The 10 Most Legendary Performances By The Butthole Surfers

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Live in 1988

The Butthole Surfers have long been considered one of the greatest live bands on the face of the planet. Their shows were part side-show circus, part political rally, part Kool-Aid Acid Test, and sometimes, even, part rock concert.
For many years, even prior to publishing the book, “Let’s Go to Hell: Scattered Memories of the Butthole Surfers”, I’d often get asked if I had a list of my favorite shows. For a band like the Butthole Surfers, whose styles changed more than its revolving door of bassists, it’s a Herculean task to pick a mere handful of gigs in the canon of the thousands the band has played, and continues to play.
With the band set to headline the SAFE AS MILK festival in the UK next month, I decided to try to break down the 10 of the most legendary shows by the band; the ones that not just rocked, but which elevated the Butthole Surfers from being a mere punk rock band, to being one of the most dangerous bands to ever exist…

10) Lawndale Art Annex, Houston, TX, March 9, 1983
If one watches the band’s only official live video, Blind Eye Sees All, several minutes passed the static at the end of the tape, you’ll catch a glimpse of the ‘bonus footage’, and of a violently drunken, and decidedly naked Gibby Haynes, and his compatriot Paul Leary, try in vain to hold things together as they fumble through a hopeless rendition of the band’s classic “BBQ Pope.
There was a promise from Alternative Tentacles Records co-founder (and Dead Kennedys lead singer) Jello Biafra that he’d release a Butthole Surfers record if they ever got one recorded. That promise kept Gibby and Paul actively playing music, even as their band splintered, broke up, reformed, broke up again, and floundered.
It was a true triumph of the will that kept them together long enough to eventually find King Coffey, Teresa Taylor and a full-time bass player, and eventually become the Butthole Surfers. Certainly, after a performance like this, it could not have been easy to keep spirits up during these lean years. In what may go down as the worst show in the history of rock’n’roll, the legend begins.

9) Variety Arts Center, Los Angeles, CA, November 7, 1987
The Buttholes were on their way to becoming the highest grossing independent band on the road, and many Hollywood elites were in attendance to witness them destroy brain cells and eardrums. Still 2 months away from recording their classic ‘Hairway to Steven’ album, The Buttholes set is comprised mostly of songs still unreleased, which was often the case. Their stop in LA on their never ending tour is a marathon performance that shows them at the height of their powers.
Opening with “Something”, a song that hadn’t been played in nearly two years, they set fire to and smash 4 guitars, and then the show really takes off. It was becoming obvious that the Butthole Surfers transcended the punk rock movement they were born from, and this gig is proof of it…

8) Iguana’s, Tijuana, Mexico, September 23, 1989
Nirvana’s supernova ‘Nevermind’ was still two years from being released, and no one knew what the heck a “Lollapalooza” was, so it’s hard to remember that ‘alternative music’ was starting to create some ripples with both labels and fans alike as early as the late 1980’s. The Red Hot Chili Peppers were brave enough to ask the Butthole Surfers to open for them at Iguana’s, something that most bands shied away from lest they be forced to play amongst movie screens and debris often associated with a Butthole Surfers performance.
Iguana’s was a venue the Butthole Surfers could have probably sold out themselves, yet on this night, the first of what was supposed to be a two night stint, they were the sole indie band on a bill that also included Mary’s Danish. They got a quick lesson in how it feels to be treated like an independent band as opposed to a band on a major label. After the sound guy refused to pay any attention to their requests to raise the monitors, Gibby threw a drink in frustration, and a full-fledged riot ensued at the oversold club. Everyone made it back to the USA without getting arrested, but it was becoming clear that the music scene was changing, and that the small clubs once used to house ‘alternative’ bands were no longer suitable.

7) Pandora’s Music Box Festival – De Doelen, Rotterdam, Netherlands, October 12, 1985
The Butthole Surfers first tour of Europe in 1985 was with a new bass player, Mark Kramer. Kramer had just left his band, Shockabilly, and with a single phone call to a promoter, got the Butthole Surfers a complete tour by just changing a scheduled Shockabilly tour to a Butthole Surfers tour.
Shockabilly, were pretty big in Europe, and the Butthole Surfers were completely unknown, but they got a chance to prove themselves in a prime slot at a festival that included Nick Cave, Echo & the Bunnymen and a slew of other bands who were infinitely more successful than they were. The band’s performance was cacophonous, drunken, and raucous, and despite running away after the set to avoid arrest, they were booked two weeks later back in Holland and billed as “Sensations of the Pandora Festival.”

6) Reading Festival, Reading UK, August 27, 1989
After nearly a decade as a 5-piece band, the Buttholes were whittled down to a quartet after second drummer Teresa Taylor decided to call it quits. The three-day festival in Reading was packed with shoe-gaze and Brit-alternapop bands, leaving the Buttholes as the sole American band on this particular day. They smashed several guitars during their opening song, and gave the Brits the first taste of the guitar-driven rock that would soon dominate the charts and airwaves. If one could possibly pin-point a singular concert that signified the start of the American-grunge scene; this is it! Kurt and Courtney met at a Butthole Surfers show in May of 1991, coincidence; I think not.

5) The Vatican, Houston, TX, December 31, 1991
The band had just signed with Capitol records, and this was their first performance as denizens of a major label. To celebrate, the band walks out onstage, joint ablaze, and passes it into the crowd. The next two hours the band blazes through a set of both old and new numbers that show them to be the grandfatherly elder-statesmen of the grunge music scene. It wouldn’t be until 1993 that their major-label debut, Independent Worm Saloon would be released, and in that time, the grunge scene was well underway. The Butthole Surfers nearly got lost in the hype of the Pearl Jams and Soundgardens, and so many others; many of whom played opening slots for them in the years prior. It would be impossible to predict in the early daze of the band that the Butthole Surfers could be on a major, but this concert, in context with what was going on in the music scene around them, shows that Capitol finally had caught on to what so many of the fans had been yearning to hear. Music with heart…and balls.

4) CBGB’s, NYC, June 8, 1985
The Butthole Surfers had called NYC their home for a few scant months in 1984, and this return for a after a year of non-stop touring was a true awakening. They were not the same band that left NYC the previous year. The old punk rock band was becoming a psychedelic freak out, and you almost hear the gasps in the crowd of religious rapture. Still clinging to early classics like “BBQ Pope” and “Lady Sniff”, the addition of tunes like the haunting “Whirling Hall of Knives” and the one known performance of “Sea Ferring”, the Butthole Surfers were ushering in a new kind a punk rock that was more about mind-expansion than mosh pits.

3) ‘Night of 1000 Bands Festival’, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, NY, November 18, 1989
If the Iguana’s show shows the chaos of a Butthole Surfers show at an oversold punk rock venue, than this show (on the same tour, no less) shows the more ‘uptown’ Butthole Surfers. Alongside Aster Aweke, the World Saxophone Quartet with Senegalese Drummers, and Bobby Previte and a 9-piece band (among others), the Butthole Surfers headlined this World Music night at the BAM opera house. The show was even reviewed in the New York Times, a publication which would normally poo-poo the word “buthole” in their prestigious pages. Saying that they are ‘perhaps the best psychedelic band that never played in the 1960’s’, it was acknowledgment that the Butthole Surfers couldn’t be ignored by the mainstream press, despite their desperate attempts to do so.

2) The Ritz, Austin, TX, July 4, 1986
When the Butthole Surfers left Texas on a three year long tour in 1984, there was no plans to return to the Lone Star State. They had settled for a spell in a suburb of Athens, GA, but mostly lived out of a van. Several band members ran screaming from the group, their mental states in question due to endless hours of driving and countless tabs of LSD. The band seemed to take this constant flux in stride and pressed onward, but when their second drummer Teresa Taylor called up her parent’s to come get her in late 1985, it seemed the Butthole Surfers would never be the same again. They tried to replace her with a look-a-like imposter (like the Beatles did with Paul McCartney), they tried to soldier on as a quartet (long before they were ready to actually be a quartet), but nothing could fill the sense of emptiness Teresa left with her departure.
Eventually, the band returned to Austin to settle down, and shortly thereafter, Teresa returned to the band. This show, the first with her back, was a reawakening. A massive film screen behind them (another first) projecting scenes of horror and beauty, and they Butthole Surfers became the 5-headed hydra again. It would be impossible to think of the Butthole Surfers as the best live band in the universe without Teresa, and this show gave her back to us…

1) Danceteria, NYC, February 7, 1986
For those of you who might have heard of on stage sex-shows, naked antics and bacchanalia on level of Satyricon, this show is the one that is often referenced. The band was pulling a west coast tour when they were booked for a 2 night stint in NYC, for the astronomical sum of $6000. They dropped everything and drove the 3000 miles straight to NY only to be told the second night had been cancelled. This news, a bottle of whiskey, and enough MDMA to flatten an elephant paved the way for a performance for the ages. This night would mark the first ever performance with the lovely and talented Ms Kathleen Lynch, who would be the band’s dancer, compatriot and interpreter for the world over the next several years. Whether or not the show dissolved into a sex-show remains folklore, but what is known for sure is that the legacy of the band as among the most dangerous to ever grace the stage was cemented to this day.

The Butthole Surfers will be playing the Safe As Milk Festival next month in the UK. And while you probably won’t see any of the band naked, you will definitely catch a glimpse of the glory of yesteryear. For those who enjoy, feel free to pick up a limited edition, signed copy of Let’s Go to Hell: Scattered Memories of the Butthole Surfers here: http://buttholesurfersao.blogspot.com/2016/06/lets-go-to-hell-scattered-memories-of.html