March 31, 2018
Todd plays "Pepper" on the piano.
BUTTHOLE SURFERS - PEPPER
A one-hit retrospective
Todd: Welcome back to One Hit Wonderland, where we take a look at bands and artists known for only one song. Folks, mid-'90s alternative rock was weird.
Clip of Beck - "Loser"
Beck: In the time of chimpanzees I was a monkeyTodd (VO): You know how I complained that modern rock all sounds like commercials these days?
Todd: Well, that was absolutely not true in the '90s.
Clip of Cake - "The Distance"
John McCrea: 'Cause he's going the distance
Montage clips of The Presidents of the United States of America - "Lump"; Weezer - "Undone – The Sweater Song"; Radiohead - "Creep"; Primus - "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver"; Nada Surf - "Popular"; The Flaming Lips - "She Don't Use Jelly"; Ween - "Push th' Little Daisies"; Green Jelly - "Three Little Pigs"Todd (VO): Go back and pretend you don't know these songs, they will sound like the absolute weirdest thing you ever heard. And for every song that became an accepted rock standard, there's six more that faded out of memory. The mid-'90s bizarro alt-rock novelty song was one of the greatest strangest trends of that decade. Too weird to live, too rare to kill.
Todd: As they say.
Video for "Pepper" starts
Gibby Haynes: Mikey got with Sharon...Todd (VO): Which brings us to a little band with the charming little name of [image of logo; voice amplified] the Butthole Surfers!
Todd: Yes [image of band], the Butthole Surfers. Presumably, they surfed buttholes. But, they might have been [picture of...] buttholes who surfed. It's all up to interpretation. The point is, they were called the Butthole Surfers. And the Butthole Surfers do not give a fuck what you thought.
Concret footage of Butthole SurfersTodd (VO): They were the most abrasive, most un-commercial band in history. They wrote songs like [track listing with song circled] "I Saw an X-Ray of a Girl Passing Gas", and [image of old '80s demo cassette tape of...] "The Revenge of Anus Presley".
Todd: The idea that these guys would have even one hit is absolutely nuts.
Clip of "Pepper"
Gibby: I don't mind the sun sometimes the images it showsTodd (VO): But all of a sudden, it was 1996, and the Butthole Surfers were actually on the radio. They hit it big. They were mainstream.
Todd: Everyone loved the Butthole Surfers.
Clip of The Simpsons
Todd Flanders: I'm a surfer!Todd: Their single...
Todd (VO): ..."Pepper" was a bona fide hit. It was tearing up the charts, which must have been awkward for the poor DJs who had to make an anal sex reference just to tell listeners who the song was from. I've heard anecdotes of Casey Kasem having to call them the BH Surfers or something like that. So here we are. Even by the standards of '90s rock, these guys were pretty out there. How on earth did the Butthole Surfers get on the radio?
Todd: Well, we're gonna find out. And we're gonna say the word butthole a lot, so get used to it. Butthole!
Clip of "Pepper"
Gibby: Fall in love with life and drink it from a fountain
That is pouring like an avalanche coming down the mountain
I don'tBefore the hit
Todd: It is difficult for me to condense the long and storied career of underground legends like the Surfers into a few short minutes. But, here's my best shot at trying to accurately convey what the band was about.
Footage of the band shouting and trying to break and push stuff overTodd (VO): That's them at Lollapalooza trashing their trailer. No, no, excuse me. They're not trashing their trailer, that's actually [clip of live performance of...] Nine Inch Nails' trailer. So, this is why Trent Reznor always sounds so angry and depressed all the time. [back to the Surfers] Texas nutjobs keep smashing up his shit.
Todd: The Butthole Surfers are [image of the whole band] lead singer Gibby Haynes, guitarist Paul Leary, drummer King Coffey, and bassist Jeff Pinkus. Now there have been a lot of switches over the years, but that's the most stable lineup. [another image of the Surfers with...] Plus, a lot of the time, there was a second drummer, Teresa Nervosa.
Clip of live performanceTodd (VO): And the fact that they had two drummers is a good indication of their sound, I think. They're from San Antonio, and I think they were the ones [images of Keep Austin Weird and Google Maps are stamped over footage] who originally made Austin weird from about 80 miles away.
Snippet of spit-take during another performanceAnyway, what kind of band were they? They were a noise rock, psychedelic, alternative, experimental rock punk band.
Todd: Which meant they did whatever the hell they wanted as long as it was loud and abrasive and abused the senses.
Todd (VO): Occasionally, they would write actual songs; other times they just fart around and make noise. Gibby Haynes had this entire insane sound setup to distort his voice into...
Todd: ...well this.
Clip of Gibby unintelligibly shouting into a megaphoneTodd (VO): And a bunch of their songs are pisstakes on classic rock.
Footage of live Lollapalooza performance of "Sweat Loaf"
Gibby: Satan, Satan, SatanFor example, here's a tuneless piece of noise that occasionally uses the riff from Black Sabbath's, "Sweet Leaf." It's called [image of CD with...] "Sweat Loaf." Oh, and here's a cover they did of Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man."
Clip of Donovan - "The Hurdy Gurdy Man"
Donovan: "Hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy gurdy" he sangTodd (VO): That seems like a good song for them to cover, right? You know, there's a lot of fuzz guitar and weird vocal effects.
Todd: Hah! No.
Clip of Butthole Surfers - "The Hurdy Gurdy Man"
Gibby: Histories of ages past
Unenlightened shadows castTodd (VO): No, they just turned it into a joke. They turned up the echo to eleven because they're the Butthole Surfers, and they don't need your corny '60s shit. Although, they did have this in common with the '60s; they were on drugs most of the time.
Todd: Look, I know this is [air quote] "One-Hit" Wonderland, but the Butthole Surfers were known for a lot more than one hit to a lot of people. I'm-I'm only covering them because my [shot of female friend in purple hoodie waving and pointing to message on Todd's computer: "Finally After 8 YRS. One Of My Suggestions!"] title card artist has been begging me to do it for years. Hi, Corinne.
Montage clips of '90s concert footageTodd (VO): But, yeah. There was a lot of love for these guys. Their third album, Locust Abortion Technician is considered one of the great noise rock albums. For many years, they were known as your favorite band's favorite band. Like, if you were in the know, you knew them. Plus, there were all these crazy stories about them floating around like how they stalked REM, or were having sex onstage. I mean, I was just browsing through old YouTube videos of their concerts, and-and...
Censored clip of naked Gibby Haynes playing guitarBam! Look at that. Yep. Y-yeah that's Gibby's dick waving right at me. Someone just...uploaded that to YouTube. It's still right there, you can find it right now. Alright, so y-you get the idea, right? A band like that they're...
Todd: ...always gonna remain under the radar. Absolutely nothing was gonna break these guys through.
Clip of Nirvana - "Smells Like Teen Spirit"
Kurt Cobain: With the lights out, it's less dangerousTodd (VO): Oh, right.
Todd: Man, it's nice to be covering a band on One-Hit Wonderland who was launched by Nirvana rather than ended.
Clip of interview with Kurt CobainTodd (VO): No, no. Butthole Surfers were apparently one of Kurt Cobain's favorite bands. So, the Surfers got a major record deal. Just like every band that Kurt Cobain liked.
Todd: He'd say, "Oh, you know, I like that [album cover for Meat Puppets - "No Strings Attached] Meat Puppets." And suddenly, every record executive was like...
Video for Meat Puppets - "Backwater"Todd (VO): "Sign the Meat Puppets! The Meat Puppets are a license to print money, baby!"
Todd: "They're gonna be the next Rolling Stones, I tell ya!"
Live performance of Butthole Surfers - "Dust Devil"
Gibby: We're the Butthole SurfersTodd (VO): So, they started to get more airplay...and by which I mean they'd be on MTV late at night. And...they'd play some of the festivals like Lollapalooza. Not sure that translated into success, but, you know, it's something.
Clip of Butthole Surfers - "Who Was in My Room Last Night?"
Gibby: I wonder who was in my room last night
Who the hell was in my bed?Todd (VO): They had a lot of powerful friends. You know, John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin produced their whole album. And see, that's Flea there in one of their videos. [clip of Ministry - "Jesus Built My Hotrod"] Their lead singer was the guy blabbering gibberish in Ministry's "Jesus Built My Hotrod." I love that song, and I literally just learned that.
Todd: But this was all just buildup. A buildup to their breakthrough, a time when [clip of live performance of "Pepper"] the Butthole Surfers would be the biggest band on the planet. Butthole Mania, they called it. They got a fluke radio single that got a little airplay.
The Big Hit
Clip of MTV News broadcast
Kurt Loder: Hi, I'm Kurt Loder with MTV News. After fifteen years of semi-underground renown, Austin's Butthole Surfers have scored a commercial hit with their single, "Pepper."Todd (VO): But here we are, 1996. The Butthole Surfers released their second major label record, Electriclarryland.
Todd: Get it? It's like [album cover for...] Hendrix's Electric Ladyland. [...and...] Except it's Larry. 'Cause Larry is just an inherently funny name. As of course is the Butthole Surfers.
Clip of Late Show with David Letterman
David Letterman: It's called Electriclarryland. Please welcome, making their network TV debut, Butthole Surfers!
Clip of "Pepper"
Gibby: Mikey got with Sharon, Sharon got Sheriee
She was sharin' Sharon's outlook on the topic of diseaseTodd (VO): Anyway, the name of the song is "Pepper." And "Pepper" is a song about young people with a death wish.
Gibby: Some will die in hot pursuit and firey auto crashesTodd (VO): You get a handful of descriptions of other people and how they died, or came close to death at least.
Gibby: Tommy played piano like a kid out in the rain
Then he lost his leg in Dallas he was dancing with the trainTodd: They all kinda seem like useless dumbasses.
Gibby: Mikey had a facial scar and Bobby was a racist
They were all in love dying they were doin' it in TexasTodd: And some of them kinda need to die.
Gibby: Then there was the ever-present football player rapistTodd: So why this? Why "Pepper?"
Todd (VO): Why after fifteen years of not trying did the Butthole Surfers suddenly reach the mainstream?
Todd: Well, I can kinda see it. Compared to their earlier stuff, "Pepper" is a lot more tuneful.
Gibby: I don't mind the sun sometimes the images it showsTodd (VO): Has a real chorus with a good solid hook around it. The half-mumbled lyrics are kinda weird, but we were-we were pretty OK with that in '96. Beck had primed the pump for that.
Clip of "Loser"
Beck: Ban all the music with a phony gas chamber
'Cause...Todd (VO): In fact, they were accused of ripping off Beck at the time.
Clip of interview with Butthole Surfers
King Coffey: I don't really understand how...sampling turns you into Beck.Which honestly, if anything, Beck ripped them off. They've been doing it a lot longer than Beck.
Todd (VO): That is the Surfers playing the chorus backwards there.
Snippet of backwards chorus in "Pepper"...Todd (VO): Just like they do on "Loser..."
...and "Loser"Hmm, I don't know. Maybe...
Todd: ...they weren't so resistant to trends as they seemed.
Gibby: Another Mikey took a knife while arguing in trafficTodd (VO): But, you know, this song is still pretty out there, right? Like, for example, [vinyl record of...] the name of the song. Pepper? Where does that come from? What in the song does it relate to? And the answer is...who the hell knows? Probably nothing. And verses don't seem to have a thing to do with the chorus either.
Gibby: Cinnamon and sugary and softly spoken lies
You never know just how you look through other people's eyesTodd: Yeah, that's nice. [stammers] Did you say something about a rapist earlier?
Todd (VO): And it's certainly not a coherent narrative.
Gibby: Flipper died a natural death he caught a nasty virus
Holly caught a bullet but it only hit his legTodd (VO): I mean, who are these people? Why do they want to die? Do they even know each other? Like...are they friends? Do they all die? Do they live?
Todd: I would like to hear how the football player rapist died. You can share that one.
Todd (VO): So what made the song big exactly? Just saying, "Well the '90s was weird," you know, I don't think that covers it.
Todd: I think there's a more specific thing going on.
Todd (VO): Now, I'm just going off my vague recollections of my childhood here...
Todd: ...but in the '90s, we kinda had this sort of...cultural obsession with stupidity.
Image of teenagers on their phones with "Stressed Out" playing the backgroundTodd (VO): You know how millennials get all sorts of shit for being lazy and [magazine cover: "The Me Me Me Generation"] entitled and oversensitive snowflakes, and so on and so on?
Todd: Well, buck up millennials. You got it [Newsweek cover: "The Myth of Generation X'} better than the Gen X'ers, whose stereotype was that they were all just [clip of Beavis and Butthead] complete fucking morons.
Montage clips of Jay and Silent Bob; Natural Born Killers; Bio-DomeWith their stupid goatees, and lip piercings, and brain-rotting music. Yeah, this was the decade we coined the word, "duh." [clip of Nirvana performance] Yeah, Kurt Cobain felt stupid and contagious, and that was the tag that the entire decade got stuck with. You know, they were just stupid to the point of disease.
Clip of "Pepper"
Gibby: Then he lost his leg in Dallas he was dancin' with the trainTodd (VO): The song about a bunch of drooling, brain-dead idiots from a band whose [image of Butthole Surfers single cover] name indicated that they were also probably brain-dead idiots? You know, I think that hit a nerve. I-you know, that hit the zeitgeist. It was what we were about in 1996.
Gibby: They were all in love dying they were doin' it in TexasTodd (VO): This was the slacker generation too stupid to even know that you're not supposed to go die. You're supposed to try to not die, ya dum-dums!
Todd: But all the same, there's also, like, this kinda romance to it, you know?
Gibby: Some will fall in love with life and drink it from a fountain
That is pouring like an avalanche coming down the mountainTodd (VO): This is like the '90s version of the rebels and the outlaws. People who live fast and die young. There's almost like this classic rock feel to it. [clip of...] Reminds me of Steve Miller's "Take the Money and Run," another story of ne'er-do-wells flirting with death in the Southwest. Now to be clear, "Pepper" was not actually that big. It hit the Top 20 on the rock charts, scraped into the Top 40 in radio airplay. You know, that's not humongous. I think it might have seemed bigger at the time because...once you hear of a band called the Butthole Surfers being played on the radio, you never forget it.
Todd: Except we kinda did.
The Failed Follow Up
Live on MTV performance of...wait for it...
Gibby: We are the Butthole Surfers, and this next song...uh. It's called, "Jingle of a Dog's Collar," and it goes like this.Todd (VO): This was the only other single off that album, "Jingle of a Dog's Collar."
Gibby: Find the time
What do they know about loveTodd (VO): Don't know why they picked this one as the single. I think possibly just because it's their mellowest and least abrasive.
Todd: If your choice was, you know, this song or some of their older work...
Brief clip of '80s performance...Yeah I can see why they went for the first one.
Gibby: I was lookin' for the main line when I was
Workin' through a friend of mine but ITodd (VO): Yeah, he's doing a decent Lou Reed impression at least.
Todd: And what's it about? I d-pfft [shrugs]
Gibby: The jingle of a dog's collar would be good right here
The jingle of a dog's collar would be fineTodd (VO): What do you mean? Like in the song? Like it would make good instrumentation?
Todd: You can add that in.
Snippet of jingling collarTodd: [jingling sound keeps going in the background] Not sure, uhh, I'm not sure it's really adding anything musically.
Todd (VO): But you are right that a jingle of a dog's collar is always a welcome sound. Assuming there's a dog at the end of it. Always a good time for a dog to come jump on you.
Todd: [picking up Amy] Isn't that right, puppy? Who's a butthole sniffer? Who's a good puppy?
Todd (VO): To be honest, I've grown to like this song. It's a-it's got a very Pixies-ish vibe to it. But [sighs] there-there's no real strong hook that I think would catch on. It's not...it's not a radio single, it's more like a B-side. Even by mid-'90s standards, I think this might be a little too avant-garde for rock radio.
Todd: It's still by far the most successful of their albums, though. [clip of promotional ad for Electriclarryland] But, it didn't really translate into a lasting fanbase. I used to do all my music shopping in the used section, and I guarantee for ten years after that album came out, you could find like [image of used new arrival CD racks] ten copies of Electriclarryland in every used CD rack. The mainstream had one taste of butthole, and they decided they didn't like it.
Did they Ever do Anything Else?
Todd: Uhh...yeah, they did have one other song you might maybe recognize, "The Shame of Life."
Clip of Butthole Surfers - "The Shame of Life"
Gibby: I love the girls and the money and the shame of lifeTodd (VO): It took them five more years to release another album after "Pepper" because of lawsuits and shit. But they did get a little bit of airplay off of their lead single, "Shame of Life." It was on a bunch of soundtracks, had a tiny bit of radio play. And, you know, this is the one I always really liked by them.
Todd: Which is funny, because when I was doing the research for this, uhh, for this episode, I found out I'm pretty sure they hate it.
Gibby: I love the girls and the money and the shame of lifeTodd (VO): Money and girls. That's just basic. What are we, Mötley Crüe over here? I mean, you could fairly call this selling out. Why would a band like the Butthole Surfers write something like this?
Todd: Well, surprise, the Surfers didn't write it. Guess who did? [beat] Guess.
Clip of Kid Rock - "American Bad Ass"
Kid Rock: Devil without a cause, and I'm back
With the Beaver hat and Ben Davis slacksTodd (VO): Yeah, no kidding. Apparently Kid Rock, at the height of his fame, wanted to sample one of their songs...and they let him repay them...
Todd: ...by having him write the chorus for their big radio single.
Todd (VO): And this is what he came up with, "The Shame of Life." The Surfers said they were, quote... [screen capture of King Coffey quote] "horrified," because it was quote, "so...well, bad." But they worked with it, and came up with something about crack-smoking squirrels to try and make it fit.
Gibby: And there were girls pettin' squirrels
And there were squirrels smokin' crackTodd: [shrugs] I don't know, I really liked it.
Clip of early 2000s live performanceTodd (VO): And after that, no. Nothing. They never released another album since. They've toured a few times, but no new music.
Todd: But last year, they started kicking around maybe making something new [screen capture of headline: "Butthole Surfers Working On First New LP In 16 Years"] after a 16-year hiatus. I mean why not? [image of band in 2017] The members of this band are 60 years old now, but...if they still got it, sure.
Did they Deserve Better?
Todd: [angrily] Did they deserve better? You know you ask that question like they wanted better. They demonstrably did not.
Video for "Pepper"Todd (VO): I think one hit was pretty much all the hit they needed. If they wanted more success, they'd have picked a different name. They weren't trying to have hits, they made the music they wanted, and they are legends because of it. And in between their weird, weird career, there was this one brief hit that happened as one last troll of a joke that hit like an avalanche coming down the mountain.
Todd: Did they deserve better. Fuck you!
Video endsClosing tag song: Hesta Prynn and Shawn Crahan - "Pepper"
"Pepper" is owned by Capitol Records.
This video is owned by me.
THANK YOU TO THE LOYAL PATRONS!