This Is What Happened: Reviews of Vintage Music-HAIRWAY TO STEVEN

A version of this originally appeared a few years ago in the print version of AZ KAOS, a classic punk zine created by a nice bunch of folks.

BUTTHOLE SURFERS-Hairway to Steven

Released on Touch and Go 1988, re-released by Latino Buggerveil 1999

Man, there was a lot of acid going around in the 1980’s. Despite its association with the beta male values of hippie culture, LSD is not all about peace and love. What Hunter Thompson described as “the grim meat hook realities” of existence becomes clear to the fractured ego and expanded consciousness. The horror and weirdness of life is exposed, and there is no coming back from that mountain peak experience.

So once you realize you’re in the shit, what do you do? Wallow in it. Make it a party. At least that was the solution the Butthole Surfers came up with. They were a bunch of nice Texas kids gone chainsaw massacre crazy, and they were on a mission to spread the word. The group, especially in their earlier stages, was more a troop of confrontational performance artists than musicians. Influenced by sources like fellow Lone Star acid causality Roky Erikson and space rockers Hawkwind, the Surfers pursued their own agenda. Tagged with a name that couldn’t be even said on radio or TV, endlessly touring, featuring absurdist word stew lyrics including the silliest case of pottymouth since Frank Zappa, presenting sick, aggressive noise orgies supported by sensory overload stage shows, accompanied by a naked go-go dancer with poor hygiene, and reveling in drug-fueled excess-it’s hard to imagine a band with less commercial potential.

Hairway to Steven was the Surfers fourth full-length album. Their previous records featured lots of sound collages and snippets of experimental racket as opposed to more conventional song structures, crudely recorded in piecemeal fashion. But during the grueling grind of gigs, repetition was leading to skill-the Surfers grew as songwriters. When this album was recorded, the Surfers were capturing songs honed by years of performance. It features better production values than its predecessors, and was created during a focused recording session. Hairway captures the Butthole Surfers transition from balls-out Dada psycho punks to studio-savvy alternative elder statesmen. Hairway to Steven is light years away from Butthole Surfers’ gold record Electriclarryland, radio hit “Pepper”, and guest starring role in Guitar Hero, but the elements that led to mainstream accessibility have been added to their psychedelic hardcore spew.

Is that a good thing? Although the band’s later softening is disappointing (All agents defect, and all resisters sell out-William Burroughs), in Hairway chaos is still celebrated, it is just done in a more sophisticated fashion-if you can call an album illustrated by crude drawings of pooping deer and peeing baseball players sophisticated. Song titles aren’t stated on the actual album; instead, the tracks are indicated by scribbly scatological doodles. Fans have had to figure out the listing based on titles given to live recording releases of the same songs.

Album opener “Jimi” weeds out the weakly. The song can be described as a warped cover of Hendrix’s “3rd Stone from the Sun,” but it’s virtually unrecognizable. Over powerful primal percussion and screaming guitar, a Satanic growling voice seems to be torturing a helium-voiced victim. “What do you know about reality?” the monster snarls. “I am reality!”  The savage song degenerates into lumpy slabs of feedback and orgasmic grunts-and then is slowly reborn into a pastoral, meandering acoustic piece, rounded out with gentle, murmuring voices and animal sounds.

In “I Saw an X-ray of a Girl Passing Gas,” surreal rambling lyrics gradually float up into a soaring cosmic groove. “John E Smoke” comes across as a pseudo-live piece because of a random tape loop of audience cheers; it tells a shaggy dog story of visionary John (perhaps from the Book of Revelation?) who “was a crippled little lesbian boy but he stood 10 foot tall with a knife.”  And “Julio Iglesias” is a scorching rockabilly number about catching VD from your sister.

“Backass” wanders in a wailing Public Image Ltd wasteland; “Rocky” goofs on REM jangle pop. And “Ricky” chugs away with high velocity hardcore, perfect in its distortion.

Crusty, obscene, scary and sublime all at the same time, Hairway to Steven transcends genre, and becomes a lysergic sacrament performed by shamans.

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