When thinking of punk rock what bands come to mind? Maybe the Sex Pistols, Screeching Weasel, NOFX, or Naked Raygun? What about the Butthole Surfers? I normally would not have associated the Butthole Surfers with punk, that is, until I witnessed them headline the opening night of Riot Fest in Chicago. The aim of the five night event was to showcase generations of punk rock music of all shapes and sizes.
Normally punk is not my first choice of music; I associate it with teenage friendships, an adolescent rite of passage soundtrack if you will. But what drew me to Riot Fest was the Butthole Surfers, a band I have enjoyed since seeing them on Beavis and Butthead.
Hesitant about their association to punk rock I really did not know what to expect. The venue was filled with an eerie glow from a screen serving as a stage backdrop. As the band took the stage, audience members packed in as close as they could to best glimpse the imminent spectacle. The backdrop began to flash, spastically, three different montages as the band hammered out “Something,” with guitarist Paul Leary on lead vocals. Meanwhile usual front man Gibby Haynes danced around, honking on the saxophone. Jeff Pinkus slammed his bass, and percussionists King Coffey and Teresa Taylor drove a steady yet intricate rhythm on various drums. The lineup of Haynes, Leary, Pinkus, Coffey and Taylor represented the band’s original roster from the mid-‘80s. After the first song I knew it was going to be one hell of a ride.
The music got increasingly loud, intense, and stylistically interesting. Every song featured Haynes’ patented “Gibbytronix” voice modulator, which tweaked sounds and altered his vocal pitch. Other effects included an abundance of distortion pedals, industrial soundtracks, a megaphone, sirens, squeaking, squawking, and plenty of noise trails. Interacting with the crowd, Haynes chatted about how many girls were there, the number of people wearing glasses , how many were bald, and how young the crowd seemed. He described the scene as “unprecedented.”
Known for their extreme debaucheries on stage the Butthole Surfers played a relatively tame show. The only shock value came from the blood, guts, fear, fury and skin projected on the backdrop. Some film scenes were recognizable—such as It, Silence of the Lambs and Killer Klowns from Outer Space—while others just included surgeries, zombie/slasher films, bugs, geometric shapes, explosions, combusting heads and more. It was not unlike A Clockwork Orange, being force fed images of violence and gore.
Their set closed with “Who was in My Room Last Night?,” with Haynes performing an inspiring interpretive dance as the song rumbled to a close. Then the backdrop went black and the stage remained still for almost half a minute. At this point the venue reeked of B.O. and smoke, thanks to a smoke machine filling the room with a thick fog.
Coming back for an encore, Leary confided in the crowd: “Normally we’re this really good rock and roll band [who] plays normal shit…it takes special people to come see us!” Their encore, lasting almost 20 minutes, was full of monster solos from each member, and more deafening psychedelic freak outs. It felt like a finale to one of the slasher films projected in the background, when the apparently doomed teen knows they will eventually get out alive. The show officially ended with grinding noise, like helicopters hitting pavement, topped off with bass reverb.
Reflecting on punk, the theme of Riot Fest, and how the Butthole Surfers fit into the picture, I thought that their sound was not all-out punk, but instead their energy and ethos reflected the genre. They took the audience for a twisted ride, razed some eardrums, and upheld their legacy of being a motley band of bizarre, discombobulated chaos, who ultimately leaves their fans satisfied.
Set list obtained by Allison Taich