HISTORY OF THE SHRUNKEN HEADBANGERS, PART 1 (1992-1994)
The following narrative is actually true. However, Shrunken Headbanger bandmembers are described by their stage names, to avoid any embarrassing complications which may arise as they attempt to continue their otherwise normal lives as members of human society.
In May 1992, a company in the mortgage business announced the pending publication of a charity cookbook, to be populated with recipes submitted by employees. It just so happened that a number of employees were lunching together at a Persian/Azerbaijani restaurant the day that the cookbook was announced. During this meal, the topic of conversation turned to peculiar methods of preparing and serving unusual foods. Their minds full of fresh ideas about the extremes of culinary art, the lunchers returned to work, where they promptly discovered the company solicitation for recipes. Performing their duty as good corporate citizens, Kimbo, Skippy, and Spud jointly prepared a recipe, duly submitted to the Cookbook Committee, called Hothead. To wit:
1 goat, killed and skulled
1 gallon canned jalapenos, sliced
1 cup pitted stewed prunes
1 fifth Everclear® grain alcohol (200 proof)
1 pack Motel 55® matches
DIRECTIONS: Mix all ingredients except matches in a de-brained goat skull. Ignite and duck! Serve in skull. Garnish with Liv-A-Snaps® (optional).
COOKING TIME: 2 minutes
Fearing that their recipe might not be published, the creators decided to write a song extolling the virtues of their recipe, a sort of promotional jingle. Skippy and Spud were the primary authors of this now-legendary work, but several others - including Joey ("Pee Wee"), Ricky, Mickey, and Kimbo contributed to the lyrics, which contained many outrageous lines, including the memorable refrain "Kill your mother! Eat a goat!" Skippy and Mickey wrote the music in an uptempo heavy metal style. During two glorious evenings on June 4-5, 1992, the song "Hothead!" was recorded in Skippy's basement recording studio, dubbed Brain Damage Studio IV. Mickey played guitar and Skippy pounded some keyboards over a driving drumbox beat, while Ricky, Spud, and Pee Wee screamed out backing vocals. During and immediately after the recording, a crudely produced home video was also filmed. For unfathomable reasons, the Hothead recipe was not published, but the extraordinary legacy of the Shrunken Headbangers was born. Tongues planted firmly in their cheeks, spewing out torrents of outlandish lyrics full of mock Satanism and gratuitously visceral imagery, blasting out music that lampooned one style of music after another, the Shrunken Headbangers had invented a musical genre: shock-and-roll.
Swathed in pointillist artwork by Mickey (who used the pseudonym "Michaelairdio" for his drawings), a few copies of the Hothead! tape were distributed, mostly to friends of the bandmembers at the office. From the favorable public reaction, it quickly became apparent that the world couldn't get enough of this good thing, that more songs would have to be recorded, and - most importantly - that the people who created this masterpiece would need a name for their band. In August 1992, after vigorous debate, the name Shrunken Headbangers was chosen. There was much enjoyable discussion about "Hothead!" at the office, which served to attact more participants to the band, the most notable of whom was a new co-worker, Lunger (short for "the Green Lunger"). Lunger, who played the odd but distinctive instrument combination of viola and mandolin, suggested doing a song about diseases. For several months, the Headbangers compiled a list of assorted medical misfortunes and their symptoms, and eventually these coalesced into a song that would become the template for many of the Shrunken Headbangers' future works.
Recorded in late 1992, the landmark song "Diseases" was another hard-driving, primal anthem, but the song also included something that became the Shrunken Headbangers' signature touch: the incorporation of a parody of "Girl From Ipanema." A professionally produced video, in which six different Headbangers appear, accompanied the song. The "Diseases" video represents a watershed moment in the history of shock-and-roll as perhaps the most disgusting video ever produced. There were many highly offensive scenes, including pictures of deformed people, open genital sores, and bandmembers demonstrating the symptoms of some of the more exotic maladies. The pièce de résistance was the repeated image of a baby being shoved back into its mother, with the smiling band fading in and out of the picture. After screening the finished product, the editor of the video called it the most disgusting thing he'd seen in his life and refused to put his name in the on-screen credits. The "Diseases" video gradually attained something like legendary status, because as the Shrunken Headbangers attempted to shape a more professional image for themselves they suppressed distribution of this particular relic. Although the video was discussed widely by fans, very few copies were ever circulated.
The Shrunken Headbangers didn't rest on their laurels in the months that followed. The band picked up the pace of its creativity by recording two more songs: the ridiculous 10-part rock opera "Uncle Milton's Fascinating Giant Ant Farm" and the Zappa-esque "Disorders," a bluesy sequel to "Diseases." "Uncle Milton" was an amazing recording, both in the breadth of its musical scope and its sheer absurdity. Opening with a Broadway show-like theme, then progressing rapidly through rock, blues, folk, reggae, and the obligatory "Girl From Ipanema" parody, "Uncle Milton" managed to integrate practically every style of music while purporting to tell the story of life inside an ant farm. Musical instrumentation included eight singers, strings, and Mickey playing harmonica and banjo. Crammed full of gimmicks while attempting to embrace everything, "Uncle Milton" was a completely preposterous thing, like the Shrunken Headbangers themselves. Even though the band never performed the song live, this stylistic mélange was the favorite Headbangers' song of many fans.
The Shrunken Headbangers' first big break came in June 1993 when Lorena Bobbitt, an abused wife, chopped off her husband John's penis and threw it out of her car window while driving away from the scene. This incident provided the inspiration for "Fifty Ways to Cleave Your Lover," a brilliant parody of the mid-70's Paul Simon classic. The band spent the summer of 1993 crafting an incredible mountain of hilarious lyrics for the song that would become their ticket to fame. Over a dozen people helped to record the first version of "Fifty Ways." Skippy asked his college acquaintance Calhoun to play real drums on the recording to add greater depth than the drumbox. (On all previous recordings, the Headbanger had used a drumbox.) Foreshadowing the many exciting things to come, a black cat that lived in Skippy's house (where "Fifty Ways" was recorded) died during the final recording session on October 8, 1993. "Fifty Ways" was more than just silly fun, it was a legitimate hit, and the band knew it.
On October 19, 1993 the Headbangers sent a copy of "Fifty Ways" to Dr. Demento for national airplay. The band never heard back from Dr. Demento, but on the evening of November 16, 1993 Skippy, Mickey, and Lunger armed themselves with Nerf® guns and invaded the studios of WHFS, a Washington DC-area progressive radio station, and demanded that "Fifty Ways" be played on the airwaves. During the onslaught at the radio station, Skippy accidentally shot longtime WHFS DJ Weasel in the head with a Nerf® dart. Weasel promptly took the band into the studio, where DJ Kathryn Lauren was on the air. Ms. Lauren allowed the Headbangers to participate in a commercial and expressed interest in the song but did not immediately play it, fearing FCC repercussions. After a two week review period characterized by self-promotional FAXes from the band, WHFS finally caved into the band's demands.
At 7:35 PM on December 2, 1993, the Shrunken Headbangers made their broadcast radio debut on a WHFS segment called "Spastic Plastic." The song was so enthusiastically received that the station played it again in response to requests on December 3. Actually, the band had asked their friends to call the station and request the song, a ploy quickly detected by Kathryn Lauren, the WHFS DJ who had played it. However, calls of support continued to pour into the station long afterwards from independent sources, including Mark Paiser, art editor for Newsweek magazine. He contacted the band directly because he wanted to print the lyrics in the magazine, calling the song "the funniest thing I've ever heard in my life." Several other people also called the "Headbanger Hotline" seeking information about the song and the band. WHFS played "Fifty Ways" again on December 15, and many times thereafter. More new ground was broken on December 29, when WHFS aired a second Headbanger song: "Play For Food," a hastily written and recorded tribute to Kathryn Lauren that parodied the current Dramarama hit "Work For Food."
By late December, the 'Bangers had recorded ten songs which, together with a few other musical tidbits, they released as their first album Coldcock. Although recording quality was uneven (mostly poor) and distribution was initially limited to cassette tapes given to people associated with the band, the album was destined to become a classic. In addition to the songs mentioned above, Coldcock included the catchy modern rock tune "Self Amputation," the faux rap "Song For Sale" which featured Mickey playing guitar with his car keys, and a Zydeco song called "Paté All Night Long," with lyrics that consisted of an extremely random list of French or Cajun people, places, and things. Those three songs became staples of the band's performing repertoire and were heard often thereafter. The album also contained some lost treasures: "Today's Especiales," a simulated live recording at a cheesy Mexican restaurant; "Hothead, the Satanic Mix," consisting of the last 60 seconds of "Hothead" played backwards; unsolicited station ID tags for WHFS; and an off-the-air recording of the radio debut of "Fifty Ways."
Coldcock represented the final testament of the Shrunken Headbangers' early, experimental phase. The first year- and-a-half of the band's existence had been characterized by the incorporation of a wide variety of personnel, unbridled creativity without limits on tastelessness, little concern for musicianship or recording quality, and certainly no real attempt at commercial viability. Coldcock both showcased the band's creativity and exposed its musical mediocrity. Pretty much everyone agreed that the album was hilarious, yet it was characterized by sloppy performances and amateurish recording techniques. Despite this, two of the songs had gotten airplay and the band was attracting attention. The creativity shined through.
By the time Coldcock was released, the Shrunken Headbangers had clearly settled down to three core members - Skippy, Mickey, and Lunger. Around this time, Skippy introduced drummer Dawg to the band, who had played with Skippy in an earlier band called the Scape Goats. Although he was less than enthusiastic about the Shrunken Headbangers lyrical niche at first, Dawg ultimately became the 'Bangers' regular drummer. His principal influence was to improve the rhythm and broaden the band's overall sound while tempering the band's outlandish tendencies.
On January 11, 1994 Mickey, Skippy, and Lunger took their instruments to the Prince William County courthouse in Manassas, Virginia where Lorena Bobbitt's trial on malicious wounding charges was in progress. They wore bright florescent signs reading "ATTENTION MEDIA - SHAMELESS PUBLICITY STUNT IN PROGRESS" and "FREE AUTOGRAPHS AND FREE TAPE OF 'FIFTY WAYS TO CLEAVE YOUR LOVER' BY THE SHRUNKEN HEADBANGERS - JUST SHOW PRESS CREDENTIALS." The band sat down on the courthouse steps and performed "Fifty Ways" in front of dozens of reporters and cameramen, plus a few ordinary bystanders. Two quick performances were followed by a series of informal group interviews with various members of the press. Other members of the media who missed the first event requested additional performances for their camera crews. Before the day was over, the Headbangers performed the song five or six times; posed for photographers from People magazine and other publications; were invited into the CNN trailer to watch the editing of video footage of their performances; met John Bobbitt's brother (who was so impressed that he asked for a copy of the Headbangers' tape and gave the band a T-shirt); and were interviewed by a German TV crew, a Japanese newsman, and several American radio, TV, and newspaper reporters. The band also gave out 35 tapes with selected cuts from Coldcock, nearly 100 lyric sheets, and autographed dozens of band publicity photos.
Within two hours, "Fifty Ways" was played on another Washington station (WWRC), in the first known AM radio broadcast of a Headbanger tune. When Kathryn Lauren signed on the air that evening, she reported that "Fifty Ways" had been the most requested song of the day on WHFS. A listener who worked at the Manassas courthouse sent a FAX - which Ms. Lauren read over the air - stating that "people were outside the courthouse singing this funny penis song today." WHFS began a nightly "Penis Cutting Song" rotation. Within a few days yet another Washington station (DC-101) had played "Fifty Ways" on the air, and soon the song was getting airplay all around the country, which continued sporadically throughout the remainder of the year. This airplay seems remarkable in light of the fact that the entire public distribution of the song consisted of 35 copies handed out at the trial and five copies sent to individual radio stations at their request.
As the first and only rock and roll band to perform live at the Bobbitt Trial, the Shrunken Headbangers made a big television splash as well. Between January 11 and 13, video clips of the Headbangers appeared repeatedly on CNN (broadcast internationally), ABC's American Journal, and the Fox Network News. The Headbangers were also seen on the independent New York TV station WPIX. In subsequent days, the Shrunken Headbangers and their song were written about in the Washington Post (1/13/94), the Los Angeles Times (1/14/94), the Buffalo News (1/16/94), the Baltimore Sun (1/20/94), and the Sunday Times of London (1/16/94). Producers of radio programs on WRIF (Detroit), WQSR (Baltimore), and KRTH (Los Angeles) contacted the Headbangers to request copies of the song. Demonstrating their broad-based appeal, the Headbangers' song even got mentioned in the January 15, 1994 issue of Economist magazine.
Meanwhile, on January 6, 1994, a bodyguard associated with Olympic figure skating hopeful Tonya Harding smashed the kneecap of a competitor, Nancy Kerrigan, with a club. Within weeks, the Shrunken Headbangers had written a song about this highly-publicized event. "Club Nancy Kerrigan," a running double-entendre about a nightclub and the beating, was the first Headbanger tune to feature new drummer Dawg. The song made its radio debut on WHFS on February 15, 1994, cementing the Headbangers' reputation for shameless exploitation of newsworthy events. By request, the Headbangers sent the song to the music director for the TV show Hard Copy to use as a soundtrack. And, of course, WHFS played it again. With name recognition and several songs on the radio, the Shrunken Headbangers had suddenly been transformed into something more than just a joke.
It was a heady time. Hardly a week went by without somebody new contacting the band, mostly about "Fifty Ways." The Headbangers' Hotline - a dedicated telephone answering machine - was filled with messages from fans, radio producers, and others interested in the band's material. Media exposure was coming from all angles, some quite unexpected. The band began marketing itself, started a fan club, and began sporadically publishing a newsletter, the Headbanger Digest. The guerilla marketing tactics were paying off. People wanted to hear - and see - the Shrunken Headbangers. But this was actually a problem. The Headbangers were booked to play at the grand opening of a new Washington DC club, but up to this point the Shrunken Headbangers had been strictly a studio band, and not a particularly good one at that. Their non-standard instrumentation, densely-packed lyrics, and studio special effects were all liabilities for a live act. Amazingly, the band pulled together a live show in just eight weeks. With Dawg on drums, Skippy on keyboards, Mickey on guitar, and Lunger confining himself to viola and mandolin on stage, the Shrunken Headbangers slapped together 90 minutes of material suitable for a live audience. The band even managed to cover a few popular songs to mix with their originals in an effort to be more accessible to casual listeners. This would be the basic on-stage formula for the remainder of the band's existence.
The Shrunken Headbangers began their new life as a "real band" with a live performance at Buffalo Billiards on March 26, 1994. Ticket sales were supposed to benefit a charity for the homeless, but in keeping with their theme as "the band with no shame" the 'Bangers pocketed about 20% of the gross for themselves. The band was well received by over 500 fans. There were many delectable visual images this night. The stage was plastered with copies of the Shrunken Headbangers' memorable official logo (another Michaelairdio design) and the band wore their new T-shirts, which sold briskly before and after the show. During the performance of their newest song "Bodyart Girl," a tribute to females with tatoos and body piercings, one woman in the audience approached the stage and pulled her top down to show the band her breast tattoo. The Headbangers were hot.
On May 7, 1994 the Shrunken Headbangers were invited by the producer of the Lars From Mars Show to appear on the show. This long-running northern Virginia cable access program was the original inspiration for the Saturday Night Live comedy skit "Wayne's World," and thus a natural fit for the Headbangers. On May 27, 1994 the band (minus drummer Dawg) taped a five minute interview and lip-synched two songs in front of a small studio audience comprised of fifteen lucky, selected Headbanger fans. In anticipation of this, the Headbangers filmed some footage of an animated, ill-fated Spam® character designed to be shown on a blue screen behind the band during their performance. This footage was partly obscured on the actual Larz From Mars telecast, but "The Adventures of Spam-Man" represented a creative and hilarious Headbangers' foray into yet another artistic medium: Spamation. The "Larz" production crew welcomed the 'Bangers enthusiastically, with several people commenting before and after the show how much they enjoyed the band's material. Thousands of local cable viewers were introduced to the Shrunken Headbangers on June 10, 1994 when the show aired for the first time on FCAC (Fairfax County Access Channel).
During the spring of 1994 the Shrunken Headbangers began making new and considerably more professional-sounding studio recordings with Dawg on drums. This started with two conventional modern rock songs that the band was performing in its live act: "Found Out About You" by the Gin Blossoms, and Cracker's recent hit "Low." The latter was recorded live in the studio but had crowd sounds from the Buffalo Billiards performance overdubbed to roughly simulate a live Headbangers' show. These Headbangers' true-to-the original covers represented an improvement in sound quality over prior efforts, but were also significant by being neither outlandish nor funny. These two covers, along with an off-the-air recording of "Club Nancy Kerrigan," became the Shrunken Headbanger's 1994 demo tape. Amazingly, the band continue to use this same demo tape for three years. During this period, the band also re-recorded "Diseases" and "Fifty Ways" for their Larz From Mars appearance. These two higher quality recordings were included on all later releases of Coldcock, turning the few original edition copies into collector's items.
The band spent most of the next six months recording their second album, Speculum. However, on July 30, 1994 the Headbangers took a break from the grueling recording sessions to shoot a live action video for the song "Bodyart Girl," which was then submitted to MTV as the Shrunken Headbangers' entry for the Beach House Band contest. On the strength of this video, the Shrunken Headbangers were officially recognized by Judy McGrath, president of MTV, for their "originality and talent." However, MTV declined to broadcast the video, probably because of its thinly-veiled sexism: in much of the video, the band is seen from between two pairs of shapely female legs. Actually, by Shrunken Headbanger standards it was quite tame.
On August 12, 1994 the Headbangers played at Twist and Shout, a makeshift club at the Bethesda, Maryland American Legion Hall made famous by Mary Chapin Carpenter's cajun song "Down at the Twist and Shout." The audience enthusiastically experienced the live debut of the band's crowd-pleasing medley of "Fifty Ways" and the Lynyrd Skynyrd classic "Freebird." Although they were the leadoff act, the audience clearly preferred the Headbangers over the other band. Amazingly, "Fifty Ways" continued to get sporadic airplay all summer long - from California to New Jersey. On September 14, 1994 the Headbangers' new song "Chia Pet Farm" was featured on DC-101's "Local Licks" show, where host Buddy Rizer introduced the band by proclaiming "these guys are warped!" With it's theme of faux-animal rights indignation and unusual instrumentation, "Chia Pet Farm" clearly stood out from the many other locally produced songs debuted on the show.
Speculum was finally released in November 1994. The opening track was "Aliens Abducted Me," a song that was originally slapped together in the rush to learn material for the Headbangers' first live show, with ludicrous lyrics inspired by tabloid newspaper headlines. For the studio recording, Mickey added a soaring guitar lead during the break which culminated in the highest possible note playable on a guitar. "Aliens" remained a favorite of bandmembers and was a staple of the Headbangers' stage show for years. In addition to "Club Nancy Kerrigan," "Bodyart Girl," and "Chia Pet Farm" (all described above), the album included the self-explanatory "Dead Rock Stars," a ballad about a suicide hotline gone awry titled "Please Hold," the cannibal song "Get So Hungry," and a surprisingly melodic number called "Selling Body Organs." There were also two parodies: the politically incorrect "Secret Asian Man" (featuring Lunger singing a verse with terrible grammar and all the R's and L's interchanged), and "Wo Woe Whoa Wough," a punk variation of the Crash Test Dummies' hit "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm." There was also an increasingly frenetic five-part Scottish instrumental generally referred to by the first of its many long titles: "Flaming Nazi Biker Babes of Edinburgh." One of the trends of the time was including so-called "hidden tracks" on an album. The Headbangers parodied this fashion on Speculum by including a track so well hidden it wasn't even there: the Scottish medley lists six subtracks when only five different melodies exist. The new album embodied a much higher musical and recording quality standard than earlier efforts, but the basic Headbanger formula of presenting scandalous lyrics in a variety of musical styles remained. Speculum represented the marriage of decent musicianship with outrageous Headbanger creativity. The album was good.
The Shrunken Headbangers travelled to Rutgers University in Brunswick, New Jersey for a live show on December 10, 1994. The band showcased their new material at this gig, but a freezing drizzle and the fact that it was finals week combined to keep the crowd disappointingly small. It was the band's first performance in unfamiliar territory, and while the audience did not walk away, they didn't react with the passionate fervor the Headbangers had grown accustomed to from their fans. Acoustic conditions were poor, and since people couldn't hear the Headbangers' outrageous lyrics clearly, much of the humor was lost. When the band also played poorly at Skippy's New Year's Eve party, it was clear that the Shrunken Headbangers had reached a low point. For two months, the band did absolutely nothing. After a year of excitement, wide airplay, international television exposure, and ardent fan support, the Shrunken Headbangers' flame seemed to be flickering.
Click here to continue the History of the Shrunken Headbangers, part 2 (1995-1999).
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