Essential Noise Rock – Hairway To Steven by Butthole Surfers

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“Hairway to Steven” (1988) was the Butthole Surfers’ fourth long player. I guess most would point to “Locust Abortion Technician” (1987) as the essential noise
“Hairway to Steven” (1988) was the Butthole Surfers’ fourth long player. I guess most would point to “Locust Abortion Technician” (1987) as the essential noise album by Butthole Surfers, but I for one have never shared this view. Unlike its likewise experimental predecessor, “Rembrandt Pussyhorse” (1985), “Locust Abortion Technician” features only a handful of interesting ideas, just one true song (“Human Cannonball”) and otherwise a bunch of tracks that are the result of messing around in the band’s home studio. Noisy, experimental, eccentric – but not very interesting. The band’s next effort, however, presents eight well worked-out songs, some experiments in sound and noise and excellent playing by the musicians. Always pop savvy despite the din (as proven by “Hey” on their first, self-titled release in 1983), here the Buttholes have crafted real rock songs with melodies and discernible song structures. The wordplay on the popular rock song by Led Zeppelin in the album’s title is obvious, and while it needs no explanation it serves to demonstrate the band’s humor. As do the missing track titles on the original album. Just as Led Zeppelin’s fourth album was only named with four symbols, the eight tracks on “Hairway to Steven” originally remained unnamed and were designated only by a series of scatological drawings. From setlists and bootlegs the titles were identified later on, with the exception of “Julio Iglesias,” which was titled because of the frequent reference to the singer in the song’s lyrics.

At the same time, the composition of eight real songs shows five serious musicians who may have aspired to create something very much like Led Zeppelin’s fourth studio album, a classic in its own right. In any case, they went on to have Led Zeppelin bassist/keyboarder, John Paul Jones, produce their 1993 album “Independent Worm Saloon.” Meanwhile, “Hairway to Steven” marks a crossroads for the band from Austin, Texas. At this point, they largely left behind the far-out tape and effect experiments and dilettantism of the earlier records to stretch out and embrace true song writing on a larger scale. Of course, there were still noise escapades on “piouhgd” (1991) and “Independent Worm Saloon,” but the song ratio was higher. With this album – except for the “Widowermaker” EP – the Buttholes also left their longtime record label, Touch and Go, thereby effectively cutting the ties to a certain niche in the musical underground and embracing a much larger audience.

Like fellow art punks Alice Donut, the Butthole Surfers had strong psychedelic inclinations from the start, setting them apart from contemporary underground bands such as Black Flag, The Minutemen or The Misfits. And while psychedelia still characterize “Hairway to Steven,” the Buttholes are not afraid to play with clean guitar sounds or even acoustic guitars. The album also signals the full arrival of Jeffrey Pinkus, an accomplished bass player whose musicality added a new dimension to the music. He played on “Locust Abortion Technician” as well, but at that time the band seems to have been interested in something other than songwriting.

To this day, nothing surpasses the grandeur of opening blast “Jimi” for me. After Gibby Haynes’s lower-pitched voice intones, “I’m soiled. Soil me. Soil you all,” the two drummers start their heavy, rumbling rhythm, accompanied by fuzz bass and a soaring lead guitar by Paul Leary. Again and again the solemn lead line collapses into overdriven noise, Gibby’s voice now pitched lower, now higher, and after seven minutes, the pandemonium gives way to a pastoral quiet piece with concert guitar, voices, tranquil sounds, a cock crow, a dog yelping, cows lowing, bowling pins being knocked down. This beauty coupled directly with the beastly cacophony that went before it raises the piece to a whole different level. Just as often as they employ their fuzzboxes, the Buttholes leave them away on this album, making for a very balanced record. “Ricky” may seem like filler material, but that is only because it is immediately followed by “I Saw an X-Ray of a Girl Passing Gas,” one of the album’s absolute highlights, as catchy as its title is silly. Thus, stuck between two such killers, “Ricky” may seem rather unassuming, an impression that does this barnstormer injustice. But, there are some tracks that vie for center stage, outshining the others, especially the pseudo-live “John E. Smoke” and the gloomy, yet sublime “Backass,” both epics in their own right. “Rocky” is the album’s pop song, with acoustic guitar strumming and a catchy melody – only Gibby’s singing may bar it from mass appeal. “Julio Iglesias” is an old-school rock ’n’ roll number with lyrics that its eponymous subject might not be too pleased about. Album closer, “Fast,” is exactly that. Again, a great song in itself, unfortunately overshadowed by the other monumental tracks.

The recording sessions also yielded the fabulous 13th Floor Elevators’ cover “Earthquake,” which can be found on the Butthole Surfers’ compilation of album outtakes, “Humpty Dumpty LSD” (2002). It’s a shame that it’s not featured here as a bonus track, but what can you do? The album is still perfect as it is and will always remain one of my all-time favorite albums, quintessential and without a flaw, and thus joining the ranks of, e.g, Nomeansno’s “Wrong” (1989), Ministry’s “The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste” (1989) and Big Black’s “Songs about Fucking” (1987). The Butthole Surfers were still freaks, but now they were musical as well.
Published: Mar 5, 2012
by Klaas Ilse (artistxite)
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