The early eighties were a strange time.  The first wave of punk had died and from its ashes an altogether weirder post-punk movement had been born.  Pop music was taking a turn for the brash, and political discontent was in the air with Ronald Reagan having taken Presidency at the start of the decade.  It was this maelstrom of conflicting ideologies that birthed a very singular and strange band: the Butthole Surfers.  Formed in 1981, the quartet soon became infamous for wildly anarchic live shows and a strikingly chaotic sound.

1983 saw the release of their debut record; initially self titled (and later reissued as Brown Reason To Live), the EP was a visceral declaration of the group’s attitude and manifesto, even if it was the work of a band still finding their sound.  Though the group would go on to blend avant-garde with the extremities of punk on later releases, ‘Butthole Surfers’ finds the band working within a more traditional framework.  Though it undoubtedly has a weird edge, the EP is more overtly Punk than later releases which often lacks the lysergic intensity that would go on to define the band.  Regardless, the EP is an exhilarating opening salvo for the group and contains some of their most direct work. ‘The Shah Sleeps In Lee Harvey’s Grave’and ‘Suicide’ are unforgettable slabs of outsider hardcore, whilst ‘Hey’ signposts the psychedelic direction they’d explore later on.

The Buttholes wasted no time in following up the EP, this time with a full length album.  Released only a year later, ‘Psychic… Powerless… Another Man’s Sac’ was weirder and somehow even more chaotic than its predecessor, in many ways feeling like the full realisation of the self titled EP’s ambitions.  Haynes’ vocals were swamped in so many effects, it often felt as though he was singing through a quagmire.  Immensely creative, ‘Lady Sniff’ perfectly showcased the band’s outrageously strange sense of humour whilst opener ‘Concubine’ served as a clattering statement of intent.

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Driven by an impressive work ethic, the band produced their second LP in no more time than it took to make the first.  ‘Rembrandt Pussyhorse’ was an incredible work – another evolution for the band, the album has the poise and focus of their debut EP whilst still continuing to mine the same fruitful vein of weirdness as ‘Psychic…’.  ‘Rembrandt….’ remains the group’s most satisfying effort; wildly creative without ever meandering, the album was an avant-rock masterpiece from start to finish.  ‘Sea Ferring’ is a Buttholes classic, the frantic circus rock of ‘Perry’ is impossible not love and their reworking of The Guess Who’s ‘American Woman’ has charms all of its own.  In many ways, ‘Rembrandt Pussyhorse’ represents the Butthole Surfers at their best.  It’s an impeccable collection of tracks that remains their most cohesive and satisfying collection release.

Having said that, the album’s follow-up is no slouch either.  1987’s ‘Locust Abortion Technician’ saw the band go in a darker, more foreboding direction – one that resulted in an intensely hostile and uncompromising record. Challenging both musically and thematically, ‘Locust…’ was a brave evolution of the group’s sound; heavier than previous work, the album frequently fell into outright noise-punk.  The album pushed the Buttholes even further into the fringe than before, with the sonic onslaught of ‘U.S.S.A’ and monolithic groove of ‘Graveyard’ being particularly fine examples of the nastier sound the band cultivated on the album.

In typically unpredictable fashion, 1988’s ‘Hairway To Steven’ was a bright, playful record that almost completely shed the darkness of ‘Locust…’ in favour of a far more melodic sound than previously explored.  Granted, there’s still plenty of typically Butthole-esque insanity on show – the 12 minute opener ‘Jimi’ was as bonkers as anything they’d previously done; but generally the album lacked the almost standoffish intensity of ‘Locust…’.  ‘I Saw An X-ray Of A Girl Passing Gas’ and ‘John E Smokes’ are funny, lighthearted and represent some of the band’s most affable material.  ‘Hairway…’ remains one of the band’s most addictive releases, in no short way thanks to the immediacy and new-found accessibility.

After an incredibly strong ’80’s, the Buttholes started the new decade on something of a wrong foot.  1991’s ‘Piouhgd’ (which is meant to be unpronounceable, for anyone wondering) is no great deviation from the established Buttholes sound but it is a less inspired outing than any before.  It’s by no means a bad record, simply one that feels like the band searching for inspiration rather than riding on the crest of it.  There are certainly some standout moments – a superb cover of Donovan’s ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ key amongst them – but more often than not ‘Piouhgd’ misses the mark.  ‘Lonesome Bulldog’ is one of very few comedic tracks by the band to feel forced rather than spontaneous and ‘P.S.Y.’, though initially excellent, far outstays its welcome at over 12 minutes.  ‘Piouhgd’ certainly has something to offer for Buttholes officionados but even then, it can be a wearing listen at times.

After the disappointment of ‘Piouhgd’, 1993’s ‘Independent Worm Saloon’ came as a welcome relief.  It’s an excellent, well conceived collection of songs that ranks among the band’s most diverse and mature, expanding upon the melodic bent of ‘Hairway…’ as though ‘Piouhgd’ never even happened.  The album certainly sees the band move with the times (see ‘Who Was In My Room Last Night?’ for their approximation of trash metal) but they incorporate their new influences well, and it never feels like bandwagon jumping.  ‘The Wooden Song’, in particular, standing tall as one of the best songs the band has ever written.  Now on a major label, it’s unsurprising that the album’s production (handled here by John Paul Jones, he of Led Zeppelin) is markedly cleaner than earlier work; but it suits the songs well and, overall, ‘Independent Worm Saloon’ ranks among the band’s most enjoyable albums, even if at 17 songs and an hour plus run-time, it could do with a little pruning.

1995’s ‘Electric Larry Land’ took the direction that ‘Independent Worm Saloon’ hinted at and ran with it.  The album continued ‘Independent…’s cleaner, more melodic presentation and delivered an accessible, satisfying collection of songs that the gruesome cover art belies.  The move towards a less confrontational sound paid dividends commercially and landed the band with their best selling album and an unexpected hit single in ‘Pepper’.  The Beck-indebted tune melded the rap-tinged delivery Haynes had occasionally experimented with in the past (see P.S.Y. from  ‘Piouhgd’) with a psychedelic hue that made the song weird enough for the indie kids and catchy enough for the popsters.  It was a change of pace, without doubt, and not one that all fans were too happy about, but to overlook ‘Electric Larryland’ would be to dismiss some of the Buttholes‘ finest, most tightly constructed material.  ‘Christina’ is an unabashed alt-pop gem, and ‘Jingle Of A Dog’s Collar’ was a tightly constructed joy.

The ’90’s had ushered in a new age for the Butthole Surfers.  For better or worse the band had matured, evolved and produced some thoroughly unexpected work.  Likewise, the band began the 2000’s with a new direction and sound.  2001’s ‘Weird Revolution’ was, by and large, met with a very cool reception.  At best, it was seen by many critics as the sound of a band well past their best and, at worst, an unmitigated disaster – Pitchfork in particular gave the album a ridiculously vitriolic 0.4 score.  Despite this, ‘Weird Revolution’ is far better than many at the time would have let on.  Is it vintage Buttholes?  Perhaps not – but nonetheless ‘Weird Revolution’ is a strong, worthwhile set of tracks.  ‘The Shame Of Life’ mines the same vein as ‘Pepper’, whilst ‘Dracula From Huston’ is a hooky, alt funk-rocker that would likely have been at least a minor hit in the hands of a luckier, younger band.  The album is unmistakably a product of its time and the production is rather sterile – meaning that although it’s the most recent (and presumably final) effort by the band, it hasn’t managed to weather the years as well as its predecessors.  The quality of the songs is still hard to argue with though, and although it was far from a cutting edge album even on release, it’s a fully worthwhile listen even for the curious.

The intervening decade and a half have been quiet for the Butthole Surfers.  The band took ‘Weird Revolution’ on a short US tour after the album’s release but never ventured to foreign shores to promote the LP.  For whatever reason, the band never followed up the album and it remains the most recent studio LP.  Sporadic live dates ensued for the next decade, including a handful of short tours,; but the band haven’t played outside of US and Canada since 2009.  Anything approaching consistent touring ceased at the end of 2011, with the band not playing another live date until Day For Night festival only a few months ago, in December 2016.  Hopefully this signifies the band coming out of hibernation.  In an age of social media and Donald Trump, we need the joyous chaos of the Butthole Surfers more than ever.

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