People will forever fruitlessly engage in debate over the value of 1980s mainstream pop. To some, it’s naught but overwrought, manufactured pap; to others, it brought about some of the finest records of the 20th century. Both may be right, but that’s neither here nor there, because what is beyond argument is that the ’80s brought us some of the best indie/alternative/underground/punk/whatever that has ever come to pass.
Many people think that punk ended in the late ’70s, and in a way, that’s true. The bomb that bands like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols dropped on shallow disco and pompous stadium dinosaur rock made rock ’n’ roll music seem dangerous again... for a moment. Alas, the effects were short-lived, as MTV turned “new wave” from an umbrella for bands as excellent and diverse as Television, X, and Devo into a cheap, shallow fashion statement, with a bevy of poseurs and copycats to accompany their “revolution.” They’d do the same for “alternative” and “grunge” a decade or so later, God bless ’em... but that’s another story.
Yet, in a nearby alternate universe, punk was still happening for an ever-changing network of weirdos and counterculture types. One camp, that of hardcore punk, was working to narrow punk’s definition: if something was punk, it should be louder, faster, more violent, and more political. Meanwhile, the other camp, called “postpunk” or “alternative” by some, worked to stretch punk’s musical boundaries to the breaking point. Of all the action that was going on, though, rarely was ’80s punk as “out there” and boundless as it was in Texas.
I’ve never been to Texas, but it’s said to be a weird place, like another country between the U.S. and Mexico. The region’s best music feels sunbaked and acid-fried, even hallucinatory. That is to say, in Texas, punk rock is psychedelic rock as well. Sure, there were great hardcore-inspired bands like the Dicks and the Big Boys. Yet for many, Texas punk never got better (or stranger) than the holy trinity of Daniel Johnston, the Butthole Surfers, and Scratch Acid.
Johnston is, debatably, the strangest of the trio. His most legendary recordings were taped directly onto either a boombox or one of those flat ’70s-era deals with the tape deck on top, depending on whose reports you believe. The first two, Songs of Pain and More Songs of Pain, were performed on piano, but upon leaving his parents’ house, he no longer had access to a proper piano. This may strike some as a limitation, but to many, this is where it really gets interesting.
Johnston hits an artistic high note on his release of summer 1983, Yip/Jump Music. Most of the album is performed on a child’s chord organ, which to some may sound like a silly novelty. Those who can get past the nonexistent production values and unique instrumentation, however, find an album of gems, rare in a musical climate given to copious one-hit wonders. The album contains his most famous song, “Speeding Motorcycle,” which has been covered ad nauseam in the two decades since by artists like Yo La Tengo and Mary Lou Lord.
The music itself is timeless and innovative, but Johnston’s initial sense of self-promotion is as much a part of legend as the songs. In this time frame, Johnston was living in Austin, after bouncing around relatives’ homes and touring with a carnival (not performing, but selling corn dogs). Johnston took to the streets, offering homemade cassette tapes of his albums for free to passerby. According to Songs in The Key of Z by Irwin Chusid, Johnston handed them out “to pretty girls.” The tapes eventually caught the ear of local underground luminaries, who championed Johnston’s work far and wide.
Eventually, a few of Johnston’s homemade tapes were released on vinyl by Homestead Records. They caught the ear of one Kurt Cobain, whose eventual influence in the mainstream world got Johnston a major-label contract (!). This only lasted long enough for one album, 1994’s Fun. After this surprisingly slick affair bombed commercially, Johnston was set free and, after some dormant time, is currently starting to become prolific again.
Among Johnston’s early fans were a group of San Antonio nutballs going by the name the Butthole Surfers (that is, after going through monkers as diverse in scope as Abe Lincoln’s Bush and the Vodka Family Winstons). The band’s core, Gibson “Gibby” Haynes and Paul Leary, met in college, and bonded over a passion for obnoxious music like Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, and of course, punk rock.
Yet, while the hardcore scene was their closest thing to a home, they didn’t sound like your average punk band. Actually, the Butthole Surfers, in their heyday, sounded more like a meat grinder, what with Haynes’ Texas ringmaster bark, Leary’s disjointed, over-the-top guitar riffing, and their heavy, tribal drum beats (courtesy of King Coffey, who is with the band to this day; until the late ’80s, they had a second drummer, Teresa Stern, who played at the same time).
Though the music was diverse in scope, it remains a bit hard to take in. Your author originally purchased the Buttholes’ 1986 album Locust Abortion Technician at age 16. Despite being weaned on the sounds of Nirvana and that ilk, it’s hard to be quite ready for the all-out assault on the senses that that album consists of. The guitars are loud, detuned, and slow as molten lava; the lyrics are incomprehensible for the most part; one of the most accessible tracks consists of them sampling and rearranging a record of middle eastern music to make it say dirty words. In short, a lot weirder than Nirvana ever got. Hell, I’m just now starting to really appreciate the damn thing. Maybe if I had taken drugs, it would have made sense sooner, but alas...
Also of note, perhaps more than the music, were the band’s live shows of that period. Strobe lights, naked dancers, grotesque surgery films playing behind the band, and god knows what else, made them the stuff of legend. Going to see the Buttholes was actually sort of dangerous back then. People went into seizures and fits of vomiting frequently. A lot of people had to wait it out on the sidewalk.
Of course, by 1995, the “alternative” feeding frenzy had gotten around to giving the Butthole Surfers their due. A slot on the first Lollapalooza in 1991 won them a major label deal, 1993 saw one of their songs in a Nintendo commercial, and 1995 saw a number one hit single on modern rock radio, “Pepper.” Their major-label albums have their moments, but for the real meat of the Butthole Surfers, go for their first album, Psychic, Powerless... Another Man’s Sac, the aforementioned Locust Abortion Technician, or basically, any of their albums before 1990, most of which were originally release on Touch and Go, and are currently available on the band’s own label, Latino Buggerveil.
Unlike the previous two performers, Scratch Acid never got to see the level of notoriety lent to underground bands after Nirvana broke into the mainstream. That’s all right, though, because it adds to their mystique. Also, they never released an unimpressive record, which is more than can be said for those mentioned above.
Scratch Acid’s influences weren’t hidden: traces of arty foreign “postpunk” bands like Public Image Ltd. and The Birthday Party were clearly visible. Yet the band added to the stew a uniquely Texan sense of insanity. The band’s songs are jerky and drunken, with lyrics bellowed in vocalist David Yow’s distinctive, strangulated caterwaul. The guitars are loud, with chunks of blues riffs thrown into the explosive cacophony. What one must not forget is that, even at their artiest and most esoteric, Texan punks wanted to party. The music may be noisy, but it’s fun, too. Thus, some blues and r&b influence isn’t to be the subject of shock. After all, without blues and r&b, there’s no rock & roll, and without rock & roll, there’s no punk. Right?
Most of the band’s lineup moved to Chicago after breaking up in 1987. Eventually, bassist David Wm. Sims and drummer Rey Washam went on to play with ex-Big Black frontman Steve Albini in the short-lived Rapeman, while David Yow went on to front the Jesus Lizard, who enjoyed modest commercial success (again, thanks in part to Nirvana) before breaking up a couple of years ago. Scratch Acid’s discography CD (well, a couple tracks short of a discography, if memory serves), The Greatest Gift, is available on Touch and Go records.
Remember, these three bands are only one story. Texas alone has scads more to offer from this period, so you can only imagine the rich, yet largely ignored, history the rest of the world has to offer.
That is, if you scratch under the surface a little.