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Alternative History

The unlikely and enduring success of the Butthole Surfers’ Pepper

butthole surfers

Butthole Surfers were troublemakers determined to undermine expectations rather than meet them. Their often camouflaged musical abilities did provide them with a couple of bonafide hit singles, as well as the admiration of many. Here is the brief story of Pepper by Butthole Surfers.

With benefit of hindsight, it all sorta makes sense. The success of Butthole Surfers could only have occurred in the early 1990s. Here was the moment where the carefully groomed glam metal bands that had dominated the previous decade, were forced to acknowledge commercial defeat to musicians who looked like their roadies. Butthole Surfers resembled rock band roadies after a night out guided by a particularly potent mix of chemicals.

Still, this was a band disciplined enough to release 8 albums throughout a 15-year recording career. They were also road dogs earning their support through their numerous and exciting live shows. And, on the rare occasion when it suited them, they could pen a rock song that could get on the radio.

Butthole Surfers weren’t the only weird band to achieve some degree of success. Pixies and Violent Femmes were college radio darlings in the U.S. Beck and the Flaming Lips scored DYI hits that seemed to arrive out of leftfield. And, even chemical pioneers like Primal Scream and the Happy Mondays, got their chances to get on TV and sell records. None were as consistently weird and, seemingly, at odds with their listeners as Butthole Surfers.

Locust Abortion Technician and other ditties

The offensively titled group, like many featured on our site, began life as an abrasive punk band. Their name was in fact the title of an early song. Legend has it that realizing it would be nearly impossible for this moniker to be uttered on TV, radio, or any other place where bands typically promote themselves, singer Gibby Haynes decided that Butthole Surfers would be a perfectly suited name for the group.

From the very beginning, Haynes and the group were confrontation seekers. Their setlist included titles like Bar-B-Q Pope, The Revenge of Anus Presley and The Sha Sleeps In Lee Harvey’s Grave.

The early music was a mixture of punk, Southern rock, and avant-garde nonsense. Barely had their careers began before many had already labeled them as acid casualties somehow allowed to make records.

The live shows were similarly legendary. These, in part, showed that the group members may have been unhinged, but not unprepared. The shows usually featured fire-breathing routines, naked dancing routines, and bizarre projections.

Earning a reputation as one of the most fearless groups of music maniacs that American live music could offer, naturally, they garnered the admiration of many of their peers. From Ministry’s Al Jourgensen, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor or Jello Biafra, musicians seemed to love the Surfers, or at least be amused by their antics.

Those who would like to get a glimpse into the early music of the band need to look no further than Lotion Abortion Technique. For many years, this album lived in a world of zaniness reserved for the likes of Captain Beefheart or the Residents. Before the days of Bandcamp and DYI recordings, it must have truly felt like a shock that record label employees would have signed off on releasing such a dizzyingly confusing record.

Who Was in My Room Last Night?

Butthole Surfers may have served as an inside joke for those looking for the most offensive kind of rock music being made. However, while busy being outrageous, they had secretly also developed their musical skills. For the most part, they used their newly found chops to play bizzaro covers that warranted a chuckle.

But, by the early 1990s, legitimate big record labels were paying attention to the band. Even more strange, these labels seemed undeterred by the group’s antics. Capitol signing the band in 1992 may have seemed like the biggest gamble imaginable, but it paid off quickly.

In 1993 they released Independent Worm Saloon. It was an album produced and supervised by the former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. This credit may have read like another BS joke. But, JPJ did offer the band a large, brash sound that afforded them their first hit, Who Was in My Room Last Night?

Sure, the success was helped by the help the Surfers received from two well-placed sources. On the one hand, Capitol believed enough in the record to finance a music video. Secondly, Haynes’ howling vocals had accompanied Ministry’s Jesus Built My Hot Rod, another strange bonafide hit that served as the blueprint for Independent Worm Saloon.

Electriclarryland and Pepper

It seems fitting that the most bizarre thing that the Butthole Surfers could ever come up with would be a genuinely great rock song. Musically, Pepper is very much a product of its time. The half-rapped, half-sung strange storytelling shares DNA with Beck’s Loser. The thump of the guitars in the chorus was not unlike the dynamics embraced by grunge bands. Regardless, the splendid writing and inspired performance that was caught on tape, make this an enduring classic of the 90s alt-rock era.

Decades later, the song is still played on radio, television and included on numerous playlists detailing the 1990s rock scene. Even more shockingly, the song reached #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock charts. For most listeners, this is their sole connection to the band.

Had Butthole Surfers decided to go straight a decade into their career? No, not quite. Pepper featured on an album, typically, titled Electriclarryland. The Jimi Hendrix-parody titled record featured a lot of the outlandish experiments fans of the group’s earlier records would have been familiar with. It also featured some tunes that made the Surfers sound like a metal band and a few pop excursions as well. Possibly most shocking of all, the band opted to play those songs relatively straight.

Pepper includes Haynes’ poetic, rock-rapping detailing the story10 characters. Most of their tales end in disaster. The song also emphasizes a memorable chorus that is pushed on by loud distorted guitars. Although a wonderful pop-song in essence, Pepper also brought enough psychedelic elements to ground it in the Surfers’ previous body of work.

The aftermath of Pepper

The success of Pepper didn’t just catch the Butthole Surfers unprepared. It caught them on the verge of checking out. Some suggest that the group recorded the album as some kind of concession towards their record label. The alternative-rock boom of the 1990s had started. It seems fair to assume now, that someone working for the record company had enough foresight to assume the Surfers would be swept up in it.

After ten years of hard touring and hard living, the group members had to contend with their own issues. Most of those related to chemical dependency. At one point, Gibby Haynes met Kurt Cobain in a rehab facility.

The group wasn’t very interested, or in a state, where they could work to sustain their new-found commercial momentum. They recorded their follow-up After the astronaut not long afterward, but Capitol refused to release it. The Surfers were forced back to the drawing board. They recorded and were allowed to release Weird Revolution. It was received warmly by the press and public alike, but Haynes and co. looked in no mood to try scoring another hit.

Instead, Pepper remains the oddity in a memorable career. Unlike other bands remembered primarily for their handful of hits, Butthole Surfers are usually well-liked in spite of it. Pepper is still a fantastic alt-rock song. But, the pop hooks and trip-hop beats of the track, have done little to stain the reputation of Butthole Surfers as unhinged weirdos determined to push the boundaries of good taste and sonic tolerance to their very extremes.

About author

Eduard is a writer, blogger, and musician. As a content writer, Eduard has contributed to numerous websites and publications including FootballCoin, Extra Time Talk, Fanatik, Sportskeeda, Nitrogen Sports, Bavarian FootballWorks, etc. He runs and acts as editor-in-chief of the alternative rock music website www.alt77.com Eduard is also a musician, having played and recorded in various bands and as a solo artist.
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