You know that long hiatus we just took? It gave Jake and me some much-needed time to do a little soul searching. I reconnected with my inner child, Jake reconnected with his inner hippie, and we both reconnected with our punk-rock roots. Okay, Jake reconnected with his punk-rock roots; I broke out my old Pink Floyd records. But somehow, both of those things led us back to another classic weird band we’ve neglected for far too long: the Butthole Surfers.
From about 1985 to 1989, the Butthole Surfers had one of the craziest live shows of any band on the planet. Their lead singer, the eternally manic Gibby Haynes, wore dresses and played squealing saxophone riffs and shouted lyrics into a megaphone. Next to him stood an upside-down cymbal filled with lighter fluid; he would set it—and often, his hand—on fire. Guitarist Paul Leary writhed around the stage like a man possessed. Two identical-looking drummers played standing up, sometimes in perfect unison and sometimes it utter cacophony. Kathleen Lynch, the band’s infamous “naked dancer,” struck spastic poses in time to a strobe light, covered in lurid body paint. Behind the band, overlapping 16-millmeter films layered disturbing and incongruous images atop one another, like a graphic penis reconstruction medical video and, according to one account, “people with Down’s syndrome dancing in top hats and tails.” The whole thing was designed to freak the shit out of the audience, and it usually worked. Here, for example, is drummer Teresa Taylor, aka Teresa Nervosa, describing the Surfers’ shows circa 1985 (from this excellent oral history of the band):
Gibby in those days would take condoms filled with colored dye and put those in his pants so that at some point they would burst and it would look very bloody. He would change clothes onstage during the set a lot. Then he went and bought the first vocal effect and that was a big deal. We had strobe lights, $10 strobe lights, and then we bought a 16-millimeter projector, because we started to make more money. Everything was invested back into the band, so we could have a better show, better sound. Later we got another projector and showed two 16-millimeter films overlapping. The full-on shows would make people puke and scream and run out, that kind of thing. It was what we’d always wanted.
Happily, a ton of video from this era exists on YouTube—much of it lifted from Blind Eye Sees All, a concert film the band shot in Detroit in 1985, but plenty of clips from later years, as well (which is a good thing, because Lynch didn’t add her naked dancing to the band’s spectacle until 1986). Less happily, the quality of most of these videos is shitty, and even under the best of circumstances, an ’80s B-hole Surfers show was almost impossible to film. This is one of the better clips we could find and you still really can’t see anything until 40 second into it:
I’ve somehow neglected to mention the music up to this point, which is stupid because the music was generally every bit as crazy as the stage show. Early on, the Surfers were part of the punk scene, and their live performances definitely owed a debt to the Sex Pistols and the Dead Kennedys. But in the studio, they were on their own trip from day one. Here, for example, is a track off their first full-length album, 1984’s Psychic… Powerless… Another Man’s Sac, which owes as much to The Residents or Captain Beefheart as it does to hardcore punk:
Back in ’84, Gibby Haynes achieved his distorted, menacing vocals mostly just by singing by through a megaphone or a toilet paper roll, but over the years he added various electronic effects, until he finally had an entire rack of processors that came be known as “Gibbytronix.” You can’t actually see Gibby in this 1991 video, but you can hear Gibbytronix in full effect:
Over the course of the ’90s, the Surfers devolved into a tamer, “alternative rock” incarnation of their former selves. Kurt Cobain name-checked them as an influence (he and Courtney Love met at a Butthole Surfers show), which helped the band land a major-label deal at Capitol Records in 1992. They even got John Paul fucking Jones (yes, the Led Zeppelin guy) to produce their first record for Capitol, the intriguingly titled but disappointingly polished Independent Worm Saloon. By the time they scored their biggest hit, 1996’s “Pepper,” they were starting to sound kinda like Weezer. But hey, if aging psychedelic noise punks can’t cash out in America, what hope is there for the rest of us? And to their credit, they still play the old weird shit to this day, albeit as a stripped-down four piece with fewer visual effects and naked dancers.
I’ve really only scratched the surface of all that was weird about the Butthole Surfers; if I wanted to, I could go on all night. In their early days, they changed the band name for every show: Ashtray Babyheads, the Right to Eat Fred Astaire’s Asshole, the Dick Gas Five. Their classic 1988 album Hairway to Steven was released with cartoons for each song in place of titles. Fans later deciphered the song titles based on live set lists; the song represented by a rabbit dancing on top of a dead fish turned out to be called “Julio Iglesias.”
But instead of cataloging their every bit of chicanery, I’ll just leave you with a short 1988 film called Bar-B-Que Movie, which starred all six then-members of the band (Gibby, Leary, bassist Jeff Pinkus, drummers King Coffey and Teresa Nervosa, and dancer Kathleen Lynch) and was directed by, of all people, Alex Winter, the actor best known as the not-Keanu guy from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It’s a spoof of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and…well, just fucking watch it, OK? You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll never look at your cast-iron frying pan the same way again. There’s a full-on recreation of the Surfers’ stage show about seven minutes in. Enjoy.
- Butthole Surfers official site
- Butthole Surfers catalog on Amazon.com
- The Anal Obsession (fan catalog of every Butthole Surfers show ever, or damn close to it, with set lists)
- Feeding the Fish: An Oral History of the Butthole Surfers (based on Spin magazine interviews circa 1996)
- Butthole Surfers: The Shah Sleeps in Lee Harvey’s Grave (a remembrance of ’80s Surfers gigs by Richard Metzger of Dangerous Minds)
- Butthole Surfers on MySpace (because why the hell not?)