Every so often on Popular I hit a knowledge gap that there’s simply no way of talking around, and this is one. I have only ever seen one episode of South Park, after the pub one night, sometime in its first flush of success. I didn’t like it enough to watch more, and that turned out to be it for me and the show – this single aside. If you want a comment on South Park, how “Chocolate Salty Balls” fits into it, its cultural significance – well, the box is open, and I know a lot of the writers here are fans.
With that large and necessary context torn out, what independent life can this song have? Quite a lot. It’s the first outright comedy record to get to #1 since “The Stonk”, but the gap in care, structure and wit between the songs is colossal. There’s none of the soul-shrivelling forced bonhomie of Red Nose Day about this record, where you herd the comics of the day into a studio and pray something half-funny emerges. This is a return to a seventies model – funny songs that got to Number One because they made people laugh.
Except it was never quite so simple. The wheels of the chart require constant greasing, and the applicator here is DJ Chris Moyles, who made “Chocolate Salty Balls” his cause. The last time I touched on the unheavals of Radio One, during Britpop, the station was emerging from Matthew Bannister’s cultural purge. Out went the populist, roadshow-ready entertainer DJs; in came a gaggle of cool kids who knew a bit about music. Gone was the notion that wonderful Radio 1 would be the jolly backbone of Britain’s working day – instead it would move into a tastemaker role, shepherding new trends into the mainstream.
The long-term consequences of this play out across the 00s, but with Britpop at least the strategy seemed to work beautifully. But Britpop faded, and the brash post-Spice wave of tweenpop was exactly the sort of thing the new, cool, Radio 1 struggled with. Bannister’s remade station, you felt, had not really planned on what to do with music it didn’t instinctively like. The old Radio 1 had no such scruples.
And meanwhile, Moyles had emerged as the station’s rising star, very much along the old populist lines – entertainment and banter first, music second, though with a slightly hipper, crueller edge. Promoted to the drivetime show in October 1998, he wanted to foster a big smash, make an impact. Comedy records and hit-hungry DJs had been a regular fit back in the 1970s: they could be again – particularly a record from a show which, like Moyles himself, bounced along on a rep for political incorrectness.
That was one big difference between the old station and the new: the new one could embrace smutty records – if they came from a fashionable source – where the old one huffed and hummed and banned them. And so it was that the national pop station threw its tastemaking weight behind a song whose chorus – and main gag – is a guy singing “suck on my balls, baby”.
Back in the 70s heyday of the comedy record, that wouldn’t just have been unthinkable, it would have ruined the joke. In the days of Judge Dread (“It’s little boy blue with his horn”), the point wasn’t the dirt, it was sneaking it into a public space – like the charts – and sniggering as that space tried and failed to throw it back out.
“Chocolate Salty Balls” can’t rely on that frisson of subversion, even if Chris Moyles might have bristled at the idea he was part of an establishment now. Fortunately, it gets to rely on being funny instead. The central gag – cooking song turns sexual – isn’t just done with panache and left, it’s reinforced by two other, even better ideas. The first is that Parker and Stone know that if you’ve got Isaac Hayes doing your innocent-song-becomes-sex-jam running gag, you use him – so the “recipe instructions” verse of the song is gloriously, creamily over-the-top even without the innuendo (“a touch of va-NILL-uh”) and the music is robustly enjoyable pop funk in its own right.
And the second is that having flipped the cooking metaphor into the sex one, “Chocolate Salty Balls” collapses it back again, paying off the straight-faced tone with the “on fire” gag. It wouldn’t do to overstress the cleverness here – in the end, this is mostly about keeping the promise of a South Park record called “Chocolate Salty Balls” – but having a trick to end on is like knowing how to end a sketch well. It’s basic, but it’s seemed beyond almost every other comedy record we’ve dealt with.