Surf’s Up


JOHN WALTERS: Can you think of one record that sort of says ‘yes’ to life after punk? You know, punk wasn’t the end, yes, it’s still going on, something’s happening and it stands up on its own as a post-punk record that we can now hear and say, ‘yes, Peel’s picked this one’?

JOHN PEEL: Well, I think, oddly enough, I know what you mean, but I think that some of the records that I’ve liked best over the last 10 years have been those records which have said ‘no’ to life! and I think I’ll pick one of those, because…I went to see the Butthole Surfers play in Hammersmith a few weeks ago…and came away with one’s senses reeling: it does sound like a cliche from a regional newspaper, but that’s exactly how I felt after seeing them…all of my preconceptions about what things should be…I think the Butthole Surfers would define something for me, although I’m not quite sure what it is. I don’t feel one should always necessarily enjoy popular music…not every play that you see has a happy ending, not every film you see has a happy ending, not every painting you see is necessarily going to be of kittens in baskets. [Peeling Back The Years, 1987]

The album Locust Abortion Technician is commonly acknowledged as a precursor to grunge: the Surfers, who had been making EPs and LPs with limited success for four years, brought their obsessions with tape manipulation and psychedelia to fruition here. (Kurt Cobain acknowledged them as an influence.) The closing song as chosen by JP, 22 Going On 23 (FF 1987 #44) is based around footage from a phone-in radio show, featuring an unknown woman detailing her psychological problems following sexual assault. In fact, there are no real lyrics here, merely the band squalling and thrashing to a minor key bassline, mixed with the woman’s ramblings and, ultimately, the sound of what seems like mooing cows, but is in fact one of the other tracks, Hay, reversed and stretched. It was clear from the slow, grinding, merciless beat that rock music was never going to be the same again: the line was drawn that would lead to Mudhoney, Nirvana and beyond. No more kittens in baskets.

Butthole Surfers, 22 Going On 23

Their groundbreaking style can at least be glimpsed in their two Peel Sessions. The first (missing the fourth track, ‘Florida’) veers between breakneck rock’n’roll and grunge (also featuring ‘Graveyard’, from the LP), and the second is a refinement of the grunge ethic, with plenty of reverb and more than a hint of surf guitar.

Butthole Surfers, Peel Session 1987-08-12
Shotgun/Cherub/Graveyard

Butthole Surfers, Peel Session 1988-09-27
Blind Man/E.D.G./Neee Neee

6 thoughts on “Surf’s Up

  1. Good work old boy. It’s clear that this must be a labour of love for all the spadework you put in.
    Tis appreciated.

  2. Thank you for that, Dick: any appreciation is valued. When you’re getting 100+ people a day reading your blog and about 10-20% of them downloading the music, one wonders why a little comment is above them.
    And yes, it is a labour of love: it’s a way of working out my obsession with the FF, but also a learning process. I have also made some great friends on the blog.
    Thanks once again.

  3. Ah, the Butthole Surfers….
    When we played in Austin, Texas, in 1993, a clearly Tripping Gibby followed us to the aftershow party, insisted we all sign his brand new white Levis, then proceeded to drink us all under the table, got our record company to pay his bill, forced us all to take drugs (oh, go on then) and told us some of the funniest, most unrepeatable rock’n’roll stories EVER. Gibby, you’re a gent and a scholar (though, of what, i’m not quite sure) and I salute you.

  4. For the uninitiated, Iain is referring to Gibby Haynes, the Surfers’ lead singer, and to their ‘well-reported appetite for recreational drugs’ (Wikipedia). A wonderful anecdote of rock’n’roll lifestyle from one who lived it and still remains a helluva nice guy (Iain, that is). I particularly like the ‘forced us all to take drugs’ bit: I can just imagine him holding all five of you down and pushing lines of coke down your throats! must have been torture ;-).

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