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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

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