Straight Off The Dome: Lenny Randle's Hip-Hop Crusade Against Mariners Malaise
The Seattle Mariners were in a lousy spot in the early 1980s. Infielder Lenny Randle took it upon himself to change that through the power of ass-moving disco beats.
If you were in the position of ensuring the continued metro-area enthusiasm for an early 1980s Seattle Mariners team—and you should thank whatever deity comes to mind that you were not—you would have had your work cut out for you. For the perpetually overcast days before Buhner and Griffey and even Alvin Davis, the M's were a non-stop cavalcade of shame, 95-plus-game losers in their first four years of existence, and likely their fifth if the strike hadn't shortened the '81 season. There were highlights—some solid career-twilight seasons for "Pitch at Risk to" Richie Zisk, an All-Star berth for Bruce Bochte, the only season in which Mario Mendoza slugged over .300—but the attendance numbers kept slipping, from more than 1.3 million fans in the '77 inaugural season to just over 836,000 by 1980. Only the post-Carew, pre-Hrbek Minnesota Twins cultivated a bigger sense of apathy among the American League teams of the early '80s, and their ace was a middle-aged Jerry Koosman.
So when your team's that uninspiring, how do you get the word out through the venue of popular music that no, really, you should come on down to the old ballgame and watch your hometown boys get destroyed by the Red Sox? Can you even incorporate concepts like "our DH is pretty good" or "advanced statistics may someday venerate Bill Caudill's age-25 season" into catchy lyrics? Can you sell the jukebox-stocking pizza parlors of the greater Seattle area on a 45 that extols the virtues of a rookie Dave Henderson? I mean, maybe, but ballplayers and their foibles come and go. You know what's forever? Their stadium. And what more lighthearted way to celebrate the enduring institution that is the Seattle Kingdome than through the ephemeral novelty genre of rap?
This is where it's helpful to have Lenny Randle around. You may know Randle as the pretty-alright utility player who somehow got a higher percentage of AL MVP votes after notching a 103 OPS+ in 1974 than Dick Allen did for leading the league in home runs and slugging percentage. If you don't know Randle for that, you might know him from his notorious 1981 attempt to coax a dribbler up the line to go foul using nothing but his own lung power.
Randle is clearly banking on that with the sleeve of "Kingdome," because aside from a shirtless photo of him surrounded by an assortment of beaming women, the biggest picture on the collage-style photomontage artwork is him pulling that very stunt, from the least flattering angle both tactically (the ball isn't even touching the foul line) and dignity-wise (it looks like the precise moment where he's realized he's doing something ridiculous and also about to fall over).
"Kingdome" is officially credited to "Lenny Randle & Ballplayers featuring 'Rashawna,'" so bonus for giving credit where it's due. The ballplayers in question provide backup vocals, and include among their ranks such Mariner stalwarts as Larry Andersen, Al Cowens, and Julio and Todd Cruz (no relation); the whole thing was pulled together musically by drummer/synth player/arranger Ron Randle (yes relation). The Rashawna in question is Lenny's ten-year-old niece, which makes this a particularly weird case of getting the family and some guys from work over. Recorded sometime around the '81 strike and released the following year, "Kingdome" is said by Randle to have been a sensation at the time, with the band touring their act in Seattle and getting booking demands in cities where they played as the visiting team. "We didn't think it was gonna go all over the country," he remarks in the liner notes to Light in the Attic's superb collection Wheedle's Groove: Seattle Funk, Modern Soul & Boogie Volume II 1972-1987, "Then we said we should stop before they get mad because we gotta win a game!"
This is where it becomes almost impossible for me to be even remotely cynical about this song. First off, it was recorded as a charity thing, in honor of a young Mariners superfan who needed $5,000 for a voice synthesizer. (This effort to help a child with cerebral palsy open up a line of communication puts "King Dome" in an unlikely kinship with Neil Young's Trans.) It succeeded there, even if the band's effort to also make "King Dome" the official Mariners' ballpark anthem failed when the top brass considered it a distraction. So between aiding a good cause and being eyerolled by the front office, there's enough goodwill sympathy for this track to forestall whatever jock-rock jokes might otherwise seem pertinent.
Secondly, and more importantly, it is a jam. Lenny is kind of rudimentary for an MC, but that shouldn't matter any, since this was recorded before your average Seattleite even had any idea what Busy Bee Starski and Kool Moe Dee were up to on the opposite coast. And the dude can rock a call-and-response with the best of the old-school, even if he's urging people to shout out Astroturf instead of their Zodiac signs. Meanwhile, the band's tighter than chin music: Ron Randle proves he grew up in a musical family where having a baseball breakout was a good backup plan; the worst thing you can say about his drumming is that he's not quite Tony Thompson, so his dearth of session-player credits seems inexplicable. And Jerome Andrews, whose appearance here seems to be a recorded-music one-off, provides a rubbery bassline, a persistent wah-wah, and one of the jankiest, snarliest, wild-hair-up-your-ass fuzz guitar solos ever to appear on a boogie funk track. (Neil Young comparison #2: this song may have inadvertently godfathered grunge.)
Randle was gone from the Mariners by 1983, but he immediately went on to a career that took him to a pro career playing in Italy and gave him more leeway to juggle both baseball and entertainment promotions. That same year, Randle and the Ballplayers—a group that now included journeyman outfielder and gospel musician Thad Bosley—put out a full-length album titled Just a Chance that included "King Dome," "King Dome"'s cowbell-riddled ladies-man b-side "I'm A Ballplayer"—sample lyric: "I'm a ballplayer/can ya gimme a high five/I'm a ballplayer/can I, you know, with your thighs"—and other collector-fodder tracks like "American Worker" and the instrumental "Universal Language". Randle has definitely fared better than the subject of his first and best song, at least—"King Dome" may sound 1982 to the core, but it had a lot more charm than the actual Kingdome itself did, even during its Griffey-and-Edgar-fueled renaissance years. Why drop ceiling tiles on peoples' heads when you can drop the bomb instead?