Butthole Surfers


(Copyright © 1999-2024 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
Butthole Surfers, 8/10 (EP)
Psychic Powerless, 9/10
Rembrandt Pussyhorse, 8/10
Locust Abortion Technician, 7/10
Jackofficers: Digital Dump , 5/10
Daddy Longhead: Cheatos , 5/10
Paul Leary: The History Of Dogs , 5/10
Hairway To Steven, 7/10
Piouhgd , 6/10
Independent Worm Saloon , 6/10
Electriclarryland , 5/10
P , 6/10
Weird Revolution, 6.5/10
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(Clicka qua per la versione Italiana)

Summary.
During the 1980s the psychedelic scene of Texas was relatively subdued, hardly a foreshadow of the following decade's psychedelic deluge. The foundations were laid by the demented hyper-psychedelic punk-rock of the Butthole Surfers, one of the greatest bands of the 1980s. Gibby Haynes (vocals) and Paul Leary (guitar) brewed a synthesis of Sex Pistols' punk-rock, Red Crayola's acid-rock and Holy Modal Rounders' acid-folk on the mini-album Butthole Surfers (1983), a gallery of demented anthems played in a grotesque and noisy frenzy. Psychic Powerless (1984), one of the decade's most significant works, turned out a hysterical, cacophonous nonsense that borrowed from Captain Beefheart's apocalyptic blues, Chrome's delirious space-rock, Pere Ubu's modern dance, the Cramps' psychotic voodoobilly and Syd Barrett's intergalactic signals. The effect was akin to a hippie cartoon or a circus of epileptic clowns. The lysergic chaos of Rembrandt Pussyhorse (1986) was better structured, but still amounted to an encyclopedic annihilation of 30 years of rock'n'roll. Replacing their visionary and infernal imagination with slicker productions, the Butthole Surfers delivered two albums that were tighter and more conventional, Locust Abortion Technician (1987) and Hairway To Steven (1988), and then proceeded to achieve the impossible, i.e. streamline their abominable punk mess for the mainstream on Piouhgd (1991), Independent Worm Saloon (1994), and Electriclarryland (1996). The last bang was in fact a side-project by Gibby Haynes, P (1995), which contained some of his most explosive music ever. Not awkward at all, and in fact quite accessible, the last Butthole Surfers album, Weird Revolution (2001), was an eclectic survey of well-played cliches, incorporating dance and rap music.


(Translated from my original Italian text by Matteo Russo)

Few groups marked the history of rock music like the Butthole Surfers. Rock music before and after the Butthole Surfers can be considered two different things. Before, it was more or less a dichotomy, separated into serious and comic music. After them, it is no longer clear what is serious and what is comic. All that is clear is that music is a state of mind.

The Butthole Surfers were in that way among the protagonists of the creative reawakening of the 1980s. The masterpieces of the period from 1983-85 were the ideal continuation of Flipper's avant-garde hardcore, and a bridge stretched towards a reappraisal of punk-rock, heavy metal and psychedelic rock. Historically, their sound reconnected with the lysergic folk-rock of the Fugs, of the Holy Modal Rounders and of David Peel, with Chrome's catastrophic acid-rock, the apocalyptic blues of Captain Beefheart, the perverse voodoobilly of the Cramps, and last but not least, with the Texan psychedelic tradition of the Red Crayola and the 13th Floor Elevators.

Paul Leary (guitar) and Gibby Haynes (vocals) were young miscreants from San Antonio (Texas) when they decided to form a group which, through a misunderstanding, came to be known as the Butthole Surfers. Under the aegis of Bruce Licher of the great Savage Republic, they debuted on the 4th of July 1982 at Hollywood’s Whiskey A-Go-Go.

In the early years they had all the zeal of the most criminal of punks, but between the lines you could still pick out notes of the blues. Their sound was constructed on the orgasmic tribalism of the two drummers (King Coffey, an Austin native, and Teresa "Nervosa" Taylor, on the cannibal arpeggios of Leary and on Haynes' agonised and vampiric vocals. Their preferred theme was the squalor of the human condition, but not in order to unleash a revolt against the system, rather to rejoice Dionysically in that degraded state.

On the first EP (“etched” at 69 rpm), Butthole Surfers (Alternative Tentacles, 1983 - Latino Bugger Veil, 2003), also known as Brown Reason To Live (Alternative Tentacles, 2009), their first and unsurpassed anthem, The Shah Sleeps In Lee Harvey’s Grave, reigns supreme: a grotesque revision of David Peel’s agit-prop sketches, and with a psychotic infantilism worthy of the Holy Modal rounders: in the general silence, Leary yells an excited and emphatic slogan (“there’s a time to fuck and a time to prey/ but the shah sleeps in Lee Harvey’s grave” and other such mad ravings) which is then followed by a thunderous riot all around (somewhat the equivalent of a roaring crowd). That their nursery rhymes should be spiritually indebted to hardcore as much as to the old music hall is demonstrated by Suicide. The most cacophonous and lycanthropic nightmare is The Revenge of Anus Presley” a mini-concerto for the sounds of rubble, acute distortion, whistles of synth and disjointed vocal recital. Hey is, surprisingly, an ordinary ballad, with the typical folk-rock inflections of the Feelies and just a hint of carnivalesque revelry in the echo which repeats the song’s title. A ferocious vocal a-la Tom Waits launches Wichita Cathedral, a swinging and epileptic bacchanal in the purest style of Beefheart. The project culminates with the monumental, gargantuan Something, which (uniting the gothic fanfares of Van Der Graaf Generator to the radio signals of Syd Barret and the modern dance of Pere Ubu) catapults Hayne’s homicidal delirium over an android cadence and a crawl industrial funk torn by the monotonous and obsessive riff of the saxophones and by alien vortexes of guitar distortions. Another masterpiece in this style of primitivist dance is Bar-b-q-Pope: sinister bass harmonies, guitar and violin distortions, funereal pace and solemn, hypnotic jingle jangles, rattles, a series of savage and skeletal cries, and finally the The refrain of a rowdy "Beefheartian" blues. Every track is an auditory holocaust which exorcises the acute pain of quotidian existence: Gibby Hayne’s vocalisms of gravel and Leary’s monster guitar contort trance and epilepsy, minimalist rhythms and punk hymns.

The first album, Psychic Powerless (Touch And Go, 1984) confirmed their nature as histrionic-anarcho-existentialists. Unhinged delirium (a recital of shouts distorted through filters), acute cacophony (a continuous discharge of galactic distortions) and apocalyptic epos (the solitary, funereal cadence of the bass) are blended together on Concubine to coin the archetype of the post-Pere Ubu industrial ballad. This, their canon, ranges from recited/shouted idiocies to brutal streams of scorching noise (the frenetic Woly Boly), reaching heights of vulgarity in the ponderous boogie Lady Sniff, which features the finest scordatura since the times of Jeff Cotton; vocalisations made of coughing; gagging and spitting; “concrete” found sounds and a homicidal pace, and culminates with their theme, Butthole Surfers, a galactic thrash dance with a “Rocky Horror Show” chorus; Wild Man Fisher warbling and an atmosphere of mad revelry. The principle progenitor of all of their music is always Beefheart: their spiritual father.
To the lighter side of their production belong jokes like Dum Dum, a nursery rhyme for the cabaret at a voodoo-tribal rhythm and with overwhelming solo from the distorted, reverberated guitar, or the pop-jazz of Negro Observers, or the rattling rock and roll of Mexican Caravan (with huge guitar convulsions), or the epileptic hardcore of Gary Floyd. Their inheritance from Chrome and Red Crayola is evident in the crazy tape-sound, android noises and dissonant maelstrom of Eye of the Chicken, the urgent, pounding, vehement, burning monster-truck rhythm of Cowboy Bob (assisted by a crescendo of agonizing wails) and Cherub, a long sonata for psychedelic guitar FX that makes horrendous mutations in the name of the most grotesque of noise. Their infernal sarabands have now reached the maximal degree of concision and effectiveness. Leary has coined personal style from the repertoire of reverb and false notes of the psychedelic groups (Mayo Thompson docet) and Haynes has tempered his grunts with a register reminiscent of the sub-proletarian register of Johnny Rotten.

The EP Cream Corn From The Socket Of Davis (Touch & Go, 1985) accentuates surrealism and satire, above all in the Crampsian “blues-a-billy” of Moving To Florida.

With Rembrandt Pussyhorse (Touch & Go, 1986) the group settled into their classic line-up: Leary, Haynes, Coffey, Taylor and bassist Jeff Pinkus. The record marks the group’s exit from the fetid alleys of punks and heroin addicts. In fact, the quintet refines their head-on attack, which originated from the fusion of thrash impetus and lysergic chaos, with more composed and elegant arrangements. The guitar still vibrates under the weight of the scordatura and Haynes blabbers on emphatically and “anal” as ever, but the most “present” sound is that of Coffey’s drums – all other sounds are “normalised” so as to be acceptable even for the general public. The citations are explicit (a hip-hop version of The Guess Who’s American Woman, with a hendrixian glissando and vocals through a megaphone, and the theme song from Perry Mason reimagined as a lysergic nightmare). The Surfers immerse themselves in sinister tribalism, in the free cacophony of Waiting For Jimmy To Kick, in the liturgical requiem for organ Strangers Die Everyday¸ in the maniacal arpeggios of Mark Says Alright in the psychedelic-raga vortex of Whirling Hall Of Knives but in general their most caustic and carnivalesque vein seems to have exhausted itself in the name of a more conventional neo-psychedelia. At best, the group manages to sculpt a Creep In The Cellar, a mini horroer B-movie rendered through the nightmare of a heroin addict, with a petulant violin and the martial chimes which recall the litanies of Patti Smith.

Their first concept album, and the most curated one from a production perspective, is Locust Abortion Technician (Touch And Go, 1987), whose central theme is a parody of satanic heavy metal  (Sweat Loaf recycles Black Sabbath’s Sweet Leaf. Graveyard, 22 going on 23) between some blues at a crawling gate a-la Chrome (Pittsburg to Lebanon) and some rock and roll a-la X (Human Cannonball). The noisy intermissions (USSA, O-men) have little in common with those of the past, because they are made predominantly with electronics and in any case with little imagination.

On Hairway To Steven (Touch And Go, 1988) too, in which each piece is named after an appropriate icon, the band stiffens their eccentricities into more conventional formal structures. Each gimmick, rather than seasoning the piece, “is” the entire piece. The sound that results is colder and more diluted, devoid of truly brilliant ideas. Less and less fun, the Butthole Surfers insist on parodying heavy metal (the lugubrious and exotic litany of “elk”, the mega-distorted hard rock with tornadoes of Zappa-esque distorted voices  - the “baseball”), passing from a psychedelic pandemonium in the style of early Pink Floyd (the “horse”) to a swinging rock and roll in the style of Ten Years After (the “rabbit and fish”), even with some steps of flamenco (the “cigarette”). The EP Widowermaker (1989) adds the fuzzed boogie of the title track and the umpteenth heavy metal parody, Booze Tobacco Dope Pussy Cars.

At the end of the decade it seemed the two geniuses of the group had decided to part ways: Pinkus and Haynes recorded Digital Dump (Rough Trade, 1990) under the pseudonym Jackofficers, attempting to apply the cannibalistic process of the Butthole Surfers to electronic dance music; Pinkus also launched Daddy Longhead, a hard rock group who released Cheatos (Touch And Go, 1991); Paul Leary released The History Of Dogs (Rough Trade, 1991), a chronicle of the gulf war arranged in way that is at the very least daring (dance rhythms, light arias, heavy metal guitar); and King Coffey started Drain, by far the most interesting project. Teresa Taylor thought it best to get away from the scene.

Just three years after Hairway To Steven, the new Butthole Surfers album was released, Piouhgd (Rough Trade, 1991). The album confirms the decadence that was manifest in their previous one, although it still includes some cartoon hippie nonsense (the country & western Lonesome Bulldog and above all the rhythm and blues Golden Showers) and some curiosities of their psychotic funfair (the Suicideian psychobilly Something and the cavernous boogie Blindman). These brief rock puns are worth more than the three extended tracks that should be the album’s highlight: Revolution 2, an acidrock chant at a pow-wow rhythm, Barking Dogs, a neurasthenic version of the Pink Floyd of Echoes, and PSY¸ a soft and hypnotic melody with long jamming a-la Grateful Dead. Haynes, ever more seduced by the singing personality of David Thomas, livens up most of these tracks, but the group in general gives the feeling of wanting above all to “sell” his eccentricity to a wider audience.

Independent Worm Saloon (Capitol, 1994) completes the collapse of this historic group, confirming definitively their renunciation of the avant-garde. Behind the chaotic semblance Dog Inside Your Body and Chewin’ George Lucas’ Chocolate lie radio hits that retain only a (hypocritical) sense of humour. The heavy metal on Who Was In My Room Last Night and the industrial on Annoying Song just constitute the band worshipping trends (including themselves, in the grand finale Clean It Up). The whole sound is controlled and normalised, in the name of crossing-over (The Wooden Song, You Don’t Know Me). Their “sell-out” is so brazen that it resembles another group that seemed indomitable, Pere Ubu.

With Electriclarryland (Capitol, 1996) also known as Oklahoma, Coffey, Haynes and Leary receive their coronation into the Olympus of radio rock. The beginning of the disc is not entirely unworthy, and is at least conceptually linked with the work of their youth. However, the punk rigamaroles of Birds and Ulcer Breakout soon disconnect from this newly rediscovered time period. The Butthole Surfers of the 90s are much more musical. They go crazy on the psychedelic hip-hop Pepper (their first and only hit, a little too similar to Beck's style), they sing the blues rock epic Cough Syrup (full of citations from the classics of their past) and they rattle off the country serenade TV Star (dedicated to the TV actress Christina Applegate). Against the groups new family-friendly guise, their stereotypes (distorted singing and drunken guitars) seem a little out of place. And the bulk of the album is padded with fillers that would not amuse even the most doped-up freak.

At the end of 1995, Gibby Haynes indulged in the pause/amusement P (Capitol), an album recorded with a trio of Hollywood actors (Bill Garter and Johnny Depp on guitars and Sal Jenco on drums) and the outside help of Flea (Chili Peppers) and Steve Jones (Sex Pistols). Far from meandering or distracted, the record includes splendid forays into traditional high-listening genres, beginning with the orchestral country of Michael Stipe, continuing with the explosive rap-metal a-la Chili Peppers on Zing Splash, triumphing in the deafening boogie a-la ZZ Top on Oklahoma (galactic guitar riffs, psychotic road, dragging trot of drums), degenerating in the heroin-addict reggae of John Glen, zooming through the country & western of Mr Officer, getting drunk in the pachydermic blues a-la Jon Spencer on White Man Sings The Blues, encroaching on the avant-garde with the cosmic dub of Scrapings From Ring, and finishing with a pathetic ballad worthy of Dylan, The Deal.

This amusing plunder of the stereotypes of popular music, conducted with the air of Brancaleone , is perhaps Haynes’ best work since time immemorial.

Over the course of a decade the Butthole Surfers and the general public rushed to meet one another: the former had started as inveterate punks/freaks with a sound that was, at the time, impossible; the latter has today elevated that sound to fashionable music background like post punk dinner-jazz; the former moderated the excesses while the latter accentuated theirs. The Butthole Surfers and the general public thus met halfway, and the general public discovered that Haynes and Leary were just ZZ Top imitating Jefferson Airplane – a pair of sacrosanct “rednecks” disguised as hippies.

The "lost" album After The Astronauts (Capitol, 1998) was aborted by the label and never released in its original form. The music was rumoured to be only vaguely related to the original Butthole Surfers.
Some of the music recorded for After The Astronauts shows up (revamped taking advantage of the engineering geniuses of rising production stars Rob Cavallo and Chris Lord-Alge) on Weird Revolution (Hollywood, 2001), the long-delayed (five years) follow-up to Electriclarryland.
First and foremost, Weird Revolution stands as Butthole Surfers' dance and rap album. Wrapped in shining, slick and thick production, anchored to smooth grooves, and propelled by solid club beats, these twelve new facsimiles of 1996's hit single Pepper effortlessly drown catchy melodies (barely spoken, hummed or chanted by frontman Gibby Haines) under blankets of studio tricks. The transformation is made complete by the watering down of their psychedelic goofiness to achieve a mild degree of humour for middle-class families. Haynes' vocals (the same vocals that used to be the musical equivalent of chemical weapons) are intelligible, coherent and even eloquent. The joke has turned into reality.
All the album's songs sound the same, but each is a well-crafted and cynically calculated collage, and the multitude of sonic events helps forget/forgive the utter triviality of the exercise. The production quality is as astounding as the compositional quality is abysmal. Each second of music adds something to a tune that did not deserve to exist, updating it to the post-grunge and the post-Stone Roses world. Thus, their most banal album turns out to be also their most experimental, a contradiction that could occur only to them.
Even when they decided to sell out the Butthole Surfers had to do it in a unique way. The dilemma of commercial vs art rock has often mirrored the metabolic transition from youthful enthusiasm and irreverence to middle-age financial concerns and sociopolitical indifference. The Butthole Surfers fit the pattern except that they also jumped ship completely, landing in a dance-pop scene that hardly ever heard their name.
The carnival of stereotypes begins with The Weird Revolution that employs Talking Heads' high-tech polyrhythms (cfr, Once In A Lifetime) and a grotesque variation on Adrian Belew's elephant guitar to deploy a Malcolm X speech in the format of a blithe disco shuffle. The guitar's drones fill the space in the background, confused voices filter in and out, frantic tapes corrode the beats.
Singer Haynes, drummer King Coffey and guitarist Paul Leary have de facto reinvented their roles. Leary, in particular, is the shadow of his old self. He occasionally wakes up from his drug-induced lethargy and unleashes a loud, trippy guitar noise.
The Shame Of Life, co-written by Kid Rock (the lyrics refer to Kid Rock's trinity of girls, drugs and guns), shows the commercial potential of that technique by enhancing a sub-standard Beck-ian litany to hit-single status.
The derivative element is embarrassing/captivating in Dracula From Houston, that opens quoting the guitar line from the Velvet Underground's Sweet Jane, and then soars in an exuberant, Brit-poppy chorus that beats the Oasis at their own game. Haines' spoken rhymes may sound monotonous, but the backing vocals are infectious and the harmonies even intricate.
Ditto for the dance novelty Get Down, full of guitar pyrotechnics, that hovers at the border between senile imbecility and iconoclastic prodigy.
Even an unattractive funk shuffle like Venus boasts enough diversions (bomb shelter siren, tablas, muezzin-like cantillation, gangsta rap, sitar interlude, syncopated soul organ) to grant it everlasting radio appeal. And The Last Astronaut is all sound effects and odd time signatures, like a videogame played in a crowded bar where the tv is broadcasting a political speech (a John Lennon-esque piano litany tinkling in the background).
Once you have lost your virginity with dance-pop, why not prostitute with a country ballad? The trio sings the death of a warplane pilot in the plaintive Jet Fighter, that sounds almost like a send-up of Stan Ridgway.
Yet another front is opened by Mexico (that invokes God, Allah, Zeus, Buddah and Bob Dylan over percolating, scratching synthesizers) and by Yentel (the only track not mixed by Chris Lord-Alge, a hodgepodge of fragmented vocals and atmospheric synthesizers): with these songs the Surfers venture into the trance-global dance genre pioneered by the likes of Loop Guru and Transglobal Underground.
It is almost impossible to find remnants of the old Surfers: maybe Shit Like That, given a Nine Inch Nails-ian ranting and a monster hard-rock riff; or Intelligent Guy, that boasts a piercing guitar riff, a seismic rhythm, and the emphatic roar of horror-film soundtracks (although it mimicks Falco's Rock Me Amadeus); or the ultimate joke, They Came In (loud, pounding drums, juxtaposed to a western, apocalyptic guitar and to symphonic keyboards).
Like countless albums after Pet Sounds, this album has little substance but dazzling presentation.
Butthole Surfers used to be shocking for the way they could be unpredictable. Now what is impredictable is the banality of their music. In their own way, though, this, too, is defiance of common sense.

Humpty Dumpty LSD (Buggerveil, 2002) collects rarities from the 1980s, a tiny part of the material stored on 278 tapes and still unreleased.

King Coffey resurfaced in the second decade of the new century with a new band: Rubble. They debuted on Farewell Drugs (Latino Bugger Veil, 2012), containing the anthemic Waiting To Die and the catchy romp of On The Road South.

Teresa Taylor died in 2023 at the age of 60.

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