Christopher Owens has been reading a book on a controversial US rock band.
America in the 1980's was an interesting place.
On the surface, you had Reagan telling the country that it was morning in America, that the chaos and uncertainty of the 70's were no more. Order had been reinstituted, and now was the time that America would finally prosper.
Then you had a look at the subculture and realise that all was not well.
With Black Flag screaming about police brutality, Cro-Mags depicting the wasteland of New York and Culturcide gleefully sending up American rock standards to critique corporate America, punk rock/hardcore held a firm grip on the subculture mindset. It was an all encompassing tent, and one that was genuinely for misfits. As a commentator once wrote:
...it's worth mentioning that you sort of had to be there to understand how some of this sort of bullshit fit into the cultural miasma that was 'punk rock' in the '80s.This was before 120 Minutes...Hot Topic...'American Idiot.' Punk rock was a fairly anarchic and unstructured community full of completely ungovernable people where bad behavior was not only tolerated, but often encouraged. You had this massive gamut of subcultures within the subculture - from the very rigid and codified dress code and lifestyle of the skinheads to the ascetic straight-edge kids to the 'how many of these can I take and still stagger onstage in a wedding dress and a cow's head?' performance ethic of bands like the Butthole Surfers.
I watched a girl come out of the bathroom at 688 and throw a cup of hot piss at Henry Rollins one night because she really liked the band. Two friends of mine came out of a night club in Miami and saw Nick Cave standing in the alley. When they said 'Hey, Nick! We love you! Nick!' and he turned his back on them they got pissed and beat him up. y'know, because they loved him. Punk rock was for fucked up people...It wasn't just suburban teenagers with edgy haircuts and skateboards. It was hustlers, fuckups and untreated psychotics, it was addicts and dwarfs and that girl with one arm and a snake tattooed on her cheek.
Why does this matter? Because the terms of rebellion weren't so codified then. 'Right' and 'wrong' were pretty fluid in a lot of people's minds … How fucked up a spectacle could you make? How outrageously could you behave? These were hallmarks of quality before it all got codified into 'How many records can you sell?
Is it any wonder that a bunch of acid casualties from Texas who sold bedspreads of Lee Harvey Oswald would end up under such a tent?
There was a period in the 1980's when the Butthole Surfers were one of the most dangerous bands on the planet. Combining the best of punk rock, goth, rockabilty and pure noise, their records were transmissions from another world. Singer Gibby Hayes was the kind of idiot savant that was the love child of William Burroughs and Lux Interior, while guitarist Paul Leary was the drill sergeant, directing the troops into battle with the audience.
Come the 90's, they made it biggish and blew it in spectacular fashion.
While they had pages of the music press devoted to them, very few writers looked at their recordings in a sober, academic fashion. Until Ben Graham gave us this tome.
Skipping, gleefully, through their career trajectory with minimum fuss, Graham is more interested in the records and the messages being projected from them. Ones that howl nightmares from the youth of America as Reaganomics sought to rewrite the 1960's.
Here, Graham is on fertile soil. His analysis of songs like 'Sweat Loaf', 'The Revenge of Anus Presley' and 'Who Was in My Room Last Night' show them to be much more insightful and subversive than even the band have ever claimed them to be. He also, depressingly, demonstrates just how much their starpower deteriorated in the early 90's and beyond, leaving them a shell of what they once were.
Where Graham does fall down is sidestepping the issue of the band being money grabbers, downplaying incidents involving ex-members' fees and Alternative Tentacles (the legendary label run by Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra). I assume this is because the band squandered most of their money on drugs, light shows and other silly endeavors, so it's better to portray them as genuine outsiders who broke into the mainstream and then squandered it (it is still remarkable that a band like the Butthole Surfers could ever achieve mainstream success) as opposed to back stabbing junkies.
In this vein (pardon the pun), Graham's depiction of the band's lawsuit against their old label, Touch & Go is excused because the band were seen as going against the grain of what constituted punk rock. Let me make my feelings clear on this issue: the lawsuit was one of the most shameful acts ever committed by a supposed 'alternative' band against a genuine indie label. While Graham quotes Leary's belief that they were being ripped off, he doesn't actually offer evidence that this was the case. Nor does Graham tell his audience that the Surfers were the only band (in nearly 40 years of operation) to ever express such feelings towards the label.
Legendary engineer/Big Black/Shellac main man Steve Albini has been particularly vocal about this period, writing that:
...nobody was ripping off the Butthole Surfers. They were getting 50 percent of the profit generated by their recordings, as agreed when they were paid for ... the Buttholes were even entitled to release their own editions of those records if they wanted. Their lawsuit was solely to prevent Corey (Rusk, T&G owner) from making anything off the records ... When the Butthole Surfers were offered a deal from another label, they left T&G, no fuss. The records T&G paid to have made survived that move, that's all ... The Butthole Surfers charged Corey whatever they could get for those recordings, as though they were a recording studio billing him for work. I think they got 10 grand for 'recording expenses' for Locust.
Also, no mention of the Daniel Johnston story?
Nonetheless, as a short (but insightful) view into one of the greatest bands of the 1980's underground, Scatological Alchemy does the job.
Ben Graham, 2017, Scatological Alchemy: A Gnostic Biography of the Butthole Surfers. Eleusinian Press ISBN-13: 978-1909494169
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.