sat 23/09/2017

James Burns – Let’s Go To Hell: Scattered Memories of the Butthole Surfers | reviews, news & interviews

James Burns – Let’s Go To Hell: Scattered Memories of the Butthole Surfers

James Burns – Let’s Go To Hell: Scattered Memories of the Butthole Surfers

The freakiest US rock band from the ‘80s finally has its story told

Butthole Surfers in full effect

During the ‘80s there was no US rock band that hoisted its freak flag higher than the Butthole Surfers, and certainly none that put out albums of the stature of Locust Abortion Technician and Hairway to Steven in such quick succession. Evolving from sloppy, lo-fi southern friend punk into experimental drug orgy art event and finally into fire-spitting hardcore psychedelic rockers – before, somewhat inevitably, being killed off by signing to a major record label – they were a visceral reaction to Ronald Reagan’s USA.

Even in a genre with a propensity to offend the squares, the Butthole Surfers managed to plumb new depths of depravity, both sonically and visually, under the influence of industrial volumes of psychedelic drugs. Nevertheless, by 1988 they had become one of the highest grossing independent touring bands in the USA and could command as much as $15,000 per performance. They even managed a Top 40 hit single with “Pepper” in 1996. Yet they have largely been relegated to being merely a footnote in the history of the grunge movement and of artistically less adventurous bands that reaped considerably more commercial success.

Interviews were usually drug-fuelled Dadaist ramblings that made little sense

Author James Burns is a Butthole Surfers enthusiast who has set out to change this state of affairs. However, it is not a quest that is eased by the fact that many of the Butthole Surfers’ records didn’t even include track listings, never mind additional band information, and that interviews with the music press were usually drug-fuelled Dadaist ramblings that made precious little sense.

However, there are plenty of tales to be told and Burns touches on most of them, even if they are rarely told from the perspective of anyone outside the band or from a wider context. Indeed, Burns might have benefited from talking to a much broader range of individuals before sitting down to write this tale. He doesn’t seem to have spoken to family or non-musician friends to illuminate things. Nor does he seem to have spoken to wide-eyed front man Gibby Haynes (pictured below) or anyone from the record label that they were with for much of their career, Touch and Go.

Yet he still manages to tell a hysterical tale which features a wide array of weird and wonderful characters, including the band’s dancer/performance artist from their purple period in the late ‘80s, who went under the name of Ta-Da The Shit Lady, temporary drummer Kabbage, the band’s dog Mark Farmer and even Kurt Cobain. And that’s before Burns moves on to the Spinal Tap-like procession of at least 10 bass players who performed with the band, one of whom took all the band’s takings and disappeared into the Texan desert to set light to himself (he failed), while another fled to Canada and never returned to the USA.

In a sense though, the lasting legacy of the Butthole Surfers came from suing Touch and Go Records for artistic and financial control of their own material after they had moved to a major label. Needless to say, this got the band tarred as “sellouts” by the indie elite, but it set a precedent for artists to hold the rights to their own material, especially when entering a deal from a position of poverty and naivety with little leverage for negotiation. And what could be more punk rock than that?   

One bass player disappeared into the Texan desert to set light to himself (he failed), while another fled to Canada and never returned to the USA

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