Today’s installment of Favorite Songs By Favorite Bands finds us taking a hard turn into the weird, and staying there for a long, long time.
As discussed in yesterday’s XTC post, I spent my Plebe Year at the Naval Academy essentially mired in a musical stasis state, as I was forbidden by the institution from openly owning and listening to any music for pleasure. (Marching and drill songs by the Drum and Bugle Corps were A-Okay, of course, though not terribly enjoyable). Come May 1983, I had a whole lot of catching up to do, plus a little bit of money to do it, as we were paid a monthly salary for our service time at the Academy, on top of our tuition-free educational experience. (If that seems unjust to you somehow, you might want to read this take on the matter; I wrote the piece in 2011, but revisiting it now, it’s still shockingly relevant and resonant, alas). Given the limited amount of time we were allowed to be off-campus, I was fortunate that there was a shockingly, stupendously good record store called Oceans II Records, just about a 10-minute walk from either of the Academy’s two main gates into downtown Annapolis.
Record labels have long been important in helping me develop my musical tastes and collections over the years, especially back in the days when you bought an album, and it would often contain a flyer or sleeve listing all of the other artists on the label, plus maybe even a handy mail order form. In the ’70s, I explored loads of things on Chrysalis Records (Jethro Tull‘s home label), for example, based solely on those promotional inserts. Off the cuff, I know I was introduced to Steeleye Span, Rory Gallagher, Blodwyn Pig, Roy Harper, Ten Years After and Robin Trower that way. I also backed into Genesis (who have bubbled just below Favorite Band status for a lot of years) via Steve Hackett’s solo releases on Chrysalis, not the other, more normal, way around.
That dependence and trust of labels was probably never more relevant than in the 1980s, in that sweet musical spot when independent American labels developed some incredible word-of-mouth, “get in the van” networks across the country, fostered by tape trading, ‘zines and the emergence of free-form and college radio, but before the indies were essentially subsumed into being a minor league feeder system for the corporate musical megaliths under the detested “alternative” banner. I’ve certainly never begrudged artists who I like signing major label contracts that, in theory at least, benefit them financially (so long as the contracts don’t crush or dilute their creativity), but I do lament the macro impact that the late ’80s signing sprees had on those glorious days of truly independent, truly innovative record labels issuing truly brilliant discs on a regular basis. I could wax philosophical on this era at length, but will note that there’s a pretty-much perfect text on the topic already that I’d highly recommend to you should you be interested in what that looked, felt, and sounded like: Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981–1991.
Probably the two most important labels to me through the remainder of my time at the Naval Academy were Greg Ginn’s SST Records (home at various times to Black Flag, Minutemen, Saccharine Trust, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, Meat Puppets and many others), and Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles (Dead Kennedys, D.O.A., T.S.O.L, MDC, Tragic Mulatto, also Hüsker Dü, NoMeansNo, Alice Donut, etc.). Ginn was leader of Black Flag, Biafra the leader of Dead Kennedys, and I loved both of those bands, so I loved and trusted the labels they launched to guide to me. In looking at their respective discographies, I pretty much bought everything they both released through around 1986 or 1987, by which time the majors had begun to hoover up the superstar independent bands, and my searching and listening paradigms changed accordingly.
Sometime in early 1984, my Alternative Tentacles completist fixation required me to buy an EP that had come out a few months earlier from a group called Butthole Surfers. I trundled off to Oceans II and found the disc in the racks there. The name was obviously offensive, but the EP’s front cover, well, that took things into whole new planes of yuck! I was kind of embarrassed, actually, when I handed it to the clerk at the counter. (Note that the image appears below in a couple of the videos I’ve selected for my Top Ten list; if you’re sensitive to gross medical imagery and/or are at work, you might want to skip that portion of today’s article). But, necessity was necessity, so I paid my few bucks, carried the disc back to my room at the Academy, and unwrapped it: seven songs, less than 20 minutes worth of music, the distinctive Alternative Tentacles logo on one side of the center label, and a drawing of “Pee Pee the Sailor” on the other side, with instructions to play the thing at 69 rpm, and the words “A BROWN REASON FOR LIVING” etched into the run-out grooves. No other useful information about the band or anything else was contained within. (Because of this dearth of information, the actual given name of the record itself remains uncertain, all these years on).
I figured that 45 rpm was the actual correct speed to play the disc, as was typical for 12″ EPs, so I plopped the disc on, dropped the needle, and had my head blown out by one of the most insane opening salvos in rock music history: “The Shah Sleeps in Lee Harvey’s Grave.” The two-minute long song contained shrieking lead vocals and guttural background grunts, horrible guitar shreds, distorted, pummeling drum and bass meltdowns, vile lyrics, all wrapped in a massive sense of danger and unease. About halfway through it, I wasn’t sure if that 45 rpm decision was the correct one, so I bumped it to 33 rpm, and it still sounded insane, just lower in pitch and slower. It was only after the second song, “Hey,” started that it became clear that 45 rpm was, in fact, the correct playing speed. 18 minutes or so later, I had a new favorite band, one that would last me a decade, carrying me from college through courtship through marriage through the birth of our child (I used to sing Surfers’ songs to my daughter when she was a baby, clearly earning five Parenting Gold Stars for that) and on into the internet era and the start of my post-military freelance music critic career. It was a life-altering record.
The Surfers didn’t make it particularly easy to be a fan, though, even beyond the off-putting words, visuals and music. They never put any useful information on their records, so it wasn’t until I go to see them for the first (of many) times that I had any idea what they looked like and how their line-up was configured. (Their best, classic lineup featured singer-guitarist Gibby Haynes, guitarist-singer Paul Leary, dual drummers King Coffey and Teresa Nervosa, and bassist Jeff Pinkus). Most media outlets wouldn’t cover, interview or play them, because of their name (for starters) and in the rare cases when they did get coverage, they typically lied in response to everything they were asked, so nothing was made more clear. I knew they were from Texas. And that they liked dogs. Beyond that, not so much. They were reasonably prolific in recording, though, leaving Alternative Tentacles after releasing Live PCPPEP in late 1984 (it was basically the debut EP again, just live with new double-drummer configuration), and signing with Touch and Go Records, who became another gotta-have label for me, with Big Black, Killdozer, The Jesus Lizard, Die Kreuzen and others on their roster.
The Surfers were also insanely prolific in the touring department through the mid-to-late 1980s, and I saw them more times than I can remember, in Washington, DC, Baltimore, New York City and Athens, GA. In the latter case, they actually played a part in how I ended up there myself. I had a major shoulder injury and a failed corrective surgery while at the Academy that limited the mobility of my left arm, so I was designated “NPQ” (“not physically qualified”) for line service (e.g. Aviator, Surface Warfare Officer, Marine Corps, etc.) and forced to choose between a variety of Staff Corps opportunities for my mandatory five years of active duty time instead. I saw three viable possibilities there: Intelligence, Cryptography, and Supply. The third choice had its training school in Athens, which was already a hip music town, for sure, but right around the time when I had to make a decision, I learned that the Surfers had relocated their base of operations from Austin to Athens, allegedly so they could stalk emergent crossover indie superstar Michael Stipe of R.E.M. Well, golly, that pretty much made my decision clear and easy!
Alas, by the time I actually got to Athens, the Surfers had returned to Texas, so we didn’t get to become neighbors and friends. They did pass back through town on their never-ending road show circuit, though, so that was fine. That period of time found them offering a truly legendary live experience. The music was aces, of course, but the shows were so much more than that, turning into truly hallucinatory and disorienting Sensaround experiences. As if the band themselves weren’t already visually striking enough (Haynes is a giant who often ended up naked or close to it, the flailing stand-up drummer pair were alleged to be albino twins [they weren’t], Leary played his guitar and screamed with his eyes crossed pretty much the whole time, Pinkus shaved off the top of his hair leaving dyed tufts on the side, Kathleen Lynch later worked the stage as a naked interpretive dancer, etc.), they added strobe lights, films played atop the group (including the infamous penile reconstruction movie), fire, stage destruction, and whatever else the evening’s mood or drugs brought on. It was dangerous. It was dirty. And oh boy, was it fun!
Ultimately, though, it all worked for one reason and one reason only: the band were deeply talented musically, and most of their songs were utterly original and creatively stellar. I mean that most sincerely. I was often accused at the time for promoting and endorsing the Surfers just for the shock value of it all, e.g. “Oh, you can’t possibly really like that stuff, you’re just doing that to be weird.” (R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck actually even said that to me once when I was in Athens and he was hanging out behind the counter at Wuxtry Records, where he had worked before he got famous. I knew who he was, but told him “Shut up and take my money, clerk” when he challenged my commitment to my purchases. Grrr!) There’s no affectation in my affection, though: I deeply love the music and the artists who created it, most especially Paul Leary, who sits with Robert Fripp and David Gilmour in my personal high trinity of Guitar Gods.
So I just knew they had greatness in them, from even early on, not to mention more skill with creating accessible music than would have seemed obvious at first. When Marcia and I were first dating, I created a mix-tape called “Butthole Benign” featuring a choice assortment of their less off-putting fare. She liked it! No wonder I love her! That said, they didn’t get off to a great start with her. On our first long road-trip together, we did the “drive all night” thing between D.C. and Florida. She was asleep at some point when the Surfers’ song “Cherub” came up on whatever mix tape I was playing, and it jerked her awake in disoriented horror and revulsion. I changed the tape immediately. Fortunately, it didn’t get thrown out the window the way another mix, “Songs That Are Wrong,” did the next day. I was a slow learner, I guess.
Given my belief in Butthole Surfers’ power and glory, I wasn’t really surprised when bigger record labels came a-calling after the classic five-piece line-up hit a high-water mark with 1988’s Hairway to Steven. They signed with mid-tier Rough Trade Records (who issued the slightly dodgy piouhgd in 1991, along with a Pinkus-Haynes side project called The Jackofficers and Leary’s only solo album, then went belly up), then moved on to super-duper major Capitol Records, who let them hire Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones to produce their big league debut, Independent Worm Saloon (1993). That album produced the minor MTV and radio hit “Who Was In My Room Last Night?,” and made them one of Beavis and Butthead’s favorite acts. (You can tell that Mike Judge was a Butthole Surfers fan because this is one of the rare cases where his idiot boy duo actually watch a video without talking and headbanging incessantly over it).
That album came out right around the time that I first got online, establishing some relationships that led me into my next musical obsession (Hawkwind), and which I will discuss in our next installment here. But I was still a thrilled fanboy when Electriclarryland, 1996’s offering from the Surfers (now down to a Haynes-Leary-Coffey trio, with studio helpers) spawned the legitimate pop hit “Pepper.” In some ways, getting the masses to sing along with their paean to drug life in Texas and the “ever-present football player rapist” might have been their most subversive act ever. I purchased a copy of Billboard magazine at some point when the song as on the charts, circled the Surfers’ entry, copied/scanned the page and sent it to variety of long-time friends/colleagues, noting “See! I told you so!” It was a satisfying coda to a great musical period of my life.
Unfortunately, the rest of the Surfers’ career was not quite so satisfying. In 1998, reviews and preview pieces emerged about their post-“Pepper” follow-up album, After The Astronaut. Unfortunately, the album itself never emerged, as Capitol Records rejected it, the Surfers rejected Capitol, the band fell into deep acrimony with their management, with Touch And Go Records (they sued the label, eventually winning), and with each other, and Haynes fell into heroin abuse. (He was on the scene and alleged to have played a contributory role the night that River Phoenix died of an overdose at the Viper Club). A watered-down and reconfigured version of Astronaut called Weird Revolution was finally issued in 2001, but it really shouldn’t have been. A year later, the Surfers then released a great compilation of lost/forgotten/rare tracks called Humpty Dumpty LSD on their own Latino Buggerveil Records, and that pretty much seemed to be that.
Leary went on to become a hot shot producer and engineer, Coffey remains a stalwart champion of and player within the Austin music scene (not to mention being a tremendous gardener), Haynes cleaned himself up, moved to Brooklyn, began exhibiting his art and published a (great!) young adult novel called Me & Mr. Cigar earlier this year, and Pinkus plowed on with his group Honky and eventually became Melvins’ bass player. (One of that group’s best albums was 2004’s Hold It In, which also featured Leary). The classic five-piece line-up improbably reunited for a tour in 2008-2009, after which Teresa retired again, leaving the core four, who have occasionally played short tours or festivals since then.
And, maybe, are also at work on a new record. Leary was quoted in 2017 as saying that the Surfers were working together again, noting (with a light edit to remove a piece of strong language): “Now that Trump is president, jeez . . . if there was ever a time for a Butthole Surfers album, it’s now. It just doesn’t get any weirder than that.” Coffey posted some photos on his Twitter feed of work in progress soon after that, but then, radio silence again. Hopefully whatever they’re working on doesn’t go the way of After the Astronaut. I’d love to have something new from such an important part of my own musical history, all these years on.
But until (or unless) that happens, I’ve still got the incredible catalog they’ve left behind, from which I cull these, my Top Ten favorite Butthole Surfer cuts. I didn’t include “Pepper,” just for the record, because I figure you’ve already heard it, and it came out toward the end of the game, not during its most thrilling middle innings. It’s a classic, but it doesn’t quite break into my chart-toppers. Dig these that do, though!
#10. “To Parter,” from Cream Corn from the Socket of Davis EP (1986) (Note: This cut often appears on streaming service listings as “TP Parter” for reasons mysterious).
#9. “Sea Ferring,” from Rembrandt Pussyhorse (1986)
#8. “Dum Dum,” from Psychic… Powerless… Another Man’s Sac (1984)
#7. “Sweat Loaf,” from Locust Abortion Technician (1987)
#6. “I Saw an X-Ray of a Girl Passing Gas,” from Hairway to Steven (1988)
#5. “The Wooden Song,” from Independent Worm Saloon (1993)
#4. “Hey,” from Brown Reason to Live EP (1983)
#3. “Moving To Florida,” from Cream Corn from the Socket of Davis EP (1986)
#2. “Something,” from Brown Reason to Live EP (1983)
#1. “Cherub,” from Psychic… Powerless… Another Man’s Sac (1984)
Note #1: Click Here for an after-the-fact summary of this series, with a convenient listing of links for all articles contained within it.
Note #2: For those who stream your music, Marcia has created a Spotify playlist with all of the songs discussed in this series. Note that the browser embed link below is limited to 100 preview songs. We have confirmed that all 120 songs included in the series are available when you open the playlist in the Spotify app.