer, for his Shimmy Disc label. The band splintered and Hall pulled in guitarist Dave Rick and bassist Chris Xefos for 1990's more rock-oriented Mystical Shit. The album spawned a college-radio hit, "Jesus Is Way Cool," which caught the attention of Atlantic Records.
"When it came to alternative music, Atlantic had no idea what was good and what wasn't," says Hall. "If you had a No. 1 record on CMJ, you could expect a call from Atlantic."
After a first album for the label, 1991's The Way to Salvation, the band regrouped with Kramer in 1992 to record their break-out Happy Hour. "Detachable Penis" was the final song recorded for those sessions, and would go on to become their biggest hit, by far, reaching No. 25 on the Billboard modern-rock charts. The song was born from colorful circumstances that, two decades later, are still in dispute, and as it turned out, would mark the beginning of the end for the band. But the song itself would have an afterlife for years on alternative radio — and that's not even taking into account the Foo Fighters accidentally ripping it off. SPIN talked to all the major players about the missing member that freaked the world.
John S. Hall, frontman: I remember having the idea, and saying, "That would be a good idea to write about." And actually the day that I had the idea, I had a show that night, somewhere in Massachusetts. Sebadoh was on the bill. I'd just performed "Jesus Is Way Cool," which was our biggest hit up until that time, and I said, "So my next big hit is going to be called 'Detachable Penis,'" and people laughed. Then it took me several months to actually sit down and write it. Maybe 10 years earlier, I'd read a piece in the Village Voice by a lesbian who was talking about a dildo. She had the feeling that she could be male when she wanted to — you could just strap it on or take it off at will and you're a different gender. When I first thought of "Detachable," that was the idea. But when I was writing it, that didn't seem workable, so it didn't go that way. It occurred to me that if your penis were detachable, it would probably get lost. So the song isn't actually about it being detachable, it's about it being lost. But "Lost Penis" is not really a good name for a song.
Dave Rick, guitarist: We were writing songs for Happy Hour at my parents' house in Long Island in this shitty sounding basement. Our management were really nice guys who had no idea what they were doing, but I guess they must have scraped together a couple thousand dollars for us to practice at a rehearsal spot in the Village… "Detachable Penis" was probably one of the best organic examples of what that band could do: A little riff comes out of my hands, then Chris just played some Farfisa and Roger [Murdock, drummer] played his small Gretsch kit. I used my Hagstrom, which was my first guitar I had when I was a kid, and this little borrowed vintage amp that some guy built into an ancient typewriter case. I used my first-ever delay, this crappy digital delay that sounded like shit. But that's the opening riff.
Hall: It was the right tempo and it didn't hurt that the music immediately sounded like something catchy. I wanted a good repetitive groove that also sounded like it could be a pop hit.
Rick: We recorded at Kramer's place where he lived in New Jersey. He was an amazing producer, but he's also completely out of his fucking mind. He lived there with his wife and their baby. Him and his crazy wife were always yelling at each other. The baby was spitting up and I was like, 'That's what babies do, so of course he's spitting up because you both are skinny, insane people and the baby is probably already absorbing your anxiety."
Mark Kramer, producer: As I recall, "Detachable Penis" was tossed together in the studio amidst much acrimonious wrangling by the band. The band had really become something other than the King Missile I knew and loved, but "Detachable Penis" harkened back to the good old days. It was vintage John S. Hall, albeit in a band that had no original members remaining aside from himself. The new band members had, in a certain sense, taken over the musical direction of the band, and John's spirit was having more difficulty emerging from that environment.
Rick: Kramer didn't like the basic rock thing. I came from a Zeppelin, Stooges, Beefheart kind of thing and, to Kramer's consternation, we turned King Missile into a rock band.
Kramer: We'd made three records for my Shimmy Disc label and all three were truly great, brimming with amazing songs. We made them spontaneously and they were fun to make. All that was gone once John split from the original "amateur" members, brought in "great musicians," and signed with Atlantic. At that point, they had a goal — as Dave Rick actually said to me, "to play stadiums." At that point, nothing was honest anymore and everything they did was forced.
Hall: It was Kramer's idea to get Dave Rick in the first place. The fact is if Kramer had just suggested someone else, I would've ended up with a completely different band. So the response I would say to Kramer was, "You shouldn't have suggested Dave Rick."
Kramer: "Detachable Penis" was one of only two or three songs on that LP that were truly John's, in my opinion. That was a masterstroke of genius.
Chris Xefos, bassist: From a personal standpoint, I thought it was a very silly piece and didn't like it so much because of that. I remember I was trying to sabotage it. That's how much I didn't like the piece. I didn't want to play my part more than once, so I played it and the engineer fucked up and didn't get it. I was totally pissed at him, so I played it one more time and that was it. We didn't record bass guitar on it at all. Maybe that was another part of my protest against it. I wanted to put as little effort into it as possible.
Roger Murdock, drummer: I did some sampled drum sounds and different kinds of noises because I didn't even really want to play on it. We listened to it and nobody seemed to like it, so I said, "All right, fine," and went into the studio and just slapped a drum track down. It wasn't a real thought-out bit.
Kramer: I remember watching John sit idly for hours on end as the band members argued amongst themselves about how the song should be played. Faster? Slower? Softer? Harder? Instrumental Section? No instrumental section? John and I just sat back waiting for them to work it out and get down to the business of recording. I like to work more spontaneously, but the label had bought them an entire month in my studio, and the band seemed committed to wasting a lot of time arguing over arrangements, who should buy pizza, firing the drummer, etc.
Rick: Kramer was barely around. As far as I'm concerned Roger and Chris produced that record. Kramer is amazing but I couldn't tell when he believed his lies and when he was using them to be manipulative. To be gross about it, it's kind of like Hitler: Did he really hate the Jews or were they a convenient scapegoat? The answer is probably both.
Murdock: Kramer is a great guy but he really had nothing to do with the record. The only thing I remember him actually doing was he came in the studio once and we said, "Dave did these guitar parts. Which ones do you like?" Kramer said, "Use them all." Then he left.
Kramer: The band was arguing so much, I kept my distance. There were three massive egos let loose in a big, beautiful studio, and one true artist — John — who wanted only to create. The three musicians wanted to "produce" it themselves, and I let them.
Hall: I don't remember the arguing. I do remember that I wanted to change managers before "Detachable" came out because we were on a major label, and we had this piece that I had a sense was going to get noticed. The rest of the band agreed with me, at least to change managers, so we did that.
Kramer: I did imagine that if the label got behind it, "Detachable" could become a college-radio hit. The time was right. Ween had become huge, and it seemed that with a video in moderate rotation, something just might happen, and the song might achieve some semblance of immortality. But I never imagined it would actually happen. I thought feminist groups would get all up in arms about it, boycotting stations that played it.
Murdock: You can talk around it, but eventually you've got to talk about the P-word.
Xefos: Penis is an anatomical word. It's not one of the seven dirty words so there was never any need to have any sort of masking of the lyrics or whatever. It was also a way for radio to be outrageous and irreverent. That was its appeal — for funny morning jocks to play it and to laugh behind it. Atlantic liked that people were able to grab onto that.
Hall: My sense was the song was going to be big, but to me "big" just meant it was going to dominate college radio. I didn't think it was playable on commercial radio. When the radio guy at Atlantic told me that it was getting played on commercial stations, I was surprised he had even sent it to commercial stations. "Detachable" was added to KROQ in Los Angeles very early on and I think it got up to No. 2 in rotation. Once that happened, there wasn't ever a question of censorship. There was a question of, "You're stupid if you don't get on this bandwagon."
Murdock: Then they thought, "We've got something here. Let's sell the penis element! Let's make some promotional items!" I think I still have a penis keychain around here somewhere from then.
Xefos: In San Francisco, it was like No. 1 most requested on the commercial alternative station. I think we bounced out the Duran Duran song at the time, and then I think "Creep" bounced us out. So Atlantic had to push the release to the middle of December. I remember I was rushed back to New York at the beginning of December to shoot the video.
Rick: We got to make a great, low-budget video with Richard Kern. Kern was kind of a freak junkie who did this great shit. He made these fucked-up movies and was an artsy porno photographer. We all really dug his work and he's a great guy.
Richard Kern, video director: That was the first legit music video I did. I'd done a couple of Sonic Youth things but they were just like where you hang out with the band and shoot some stuff and that becomes a video. John lived right up the street, about three buildings away, and I guess he was a fan of mine from my previous films, the Cinema of Transgression stuff, because he asked for me. This was years ago, and I was a lot more unruly than I am now, and the first thing I said was "Can I do whatever I want?" And they said, "Yeah." It was around when I was shooting this stuff that became this book, New York Girls, so I was hanging out with all these dominatrixes and strippers. In the years before, I would've had no clue what a dildo or a strap-on is. But I heard these girls talk about it, so I thought "A detachable penis — that's pretty much a strap-on," and just bought one. I said, "This is going to be your detachable penis." The one we used was modeled on some porn star's dick… There was not much budget. It was just like one of my old films — a bunch of stupid jokes one after the other, based on their narrative.
Xefos: The opening shot is in this movie-theater bathroom and we shot it totally guerilla-style. We paid for tickets to go see Glengarry Glen Ross at the 2nd Avenue multiplex in the Village, sat in the front row, and then one by one went into the bathroom.
Kern: That was one of the most expensive shots because we had to buy movie tickets. The only problem was when we were shooting the scene with the guy selling stuff on the street, and John comes up and sees this dildo. The cops came and ran us off because we didn't have the proper permits. It just looked funny, us standing there with a guy waving a dildo around the street. I guess that bothered them.
Hall: We made three different versions of the video. The first one, they brought it to MTV and they said, "No, we're not going to show that." The second one, we put a big black bar over the dildo, to make it obvious and really silly. I think that did get shown a few times on MTV, but they didn't like that either. The final version, the dildo was blurred out, and that got the predominant amount of play.
Kern: I was shocked it was on MTV.
Murdock: Beavis and Butt-Head picked up on it right away. When they heard the word "penis," boy, that was it. They knew that we rocked or something. I love that show, so that's a very proud moment for me — something I can tell my daughter about.
Hall: About four months after the song came out, the John Wayne Bobbitt thing happened, so there were a lot of jokes and questions about that, which I found not really relevant to the song. Then somebody found a picture of the severed thing in a magazine, and had cut it out and given it to me. To actually see a real example of it was quite shocking and disturbing. But interesting.
Rick: The gigs got bigger and the record company gave a shit for minute. We got a little bit more money, played radio festivals, and played to bigger audiences than I'd ever played to, but it was a thing where people would come and show up for your song.
Hall: How to accommodate when one half of the audience is going to be screaming for "Detachable" until we play it? What we ultimately came up with was to play it third or fourth. The label did not like that we did that, but it solved the problem. A certain number of people left, which was fine by us. We didn't care. If they were coming to hear that song and weren't going to shut up until we played it, then we'll just play it and they can go or shut up.
Rick: I think King Missile probably just wasn't taken that seriously.
Hall: The sign of a good record label is that when something does take off, you can capitalize on it. My biggest disappointment with Atlantic was that with all the airplay "Detachable" got, the record didn't sell that many copies. It wasn't really marketed so that people even connected the song to a record you could buy. Still, we didn't have to work for a few years. The record that came out after that, that was the first record that didn't do better than the previous one. That's when we started bickering and fighting.
Murdock: That last record we did I thought had a lot of good stuff on it, but you know what it was missing? It didn't have any songs with the word "penis" in them. After a couple of weeks, the record company was like, "They don't have any penis songs, so let's move on to the next group." I think we did another pass around the country and then it was, "Goodnight, funnymen!"
Hall: When we got dropped, my feeling was, "This is great. 'Detachable' is still being played on the radio. It's still fresh in people's minds. We should be able to get another deal, immediately." But we didn't. Everybody felt that we were a one-hit wonder. We broke up shortly after that. None of us ended up with careers as musicians over the long term. I did entertainment law for four or five years, and a number of my clients came to the firm because of my association with that firm. They thought it would be cool to be represented by the King Missile guy. Now I work as an intellectual property analyst at a major corporate law firm so the people are very different. I generally don't talk about it that much, but one time I was at a continuing legal education class and asked a question. One of the new associates came up to me after and said, "I recognize your voice." But that rarely happens.
Xefos: It's always nice to hear "Detachable" on the radio. Nada Surf had that song, "Popular," a couple years later, and I don't know if that was supposed to be some sort of send-up of King Missile or not, but it could've been.
Rick: There was some sort of Foo Fighters thing, with their song "Rope." Somebody did point it out to me, like, "Doesn't that sound like 'Detachable?'" It had that quick delay. I would be shocked if Dave Grohl was ever like, "I heard 'Detachable Penis' for the first time in a long time. That sounds great! I'll use that!" I'm sure he didn't do that. I'd be shocked if it was ever in his consciousness.
Hall: Nirvana got signed to Geffen about six months after we were signed to Atlantic. So we were contemporaries. If they were driving around in a van listening to the radio when they were on tour, it's more than likely they heard that song, probably more often than they wanted to. As an intellectual property lawyer, basically, to take a single chord and put a delay behind it is not something you could copyright. The question of influence is different than the question of copyright. But the riffs sound very similar, so close that I would think that the Foo Fighters would be embarrassed to do that. I was just reading an article in the New York Review of Books that mentions, in the context of the famous George Harrison "He's So Fine"/"My Sweet Lord" case, the term "cryptomnesia." It means an unconscious or inadvertent taking of another's work, as opposed to plagiarism, which is deliberate. This is what I think happened with the Foo Fighters song.
Murdock: It's funny, to this day, people know "Detachable Penis" from somewhere. They don't know why they know it. And I never met anyone who bought the CD or anything, or even knows anything else on the record.
Rick: It was a nice little New York underground art-poetry scene thing that somehow burbled up into your MTV/SPIN world.
Xefos: People remember "Detachable Penis," but they don't remember King Missile. When I say to people, I was in this band King Missile, we had that song "Detachable Penis." They're like, "Oh yeah, that!" But no reaction to King Missile whatsoever. It's a weird legacy, but it's our legacy.