When Indie Goes Top 40, #3: Butthole Surfers - A Brief History

There is perhaps no less likely candidate for mainstream Top 40 success than the San Antonio, TX band Butthole Surfers. The name alone is probably the most profane thing Casey Kasem ever uttered--at least on air, sending up a red flag for parents and family groups all over the country. And that's not even to mention their bizarre brand of offensive psychedelia influenced noise rock and absolutely bonkers and at times even dangerous stage shows. These guys weren't cokeheads or potheads or heroin addicts like most rockstars--these guys were on acid all the time, and it showed in everything they did. Life through the eyes of frontman Gibby Haynes most likely looks something like an ink-splattered Ralph Steadman illustration from the pages of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

The Surfers started in a most unusual way. While students at Trinity University in San Antonio in the late '70s, Haynes--captain of the school's basketball team and student of accountancy--and Paul Leary Walthall--an MBA student and son of the dean of the business school--met and bonded over their shared love for avant garde music and general weirdness. After graduating, Haynes got a job at a prestigious accounting firm, but was fired when he was found with a xeroxed photograph of mutilated genitalia meant to be published in his self-published magazine dedicated to ficticious ailments titled Strange V.D. Haynes headed to Southern California and Walthall, with one semester left, dropped out of school to join his friend. The two soon returned to San Antonio to start a band, which would become the Butthole Surfers.

After adding a bassist and drummer, the band played a few shows to little success. Originally the name was not Butthole Surfers--that was merely the name of one of their early songs. Early band names included Dick Clark Five, Nine Foot Worm Makes Own Food, the Vodka Family Winstons and The Inaliable Right to Eat Fred Astaire's Asshole. Butthole Surfers was settled on after the band was asked for a name by a promoter, forgot whatever name they were being called at that time and used that one as a placeholder.

Having failed to gain a following in their hometown, the band moved on once again to Southern California. The early shows were performance art pieces which, according to Paul Leary, included "lots of stuffed dummies and toasters and Big Mac hamburgers." Leary added "music was an excuse. We had to de-learn how to play." The setlist included lots of TV themes (including Perry Mason and The Brady Bunch) done in a thrash-punk style with Haynes singing through toilet paper rolls. Often opening for hardcore punk bands, the show would leave the hardcore fans "too dumbfounded...to boo."

While in California, they were discovered by Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra who was so impressed with the live show, he asked them to do a record for his label, Alternative Tentacles. With the promise of reimbursement from Biafra, the band returned to Texas and obtained a new drummer, Jeffrey Coffey aka King Coffey--who is still with the Surfers to this day. The band recorded their self-titled EP, which would later be listed by Kurt Cobain as one of his top ten albums of all time.

The band soon added a second drummer, Teresa Nervosa--better known as "Madonna Pap Smear Girl" in Richard Linklater's Slacker--to add to the spectacle of their insane stage show. Due to the physical similarities between the drummers, Nervosa and Coffey referred to themselves as siblings, although they were not related (take that, Jack White!). The band returned to a substandard studio in San Antonio and, while living in a tool shed, recorded enough material for two albums. The first released was Psychic...Powerless...Another Man's Sac in 1984. Released on the famous indie label Touch & Go records, the album was a combination of psychedlia, punk, hardcore and country and used various avant garde techniques like tape editing, non-traditional instrumentation and Haynes singing through a bullhorn--techniques that would soon define their sound.

A couple of years later, the band embarked on a national tour and made fans across the country--even some famous ones, like Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil and members of Sonic Youth. The band soon found themselves living in Winterville, Georgia, located near Athens--according to the band, the locale was chosen so that they could stalk their favorite band, R.E.M.

Word of mouth about their, um, nontraditional stage shows began to spread and audiences started to grow. At various times, the stage show included Haynes putting condoms filled with red dye in his pants, which would eventually burst and look like a painful genital wound, Haynes stripping down and performing completely nude, two drummers playing in unison, various pyrotechnics and fireworks, strobe lights, 16-mm film footage of gross medical procedures were projected alongside clips from Charlie's Angels, and a nude stripper named "Ta Da! The Shit Girl" who would, on command, spray projectile diarrhea on the stage--I wish I were making this stuff up. Teresa Nervosa later commented "The full-on shows would make people puke and scream and run out, that kind of thing. It was what we'd always wanted."

Around this time the band began living together in a ranch in Driftwood, TX 30 miles outside Austin, where they shared money, food, clothes--anything that could actually be shared. Lots of experimental audio and video recording went on at the time. This video may or may not have been recorded at this time:

Note: for more on the Butthole Surfers truly insane exploits, read
Michael Azerrad's
Our Band Could Be Your Life

By this time, the band was on their their third full-length album, 1987's Locust Abortion
Technician--often considered their finest album, containing classics like "Human Cannonball" and a rewrite of Black Sabbath's "Sweet Leaf"--"Sweat Loaf." Recorded in their home, the album was made using only one microphone and an 8-track recorder. This album also featured the culmination of Haynes' vocal experiments--an effects setup dubbed "Gibbytronix." The album was also the last for drummer Teresa Nervosa.

In 1988, the Surfers released a bizarre Texas Chainsaw Massacre-parody video directed by and featuring Alex Winters (Bill from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure) titled Bar-B-Q Movie. This may give you some indication of what these guys were like back then. The end actually includes a staged recreation of the band's live show, performing "Fast (aka Fart Song)" and features actor John Hawkes (Deadwood, Eastbound & Down, Me, You & Everyone We Know)

After the release of their fourth and to date most accessible album, Hairway to Steven (a play on Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven"). After releasing a live record, Double Live, and an EP Widowermaker for Touch and Go, the Rough Trade label showed interest and signed the band to a reportedly generous one-album deal which birthed 1991's pioughed. Though the album was something of a bust commercially and from the perspective of the band, it enabled them to join the Lollapolooza tour.

The same year, Rough Trade filed for bankruptcy and--in a move that could be deemed more shocking than having a woman defecate on stage--signed to a major label, Capitol Records. In another shocking move, Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones agreed to join the band in the studio for their major label debut, Independent Worm Saloon. The band experienced their first real mainstream success when the single "Who Was In My Room Last Night?" which reached #24 on the Mainstream Rock charts. The album itself even managed to crack the Billboard 200. That's right, the Butthole Surfers--a band that featured a frontman who once had sex on stage with a nude girl covered in gold paint--were now considered mainstream and being shown on MTV.

Capitol also began to spread the group's music to TV shows and soundtracks, putting their trippy 1991 Donovan cover "Hurdy Gurdy Man" on the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack.

Harkening back to their old days as TV theme cover artists, the band released a cover of the Underdog theme song for the Saturday Morning: Cartoons' Greatest Hits compilation. (No, I don't know what Drew Barrymore is doing here)

As if their mainstream success wasn't strange enough, Haynes began a sideproject with Johnny Depp and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and began playing with them around Hollywood as P. P is now best remembered as the band playing at Depp's club The Viper Room the night actor River Phoenix overdosed on a speedball.

P, featuring Haynes (center) and Johnny Depp (right)

At the time, Haynes was also strung out on hard drugs like crack and heroin and the band was losing members who had grown tired of Haynes' behavior. He soon checked himself into rehab where he roomed with Kurt Cobain who would kill himself days after checking himself out of the facility. The band credits the reunion of the band to record a new album, not rehab, with Haynes' finally getting clean.

The band headed to Bearsville Studio in New York with producer Steve Thompson, who had a background in heavy metal and dance--a perfect combination for the sound they wanted. The band spent several months crafting the LP and eventually Thomspon left, leaving Paul Leary to produce the remaining tracks. The band used another parody of a classic album to title their
record, Electriclarryland (a reference to Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland). It was their second choice after realizing the title Oklahoma! could present legal problems. No, seriously.

The record label immediately recognized the album was going to be a hit and sent out the first single "Pepper" to rock radio. Laced with a hip-hop beat and rapped vocals as well as a prominent sitar, "Pepper" was essentially the Surfers doing their version of Beck's "Loser," but doing it better than Beck ever did. A gloriously silly, catchy and stupid song, call "Pepper" parody or a Ween-like tribute to Beck's style, but the similarities are anything but coincidental.

In some stores and on radio stations that refused to say the name, the band's name was shortened to "B-Hole Surfers" or sometimes just "Surfers." "Pepper" went all the way to #1 on the Modern Rock Charts, #19 on the Mainstream charts and did indeed crack the Top 40 charts at #38. (
NOTE: If anyone has a clip of Casey Kasem saying "Butthole Surfers" or even just "B-Hole Surfers" PLEASE let me know.) Electriclarryland reached #31 on the Billboard album charts and was certified gold.

The second single, "Jingle of a Dog's Collar" was a tribute to the Surfers' myriad of influences, with an R.E.M. guitar line turning into a more surf-rock guitar part, with Haynes singing in a talk-singing style that would make Lou Reed proud. The song is fine, but it's not close to being the best song on the album (nor is "Pepper") and it's unsurprising that it failed to crack any of the charts. Songs like "The Lord is a Monkey" or "Birds" are more indicative of the album's style, humor and quality and show the band at their tightest and best (not that they would have been hits either). The album is consciously all about being stupid and making dumb rock n' roll, and "Jingle" just isn't dumb enough.

At the time, the band began losing good will with the indie and punk community (most notably Minor Threat and Fugazi frontman Ian MacKaye) by initating a lawsuit over royalties with Touch and Go Records. The band argued that the label head was not honorable in his financial dealings. They eventually won the lawsuit and were able to release their first four albums on their own label, Latino Buggerveil.

In 1998, the band recorded another album, After the Astronaut, that was put into limbo when the band had a falling out with their manager and had difficulties dealing with Capitol. However, by 2000, the issues were resolved and the band rerecorded most of the tracks as Weird Revolution with Green Day producer Rob Cavallo. The album was a modest hit, reaching #124 on the album charts. Never afraid of being stupid the single, "The Shame of Life," was co-written by Kid Rock, peaked at #24 on the Modern Rock Charts. As to why Haynes chose Kid Rock as a writing partner:
According to Haynes, Kid Rock wanted to use a sample from the Surfers' Black Sabbath parody "Sweat Loaf." "We were like, 'Oh, Kid Rock, ka-ching, sure,'" Haynes says. As a swap, he asked Kid Rock for help with the chorus of their planned single. "He came to my house in his big white limousine with his five-hundred-pound bodyguards. He says, 'Let's just write a new song,' and I'm like, 'Uh, okay.'"

In record time Kid Rock is singing "I love the girls and the money and the shame of life." "We were all kind of like, 'Yeah, way to go, Kid,'" recalls Coffey. "I mean, you can't really slag him for writing it there on the spot. And how do you tell a guy who's doing this out of charity that it's so, so, what's the word . . . bad?"

Haynes was genuinely charmed yet admits, "It took me a long time to do the verses because it's hard to embrace a song that says 'I love the girls and the money and the shame of life.' It's tough."

From the underground to MTV and Ta Da! The Shit Girl to Kid Rock, the Surfers had been around for 20 years at the release of Weird Revolution. Since then, Haynes released a 2004 solo album under the name Gibby Haynes and His Problem, and in summer 2008, the band reuinited with Teresa Nervosa and long-time bassist Jeff Punkus for a European tour. Haynes has mentioned in interviews that a new album is "likely" but no release date has been named.

While the Surfers' music can't really be duplicated, many bands have tried to out-hardcore the Butthole Surfers' live shows, but few have actually done it. Jackass is probably closer to the Surfers' show than any current band. Still, the multi-media carnival aspect of their live shows continues to influence bands, most notably long-time acid rockers, The Flaming Lips. Haynes actually comments in the Lips documentary The Fearless Freaks that the band straight-up copied the Surfers' live show.

The Top 40 charts will see bands come and go, but never will there be a band as bizarre, obscene or unlikely to be there as San Antonio's Butthole Surfers. I love this band.


Download: Butthole Surfers - Pepper
Download: Butthole Surfers - Jingle of a Dog's Collar
BONUS Download: Butthole Surfers - The Shame of Life (co-written by Kid Rock)

Buy stuff, download official bootlegs and more