Joe Sparrow : Against The Grain: Grand Royal Magazine

I recently started a new job and had to share some #FunFacts about me with my new colleagues.

Racking my brain for suitable candidates was a much more fraught experience than I expected. Banality and humblebrags lurked at each turn, primed to translate my initial contact with 80 new workmates into a flurry of get-a-load-of-this-jerk emails.

The faintest whiff of desperation clung to my choices, all the same. One of them was this:

3) I have spent a moderately embarrassing amount of money collecting all but the first issue of Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal magazine. (If you have a copy, please email me! :) )

Besides that heinous bracketed addendum, something else odd happened. It turns out that Grand Royal is a secret handshake: prising open societal loopholes and thrusting co-conspirators into a world of boyish* enthusiasm over odd stuff. 

New colleagues who I’d not even met, let alone learnt the names of, sidled up to me in the kitchen, initiating wide-eyed conversations about weird hip-hop cuts, Stüssy T-shirts and limited edition Adidas footwear. One conspiratorially rolled up his sleeve to show me a blue, limited edition wristwatch that had a photo of Mike D in a captain’s hat on the face.

I cooed pathetically over it; all because I’d mentioned a magazine that was published, sporadically, over six increasingly odd issues at the end of the last millennium.

Some people who didn’t know anything much about the B-Boys asked about Grand Royal, interested in the furtive conversations they’d seen. The first issue — I explained —  is almost impossible to get hold of, as they only printed a few thousand, and you don’t really see them outside of the USA. 

About once a year, they pop up on eBay, I continued, and I was bidding on a copy once, but I bowed out when bidding topped £200. (It turns out that one true hero has put the PDF of issue #1 online now.)

These interested parties often pronounced the magazine “Grand Royale”, with an “E”: Grand Roy-al.

I don’t correct them, because I too mispronounced it this way in 1997 when, in the Hanley branch of Mike Lloyd Music (RIP), I first saw a copy of Grand Royal (possibly issue 4, but maybe issue 6), which I later regretted not buying.

Also, I remember feeling silly when someone cool corrected me: of course it’s Grand-Royal-without-an-“E”; I must be conflating the name with that “Royale with cheese” bit in Pulp Fiction.

But looking back, I wonder if that connection between the Beastie Boys’ magazine and QT’s 90s movie behemoth is some sort of holistic proto-logic, surfacing from the depths of my consciousness.

Look at the similarities: Grand Royal and Pulp Fiction both are cultural grab-bags penned by outsider auteurs; cut-and-paste scrapbooks of hyper-aware creative madmen.

Bear with me here: on one hand Tarantino breathes life back into John Travolta, Little Green Bag, and Jheri Curls; on the other, three hyperactive hip-hop heads fund ten page Demolition Derby special features, cut-out-and-keep cardboard jeeps with protruding bass units, and interviews with Russell Simins pretending to be Russell Simmons.

Brimming with the skittering confidence of auteurs at their creative peaks, both QT and the Beasties transformed the obscure into the ultra-cool, and flipped the old into the new; all through a weird cross-cultural alchemy.

Grand Royal’s wild mix of this, that and the other has rarely been replicated in a magazine format, and it’s probably not even been fully replicated on the web — the perfect home for this kind of verge-of-ludicrous scrapbooking.

Today, maybe the curated best-of-the-web über-blogs like Boing Boing and Kotkke, or the quasi-gonzo output of Gawker, are closest in spirit to Grand Royal.

Some of the Grand Royal-isms — like bizarro meta-interviews with Weird Al — would (and do) comfortably sit on Gawker: this is a huge media platform that runs a blog written by a dog, after all.

However, I can imagine others — “Joey Buttafuoco’s back To School Wear For ’93” — being greeted with furrowed brows and short shrift.

Grand Royal was blogging before blogging: whatever the Beasties wanted in the mag went in the mag. I’m pretty sure some stuff they didn’t want in the mag went in too, simply because it had nowhere else to go and they figured it was the right thing to do.

This approach seems a simple reflex action today, when populating your Tumblr feed with whatever makes you you is a frictionless, instinctive action. But in 1996, it was a fairly revolutionary tactic, particularly on an international, high-profile platform.

Grand Royal ultimately could not sustain itself: three rich pop stars propped it up and then they moved on to new whizz-bang ideas.

And now, surely it’s time for a Grand Royal rebirth: 2015’s world of push-notifications, oddball niche Twitter streams and chuck-it-online-and-see-what-happens Buzzfeed listicles seems specifically designed to deliver Grand Royal’s mad excess in a way that might finally pay off. I’d subscribe in a  heartbeat.

*I know, I know, “boyish”. I’ve not met any women who are Grand Royal aficionados, but they are obviously out there, and I’m looking forward to greeting them with the same secret GR handshake.