King Missile Hits the Bowery Electric Ballroom in NYC
The Missile Was Way Cool
They say that first impressions are important. My first impression of King Missile from the moment I heard “Jesus Was Way Cool” on WFMU 91.1 FM in 1990, Upsala College’s listener sponsored radio station broadcasting from New Jersey, was that this was a band that stood out. My gut feeling was right; a few years later I saw their video for “Martin Scorsese” on MTV when they were starting to get national attention with their Happy Hour album.
Scorsese? Jesus? What a broad range of topics. KM was a little different. They weren’t grunge and they weren’t heavy metal or punk. What they did was spoken word with out of whack instrumentation. Back in the 80s the future vocalist/lyricist of KM, John S. Hall held poetry readings at the then newly opened Knitting Factory on Houston Street the club’s original location. The Knitting Factory was a safe haven for experimental music back then. John Zorn, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, and many others would frequently performed there. After a while Hall found musicians there that wanted to collaborate with him and the rest is history.
Hall grew up in the West Village where there was, and still is, a legacy of the Beat Poets. On Bleecker Street he would go to readings at Folk City and other places. At one of these readings he caught a performance by punk rocker Richard Hell which gave him some ideas. Hall also cited Patti Smith and Dada as influences. Smith had been melding spoken word with punk since the mid-70s.
KM put on an incredible show at the Bowery Electric Ballroom the other night. They opened up with an Adverts number, “One Hit Wonder.” The Adverts were a noted British Punk band from the late 70s. The line-up was guitarist Dave Rick, drummer Roger Murdock, and keyboard player Brent Cordero. The band sounded great; they were ruckus. If you have only heard KM on record, they are a little more unbridled live and they do some really loud covers including the Beastie Boys “Gratitude” and the Ramones “Rockaway Beach.” They did “Jesus Was Way Cool,” “Martin Scorsese,” and a whole string of their ingenious originals that night. They did “My Heart is a Flower,” “Socks,” and “Sensitive” which are all are thought provoking KM originals with their signature style: twists, ironies, profoundness and humor.
KM always had an element of humor, “Detachable Penis,” one of their best known songs which they performed at the Bowery Electric. KM seems to lampoon the previous generation of art rock bands. The lampoons are not always verbal however. “Title Track” from their 1990 LP Mystical Shit which they performed at the other night takes some musical ideas from those old psychedelic LA groups, (the droning, the ethnic influences, etc) emulating them and taking a poke at them at the same time. Hall was actually personally seeking eastern wisdom at the time the album was recorded. “Title Track” quotes vedic spiritual literature, the Brahma Samita to be specific, and is mainly in Sanskrit. Hall was studying Sanskrit when he wrote it. So KM has a balance between the ostentatious and the unpretentious in their music. Hall made a distinction between the humor in KM and the “sincere” (what he means is the part that is not a joke). Most KM tracks have both characteristics.
As a live performance there was a certain amount of ad lib that went on. During the encore they did “Take Stuff from Work” Hall took poetical license. Humm. “Take Stuff from Work,” guess what this song is about? Yup, how we take things like pens and post-it pads from the job (everybody does it). Hall cleverly bantered about how word processors are antiquated since the song was written and that you can no longer find ashtrays in the workplace. On a somber note, Hall announced the passing of Uncle Wiggly this week. William Berger, aka Uncle Wiggly was a WFMU DJ and friend of Hall’s who was one of the first to spin KM. RIP Uncle Wiggly. They ended the show with a second encore, “What Do I Get” by the Buzzcocks.
Every KM song is a story. Hall explained that he believes in “power of the story” and that spoken word should evoke images. If you listen to any KM track you get a clear picture in your mind; they paint a vivid tableau and that’s why what they do works. If you are familiar with KM you know that each song is a narrative from “At Dave’s” from their first album Fluting on the Hump to “Closet” one of their latest releases as King Missile IV. “Closet” is a description of what goes through your mind when we clean out a closet. It’s brilliant in a deadpan avant garde style. Hall explained that as the band evolved it sometimes would move away from his original intentions through experimentation and collaboration. Hall explained that Fluting on the Hump is more like what he initially had in mind for KM. He described that album as being a “quiet” album, whereas in general KM is “loud band.” Hall’s side project Unusual Squirrel is what considers “a quiet band,” it is a lot of spoken word most of it done a capella. Hall is also in a band called Sensation Play. There is an endless amount of interesting music to investigate in the Universe of King Missile & John S. Hall, give them a listen.