Tuesday, September 28, 2004


(Originally published August 2004)

THE BUTTHOLE SURFERS Jimi/Ricky/I Saw An X-Ray Of A Girl Passing Gas (side one of Hairway To Steven album, Blast First, 1988)

This is what I mean about the occasional necessity to take sides (and that "occasional" is highly questionable as it is); although 1987's Locust Abortion Technician with its famous setpieces ("Sweat Loaf," "22 Going On 23") is generally acknowledged to be the Butthole Surfers' masterpiece, the astonishing side one of Hairway To Steven (shame about side two) is the most consistent and far-reaching music they ever made.

And my God were the opening twelve minutes of "Jimi" needed in the dessicated desert of righteousness which was starving pop in early 1988. From the opening double-drum onslaught and sudden eruption of an arsequaking fuzz bass, over which speed-varied voices (high and low, child and parent) squeal and declaim "Soil me! I'm soiled!" and then collectively yell "OH! MY! GOD!" as in comes the gloriously glutinous, overfed, indulgent, rich, UNAPOLOGETIC post-Hendrix guitar, riffing and fucking, this was the release of everything which had been prohibited in the Ideal Community of Late '80s Pop. We had chosen to misinterpret punk's Year Zero manifesto as "no going back even to the things that we should have hung onto, no Led Zep guitar wankery, no Fleetwood Mac mystic folky wankery, all that COUNTER-PRODUCTIVE waste not required in our PERFECT SOCIALIST STATE," even though, as Keith Levene himself has subsequently admitted, the guitar reinventions on Metal Box would have been unthinkable without the precedent of Steve Howe. Thus we all had to be on our best behaviour, politely applaud the "reality" of Terence Trent D'Arby (what a sad '80s Hendrix parallel - ex-US Marine, or was he ex-US Air Force, comes to Britain to try his luck, but instead of reinventing the guitar and music in general, he is SOULFUL and SCREECHES SINCERELY like SAM COOKE used to do, backed by careful black polo neck-wearing musicians YELLING AT US TO PROVE HIS SOUL!) or the right-on-ness of the Christians (Christ what sanctimonious bollocks!!). No question what mien Hornby was trying to recapture with his Rob bloody Fleming playing REAL MUSIK NOT PLASTIK KOKTAIL KRAP at the Town and Country! Betty Wright! Donny Hathaway! When Smokey Sings (I Hear Violence)! Miserable collective kow-towing to Idols Whom We Can Never Hope To Better. Well they were right about that at least.

"Jimi" cheerfully and forcefully went AGAINST all this emotional/aesthetic constipation by unlocking the attic, unscrewing the finger out of the dam and letting EVERYTHING FORBIDDEN flood back into the arena and drown all pseudo-souls in bathetic acid. And at the same time you knew that this wasn't just a rueful Q Magazine-style glance back at how Everything Died After 1968, because you were fully aware that this RESURRECTION of the '68 ethos musically knocked ten gallons of shit out of much of what was going on in '68-'74 rock (you doubt my word? Listen to Ten Years After or Robin Trower or Frank Marino's Mahogany Rush. It wasn't that great back in the day). Nor was it sarky postmodernism; this music is somewhat mischievous, but clearly heartfelt. Listen to how it steadily ascends until, at the five-minute mark, the band makes with the Mingus accelerando and devolves into beautiful freeform chaos over gleeful cries of "Crazy, crazy fucking world!" This all eventually mutates into a looped fire drill siren.

And then, gradually, the mist (or smoke) clears, the darkness (death) vanishes and the sun (life) reappears. We are now in a bucolic, Ummagumma-esque rural setting; sheep and cattle low contentedly, water flows, birds sing, and an acoustic guitar delicately picks a precarious melody over a slow, patient rhythm which could have come straight from Gene Clark's No Other. Brooks babble, there is even the semi-distant smack of leather on willow (these Americans know about cricket?) behind which these submerged varispeed vocal choirs can still be heard murmuring, like the ghosts of Grace); it's a gorgeous descent from the aural carnage we've just experienced, and again a release of something which at the time was deliberately withheld from Music We Are Supposed To Like, unless in the context of Paul Weller licking Mick Talbot's ear in the video for "Long Hot Summer."

Two briefer songs follow this epic; the very short "Ricky" which, with its lightning-fast unison guitar riffs, prove that the Buttholes did have what are still termed in some quarters as "chops" (which yet again, post-punk, you still weren't permitted to own up to having). And then there's "I Saw An X-Ray Of A Girl Passing Gas," a probable top ten hit if released now as a single; then still a piquant pipedream, a song which appears to be about getting high on anaesthetic while visiting the dentist. It starts off as unbelievably catchy, even with lyrics such as: "Hey, HEY, hey/ Daddy, why'd you die in the war?/Jesus Hitler Buddha Santa Mary Klaus Barbie Reich Spore [this line may not be 100% accurate, but that's what it sounds like]/Well Ben got arrested and the sky was the ocean that day," until, halfway-through, a huge, sustained, mournful guitar gracefully divebombs into the song and takes it to a new level of epic poignancy as Haynes' vocal becomes more despairing and global in its outlook. The track fades to a refrain of "We only have to wonder what it's for" as the guitar ecstatically swoops over and swoons under the textures of the song.

Later the Butthole Surfers were to achieve stardom of a kind in the post-Cobain '90s by cheapening (my opinion) their music with "humour" (their opinion). But side one of Hairway To Steven sees them at their Cortesian peak. It seems to me that we could do with unblocking that dam again in 2004.

LOUIS PRIMA Medley: Just A Gigolo/I Ain't Got Nobody (Capitol single, 1956)

What a boisterous and cheerful sounding song about a man whose life has just fallen to pieces. Better known perhaps in the form of David Lee Roth's karoake hit cover in the '80s, this shows Prima not unduly concerned about the fact that "youth will pass away" and "when the end comes, I know/I was just a gigolo/Life goes on without me." He's very breezy about his imminent extinction.

Then at 1:14 he switches, via the bridge of "'cos" to explicate the rationale of life going on without him, into "I Ain't Got Nobody," and his band noticeably hotten up behind him, like the flames of Hell beckoning him (slight echoes of Mingus' "The Chill Of Death"?). Sam Butera honks and blasts away at his tenor as though all his birthdays had just come at once. Prima mock-weeps in call and response ("Nobody?" Backing vocalists, including an equally eager-sounding Keely Smith: "NOBODY!").

And then, as the band romps to the track's climax, like the second section of a New Orleans funeral march, you realise that Prima is happy to go down in flames; it's a hymn to life, a floodlit remembrance of the good times before the light is cut out altogether.

DINOSAUR Little Fury Things (SST single, 1987)

Also the opening track of their second album, You're Living All Over Me, before they were legally obliged to add the "Jr" suffix, this is another example of why "arsequake" was a far better name for this genre than "grunge," even though the track itself is determinedly trebly. It begins with the great-grandmother of all frenetic post-punk guitar thrashes, as J Mascis screams "WHAT IS IT? WHO IS IT? WHERE IS IT?" before settling into a harmonically twisting chorus which shows post-punk's still unresolved melodic debt to The Police. "A rabbit falls away from me, I guess I'll crawl/A rabbit always smashes me, again I'll crawl/Tried to think what's over me, it makes me crawl/Then she runs away from me, faster than I crawl." Is it about betrayed love? There's a luminous moment, after Mascis murmurs (as is his vocal wont, the words almost seem to drool out of his closed lips, involuntarily) "Sunlight brings the rage right in your eyes," the guitars immediately switch to a major-key fanfare before diving sharply back into the minor-key chorus, which on its final recital is almost swallowed up by savage, chomping fuzz. And in the album's closing "Poledo," we hear Lou Barlow quietly bringing Sebadoh into existence. That final looped orchestral chord might be the chord Syd Barrett lost back in 1967.

S*M*A*S*H Lady Love Your Cunt (Hi-Rise single, 1993)

Named after a 1971 Germaine Greer essay (which you can find included here, although it was reprinted on the single sleeve) and released just before Christmas of 1993, this remains a remarkable pop single. I was obliquely reminded of it when listening to Annette Peacock's "Mama Never Taught Me How To Cook" with the latter's lyric of "Women were not meant to serve/Women are meant to CREATE!" Opening with a glacial guitar dub-echo, which turns out to be the song's main riff, the song is soon revealed as a kind of post-punk update of/riposte to ABC's "The Look Of Love." Over excitable bass and drums which always seem to run about half a beat ahead of the guitar (would that Busted and/or McFly had it in themselves to make a single as good as this), singer Ed Borrie begins his anguished confessional: "Most governments, religions, institutions, weapons of war and stupid mistakes were made by a man...I was made by a woman!"

But the received image of "woman" is not something with which Borrie feels altogether comfortable:

"What's that smell you're wearing? It sticks like glue to me
Is it the product of a perfumery?
Designed by a pharmacist?
So that I just can't resist?"

Later there's an admission very rarely found in pop: "I've got a confession to make/I can't give - I can only take." So the image remains preferable to any sordid reality: "Your image is forever present/I feel effervescent." And "reality" is subsequently shown to be as sordid as Borrie had feared: "Whilst a judge comes all over her tits/She befriended me - she really cared!" I as a woman know exactly who and what I am, and more importantly where I am ("She had stations on her arms, stomach and neck/Where a commuter could pay for her ticket/To get out of it"), but that doesn't mean I'm going to tell you.

In the payoff, Borrie realises that to achieve total justice and redemption, he'd probably have to kill himself: "You've got to understand/The woman gave birth to the man/Through paranoia she is persecuted at his hands/I wasn't looking, but it came anyway/Now I'm totally shot away."

He feels fucked, and not in that sense either. The final line, expressing an honest defeatism hardly ever to be heard in the Britpop which soon thereafter drowned S*M*A*S*H, is a resigned confession: "I spend my time wondering why my happiness leads to aggression."

"The existence of this inclination to aggression, which we can detect in ourselves and justly assume to be present in others, is the factor which disturbs our relations with our neighbors and which forces civilisation into such high expenditure [of energy]. In consequence of this primary mutual hostility of human beings, civilised society is perpetually threatened with disintegration. Civilisation has to use its utmost efforts in order to set limits to man's aggressive instincts and to hold the manifestations of them in check by psychical reaction-formations. Hence, therefore, the use of methods intended to incite people into identifications and aim-inhibited relations of love, hence the restrictions upon sexual life, and hence too the ideal's commandment to love one's neighbour as oneself - a commandment which is really justified by the fact that nothing else runs so strongly counter to the original nature of man."
(Sigmund Freud, Homo Homini Lupus, 1929)