Butthole Surfers – [Discography Review]

Butthole Surfers – [Discography Review]

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Tuesday, 11 September 2007
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The single most important construct to the fabric of humanity and the condition of it is the establishment of motivation. ‘Motive’ is the cornerstone for crime, punishment, change, virtue, vice and myriad other human endeavours but, most importantly, defining motives and qualifying motivation means articulating cause for the purpose of allowing others to understand outcomes and effects. Without that understanding—that relatable human element that everyone can find within themselves—people get very nervous. That was the instinct the Butthole Surfers tapped into from the very beginning.

The Surfers started making noise in the early 1980s—a period in human history marked by the race’s sense of superiority and accomplishment at having conquered the universe and, whether intentional or not, the band instantly represented an X factor. Via live shows live shows that were, by turns, maniacal, scatological and chaotic along with a series of recordings that revelled in the same urges, the band shook up every ear and eye they touched because it was a method of operation that was difficult to decode; except that it wasn’t if you looked at it right. Beasts have no motive outside of base instinct for their actions—presumably that’s why they continue to command such respect—so why couldn’t a band do the same?

Lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson once wrote that, “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man” and, if they heard it, Gibby Haynes (vocals), Paul Leary (guitar) and Jeffrey “King” Coffey certainly took the sentiment to heart. From their very first appearance, the Butthole Surfers presented themselves with a single, very basic and primal methodology: like a grand and terrifying amoebic virus, the band moved through the musical pantheon engulfing different genres and injecting its poisonous genetic code to recast each one in the band’s own image while leaving all of each genre’s inherent sonic attributes still in place—in effect, mutating each one before moving on to another victim with each successive release.

Of course, such a methodology frustrated critics that followed the band to no end as they attempted to qualify the music every time a new release appeared. When a new album dropped, fans and critics alike would climb over each other to either commend or condemn the group, only to find that they’d mutated again and thus rendering comparisons drawn on other albums useless. At different points in their career, the Butthole Surfers drew comparisons to a new, post-punk permutation of The Grateful Dead, Grand Funk Railroad, Flipper, Public Image Ltd., Led Zeppelin, Tricky and more; all of which are fairly useless comparisons when one takes into consideration the fact that while a similar sonic element to any of those might appear, it might be discarded just as quickly and never be heard again.

Such wild veering seemed destined to cause strong reactions in every listener that crossed the band’s path. The Surfers were both revered and reviled—sometimes by the same person in the same breath—and admitting your support of the group never did anything for any listener’s popularity. It’s kind of amazing how much of a reaction the band’s very existence provoked; their concert posters were censored, the president of their label refused to say the band’s name in public and they were banned from venues regularly. Yet, in some circles, the band was (and continues to be) loved. How did the Butthole Surfers straddle the line between love and hate so masterfully? The existential Truth about the Butthole Surfers, their shows and their music could be viewed much like Dostoyevsky’s aphorism for faith: If you get it, no explanation is necessary and if you don’t know explanation will do. It didn’t help that the band never saw fit to reveal their reasoning either.

Looking back now and taking the band’s whole catalogue into account, it’s far easier to put together the Butthole Surfers’ legacy of perversion, what they did and where they were headed, but it wasn’t back then. Who were the Butthole Surfers? Read on and find out.

Butthole Surfers
s/t EP
(Alternative Tentacles, 1983)
**and**
Live PCPPEP
(Alternative Tentacles, 1984; re-issued together on Latino Buggerveil in 2003 with bonus tracks)

Right from the first blast of “The Shah Sleeps In Lee Harvey’s Grave,” the Butthole Surfers serve notice that definitions of common terms in music required revision in order to even come close to explaining the scatological quagmire that the band has in store for listeners with songs like “Something” and “Wichita Cathedral.” Because the American underground was fascinated with hardcore at the time of Butthole Surfers EP’s release (it was also referred to as A Brown Reason To Live because of the color vinyl the EP was originally pressed into) and nobody had a clue what else to call it, the band was regularly lumped into the genre as well but the sounds contained on the Butthole Surfers’ first EP bear about as much resemblance to the music that Minor Threat, Black Flag or Husker Du were making at the time as a gorilla does to a lemur; same order and same phylum, but the suborder places them worlds apart. After the stunted couplets that actually could have found a place in the songbook of the most numbskulled, glue-huffing hardcore band in recorded history (representative sample: “There’s a time to shit and a time for God/ the last shit I took was pretty fuckin’ odd”) and the squalid bleats of distorted, double-time mania that comprise the music behind “The Shah Sleeps…,” the band immediately dives so far from hardcore orthodoxy that it’s actually easier to define the EP by the differences between the Surfers and their peers than it could be to do so by the similarities.

Instantly apparent in “Hey” is the lack of distortion, comparatively slower tempos (for half of the song anyway) and more intricate production than you could find on the average hardcore record of the day. A series of tape loops, echoed vocals and squirrely guitars lend a sense of danger and looming, potentially violent psychosis to these songs that the band’s loud-fast peers couldn’t muster because, unlike the Surfers, extra ideas of theme would have been lost in the blur; the Surfers had the presence of mind to slow things down and let audiences get a good look at their filthy, grimy predilections. The absence of distortion from songs including “Something,” “Bar-B-Q Pope” and “Suicide” adds to an eerily welcoming air too; these songs seem almost strategically placed in the track list to invite listeners in to the band’s funhouse before attempting to damage their chromosomes with the ear-bleeding, blunt-force craziness of “Wichita Cathedral” and “The Revenge Of Anus Presley.”

In this case, such proceedings seem like a genuinely willful act—as if the band is somehow deliberately trying to force evolution within those that happened upon the record—and, whether intentional or not, it does work. Playing through this short EP will forever alter perceptions any music you heard before it and all of the music you hear after it as well. You find yourself listening for the dark corners of discontent and mania in the work of other totally unrelated bands and going back to try and figure out how exactly such twisted reflections of song craft can resonate with such a bizarre perfection. The songs are certainly flawed—they aren’t perfect in that way—but the set of them paints a disturbing and unfaltering portrait of jarring mental unrest that’s ugly and vile but, like a massive, high-speed, multi-car accident, it’s still incredibly attractive and impossible to turn away from.

The Live PCPPEP reprises many of the songs from the first EP (maybe to prove that they can be played the same way twice?) in front of a live audience—where Butthole Surfers really let their freak flag fly. In front of a crowd, singer Gibby Haynes really got off the leash and PCPP proves that fact handily; on the versions of “Wichita Cathedral,” “Bar-B-Q Pope” and “Something,” the singer all but howls, barks and screeches at the moon between blasts of his saxophone and a cacophonous bullhorn that will cut through the matter between even the most tinnitus-afflicted ears like a razor. Given that tracks including the live version of “Bar-B-Q Pope“ often feature two vocal tracks—both performed by Haynes—it’s questionable how much studio doctoring the EP received after it was recorded, but there are also bits that were obviously cut live. It must have been a sight to behold; if you close your eyes and try to envision what it must have been like to see this (by all accounts) weird looking band trip through the echoes, eerie tape loops and other bizarre machinations, most anyone will recoil at the overload that tends to accompany a really heavy acid trip. While there are peaks and valleys in the set, there is a constant undercurrent of madness that will send a shiver up the spine of any listener and itt really is impossible to do anything else while listening. The Butthole Surfers had their share of unsightly aspects, but the side winding sounds they produced were also incredibly captivating and hypnotic.

The Latino Buggerveil re-release packages both EPs together to give an idea of exactly where the band was at the beginning of its career along with the additional benefit of some previously unreleased tracks. A stripped down and rockabillied live version of “Gary Floyd” precedes the studio cut that would appear on Psychic…Powerless…Another Man’s Sac and “Matchstick” (an unreleased live cut) are the lull that was understandable left out of PCPPEP when it was released—they would have disrupted the running tempo of the set. A frayed and embryonic demo of “Something” gives a clue that the Surfers weren’t just fumbling in the dark in the early going either; there was care (the definition of the word might need to be altered in this case) and very specific direction at work. While the band never made those things clear at the time and hasn’t bothered to since either, there is a twisted and sinister intent here.

From the beginning, Butthole Surfers illustrated that theirs was going to be a winding path not for the faint of heart. More than any other band in memory, the Surfers embodied Robert Frost’s vision of a depraved guide whose only interest is getting those following him lost. Even in the beginning, the Butthole Surfers were leading curious listeners down the garden path; the destination was unclear, but they were certainly on their way.

Psychic…Powerless…Another Man’s Sac
Butthole Surfers
Psychic… Powerless… Another Man’s Sac
(Touch and Go, 1985; reissued on Latino Buggerveil 1999)

It sounds like a strange statement to make having just ingested the band’s delirium-fueled debut EP, but the Butthole Surfers’ debut long-player is where the going gets weird. Jettisoning every semblance of hardcore, the band quadrupled the dosage of hallucinogens, went through three bass players between 1983 and ‘85 (the number of players to occupy the bass position in the band since 1981 to the time of this writing is, according to wikipedia, twelve in total, but sources vary on the count), made better use of their two-drummer line-up and simultaneously tightened up the song writing (more conventional melodies) while getting more experimental with it; hints of remarkable songwriting ability rest at the tortured cores of “Dum Dum,” “Woly Boly” and “Gary Floyd,” but those moments aren’t the focal points of Psychic…Powerless…. No, the overlying spirit here is one of the most incredible acid frenzies ever committed to tape as, from the very beginning, the record is exponentially darker and more sinister than its predecessor. Now with the pressure off because the first EP got made and everyone lived through the process, the assembled members of Butthole Surfers start pushing boundaries here.

First and foremost, the production of Psychic…Powerless… is a whole lot cleaner. While the sound quality on Butthole Surfers was far from muddy, this time around every nuance cuts to the bone and it’s impossible to miss even the smallest whisper here. Haynes—who has gotten more confident in front of the mic—stretches his vocal chords to range from redneck holler (“Lady Sniff”)to a rangy tremolo that rivals Jello Biafra`s (“Dum Dum,” “Negro Observer”) to a positively demonic howl (“Concubine”) that makes it totally reasonable to believe that the singer has been possessed by the unholy spirit.

All of the band’s members get into the act too; guitarist Paul Leary runs the gamut on his fretboard from almost synthetic and backwards leads in “Eye Of The Chicken” to Cure-ish chorus effects (“Negro Observer”) to unhinged pseudo-funk (“Woly Boly”) and absolutely refuses to be pinned down; the guitarist has never been shy about using effects to coax a galaxy of sounds out of his Les Paul but Psychic…Powerless represents the beginning of his learning curve from both an instrumental and production standpoint (the band produced its own records exclusively from the beginning of its career, or at least had a very strong hand in the process) and the ideas start to get groundbreaking even early on. Sound effects including flatulence, regurgitation, birds chirping, synthetic turn table scratching and more crop up that further add to the surrealist swirl that simultaneously drives and threatens to derail the album; one of the most attractive things about Psychic…Powerless… is that it threatens to blow apart at any second as it spirals into parts unknown. The proceedings could be deadly—and that’s all the thrill.

Butthole Surfers
Cream Corn From The Socket Of Davis EP
(Touch and Go, 1985)
**and**
Rembrandt Pussyhorse
(Touch and Go, 1986; reissued together on Latino Buggerveil, 1999)

While their first three releases found the band teetering precariously on the brink of complete aural catastrophe and the possibility of their fall was exhilarating and kept listeners glued to their stereo speakers while they anticipated the drop, without advance warning the Butthole Surfers plunged clean off the map with their next release. The Cream Corn From The Socket Of Davis EP plays like the soundtrack to that decent and you can actually listen to Gibby Haynes scream the whole way down past the sobering sound of church bells along the way in “To Parter.”

Because they were recording and producing themselves, for Cream Corn… (and several albums following it) the Surfers were able to get very creative with the way their songs were constructed and orchestrate dynamic shifts that often veer wildly between psychologically damaging static noise, driving hard rock and even something close to a seething, coiling aggression that implies the band has figured out how to balance musicianship with the mania they tried previously to expunge.

The fallout of the Cream Corn EP is the lead-up, in this case, to the first great Butthole Surfers record, Rembrandt Pussyhorse. It’s funny too because, while recording at bargain basement prices is usually a shortcoming, in this case it works out to the band’s benefit. In the album’s opening “Creep In The Cellar,” for example, a discarded, secondhand studio tape inadvertently yielded a manic, inverted and sawing fiddle line to the proceedings that compliment Gibby Haynes’ psychologically obliterated vocals and elegiac piano. The song is the most brilliant exposition ever committed to tape of what Ramana Maharshi described in Padamalai as a re-enactment of the mind that needs death. To paraphrase, “It is in the mind that birth and death, pleasure and pain, in short, the world and ego exist. If the mind be destroyed, grief will have no background and will disappear along with the mind.” Given religious figures including Buddha have appeared in Surfers songs for almost their whole career, it’s entirely possible this is where the band was going.

The song is also the perfect set-up for “Sea Ferring”—the enactment of a broken man gasping his last amid a swirling wash of chorus-drenched and stream-of-consciousness guitars and bass that doesn’t bend so much as refuse to commit to pitch. The shock of the first two tracks (we’re only two tracks in!) carries into a metallic, deconstructive cover of The Guess Who’s “American Woman” that sounds positively stunted and, when the singer can’t seem to get past the “American Woman” refrain at the end, he sounds as if his psyche has been irreparably broken while the stuttering beat box winds down.

Except that the band winds him right back up one track later in “Waiting For Johnny To Kick” with its burbling piano and terrifying tempo.

On Rembrandt Pussyhorse, the band is absorbing early goth sounds (evidence is in the Bella Lugosi soundtrack vamp of “Strangers Die Everyday”—complete with bubbling cauldron) and spitting them at listeners with a healthy dose of authoritative presence. Occasionally getting cartoonish in the delivery (Gibby’s whooping and hollering on “Perry” sounds like the Looney Tunes if Daffy had gone to Hell) only serves to further drive the theory that the band knows they can do it better, they’re almost calling bands like The Cure out saying, “You poofs in your dark clothes think you know fear? Bullshit! This is how you scare people.” And they deliver on the promise by handing listeners an album that isn’t pretty and is the genuine article—the pinnacle of which is “Mark Says Alright” that lifts the bass line from Jaws and mixes it with the sound of a snarling Cerberus along with Leary’s digital time-delayed Les Paul. After that, almost to show what an altered beast the band has become after going through this song cycle, they reprise “In The Cellar” on four heads full of acid and push the limits until the song simply disintegrates into a nightmarish swirl.

At the time of its original release, if there was any question of the band’s mental health, Rembrandt Pussyhorse removed it.

Butthole Surfers
Locust Abortion Technician
(Touch and Go, 1987; reissued on Latino Buggerveil, 1999)

They may have gone off the map and lamented the fall on Rembrandt Pussyhorse, but in the year spent in that chasm between releases, they must have learned a few things from the monsters they found down there and maybe even befriended a few if Locust Abortion Technician is any indication.

After the moment of silence (well okay, twenty seconds—but it seems longer than that when you’re waiting for an assault of aural mayhem) that opens “Sweat Loaf,” Gibby Haynes calls for Satan and unleashes some heavy riff rock Hell in so doing. For the first time, The Surfers really show their age and pedigree on Locust Abortion Technician; while they came up and were lumped in with the hardcore crowd that included Black Flag and Minor Threat, The Surfers were actually a touch more aged than those bands (at the time Locust Abortion Technician was released, they were an average age of about thirty while Minor Threat would’ve only been an average age of 24) and hence had a larger breadth of material from which to draw influence. With that information in hand, it’s easy to see that Locust Abortion Technician is a classic rock album as performed by the Butthole Surfers; after the Black Sabbath designer impostor “Sweat Loaf.” the band begins to twist and contort the sounds they heard growing up from The Who, Led Zeppelin, Steppenwolf, and (Paul Leary’s favourite) Grand Funk Railroad albums. Particularly on tracks like “Pittsburgh To Lebanon,” “U.S.S.A,” “Kuntz” and “Human Cannonball” all mimic the classic rock sounds that the band’s members laid on their floors listening to through headphones on a head full of acid as kids—except that the acid had short-circuited the progressions and so what listeners get here is something totally unique and in the band’s own spirit.

In a lot of ways, Locust Abortion Technician is guitarist Paul Leary’s record. With the focus now being placed more on the music than the lunacy (if only for the time being), Leary is able to convincingly evoke the monsters of classic rock while simultaneously manning the soundboard and using the studio as an instrument too. It can be breathtaking; Leary can build some pretty impressive classic rock riffs (“Sweat Loaf” for example) and speed them up to the point that no human could hope to faithfully reproduce it live (the freak out electronic guitar solo in the bridge of “The O-Men”). The smell of innovation must have been in the air too; while Rembrandt Pussyhorse featured the beginning of singer Gibby Haynes, vocal processing style that mutated it into everything from an earth-shaking snarl to a glass-shattering squeal, Locust Abortion Technician finds the singer fine-tuning and discovering the incredible breadth of sounds he can create. And he comes up with some pretty incredible effects that, in turn, work out to vocal performances that can only be called otherworldly.

While the production may still be bargain basement, both singer and band turn what would normally be construed as a shortcoming into the compelling centrepiece of their sound. It’s a great place to start for the uninitiated because the Butthole Surfers sound like the biggest band in the world here.

Butthole Surfers
Hairway To Steven
(Touch and Go, 1988, reissued on Latino Buggerveil, 1999)

So, by 1988, the Butthole Surfers had gained a wider audience outside of those mentally injured members of the underground, the folks with an insatiable will to be weird and, well, Jello Biafra. Again, the definition of the term “broken through” might need to be revised, but people were beginning to pay attention to the band—a lot of people. College radio had started playing Butthole Surfers songs once in a while during the average person’s waking hours—that was important. The Butthole Surfers were beginning to be regarded as an important band. So what did an important band typically do before Nirvana named a music cultural year zero in 1992. Like Pink Floyd, The Who and Peter Frampton, the Butthole Surfers released a concept record—in their own way.

Hairway To Steven could only have been made by a band that looked at the stature they’d achieved and had a laugh. First off, the eight-song album doesn’t actually have song titles; the only descriptors for each track are crude little hand drawn pictures. This ostensibly forced whichever DJ that wished to play a song from the album to utter words and phrases like “Urinating Horse,” “Syringe,” “Defecating Deer,” “Two Girls Bending Over” and “Bunny Goes Boom-boom On Fish.” As goofs on their audience go, you have to laugh at that.

You couldn’t laugh at the music though. This time around, the band is shooting for ‘clean and more technically accomplished’ over scare and bludgeon tactics and abandoning their comfort zones (howling electric guitars, frenetic dual drumming, grating and howling vocals yammering stream of consciousness lyric sheets and a general state of disconcerting mental illness) and shat shooting for wildly divergent song writing and densely layered songs that throw every imaginable thing into the mix—from different textural devices to sound effects—and comes up with their most engaging, polished and accomplished record to date. Fans at the time must have been shocked because the band had hinted at this kind of prowess before, but never actually showcased it. Songs including “I Saw An X-Ray Of A Girl Passing Gas” and “John E. Smoke” (actual song titles for tracks three and four respectively) show a stylistic range and instrumental chops that no one could have envisioned prior to that point and the adamantine clarity of the production is of a caliber that no one expected of the Butthole Surfers—Ever.

All of the songs on Hairway To Steven go through complex movements and, because of that, the songs are longer; the length combined with the instrumental dexterity involved in the songs places them just shy of prog rock and Gibby Haynes, for his part, scales back the screaming that had been such a staple to both his and the band’s sound for so long and moves closer to John Lydon’s surly and petulant croon with Public Image Ltd that works incredibly well as the band nails its most technically challenging record to date. Unfortunately, it was also second drummer Teresa “Nervosa” Taylor’s final studio album with the band; although she has joined them on the road when schedules have permitted. Perhaps out of respect, the Butthole Surfers have never asked another drummer to join them on a full-time basis since; all primary drumming duties are now handled by King Coffey.

Butthole Surfers
Widowermaker! EP
(Touch and Go, 1989)
**and**
Pioughd
(Rough Trade, 1991; Capitol, 1993; repackaged with Widowermaker! EP on Latino Buggerveil, 2007)

If all you heard of the Widowermaker! EP was the first fifteen seconds of lead-off track “Helicopter,” it’d be very easy to assume that the band’s crush on R.E.M (doesn’t the cover of “The One I Love” on Double Live say it all?) had somehow turned into an obsession of Single White Female proportions. The jangling, Peter Buck-ish guitars fairly scream Athens-y indie pop and the Surfers do it so well, it’s a cause for concern that maybe something in the band had gone horribly awry but, happily, at second sixteen, madness retakes the band and listeners are treated to an acid-fried permutation of jangle pop that has a little dirt and about a half-quart of gasoline in the muffin mix. As the track progresses, so does Gibby Haynes get more and more ecstatic until he’s speaking in tongues by the end while Jeff Pinkus’ bass greats slipperier and slipperier before flying off the handle in the end.

From there the band gets drugged and delusional on “Bong Song” while still managing to retain their newfound pop sensibility, but something is really obviously missing here: substance. These songs—as well as “The Coloured F.B.I. Guy” and the suggestively entitled “Booze, Tobacco, Dope, Pussy, Cars” that round out the EP’s runtime work hard at trying to make ground in the indie pop idiom, but don’t make it very far because the songs sound thin and, let’s be honest, a Butthole Surfers track that sounds thin also sounds very confused by default. Reservation has never been perceived as a strength when you’re making the kind of music that this band trades in. To be fair, “Booze, Tobacco, Dope, Pussy, Cars” sounds like it should have all of the necessary ingredients to make it great, but unfortunately it’s just too much of an okay thing; there’s no edge and it feels like the band is following a how-to for mainstream success.

The band’s jump to a major label didn’t bear favourable results either. Some things are just not meant to mix and while classic rock, hard rock, hardcore, goth and progressive rock were all suits that the band wore very, very well previously, investigating shiny pop and spacey glitter rock as the Butthole Surfers do on Pioughd [pronounced ‘pee-ohh’d ––ed] seemed destined to arrive still-born.

To be fair, the Butthole Surfers do give it their best shot to try and make it work. Right from the get-go “Revolution” parts 1 and 2 do set the tone for Pioughd: the band vacuum-seals their trademark chaos and thus removes all the stray sparks of craziness but adds synths in the trade. In short, the band is trying to coax the magic out but, when it doesn’t come, for the first time they get nervous and try to fake it. The problem with faking anything in the Butthole Surfers’ case is that it simply comes off as contrived parody that sounds like someone trying to write like the Butthole Surfers—not a Butthole Surfers record.

Tracks like “Lonesome Bulldog” (parts one through four? Come on—that‘s excessive in all the wrong ways), “Golden Showers,” “Something” and “P.S.Y” are all too focused and don’t let the band run wild—the state of mind that tends to yield the best result from them—and the album stalls out completely pretty early. Perhaps to try and gain a little steam, the band dusts off some Gibbytronic distorted vocals in “Blindman” and “No, I’m Iron Man” but, by that point in the proceedings, even diehard fans had given up and realistically, who could expect two songs to save an album?

Butthole Surfers
Independent Worm Saloon
(Capitol, 1993)

In retrospect, it’s good that Pioughd happened when and where it did in the band’s catalogue. When they signed to Rough Trade, it was obvious that the band felt obligated to conform to some imagined industry standard of professionalism and they did so at the expense of good songs. The album flopped miserably and did so on the most public of stages (the band toured behind Pioughd on the inaugural Lollapalooza tour), but there was a silver lining: in 1993, Rough Trade went bankrupt (the first time—they’ve done it at least once since then as well) and Capitol Records rolled the dice on the Butthole Surfers.

With the pressure of making their ‘major label impression’ off, the Surfers got comfortable and let their hair down. Independent Worm Saloon if the blazing return to form that fans had been praying for with the added bonus of having some major label clout to wave around too. Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones came in to produce and the first most noticeable change here is the enormous sound he brought to the album; while the band never really had a thin sound on any record other than Pioughd, Jones’ single greatest contribution from a production standpoint was the polish of a great big classic album that the band responded really positively to.

The album opens with “Who Was In My Room Last Night?”—the first song in the Butthole canon to garner regular radio play—and the heavy cock rock that the song plays out becomes the signature for the rest of the album. Gibby Haynes has finally managed to balance the paranoid mania of the Buttholes’ early career with some rock solid song writing and classic rock enthusiast Paul Leary responds to Jones’ presence by turning in some heroic guitar licks while the Butthole Surfers’ rhythm section of drummer King Coffey and bassist Jeff Pinkus takes the wheel and drives these seventeen tracks for the first time in the band’s recorded output.

Even with that said though, the band hasn’t forgotten itself here. While they have gotten better at being a balls-out rock band with Independent Worm Saloon, the weirdness is once again omnipresent in the proceedings after taking a break in Pioughd. A really bizarre dog shit joke (“Chewin’ George Lucas’ Chocolate”) is a great intro to “Goofy’s Concern”—a harrowing roll through the cock rock sewage—and while “Alcohol” does follow the pattern set by “The O-men,” “U.S.S.A,” “Kuntz” and “Perry” on previous albums (single words or phrases repeated over and over), the band balances that by opening with the repetition before eventually breaking into more conventional lyrical structures.

All of this becomes commonplace on Independent Worm Saloon (the overtones are bolstered by the caustic rhythms and while Haynes is still processing his vocals with a variety of effects, he’s not pitch-shifting anymore; he sounds more reptilian here with phasing and chorus effects predominantly), but John Paul Jones has also convinced the Butthole Surfers to open up their sonic palette to include some new tones including acoustic guitars and troubadour-esque balladry (“The Wooden Song”), death metal crunch (“Dog Inside Your Body”), Brit-pop jangle (“You Don’t Know Me”) and hill music drawl (“The Ballad Of Naked Man”) all performed with the inherent sonic cliches to those styles in place but twisted by the smorgasbord of idiosyncrasies so integral to the Surfers’ sound to become unique beasts unto themselves.

With all of that said, Pioughd could be viewed as a dry run released while the Butthole Surfers tried to figure out what they wanted to do with the attention they were being offered. They figured it out with Independent Worm Saloon and the album saw them riding high (in every possible way) again.

Butthole Surfers
Electriclarryland
(Capitol, 1996)

Six albums in and, looking back, the Butthole Surfers covered an astonishing amount of ground in just thirteen years. Around the time that sessions began for Electriclarryland, the band must have noticed it too—because this time the only clear, driving thematic motivation must have been to take stock of where they’d been and make a career-defining record. For this album, the band takes all the best elements of their repertoire, piles them on top of each other and discovers that it gels into something coherent. Right from the beginning of “Birds,” Gibby Haynes snarls, “Alright what’re we doin’ here?” before unleashing a howl so ferocious and unhinged that it rivals his performances on A Brown Reason To Live. From there, the band never lets up for an instant as it drives through another dozen finely torqued tracks that simultaneously recall all of the different facets of the body of work that the Surfers amassed (raucous redneck hardcore, disconcerting acid-hazed soundscapes, country & western, pop and the marshal rhythms of the unclassifiable weirdness that the Surfers trade in) in their career and also finds time to dig into a few new places as well.

In a lot of ways, it almost seems as if the first half of the record is designed to mirror the second. The first is where the band exorcises their hardcore jones, while the second appears as a twisted reflection of it; songs like “Birds,” “Thermadour” and Ulcer Breakout” set up all of the ‘classic’ Surfers tenets (sludgy, slippery bass, hard-fast guitars and Haynes’ raging vocals), but play them flawlessly; where the Butthole Surfers would let weak or confusing instrumental takes slip into songs on albums previously (presumably in the name of economy) these tracks are the dictionary definition of flawless as far as each of them is perfectly streamlined, pristinely produced and ploughs through a listener’s psyche like a combine does through a field in Kansas. As far as presenting the Butthole Surfers’ as a great aggro-hardcore band, these three tracks represent the pinnacle of their powers.

Over and above that, the Surfers wind their way through a cleaner and better envisioned form of Pioughd pop in “Cough Syrup,” “Jingle Of A Dog’s Collar” and “TV Star” in the first half as well as giving up their greatest hit ever that also happens to sound exactly nothing like anything they’d done before. The hip, trip hop tenor of “Pepper” sounded exactly like nothing going on in modern rock at the time and, really, nothing like anything the band had attempted previously. The beat box beats and backwards guitars along with Haynes pseudo freestyling were intoxicating and on the strength of it, Electriclarryland was the first Surfers album to go gold.

After “TV Star,” the band falls off the map again for the duration of the album’s runtime beginning with “My Brother’s Wife.” The mirror-image effect seems plausible because a lot of similar themes to the first half appear (“The Lord Is A Monkey” sounds like a more sinister and acid-drenched “Pepper”) but the song structures are softer. That’s not a criticism; having finally mastered methods of production that worked to the band’s greatest advantage, Paul Leary gets all of the right parts to punch through here so it’s less confusing and progresses musically from points A to B to C with little of the distracting detritus listeners had to sift through on albums previously. They still make time for atmospheric moments (“Space,” “L.A.”), but Electriclarryland is consistently more focussed and easier to follow than any of the band’s previous records.

In a lot of ways, such succinct, tidy and pristine songs and productions could be viewed as the band’s way of closing the book on the method of operation and sound they’d expanded for the last thirteen years. They had worked it hard and taken it into places no one had ever envisioned, but it was time to move on. They had fallen off the map so often at this point, it only made sense to start mapping new territory; Electriclarryland is the Butthole Surfers’ farewell note to the indie-verse before they proceed into the unknown.

Butthole Surfers
After The Astronaut
(Capitol, 1998 ***never released***)

…And then things got complicated. For those that know the band or have even a passing knowledge of the American underground music scene that came around in the 1980s, there is a portion of the Butthole Surfers’ history, recorded output and lore that is incredibly tantalizing. To sum up, the back story goes like this: formed in 1979, Butthole Surfers gradually built a cult following on the strength of spectacularly orchestrated (not necessarily on purpose mind you) and willfully perverse live performances (outlined in dripping Technicolor in Michael Azerrad’s novel, Our Band Could Be Your Life), almost a decade’s-worth of near ceaseless touring and a series of records that illustrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that mind-blowing innovation was perfectly possible on a shoestring budget and little more than gratuitous doses of will and talent. By 1995, the work had paid off; the Surfers had long since crossed the line that marks where punks becomes musicians, subverted the mainstream by signing to a major record label (Capitol), and even released a couple of well-received singles (“Who Was In My Bed Last Night?” from Independent Worm Saloon and “Pepper” from Electriclarryland); suffice it to say that Capitol was looking for the Surfers to produce something comparable with that prior success.

It didn’t work out that way. When the band finished its follow-up to Electriclarryland, the label, according to Surfers drummer King Coffey, was set to release it and even went so far as to ship advance promotional copies to select reviewers but, when a series of obstacles and bad business dealings unexpectedly presented themselves, the album was delayed and ultimately vanished. “We refused to sign off on its release at the last minute,” explains King Coffey of whatever happened to After The Astronaut. “Then everything went to hell and it’s complicated.

“But Capitol would have gladly released it, had we not intervened.”

So what happened to the unreleased record? That debate has become the topic of something resembling urban mythology. While the original version of “They Came In” landed largely unannounced upon the Mission Impossible 2 soundtrack, what the rest of After The Astronaut’s content sounded like remains a mystery for most of the record-buying public.

If you‘ve heard it, you’ll agree that After The Astronaut was a very, very good Butthole Surfers crossover record insofar as the tracks were, yes, a little more watery and subdued but they do flow very well as an album. “Intelligent Guy” builds more eerie tension, “They Came In” is a pretty damned good rock song in the tradition of “Who Was In My Bed Last Night” and “Yentel,” while still being very strange, is strange in a way that would be more palatable to Surfers fans. Yet still, the album sits on a shelf somewhere and keeps long time fans salivating for its release (there are a few songs that have yet to see release in any form). Maybe that release will come to pass, maybe it won’t. Dare to dream….

Butthole Surfers
Weird Revolution
(Hollywood/ Surfdog, 2001)

After the bad business that surrounded After The Astronaut was finally settled, the Butthole Surfers had a decision to make: five years after the release of Electriclarryland, did they want to scrap what they’d done for the original follow-up to the best-received and best-selling album in their history? Or did they want to figure out what they could do with the tracks? As it turns out, they got to have their cake and eat it too with Weird Revolution. In the time between Electriclarryland and Weird Revolution, a new, computer-based recording platform called Pro Tools had revolutionized the recording process and Surfers guitarist Paul Leary (who had also made an impressive name for himself as a producer of other people’s album) took to it immediately. Even before the release of Electriclarryland, Gibby Haynes had started an electronic music side project with Butthole bassist Jeff Pinkus called Jackofficers [it won’t be easy to find a copy, but Digital Dump—the fruits of the project’s labor—was released on Rough Trade in 1990 –ed] and, between the lost Butthole Surfers album and the new technology available, ideas started to germinate. With the new software in hand, Leary set to the task of giving the After The Astronaut material a make-over—updating it and throwing all sorts of computer-generated ideas at it—while Haynes and new bassist Nathan Calhoun (Pinkus—the record-holder for single bassist to occupy the seat in the Surfers at eight years—had left) simultaneously began developing some new material. Weird Revolution could be viewed as the product of five year’s-worth of work in that way.

In spite of the fact that the album is the result of sessions and songwriting so spread apart, Weird Revolution is a very consistent record. Boasting shorter songs with a more distinctly pop focus, the album rolls seamlessly along on a fairly clean track; Haynes has taken on the trip-hop-ish flow in his delivery he started playing with on “Pepper“ (the only track that features his trademark screams is “Shit Like That”), most of the drums are computer-generated and Paul Leary really kept his guitar on the leash this time around so at no point does anything really jump out of line.

It’s actually really disconcerting to hear how polished the band can be in this context and it’s not that Weird Revolution is a bad record, it’s just totally unlike anything anyone would have expected from the band. Songs like “Shame Of Life” (co-written by Kid Rock). “Dracula From Houston” (which appeared on an episode of Scrubs), “Mexico,” “Get Down” and this version of “They Came In” are all very slick and work okay, but they’re far more straightforward than some fans were comfortable with. It was danceable, light, boasted fluid transitions and the overall feel of the record—poppy, fairly non-threatening (which, for a Surfers record was very disconcerting indeed)—should have flown. It didn’t though. Fans of the band were aghast at the new sound; the public was already pulling away from Kid Rock so cross-promotion died on the vine and those available markets for the band’s new sound weren’t really looking so new potential fans that were more interested in Korn and Limp Bizkit at that particular moment weren’t flocking, and for the first time the Butthole Surfers seemed to actually be concerned by those things. Weird Revolution was, first and foremost, very much a record of its day as timely gimmicks (again courtesy of Pro Tools) saturate the songs. It wasn’t a bad record, but the band was beginning to flounder as it searched for another direction.

Hilariously, the irony of both Weird Revolution and After The Astronaut is that the best individual tracks as well as the strongest mixes of the songs that appear on both are evenly divided between the discs; “Shame Of Life,” “Dracula In Houston,” “Shit Like That” (all from Weird Revolution) and “Intelligent Guy,” “Imbuya,” “They Came In” and “Turkey And Dressing” (from Astronaut) would, combined, make one strong effort together with a few of the other more solid tracks from both thrown in to round out an album. At this point, fans can hope that at some point the Butthole Surfers will release a double set collection of both records so that, at the very least, the whole story can be heard.

Butthole Surfers
Humpty Dumpty LSD
(Latino Buggerveil, 2002)

For those keeping score, Humpty Dumpty LSD was released almost twenty years after A Brown Reason To Live first appeared and, for a band whose existence has been so notoriously characterized by chaos, it’s totally understandable to learn that, over time, some tracks were lost or forgotten. As well, one has to look at the way the underground worked in the Eighties: compilations appeared regularly, showcasing a song or two by a given band hoping to get the word of their existence out or, in some cases, bands would pool their resources and put out a split release in order to diffuse cost. Humpty Dumpty LSD compiles all of those songs that the Butthole Surfers scattered to the four winds between 1982 and 1984 as well as those that were simply locked in the vault so it’s understandable that the album is a mixed bag but, for all their stylistic veering in that time, there were common threads through all of the band’s albums. There must have been—or else HDLSD wouldn’t hold together as well as it does.

Right off the top, it has to be said that Humpty Dumpty isn’t a spectacular offering from the Surfers, but it isn’t designed to be; this is a document for fans to treasure. Tracks including “Day Of The Dying Alive,” “Hetero Skeleton,” “Ghandi” and “One Hundred Million People Dead” are all well-assembled tracks that sound finished and earn mention because they honestly could have fit in and not hindered Rembrandt Pussyhorse, Pioughd or Independent Worm Saloon—“Dying Alive” could have easily replaced “Jimi” on Hairway To Steven too given that they’re simply different takes of the same song—but, like every comp of this type, there are tracks that might as well be labeled ‘For Completists Only.’ “Perry Solo,” “Concubine Solo,” both “Space I and “Space II” and “DADGAD” are all understandable extras because they tend to drag and while they may have worked in the original context for which they were intended, they’re pretty soft and needlessly confusing; the way that they manage to work here is thanks to a very symbiotic relationship between them in relation to the runtime.

As they were sweeping the snippets up from the cutting room floor, the band must have run across these tracks and though somebody would want to hear them and they’re right. Superfans will thrill to hearing (well, new to them) new material that even sounds like the band in their prime. What it won’t do though, is attract new listeners; Humpty Dumpty LSD is just a little too fractured for anyone that doesn’t consider themselves devout.
[Bill Adams]

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