Go straight to the source, and he'll say the reason for the
upcoming Missiles reunion show is one of simple economics.
"We'd just like to make a third of what the Road Kings make on their reunion shows," says Charlie Sanders, the Missiles' bassist and lead cutup. "I mean, they've killed."
Back in the day -- seven years ago, to be specific -- Sanders went by the nickname of Chuck Savage. At his most visually flamboyant, Chuckie indulged in clip-on mirror shades and a vast wardrobe of shirts; sometimes he'd tear the sleeves off, and he was just as inclined to button them up tight to the neck as he was to leave them opened to the navel for that cheesy chest-hair effect. For a while there, Sanders's near-equal in disposable fashion sense, Missiles drummer Bill Myers, was rarely seen in public minus his signature Wayfarers with the small skull and crossbones glued to the nose arch; he also liked to go shirtless on stage, common courtesy be damned. The band's first bassist, a "little-bitty guy" named Beau Mullinax, was affectionately known as the "hair farmer" because of his full-figured Night Ranger do. As for the other Missiles -- guitarists Dave Randall and Ken Jones (who joined after Mullinax's departure in 1990) -- they displayed far less flair, though Randall did show a weakness for arty headgear (paisley-patterned bandannas and whatnot).
Cool? Not especially. If anything, though, the Missiles were brave -- and also a tad suicidal, from a career standpoint. Back then, rock and roll was fast turning oh-so-glum and serious with the onset of grunge, while Houston's music scene was being barraged silly with Red Hot Chili Pepper clones. The Missiles, on the other hand, refused to acknowledge that the '80s were through. The unlikeliest of pop-rock visionaries, they failed to yield to the will of the Pearl Jam nation while vowing never to slap out a pseudo-funky bass line or prance around the stage with tube socks over their genitalia (though scantily-clad bimbos were always welcome).
"We were just a beer-soaked bar band," Sanders says.
Eventually, the buzz wore off, and countless shitty gigs and blown trailer tires later, the Missiles reluctantly disbanded, sending loyal fans on their way with a sweaty, packed farewell gig at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge in July of 1994. The band's scrappy run lasted a decade, far longer than anyone involved might've imagined it would. Somehow, they even managed to land a sponsorship deal from Budweiser ("I think we got 5,000 bucks, four leather jackets, a guitar and a bunch of fliers and posters," Sanders says.) -- this, the band that vigorously condoned alcohol abuse with randy little numbers such as "Cabbagehead" and "Start Drinkin'." Hardly models of responsible partying, the Missiles would like to think they're partly to blame for the fizzle of the Bud Dry campaign. Fact is, their sarcastic, between-song plugs at dive bars throughout the country probably hurt more than they helped.
"Less calories, more alcohol: We used to say that," Jones says. "I don't think [Budweiser] liked that too much."
Kidding aside, the Missiles were onto something, even if they weren't especially attuned to what it was.
"They were really the only band to successfully make the transition from the '80s to the '90s," says Darin Murphy, whose own Houston act, Trish and Darin, wasn't quite so lucky, eventually succumbing to all manner of insults from various local bastions of hip (including the Press).
Today, the Missiles still have fans, some of whom remain firmly entrenched in the local music business. Shawn Hauptmann, who now manages Houston C&W purists the Hollisters, was so bowled over by the Missiles' 1991 effort, Atomic Fireball, that he oversaw the release of its 1993 follow-up, Low Scale Mattress Fire. He even provided the band a rehearsal space. Outlaw Dave Andrews, the drive-time DJ at rock station KLOL/101.1 FM, lifted a portion of the band's catchy thermonuclear blast, "All I've Done," for his show's intro.
"First time I saw them, they were were opening up for Steve Morse," Andrews recalls. "At shows like that, you really don't think about the opening band. All of a sudden they start jammin', and I'm like, 'Wait, these guys are good.' They've got local lyrics, they kick ass, they played all these cool covers by the Del Lords, the Hoodoo Gurus, Zappa."
But the Missiles also had their enemies. A prissy, well-fed product of The Woodlands, they were unwilling to abandon their intellectually stunted brand of wit, insisting on milking it for maximum guffaws instead. "Somebody once said that our humor was a little too highbrow," Jones says. "I didn't understand that at all."
On at least one occasion, the jokes backfired. "We had this song, 'Me and My Oriental Girlfriend'," Sanders says. "Every now and then, people would come up to us at shows and say they didn't appreciate the song -- that it was tasteless."
Looking back now on the band's four releases, the Missiles were often tasteless -- but basically harmless. Although his lyrics were never dull, Sanders's songwriting was, for the most part, underdeveloped, the melodies derivative, the playing competent but predictable. And while the Houston Chronicle praised the band as "arguably Houston's best original rock band," the Press and the Public News (then the self-appointed gauge for Inner Loop chic) voiced their passive contempt for the Missiles by underplaying the group's popularity. Finally, in 1993, the band was featured on the cover of P.N. The Missiles broke up a year later.
"Their reviews of our stuff would be tepid, real noncommittal," Sanders says. "They saw us as a suburban mainstream rock band, which is what we were. We were a rock band, and we weren't afraid to be a rock band. We were riding an opposite wave."
All said and done, it was a stroke of marketing genius -- albeit a remedial one. In an effort to promote their upcoming CD in the cheapest way possible, the Missiles relieved Sam's Club of a good portion of its Atomic Fireball stock, stuffing a single jawbreaker into an envelope without a return address, and mailing the packages out to various newspapers around the region. A week later, they sent envelopes containing a handful of Fireballs to the same people, again with no return address and no explanation; the next week, it was a dozen of the fiery candies in each package, along with a press bio and a copy of the band's new disc, Atomic Fireball.
It's tough to know whether the strategy actually worked, as it would be overshadowed by an even keener publicity stunt: Atomic Fireball's second track, "I Can't Get No Respect from the Public News," was at once a witty, caustic attack on P.N. and a proud admission of the band's irredeemable outsider status. "I like to write what I feel," snarls Sanders over a numbingly repetitive mock-metal guitar assault. "But when I play for money, that's another deal."
The group also made a video to go with the tune. It shows each of the members supposedly dumping their excrement (actually Baby Ruth bars) into a shopping bag marked "New Clear Waste," depositing the devious little gift on the front stoop of P.N.'s Montrose offices and setting it ablaze. The song is not the band's best; nor are the accompanying visuals. (That honor goes to the defiantly '80s power ballad "Women Say" and its clever video, which apes a host of creaky MTV cliches, including the 360-degree panning technique from the Simple Minds' "Don't You Forget About Me.") But the Missiles were able to capitalize on the attention they received from "I Can't Get No Respect..." and the stunts surrounding it, prolonging the band's life span while expanding its reach.
"We toured the East Coast three times, and the West Coast four times," Sanders says. "It was like: If we can fool these people long enough into giving us free beer, then we're just going to keep doing it."
Through it all, the Missiles never once devalued their middle-class white-boy roots; in fact, they celebrated them shamelessly. And in the end, they knew it would all come down to money, or a lack thereof. Even though they had a lot of well-connected folks helping them, the Missiles were never able to rally the outside support needed to continue their upward trajectory. Labels weren't interested, the road was taking its toll, so it seemed prudent to break up at a time when they still had enough fans to mourn the loss.
"A lot of people still liked us," Jones says. "We didn't want to wear out our welcome."
One of Sanders's favorite Missiles one-liners was the teasing hypothetical question: "I didn't go to college for this?" He used to pose it to the audience when it looked as if a gig had gone to hell.
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At the moment, Sanders's days as a full-time front guy are over: He's the divorced father of two and the bassist in country crooner Jesse Dayton's backup band. The other Missiles are all married and play music part time -- Jones and Myers with the local band Big Swifty, Randall with an Austin outfit called the Chiggers. And yet, with their impending reunion appearance and the Public News now gone, the Missiles can safely say they've outlasted their supposed nemesis -- sort of.
"For me, I don't need the money," says Jones, trying to downplay the cash-flow issue. "I was the Missiles' biggest fan before I joined. I just want to get out there and play the songs again."
And hope there will be someone around to listen.
The Missiles perform Friday, September 25, at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue. Doors open at 8 p.m. Cover is $5. Horseshoe opens. For info, call 869-