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Anniversary

No Regrets - 25 Years Of The Butthole Surfers' Locust Abortion Technician
David Stubbs , March 12th, 2012 04:08

For 25 years David Stubbs has been having bad dreams and attempting to put endings on them like he comes out a winner but thanks to the Butthole Surfers' finest album, Locust Abortion Technician, he's been getting nowhere

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In 1987, when the Butthole Surfers were at their crazed, creative crest, the UK music scene was in a prissy state of uncertain transition. At Melody Maker, a vanguard of us journalists, determined to turn up the dialectical heat, hailed the new maximal/minimal expansiveness of hip-hop, Prince in his preposterous finery, The Sugarcubes and The Cocteau Twins' overspill of glossolalia, the momentous new shapes and rhythms hammered out on the electro-goth anvil by Skinny Puppy, The Young Gods and Front 242, and, from America, what Simon Reynolds unabashedly hailed as “the return of rock” - the combined gale force of, among others, Sonic Youth, Big Black and Husker Dü. All of this represented an aesthetic revolt against the studied smallness, the tapered, anti-rockist, anti-flamboyant, Peelite correctness into which indie (cf The Wedding Present) and tasteful, white socked, post-Style Council Red Wedge retro-crews alike had lapsed. It felt time to rail against this decency, this too-British caution, to get back on the road to excess. Locust Abortion Technician, released in March 1987, was the epitome of this. It impacted like a whale on a beach, exploded by the deadly build up of its internal gases. This, right here, in every right head, was the state of rock.

Of course, the Buttholes themselves had no particular mind to be part of any music press agenda or manifesto. They were midway through their own trajectory, having formed as part of a neo-punk explosion Stateside in 1981 (seeing Britpunk journeymen 999 at a small club in San Antonio in their home state of Texas, had been for them, a “life changing experience”). Later, they would swell up commercially, be produced by John Paul Jones, straighten out, become MTV darlings and hang out with Johnny Depp. In 1987, their hugeness was only notional. They played at small, dangerously overcrowded and thankfully long-extinct venues in Hammersmith, frontman Gibby Haynes haranguing a lairy, greboid throng with his trademark bullhorn.

When I interviewed them for Melody Maker, they turned up mob-handed, oblivious to close inquisition. They discussed watching The Medical Channel with its gruesome footage of high voltage electrical burns victims, the miles of roadkill left on Texas highways when deer fatally strayed in front of oncoming traffic, Jimmy Swaggart, the Ku Klux Klan band scene, or the time drummer Theresa Nervosa was banned from The Oporto, the pretty licentious Soho bar that was the Melody Maker hangout in those days, for exposing her breasts to patrons.

The Buttholes were more than petty delinquents, however. Their drug-fuelled, fast backward into the future explorations of rock's history took in punk, metal and psychedelia, were at once debasing and elevating. Past titles like Rembrandt Pussyhorse represented sublime revolts against good taste. They weren't here to deflate but to inflate, to hoist their methane-filled freak balloon high.

This is evident in every last, clogged fibre of Locust Abortion Technician. It begins with 'Sweat Loaf'. A sepulchral, ambient loop, which eventually gives away to a dialogue between an all-American TV ad boy, the sound tweaked a la the skit 'ESP' which kicks off The Jimi Hendrix Experience's Axis: Bold As Love. “Daddy... What does regret mean?" “Well son, the funny thing about regret is that it's better to regret something you have done than to regret something that you haven't done. And by the way, If you see your mom this weekend, will you be sure and tell her... SATAN! SATAN! SATAN!” From there, it plunges into an ugly and freewheeling pastiche; the heavy, bass mimickry of Black Sabbath's 'Sweet Leaf', sliding in as if on the back of a greased pig down a waterlogged hill. Haynes jabbers - in what he described as his “multiple voices in real time” - into his bullhorn. Although his vocals are barely comprehensible, they're a crucial part of the barrage, while his use of “Gibbytronix”, to tweak his voice and the overall sound adds a crucial dimension of self-abuse and polymorphous perversity to the mix, that is uncannily similar to that practised by Prince on 'If I Was Your Girlfriend' On Sign O' The Times the same year.

Self-indulgent, noisy, flippant, sloppy, inauthentic, distended, and celebratory of Black Sabbath, Satanic creators of the heavy metal, the pariah music of the 80s, 'Sweat Loaf' tramples on the taboos of every decent 80s indie fan in the giddy course of its several minutes. But the mudslide has only just begun.

'Graveyard', which follows, feels barely mobile with its marrow-shuddering bass throb, stone age percussion and Luftwaffe drones, with Haynes' vocals reduced to a 17 rpm death throe. It's as if rock has been catapulted like dead livestock back into the ooze of its atavistic beginnings. And shamefully, it feels good.

'Pittsburgh To Lebanon' follows, blues plodding like a dinosaur with its hooves cased in concrete. All of this was assembled on a “work from home” basis, in a basic studio with rudimentary equipment and plenty of time between takes for recreational experimentation and ingestion. The lack of conventional discipline and lo-tech limitations are crucially all too apparent. 'Hay' again tempts a recurrence in these paragraphs of the barnyard motif with its backward taping and chorus of human braying in the background. 'Human Cannonball' is something like a “real song” with Gibby revealing that his actual vocals are closer to UK punk's abrasive snivellers in all their pointed “inadequacy” than the full-throated larynx-meisters of metal. But duly treated, his voice soars like sheet aluminium. 'U.S.S.A' tears a basshole in the Marshall Stack as Haynes yelps like a fugitive from an early Devo single – again, there's a sense of a punk/new wave sensibility colliding with the mores of the Deep Southern fried rock & roll heartland. More urgent vocal scrabble and metallic hyperspeed road-to-nowhere antics follow with 'The O-Men', taking rock to stupid and vital places it never visited before and hasn't much since.

Then comes 'Kuntz', one of the album's most talked about tracks, in which Haynes works over a popular song from an unnamed Thai pop artist, taking the repeated refrain of “khan, khan khan” and alternately speeding it up and decelerating it, so that it more closely approximates the song title. The duality is typical – on the one hand, it's as if they've merely taken an innocent, Third World artefact and scrawled rude words all over it. On the other, the very act of seizing on it is an a quantum, druggy, lateral leap of thinking, elevating it, teasing out its hidden properties. The artist on the original track is unknown but the original, un-molested track was tracked down by WMFU and can be heard here.

It turns out it's a specimen of a particular kind of bawdy and very popular Thai folk music called “look thoong” or "luk thung" (literally “child of the field”). The singer is bemoaning an itch he wants to scratch, the word “khan” meaning “itch”, while the word “duang”, which also crops up, means “moon” but is also a Thai reference for haemorrhoids. In the light of all this, 'Kuntz' feels even more inspirational.

It's the closer, however, '22 Going On 23' which truly seals and defines Locust Abortion Technician. Based around samples of a phone-in show hosted by one Dr Harry Ruebens, it features the testimony of a caller who has been sexually assaulted, complaining of the trauma she still suffers, followed by another caller describing the frustrations of a homebound, loveless marriage. It feels morbidly intrusive, the sort of stuff a certain kind of stoner might tune into and giggle over, and to include it in a song, without apparent context, feels both squalid and questionable. However, the lurching, roiling bass and, crucially, the solo unleashed by Paul Leary, a slow, remorseless thing of cathedral solemnity, provide their own, implicit answer. This is the sheer, voluminous extent of Buttholes rock – squalid and sublime, staring up from the cesspit to the moon. Even the braying of the cattle, which could be taken as some sort of misogynist snook to the women callers actually ends up adding to a sense of authentic trauma. In this one track, The Buttholes tear up the petty list of inhibitions, no-go areas, size restrictions and taste directives which impeded the thinking of 80s indie and college types. Now, everything is wide open and justifiable. Nothing is sacred, all things are possibly art.

The routes to the rehabilitation of old school metal, decried for so long by post-punk were many and varied but Locust Abortion Technician was undoubtedly one of the gateways for this, and many other things. You could say also it helped pave the way for grunge, a more codified, earnest and less waywardly colourful take on the ideas belched out here but then, way-paving isn't always the point, nor the ways yet clear. Locust Abortion Technician was released 25 years ago. Yet in many ways, it feels as yet unborn.

Thanks to Richard Sanderson and Ramon Mayor

Dr Up
Mar 12, 2012 10:17am

Bloody hell, 25 years old?

As an impressionable 15 year old who did whatever John Peel told me to, I bought this album on the basis of Sweat Loaf, and pretty much found the rest of it unlistenable. To the extent that less than a year later, I'd swapped it with one of my pals for a hat.

I've regretted that stupidity ever since. I don't have the hat any more, funnily enough, but my musical tastes have evolved sufficiently and I'm pretty sure I'd love LAT nowadays. I've heard it since and 22 Going On 23 is indeed awesome.

I've never given away or sold a record since.

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Stone Age Mind
Mar 12, 2012 12:29pm

For a while back there Butthole Surfers was my favourite band and LAB my favourite album of all time. I haven't listened to them in yonks, but Psychic, Powerless and Hairway To Steven were also great and Double Live was one of THE great, er, double live albums.

Live they were hit and miss, depending, I assume, on the band's drug intake before th show. I was one of that lairy greboid throng at Klub Foot in Hammersmith with the Shamen as support band. Dry ice and fire, gory operation video projections and a naked female dancer. A sensory-overload vision of Hell, but great fun!

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lh
Mar 12, 2012 12:32pm

LAT is one of those rarest of birds - a confrontational mess of slop that still manages to sound provocative and dangerous to this day. Almost none of their freak peers could say anything like that.

I can't find the interview or link to the info, but supposedly, the woman in "22 Going On 23" was not actually abused, but was an older woman (obviously) who called the radio station almost every day with a new made-up set of problems.

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Gary Floyd
Mar 12, 2012 1:36pm

In reply to Stone Age Mind:

Thats the one that done it for me! People were bloodied before they come on, it was probably one of the hottest nights of the year and the ceiling and walls were oozing sweat. When the dry ice kicked in you couldn't see a thing until people started running for the door coz Gibby was lighting up cymbals on stage! A truly truly weird experience.

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Dan B
Mar 12, 2012 5:39pm

Nice piece, I prefer pretty much all of the pre-major stuff though. Probably an under-historicised band but the rock academics don't touch 'em because they have to sneak some kind of crit theory in under your nose. Rembrandt Pussyhorse is astounding, that guitar sound on Whirling Hall of Knives is worth anyone's money.

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Rockford
Mar 12, 2012 8:32pm

This record helped turned me from a slavish music press follower into a more discerning and free minded young man.
Even better was a support slot the Buttholes for out shit band at The Newport Centre on the London/Leeds/Newport mini-tour to promote it. It was a mind blowing show.
For years afterwards me an my pal would go into the Rough Trade Shop in Talbot Road and gaze at the huge yellow tour poster on the wall behind the counter. And we would ask if we could have it. And they said no.

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Uncle D
Mar 14, 2012 1:04pm

I promoted the Butthole Surfers at the original Mean Fiddler venue in Harlesden London NW10
It was the single best gig that happened there, riot cops, police dogs, fire and nakedness most of which went down before the doors even opened. I went on to book them as often as I could at Reading Festival, they were always total texas Gents (and Lady) happy days. One man (who rarely gets his due) for bringing not only BHS, Sonic Youth but also Big Black etc is Paul Smith who started Blast First records, with out his isight and ears we may have been left with shit like The Wedding Present for ever......

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Rory
Jun 18, 2012 10:36am

Having just been led here from the young gods review, I guess you have the same taste and experiences as me, so is it a bit indulgent of me to praise your opinion? Yes, but I will all the same,you are right, mighty, mighty record, loved this one.

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Johnny Nothing
Jun 18, 2012 10:53pm

This one still scares the bejaysus out of me and I've never been entirely sure if I'm supposed to play it all at the one speed.

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Eric Murphy
Mar 5, 2013 10:41am

Good read; you've done a decent job of intellectualising something that can't be intellectualised, but you've done it without disappearing up your own arse.

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