Monday, January 17, 2005

BUTTHOLE SURFERS – Rembrandt Pussyhorse LP
PERE UBU – Song of the Bailing Man CD
I think the standard doctrine goes a little like this: the Butthole Surfers were once an amazing, totally “fucked up” band who set the standard for drug-imbibing psych-punk throughout the ‘80s, and then slowly lost their way into becoming the embarrassing half-arsed mess they currently are. It is also said that Pere Ubu have followed a similar trajectory: hitting their peak in the years 1975-78, they then slid off the rails with a series of ho-hum discs in the early ‘80s before constantly resurrecting themselves from ’88 onwards, no matter what resemblance, or lack thereof, they may have to their original incarnation. The conclusion is this: both bands are now a complete joke. I think the conclusion is correct, but the story leading up to it isn’t.

I borrowed Rembrandt Pussyhorse from my brother’s collection the day he was leaving last week. He saw me grab it and said, “Why are you taking that? You know it’s garbage”. Well, I hadn’t heard it since the dawn of the ‘90s, so I figured I’d give it a chance. Really, I thought I’d conduct an experiment. After all, how does “prime-era” Buttholes stand up in 2005? I’ve only ever owned one Buttholes LP: Locust Abortion Technician. Bought it in ’87 when it came out. Songs About Fucking and Sister were the two other big indie releases that year, and I got ‘em all (they were licensed locally to Au-go-go). I’d rather eat a bowl of dog turds than suffer through another Big Black record in this life time, Sister still stands as SY’s finest moment, but Locust…? I sold it 10 years back. I‘ll take “Sweat Loaf”, thanks, but leave the rest for the pigeons.

Rembrandt Pussyhorse was originally released in 1986 on Touch & Go. It was perhaps the album which started getting the band some serious notice from the press. A freakshow on wheels, the band was on a winning streak. Listening to this LP, right now, has me wondering what the fuck everyone else must have been on to brandish the band with such acclaim. This is weak. This is lame. This is tame. There’s nary a hint of genuine wildness within a single groove herein. Mostly, this is tepid, “zany” geek-rock with hardly any punch, a dreadful drum sound (some of it’s obviously electronic, and some of it I think tries to be), and nowhere songs with little in the way of beginnings, middles or ends to place a reference to them being actual “songs”. If they really were a freaked-out improv band, they could get away with it, but the striking theme here appears to be aimlessness, not improvisation. First song on side B, “Perry”, I can live with it. With its droning organ and relentless rhythm, it sounds like the circus the Buttholes were reputed as. The rest? It might as well have been released on Wax Trax for all I care.

Believe it or not, I would’ve loved to have said this: "You know what? I never really liked any Butthole Surfers before. They were, I thought, over-rated: but now their ‘80s material makes sense". Well, it still doesn’t. It makes less sense than ever before. Here’s a short list of artists from the ‘80s and before who made “wild”, “fucked up” music a whole lot better than them: Throbbing Gristle, Captain Beefheart, Nurse With Wound, Chrome, Cabaret Voltaire, Pere Ubu, Public Image, Yoko Ono, This Heat, Faust, Sun Ra, etc. That doesn’t prove anything, nor does that in itself say that the Buttholes stank. But listening to Rembrandt Pussyhorse, I can’t think of a contrary opinion to espouse. Why would you ever want to listen to them when the music from the above artists is so much better? Looks to me like the Buttholes were a particularly ordinary band back in their hey-day, and things have only gotten worse since. I can only assume they were a killer live band to compensate for this dreary MOR muck. Case closed!

My copy of Song of the Bailing Man is from the Datapanik In The Year Zero box set released in the mid ‘90s. I’ve listened to it on and off throughout the years and always enjoyed it, but it’s never been a mainstay on the stereo. For the next six months I’m driving my brother’s van, and I’ve leant my car to the Mrs. The van has a CD player, and this opens up a whole new world of sound to me. All those albums I’ve been too lazy to tape for the old car stereo – at least the ones I have on CD – I can now give a relaxed flogging in the van on those long work trips or pleasant drives to the country. It really does tap into a part of my collection I’ve been ignoring for way too long.

I said at the start that many fans poo-poo ‘Ubu’s later efforts before their temporary split in ’82. It’s not that they get a pummeling from the cognoscenti, it’s usually just a shrug of the shoulders and an admission the band went downhill after the first two albums when they lost their “rock” edge to meandering, indulgent art nonsense. It was as if the influence of Peter Laughner had finally been shaken off – the Velvets/Stooges angle which was so integral to their earlier works – only to be replaced with the domineering personality of David Thomas and all the Zappa/Beefheart-isms which come with it. That’s probably true, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing. Laughner may have been a man of reasonable talent, but let’s face it: had he lived, he probably would’ve had ‘Ubu doing Springsteen covers by the dawn of the ‘80s. His inherent cheesiness and cornball “bad boy” antics would only have steered the band up a dead end in no time, so I don’t complain that Thomas took control.

…Bailing Man was originally released in 1982 as a 45RPM 12”, though the band insisted it was an LP: they only made it as a 45 for better fidelity. It also saw the recording debut of Anton Fier (ex-Feelies) with the group, and the continuing presence of the Red Krayola’s Mayo Thompson on board. This is way more percussion based than any other ‘Ubu disc. Fier is a mother of a drummer, and his jazzy, rolling style, lots of tom fills throughout, is the basis of the sound. Add that in with Ravenstine’s synth noises and a dash of xylophone, there is no doubt this does remind me mostly of one album in particular: Zappa/MothersUncle Meat 2LP set. I read once that Uncle Meat was the first album Thomas ever bought. I guess it took a few years to digest and finally come out in his own music. “A Day Such As This” holds centre stage here: all 7+ minutes of it. It's a sea of scattered drums and Thomas' wailing, nonsensical vocals. Song Of The Bailing Man will make rock purists run for the hills, and that’s fine by me: they can stay there. It’s no Modern Dance, but it’s well worth having nonetheless.

1 comment:

greg said...

the buttholes were - first and foremost - a live band. and a reactionary band to the standard hardcore 4/4 that was going on. no trend was more my speed and from my neck of the woods but after their first LP and 12 inch EP they went off the deep end and bands like the Cows and Jesus Lizard had to pick up the slack.