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Watch Butthole Surfers destroy absolutely everything at Reading 1989

It’s late afternoon on Sunday 27 August at Reading Festival, 1989. Incongruously sandwiched between short-lived pop combo Voice Of The Beehive and indie dahlings The Wonder Stuff are wacko acid-drenched Texan psyche rock noise merchants, Butthole Surfers

Vocalist Gibby Haynes arrives on stage filming the audience with a camcorder. Which he then crams down the front of his pants. Pretty impressive considering that back then even the smallest camera was the size of a brick. The Buttholes launch into the utterly wild and feedback-heavy The Shah Sleeps In Lee Harvey’s Grave. Then, inside four minutes of turning up, with unbridled fury, the entire band smash the absolute fucking living shit out of everything on stage. Complete devastation. “We’re outta here, daddio,” declares Gibby through a squall of feedback and microphone distortion. 

Jaws wide open, no one in the audience knows what the actual fuck just happened. 

By Butthole standards – notorious for on stage nudity and sex, powered by a wheelbarrow full of chemicals and hypnotics – this was no big deal. But to the audience of indie and goth kids, it’s the most extreme live event they’ve ever witnessed. They’re shook. You have to remember that this is before crowd surfing, stage diving and even proper moshing really took off in the UK. Everyone is stunned and wondering what will happen next. There is a long pause before the Buttholes find more guitars and return to the stage and continue with what is a life-affirming set. 

But in those four minutes, they have gone down in Reading Festival infamy and recruited thousands of new fans. The band close out the set with Concubine preceded by lunatic signature tune and live favourite Sweat Loaf – complete with synchronised high kicks (opens in new tab). Then, as the Sabs satirising-titled chaos reaches its blistering climax, for good measure, they trash even more equipment.

Guitarist Paul Leary makes light of the incident during a later backstage interview. “Did I just smash up a Les Paul? It was a Columbus. Better than a Les Paul. Custom made… by Christopher Columbus. It was a great sounding guitar, I really miss it…”

A brief history: Reading Festival started as a polite jazz gathering in the 60s. Traditionally a prog, gumby metal and hard rock festival throughout the 70s and 80s, it was something of a less hectic version of Monsters Of Rock (as it was then called) at Donington. The headliners at Reading 1987 were The Mission, Status Quo and Alice Cooper. By comparison, the same year, Donington had Metallica, Dio and Bon Jovi. HAVE IT, Reading. In 1988, the Reading promoters took a chance by altering the format with the curate’s egg bill of headliners Iggy Pop, Star Ship and Squeeze (special shoutout to Meat Loaf who played just before Star Ship and was emphatically bottled off during his second song – even taking a bottle of piss squarely in the mush). 

A difficult transition, the festival haemorrhaged cash. Yet in 1989, indie promoters The Mean Fiddler took over and they doubled down with headliners New Order, The Pogues and The Mission. Tickets sold out and it was appropriately compered by the late, great John Peel – who of course could tell exactly what was coming when Gibby and co got on stage.

It took years for the festival to settle down and reintroduce metal into the mix again, with what’s nowadays more of a diverse and less tribal something-for-everyone line-up. But in 1989 the festival depended on a predominantly young indie kid audience, a lot of whom were attending a music festival for the first time. This was of course before the introduction of the Leeds axis in 1999, and well before festivals exploded throughout the UK with one on every conceivable piece of uncultivated farmland every weekend of every summer (except this year). Back in the 80s it was just Reading, Glastonbury, Donington. That was yer lot.  

A melting pot of influences from Sabbath to Zappa, the Buttholes are an overlooked and under-rated phenomenon. They counted Jane’s Addiction, Monster Magnet and Mr. Bungle amongst their followers. A testament to the pre-grunge diversity of the late 80s, they peaked with their albums Locust Abortion Technician (1987) and Hairway To Steven (1988). 

But as Reading 1989 proved, they remained a compelling spectacle for years. In 1996, the typically backward mainstream finally caught up with them and that year’s Electriclarryland even made a showing on album charts. 

A regular contributor to Louder/Classic Rock and The Quietus, Burrows began his career in 1979 with a joke published in Whizzer & Chips. In the early 1990s he self-published a punk/comics zine, then later worked for Cycling Plus, Redline, MXUK, MP3, Computer Music, Metal Hammer and Classic Rock magazines. He co-wrote Anarchy In the UK: The Stories Behind the Anthems of Punk with the late, great Steven Wells and adapted gothic era literature into graphic novels. He also had a joke published in Viz. He currently works in creative solutions, lives in rural Oxfordshire and plays the drums badly.