Modern Rock: 7/9/1996



Twenty years ago on July 9, the most popular alternative rock song in the country was “Pepper” by Butthole Surfers. On one hand, I am pleased that the public consciousness turned toward this long-running and deeply unique group for one glorious moment. However, I can’t help but wonder what hardcore Surfers fans thought of the group’s only semi-ubiquitous hit song.

For those who aren’t aware, the band had been kicking around for ten or so years by that point, and prided themselves on being firmly unclassifiable. The group of Texas misfits grabbed threads of punk, psychedelia and stoner rock to create something completely unpredictable. Hell, the group originally couldn’t even settle on a band name, preferring to change it at each show. Some early choices were “Ashtray Babyhead” and “Nine Inch Worm Makes Own Food.” Finally, one of their ridiculous and bizarre band names stuck, and Butthole Surfers were born. The group soon became widely known in certain circles for an explosive and druggy live show. In the excellent book book about 80’s hardcore music, Our Band Could Be Your Life, author Michael Azerrad describes a live Butthole Surfers show this way:

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“…depraved acid hallucinations of transgression and horror that were often physically dangerous to band and audience alike.”

They had simulated sex, explosions, and a Wiffle bat filled with human urine. It was a scene of depravity, but the Surfers left quite an impression. Little by little, they gained a dedicated following that stayed with them for their entire subsequent career. They released a series of albums in the 80’s and early 90’s, and gained an amount of underground success that is impressive in its own right. However, they didn’t gain household name status until a few fleeting weeks in 1996.

When “Pepper” came out 20 years ago, I was most likely not in the target audience for a Butthole Surfers song. Yet, I was aware of it. I didn’t personally purchase the album, but my equally eleven-year old friend John did. I would assume that the band would welcome the inevitable explosion in revenue that would come with an increased fan base, but how did the long-time fans feel? “Pepper” is a pretty good song, but anyone who has delved in to the Surfers’ back catalog (myself included) would conclude that it’s by no means their best song, or even the one most indicative of the group’s sound. Did the group change their sound to get a hit, or was the song the natural progression of a group who had been on the road and creatively active for over a decade? Does it even matter?

This got me thinking about groups that are unfairly represented by their one big hit. The jury is still out on Butthole Surfers. At the very least, their back catalogue is worth checking out. You know, if you like all that weird stuff I mentioned earlier. To be fair, despite the radio-friendly hook, “Pepper” does contain some fairly psychotic lyrical imagery, and that is unmistakably bandleader Gibby Haynes singing.

What do you guys think? Does anyone have a pre-Pepper relationship with Butthole Surfers that wants to provide perspective?

What about cases in which a band is undersold by their “hit” song?

Let’s discuss!

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3 comments to “Modern Rock: 7/9/1996”
  1. “Pepper” is a Rock & Roll classic, but i could never get past perhaps the worst band name in Rock history.

  2. Classic tune… Can’t say I’d ever heard any of their other songs until I read this piece and started Googling them. Not crazy about what I heard!

  3. As a longtime fan of the Surfers, I can assure you that Pepper was a joke song they spoon fed to the mainstream to get money and make fun of the music industry. The idea of them having a hit single is preposterous. A lot of underground bands would make a “radio friendly” song as a joke, and the masses bought it every time! Ween did it with Push the lil Daisies too. Both bands have an enormous catalog of utterly original high caliber stuff, but most folks are like, oh yeah, Push the lil Daisies! or whatever. I have never seen a band before or since that took you to the dizzying edge like the Surfers did. Their shows were legendary and would send the average Joe screaming into the street. It was all about dropping acid and pushing your mind as far as it could go, or freaking out then coming back. Not for everyone, thank goodness, but genius at what they did.

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