Mulling Over the Mullet
An Essay on Tonsorial Taste by the Editors of Grand Royal Magazine
In the winter of 1993, The Beastie Boys published the first issue of their short-lived print magazine, Grand Royal. Back then, my friends and I were huge Beasties fans, but I’d never heard of this mag until my friend Chris and I stumbled on it in Tower Records one stoned day in 1995.
Flipping through Issue 2, the “Mulling Over the Mullet” article left us cackling in the aisle. Descending into hysterics, we died over section headers like “The Social Democracy of the Mullet” and lines like “Unfortunately, whoever discovered the wheel had a mullet.” I’ve kept my copy ever since.
As irreverent and wide-ranging as the Beastie Boys were themselves, the issue included pieces about LSD, the racist Ted Nugent, and a call to free Slick Rick from prison. The cover story turned out to be the greatest look at Lee Scratch Perry’s approach to music-making I’ve ever read. (“When Lee Perry shits,” the subhead begins, “his enemies cry.”)
Humorous eclecticism defined the Beasties’ whole magazine experiment. In other issues, Spike Jonez wrote “A Perpetrator’s Guide to Hollywood Hotel Swimming Pools.” Mike D reviewed Soul Asylum’s “Whatever the Fuck Their New LP is Called” as “white music by white people for white people.” Bassist Mike Watt wrote “My Crisis With Flannel,” and artwork by George Clinton stood beside a story about the reasons the Gap clothing chain sucked. Pieces celebrated the Moog synthesizer and demolition derbies, and columns like “Why It’s OK to Like Metal Again” gave young readers permission to do things they couldn’t give themselves. In the first issue, Adam Yauch even wrote a short editorial urging readers to resist the popular urge to carry guns and, instead, to work toward inner peace. “If you conduct your life in this manner,” he wrote, “I’ll be you five bucks that you won’t need a gun and probably won’t think they’re that cool...” That’s a responsible use of an influential platform, and pretty ahead of its time considering the state of gun violence now. Then again, these musicians were complex characters.
During the Beastie’s 31 years as a band, they created timeless albums like Paul’s Boutique, revolutionized video-making with comic masterpieces like “Sabotage,” labored as political activists, produced, directed and distributed films, and they gave us reasons to dance as much as to pay attention to injustice in the world and to elevate ourselves spiritually. At their core, they remained total goofballs. You see that in Grand Royal.
In January ’93, MTV News announced that Grand Royal’s first issue had sold out, thanks to high demand and a small print run. Fans waited. Advertisers begged for more page space. The band released the album Ill Communication. The mag took so long to produce that the spine of the second issue said “Long awaited, much anticipated, grossly outdated.” The text by the barcode nodded to the holdup: “Net Wait: Over a Year.” The Beasties were busy making music. They put out the mag with no master plan, just their enthusiasm, record label money, and talented friends. The editorial team’s breakfasts of bong loads also slowed things down. The final issue of this labor of love came out in January 1997, but man, those six issues were a wild ride.
Writing about them, Flood magazine called the issues “guides to unknown worlds, inspired and passionate musings beckoning readers to fall deeper in love with the restless creative spirit that fueled the group.”
“We didn’t sit down and think, ‘Hey, let’s make a magazine,’” Mike D told Select Magazine in 1997. “It was more pathetic than that. We had all of these people writing to us (using the address listed within the Check Your Head liner notes) about the band and we weren't getting back. We had this simple ambition of a newsletter, but then we saw a couple of other bands’ fanzines and they were just like, This is what the band is up to now and this is what they'll be doing. We were like no way! So we made it into a proper magazine.”
The mullet piece stayed with me the most.
“Mulling Over the Mullet: An Essay on Tonsorial Taste by the Editors of Grand Royal” are six of my favorite pages in American publishing. Seriously.
You probably know that a mullet is a haircut that keeps it short on the front and long in the back, but in 1995, we hadn’t heard the term beyond the Beastie’s 1994 song “Mullet Head.”
Put your Oakley’s stone wash on
Watching MTV and you watch on
A number one on the side and don’t touch the back
And number six on the top and don’t cut it wack, Jack
Mullet head, don’t touch the back!
Cut the sides, don’t touch the back!
The Oxford English Dictionary actually cites Grand Royal as the first appearance of the term ‘mullet’ in print. While the OED admits the term’s origin remains unknown, it credits “Mulling Over the Mullet” with clarifying its hazy etymology the most.
That’s what hit me hardest first reading this article in Tower Records that day: how seriously the Beasties took their subject. The story’s tone was scholarly. From the title to the section headers like “Towards an Understanding of the Mullet,” it all reminded me of stuff I read in college classes, except it was written by talented stoners with their tongues in their cheeks. The academic treatment clearly amused the authors, but they also seemed to enjoy the intellectual exercise. I did, too. The Beasties gave people like me permission to be smart and wild at the same time, merging the punk with the intellectual into a streetwise savant all through college, and I still feel that way today at age 47.
The mullet essay itself is legendary, so I want to republish it here. I hope the band can forgive me.
On the table of contents, the editors offered this fine-print welcome: “GRAND ROYAL MAGAZINE welcomes you to ISSUE #2. Being low-lives in fine print and birdies with tweet treats, we paraphrase Ornette to say, this is our magazine, or, to paraphrase Mad Richard from Verve, this is magazine. Some settling of the contents has occurred in handling, some handling of the contents has been unsettling, but this magazine will bring you in touch with the long-distance punner, the wrong-distance punter, and the wrong-way runner. Pour yourself a bowl and dig in.”