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Butthole Surfers

Butthole Surfers

Punk band

For the Record

First Discovered by Jello Biafra

Darkly Atmospheric Concerts

Wide Exposure at Lollapalooza

Selected discography

Sources

In the turbulent atmosphere of the so-called alternative music scene of the 1980s and early 1990s, countless groups have come and gone, self-destructing noisily under the frictions of fame and touring, or being quietly extinguished by lack of interest from the recording establishment. One band which seems to have overcome these pressures by completely ignoring them is the Butthole Surfers. Relentlessly uncompromising as their name would suggest, the Texas band has been a mainstay of the underground music circuit for over 15 years, performing concerts legendary for their loud dissonance, graphic visual decor, and onstage mayhem, while releasing albums, alternately chaotic and sharply focused, that are paeans to the skewed reality of the punk psychedelia movement. Without significant airplay or mainstream acceptance, the Butthole Surfers have carved a unique niche for themselves as perhaps one of the most widely known bands never to have appeared on a sales chart or on a top-100 list.

Of all the places for such a corrosively non-conformist act to have sprung from, there could hardly have been

For the Record

Members include Gibson Gibby Haynes (born c. 1958 in Dallas, TX; vocals), Paul Leary (born c. 1958 in San Antonio, TX; guitar), Jeff Pinkus (born c. 1958 in New York City; bass), Jeff King Coffey (born c. 1963 in Midland, TX; drums). Former members include Quinn Matthews, bass (left group in 1982); Scott Matthews, drums (left group in 1982 and was replaced by Jeff Coffey); Bill Jolly, bass (left group in 1984 and was replaced by Terence Smart, bass, left group in 1985 and was replaced by Jeff Pinkus); and Teresa Taylor, drums (left group in 1989).

Group formed in 1980, performed in Texas toured in California, late 1981; released first album on Jello Biafras Alternative Tentacles label (San Francisco), 1983; left Alternative Tentacles and signed with Touch and Go (Chicago), 1984; released first Touch and Go album, Psychic, Powerless, Another Marts Sac, 1984; appeared on Lollapalooza tour in 1990; signed with Capitol Records, 1991; released first Capitol album, Independent Worm Saloon, in 1993.

Addresses: GroupAustin, TX. Agent International Creative Management, New York, NY. Record label Capitol Records, New York, NY.

a more unlikely locale than the campus of Trinity University, a small liberal arts college in San Antonio, Texas. Here in 1977 ex-high school basketball star turned accounting major Gibson Gibby Haynes became friends with fellow business student Paul Leary, based on their mutual love of loud, raucous heavy metal bands such as Grand Funk Railroad and Black Sabbath. The two kept in contact after they graduated; Leary, a stockbroker-in-training, worked toward his MBA, while Haynes, voted accounting student of the year by his graduating class, toiled over spreadsheets at the firm of Peat Marwick. In 1980, however, evidently unenthused by the prospect of business careers, the two quit their jobs to devote themselves full-time to music, buying amplifiers with the remainder of Learys student loan. Attracted by the flourishing punk/heavy metal scene of the time, they formed a group featuring Haynes as vocalist, Leary on lead guitar, and, after experimenting with several different line-ups, brothers Quinn and Scott Matthews on bass and drums.

Billed as The Dick Clark 5 for their first performance, the group appeared throughout Texas, performing under a number of different names, including The Dick Gas 5, Vodka Family Winstons, Ashtray Baby Heads, and Nine Foot Worm Makes Own Food. At a 1981 gig for which they had been booked as The Bleeding Skulls, the band was mistakenly introduced as the Butthole Surfers, a lyric from one of their songs. Leary and Haynes were taken with the cheerfully obscene image and adopted the name as the groups permanent title, thus christeningand in a sense definingwhat would become one of the most notorious club acts of the 1980s. The same concert also netted the newly dubbed Butthole Surfers $150, instilling in them the conviction that they could support themselves as musicians. Piling their instruments, equipment, and Learys faithful pit bull, Mark Farner, into a 1977 Chevrolet Nova with the back seat ripped out, the band headed out to California, determined to stake their claim in its thriving music scene.

First Discovered by Jello Biafra

This initial Butthole Surfers tour would exemplify the nomadic lifestyle they were to lead for much of the next decade. Wandering up and down the West Coast, the group begged club owners for gigs, garnering appearances here and there on sympathy alone. In the winter of 1981 when they appeared at the San Francisco club Tool and Die, Jello Biafra, leader of one of the premier punk bands of the time, the Dead Kennedys, was in the audience. Biafra liked what he saw and invited them to play shows with his band; more importantly, he signed them with his independent label, Alternative Tentacles. Despite these initial prospects of success, the band returned to Texas in 1982 and broke up. In order to record their first album, Leary and Haynes had to enlist the help of a variety of musicians, finally settling on Jeff King Coffey on the drums and Bill Jolly on bass as a permanent line-up for touring. Almost of equal importance, the band also purchased its first set of strobe lights, acquired for $50 from an ex-con, and began to put together the elements for their radically unique live stage act.

In 1983 the Butthole Surfers recorded a second and last album on Alternative Tentacles, with Teresa Taylor, sister of King Coffey, seconding him on drums. These first recordings, though notable for abrasive songs such as The Shah Sleeps in Lee Harveys Grave,were simply two among any number of similar albums from the many independent labels and punk bands of the time. Nonetheless, the group had begun to develop a public presence, largely because of the buzz generated by its chaotic concerts, and on the strength of incessant touring, they slowly established themselves as a force on the alternative music scene. Driving an assortment of clapped-out vehicles, including a van that caught fire and exploded in Athens, Georgia, the band spent the next several years almost constantly on the road, exposing themselvesoften literallyto a wide range of audiences. The touring lifestyle was far from glamorous. Nourished on junk food bought at convenience stores, they slept wherever they could, nursing chronic cases of the flu from nights spent on cold floors; a high point in this period was when they made enough money to buy sleeping bags. In the process, however, they attracted a steady following of devotees and a reputation as a band that pushed live performance to its extremes.

Darkly Atmospheric Concerts

The fundamental appeal of the Butthole Surfers sprang from the darkly Bacchanalian, almost nightmarish, ambience created by their concerts. The often surreal atmosphere they surrounded themselves with was not intended so much to complement the bands playing as to distract attention from it; as Paul Leary confessed in Rip, We wanted to do something to cover up our musical ineptness. That something took the form of belching smoke machines, banks of cheap strobe lights, and old elementary-school movie projectors showing graphic depictions of such diverse subjects as penis reconstructive surgery, automobile wrecks, and marine life, to name a few, on a backdrop behind the barely visible band. The Surfers efforts at audience distraction were heightened by the wild gyrations of a nude dancer named Kathleen who appeared regularly with the band after unexpectedly jumping on stage at a concert at New Yorks Danceteria club. The band members were also obsessed with pyrotechnics, often lighting parts of the stage or themselves on fire at some point in their concerts; a favorite stage prop of Haynes was a broken cymbal which he would fill with lighter fluid and then beat frantically with a drum-stick to send a fireball shooting up into the air.

Against this Dante-esque background, the Butthole Surfers ground out their trademark songs, savage, often inaudible, heavy metal-influenced dirges that were prototypes for the sound and fury of the grunge movement of the late 1980s and early 90s. The compositions themselves tended to be formless, prolonged meditations on dysfunctionality, full of harsh images howled at top volume by Haynes. As a counter-point to Gibbys cathartic wailing, a demented Paul Leary thrashed out power chords on his guitar, frantically working its tremolo bar to elicit cacophonous moans and screeches from the instrument. Behind the two frontmen, the bands sound was underpinned by the churning bass of Bill Jollysucceeded in 1984 by Terence Smart and in 1985 by Jeff Pinkusand the relentless drumming of Coffey and Taylor.

The bands reckless, no-holds-barred performing style often provoked an equally extreme reaction from their audience, an effect which they seemed to actively encourage as a key component to the chaotic ambience they were trying to establish. This was especially evident in the confrontational and wildly uninhibited stage presence of their physically imposing lead singer. At times, Butthole Surfers concerts would degenerate into brawls between Haynes and any number of audience members and on one occasion, a concert in Canada, he was stabbed in the arm by a fan who apparently took offense at a song containing the lyrics crippled midget lesbian boy. This kind of incident, coupled with the bands namewhich most radio DJs refused to pronounce on airdid nothing to endear the group to record executives from major labels; throughout much of the 1980s, in spite of their reputation as an underground cult favorite, they were ignored by the mainstream music industry. Eventually they signed with Touch and Go, an independent label based in Chicago, whose management adopted a laissez-faire attitude towards the bands excesses and actually kept them afloat with strategic advances or by wiring money when their touring vehicles broke down.

In return, the band recorded extensively, releasing seven albums from 1984 to 1989. They were characterized by the same focusless, primal energy the band unleashed in its live performances, and became underground classics. This creative frenzy largely took place in the dark confines of a boarded-up house on the outskirts of Austin, Texas, that served as the groups base in between tours. Paul Leary, although he had little prior experience as a producer, was responsible, through a process of trail and error, for the bands unique sound. Virtually all of the albums were recorded using a variety of discarded or second-hand equipment that the Surfers had accumulated in their travels, and the groups limited budget often necessitated elaborate improvisations. In one instance, all of the drum tracks were done one-by-one because the group only had a single microphone with which to record them.

These prolonged and highly experimental studio sessions spawned distinctly original work, often recyclings of various musical genres stretched beyond recognition. The group enhanced the spontaneous feel of their recordings by distorting and mixing in seemingly random found sounds,such as radio talk show chatter, Middle Eastern singing, and in one instance, a herd of cows recorded near their house. Perhaps the Butthole Surfers most well-known work from this period was Locust Abortion Technician, released in 1987, a grab-bag of ambient noise and punk psychedelia that a Melody Maker critic describedadmiringlyas a sub-blues sewer. An equally favorable reaction greeted the more ethereal Hairway to Steven, which appeared the following year.

Wide Exposure at Lollapalooza

As the 1980s wound to a close, the Butthole Surfers went into a temporary hibernation, no doubt exhausted by the frenetic pace they had kept up throughout the decade, and severely curtailed their touring schedule. Teresa Taylor quit the band, while her brother, Pinkus, Haynes, and Leary devoted their energies to side projects such as starting their own labels, producing other groups records, or dabbling in video technology and computer graphics. In 1990 the group toured again on a limited basis; among the venues they performed was alternative musics wildly successful low-budget traveling roadshow, Lollapalooza. In an ironic twist, the Butthole Surfers, often appearing in daylight at the festival and without the usual panoply of projections, smoke, and strobe lights, enjoyed some of the widest public exposure they had ever had. Among the many in the audience impressed by their performance were record executives, and in 1991, they signed with Capitol Records. In a sign of the bands evolving fortunes, their first album on Capitol, Independent Worm Saloon, was producedon a vastly larger budget than they were accustomed toin a Northern California studio under the guidance of ex-Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. As of the mid-1990s, they continued to work on recording projects, albeit without the services of Jeff Pinkus, who left the group in 1994.

The Butthole Surfers persona would seem to have been toned down from the excesses of the mid-1980s, their wild onstage antics and frenzied audience response perhaps overshadowed by the massive success of other groups, such as Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails, that emerged from the same creative ferment of the alternative music movement. However their songs, if more tightly produced since then, have lost none of their edge. The final track on Worm Saloon, for example, begins with a 30-second vomiting sequence. As they have since their debut, the group continues their Odyssey through the changing American musical landscape, not expressing any specific destination or goal, and improvising, borrowing, adapting anything that seems in sync with their vision of the world. That this vision is often bleak, impenetrable, and a reflection of the chaos of the human condition, is perhaps the essential factor in the bands continuing appeal, coupled with a unique sound that music critic Simon Reynolds evocatively described in a Melody Maker article as one part giant surge of flesh, one part holy revelation. Few who have experienced a Butthole Surfers concert would disagree.

Selected discography

Brown Reason to Live, Alternative Tentacles, 1983.

Live PCP Pep, Alternative Tentacles, 1984.

Psychic, Powerless, Another Mans Sac, Touch and Go, 1984.

Cream Corn From The Socket of Davis, Touch and Go, 1985.

Rembrandt Pussyhorse, Touch and Go, 1986.

Locust Abortion Technician, Touch and Go, 1987.

Hairway to Steven, Touch and Go, 1988.

Widowermaker! Touch and Go, 1989.

PIOUHGD, Rough Trade, 1991.

Independent Worm Saloon, Capitol Records, 1993.

The Whole Truth and Nothing Butt, Trance Syndicate, 1995.

Sources

Details, May 1993.

Guitar Player, July 1993; June 1995.

Melody Maker, May 10, 1986; April 23, 1988; October 1, 1988; December 8, 1990; March 6, 1993.

Mix, August 1995.

Musician, March 1993.

Rip, August 1994.

Rolling Stone, June 24, 1993.

Side, November 1993.

Spin, June 1993.

Variety, August 27, 1994.

Additional material provided by Capitol Records publicity, March 1993. Special thanks to Jeff King Coffey.

Dan Hodges

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