In her recent review, Gwen Ihnat argues that Mike Judge’s new Tales From The Tour Bus promises to turn country music skeptics into fans, with Judge’s animated series bridging the divide through the universal appeal of stories about celebrities getting plastered and destroying shit. If true, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that Judge has played tastemaker through the unconventional means of crude cartoons behaving badly. Judge’s Beavis And Butt-head, which aired the final episode of its original run 20 goddamn years ago, had an equally unlikely impact on a generation’s musical preferences—though that aspect of the show has been somewhat lost to time, at least compared to the lingering legend of the controversy it created. Most people will recall that uproar which greeted the MTV series the day after it premiered and immediately started getting blamed for everything—the way it was held up as a harbinger of America’s incipient cultural decline, or that time that Ol’ Fritz Hollings decried “Buffcoat and Beaver” on the Senate floor, or how it was blamed for turning so many children into mouth-breathing, pyromaniac miscreants. But few ever talk about how it was also responsible for getting kids briefly into Primus.
Overlooking Beavis And Butt-head’s musical influence can, of course, be attributed to the fact that, these days, it’s nearly impossible to watch the show with any music in it. MTV no longer airs full episodes; the series’ brief, eighth-season revival from 2011 is still available online and on DVD, but if you’re looking for the old episodes, you’re out of luck. Owing to the impossibility of untangling decades’ worth of licensing issues, many of them with labels and bands that don’t even exist anymore, those first seven seasons are available solely in frustratingly truncated, Mike Judge Collection sets that have just the animated interstitials, with a handful of the boys’ music video riffs—where the show’s greatest comedy lived—relegated to the special features. Sure, you can watch grainy bootlegs on YouTube (and download full episodes through certain torrent sites). But for the most part, Beavis And Butt-head’s true legacy has largely been scattered to the wind.
That said, two unspoiled artifacts remain: Beavis And Butt-head Do America, the commercially and critically successful 1996 film that marked the erstwhile cultural pariah’s official embrace by the establishment (“Brilliant!” raved Gene Siskel); and 1993’s The Beavis And Butt-head Experience, part comedy album, part “soundtrack” for a show that was explicitly about talking over music.
(Here I will pause to address the pedants, and acknowledge that, yes, Beavis And Butt-head Do America has what some would more formally recognize as a “soundtrack.” However, it sucks ass, no one bought it, and—outside of the occasional radio reprise of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Love Rollercoaster”—no one ever thought of it again. The Beavis And Butt-head Experience, by contrast, is a compilation that actually feels of a piece with the show it’s trying to capture, accurately reflects its position in the pop culture pantheon and is thereby technically suitable for discussion under the Soundtracks Of Our Lives rubric. Also, I started this column, so I can do what I want with it; shut up, buttmunch.)
Released a mere eight months after the show premiered, The Beavis And Butt-head Experience is a clearly rushed product, a random sampling of 12 tracks from artists that, ostensibly, these arbiters of suck might deem pretty cool. Funny as it sounds, this was no trifling matter: In 1993, at the height of its cultural domination, Beavis And Butt-head had actual, measurable impact on record sales, boosting bands like Babes In Toyland and White Zombie, as well as absolutely burying the groups that had ruled MTV only a few years before—chiefly hair metal acts like Poison, Cinderella, Mötley Crüe, and Winger. (Poor, poor Winger.) And amid the growing influx of grunge and “alternative” acts, Beavis And Butt-head was at least partially responsible for keeping old-fashioned hard rock and metal alive, championing the dad-friendly likes of AC/DC, Iron Maiden, and Judas Priest to a teenage audience that otherwise would have regarded them as denim-jacket dinosaurs.
I was certainly in that group. The year Beavis And Butt-head premiered, I was 15—the same age as its protagonists, squarely in the same high-school golden years of working menial jobs, goofing off, and talking shit to the TV. I’ve written before about the many bands Beavis turned me onto, thanks to the way it raided MTV’s library to dredge up acts I might have never seen outside the second hour of 120 Minutes (on a school night!), if at all. I was an only child in pre-internet suburbia, with no older siblings or cool record store clerks to guide me. So all my first brushes with The Dead Milkmen, Public Image Ltd., Superchunk, Helium, Chavez, Railroad Jerk, Built To Spill, Butthole Surfers, Quicksand, and so, so many other soon-to-be-favorites came from watching Beavis and Butt-head watch them. After school, I’d go to CD Warehouse with little lists of bands I’d cribbed from the show—Greta, Nudeswirl, Daisy Chainsaw, Green Apple Quick Step, Low Pop Suicide, etc. etc. I’d wager that half of my mid-’90s record collection (and beyond) can be directly traced to the show.
Overall, my love of the show led me to adopt a far more open mind toward hard-rock and metal than I—a sensitive lad weaned on R.E.M., The Cure, and U2—might have otherwise. Beavis and Butt-head’s endorsement/disapproval didn’t always work on me, of course. I spent more time really trying to get into the likes of Prong and Biohazard than was probably necessary, and I still adamantly liked Depeche Mode, despite Butt-head’s insistence it was “French for ‘We’re Wussies.’” But overall, I would say that Beavis And Butt-head shaped my personal musical growth more than any critic.
As a musical primer, however, their album kind of sucks. Granted, it’s primarily a comedy album—one of the bestselling of all time, in fact—even though it’s one that removes Anderson, Coach Buzzcut, Mr. Van Driessen, or any of their other comic foils that made the show work. Instead, the record mostly finds the boys working solo, offering up a generic “Whoa! That was cool!” after every track, or joking about boners until Butt-head inevitably slaps Beavis around. They also appear in skits where they “party” with the members of Anthrax and Run DMC, annoying them by pooping on their tour bus or trying too hard to be “down.”
And of course, its best-known tracks are novelty songs. There’s “Come To Butt-head,” an R&B slow jam where Butt-head offers come-ons like “Baby, if I like, gave you some money, would you make out with me?” while Beavis tries to get him to go watch Cops. The most famous track is “I’ve Got You, Babe,” a still-bizarre duet with Cher that features a mid-song dialogue about how much Sonny Bono sucks (a little cringe-inducing now, in light of his death), and ends with the implication that Butt-head and Cher are about to go fuck. Cher—languishing in the infomercial ebb of her career—even starred in the video.
Don’t let my stuffy, decades-later criticisms fool you. These things were all very funny to me (though maybe not They’re All Gonna Laugh At You! funny, to name another CD I spun constantly that year). In particular, my equally sad and sexless 15-year-old buddies and I quoted lines from “Come To Butt-head” to each other, long after it might have been considered clever to do so, which is to say never. But even back then, I was mostly into The Beavis And Butt-head Experience for the music, man—even though all of that had to do with its very first track.
Like so many others, I bought the CD chiefly for Nirvana’s “I Hate Myself And Want To Die,” a song that was recorded during the In Utero sessions—originally as the title track—but was scrapped due to what Kurt Cobain thought was an overabundance of “noise songs,” as well as concern that no one would get its sardonic, self-effacing humor. Oasis’ Noel Gallagher didn’t, for one; he once said he wrote “Live Forever” partly in response to the song’s apparent nihilism. “I can’t have people like that coming over here, on smack, fucking saying that they hate themselves and they wanna die,” Gallagher said. “That’s fucking rubbish. Kids don’t need to be hearing that nonsense.” The kids need to be hearing about real shit, like champagne supernovas.
Of course, the most nihilist thing about “I Hate Myself And Want To Die” is its open apathy about good songwriting, even if Nirvana’s tossed-off genius makes genuine failure impossible. Over the kind of sludgy-catchy riff Cobain probably coughed out while tuning his guitar, he croaks some flu-ridden imagery about runny noses and prescription refills, snarking about working in “one more quirky clichéd phrase” like he can’t wait to clock out, all before giving over the bridge to a barely audible reading of one of Jack Handey’s “Deep Thoughts.” It’s smart and stupid, sloppy and sick, and self-aware about its laziness—“We could write that song in our sleep,” Cobain said later—all of which makes it thematically ideal for Beavis And Butt-head. Well that, in addition to being the one track, in the days before you could just download the single, guaranteed a couple million in sales.
From there, however, it’s pretty slim pickings—particularly if, like me at the time, your tastes ran more toward artists who weren’t awkwardly straddling the generational divide, carried into the ’90s by the grace of two teens who were convinced rock peaked with …And Justice For All. In terms of newish bands, there’s a cursory, faithful, home demo-caliber run through The Stooges’ “Search And Destroy” by Red Hot Chili Peppers, a “Give It Away” B-side that’s mostly here for Beavis and Butt-head to make some more sort-of-jokes about breaking stuff (and Certs).
But the biggest draw in ’93 would have been White Zombie, a group that has publicly credited the show with reviving its career after 1992’s La Sexorcisto: Devil Music Vol. 1 initially fizzled, until Beavis and Butt-head stared freaking out over its videos. “The record immediately started picking up in markets where we never played, like Wyoming and Missouri—places where Beavis And Butt-head was the only thing happening, where it’s just cows,” Rob Zombie told Entertainment Weekly that year. “It always seemed we needed something to give the album a kick in the butt, and I guess this was the thing.”
To return the favor, Zombie contributed the original song “I Am Hell,” a fairly typical slab of utter fucking gibberish run through a groove-metal grinder. “Yeah, while I imagine in my gear the brother start to tremble / Raw nerve impound the black end / Let me wrap my mouth and get healin’ / Love gets her shoutin’ and the beast is shoutin’,” Zombie sings (or so the internet thinks), whenever he’s not screaming, “Yeahuhhh!” The song is nasty, dumb, and brutish; it kicks ass, in other words. “Yes! That was cool!” Butt-head shouts at track’s end, a thumbs-up from what Zombie deemed “the Siskel and Ebert of the retarded generation,” who, not coincidentally, was the generation most likely to love his music.
That uneasy relationship with Beavis And Butt-head and its army of lunkhead fans—the same fans these bands are courting, however reluctantly—gets direct address on the album’s other wholly new song, Primus’ “Poetry And Prose.” Presaging his theme for South Park, Les Claypool composes an ode to how “The whole world’s gone crazy over that there Beavis And Butt-head show,” referencing specific episodes (“Frog Baseball,” “Couch Fishing”), and professing to “get a kick” out of it, all over the band’s usual slippery Deliverance-funk. As with so much of Primus’ discography, Claypool sings from a winking, white-trash perspective, even taking shots at his own, ostensibly more sophisticated alt-rock brethren—“Stone Temple Pearlvana Chains, now there’s a helluva band / They got that original sound that’s been sweepin’ across the land,” he sings, before declaring, “They ain’t no ZZ Top though, now that’s the band for me / If I had my way MTV’d play just them and AC/DC.”
You could read that both sarcastically and sincerely. After all, Beavis and Butt-head straddled that divide, embracing the Stone Temple Pearlvana Chains of the new scene—even including one of them on their album—but also wearing AC/DC shirts and worshipping bands that hadn’t been in MTV rotation for more than a decade. Their love of Megadeth, represented here by the storming “99 Ways To Die,” seems genuine and on-brand. (And it leads to one of the album’s funniest moments in Beavis’ Dave Mustaine impression.) But were ’93 kids really expected to agree that White Zombie kicked equivalent ass to Aerosmith’s “Deuces Are Wild,” a reject from Pump that sounds like a warm-up for so many future Diane Warren ballads? Or was it simply Geffen’s attempt to give the band another boost to the teens (one that didn’t involve putting Alicia Silverstone in tiny shorts)?
After all, as Judge himself recalled, Aerosmith’s management once “came down” on the show for mocking the band over being old (albeit “pretty cool”), leading to a moratorium on using any more of their videos. And Butt-head’s commentary at the end—“These guys are the kings of rock, there is none higher”—sure sounds like it was meant for the preceding Run DMC track. There’s some question there as to whether Judge or anyone involved with the show would have chosen Aerosmith (particularly Pump-era Aerosmith) as something these guys would have actually been into. The inclusion of Jackyl seems even more like a label gimme: Pressed in a Rolling Stone interview that year, “Beavis and Butt-head” respond to the assertion that the band’s Southern butt-rock sucks with “Chainsaws kick ass!” Notably, the chainsaw-free “Mental Masturbation” doesn’t garner any words of approval, just another dialogue about jacking off.
The paltry choices of hip-hop seem even more oddly out of touch, given Judge’s evident love of the stuff in Office Space and Silicon Valley. Granted, hip-hop was relatively scarce on Beavis as well; after burning through Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” Wreckx-N-Effect’s “Rumpshaker,” and LL Cool J’s “Big Ole Butt,” all within the first season, the resultant dearth of butt-related-rap was deeply felt. Mostly (and perhaps cautiously), the boys stuck to mocking white rappers—Beastie Boys, House Of Pain, Vanilla Ice, even dredging up also-rans like Lordz Of Brooklyn—while occasionally bringing in big crossover stars like Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Cypress Hill. Yet they always treated it reverently; Beavis and Butt-head liked hip-hop as much as any other suburban white kid.
So it’s strange that The Beavis And Butt-head Experience reflects this love solely through a pair of relatively stale cuts, especially by 1993 standards. Run DMC’s “Bounce” is… fine for a comeback single by a legendary group coming off a fallow period and suddenly grappling with the changing times, but it’s also a track that, as jokingly referenced by Beavis, just feels like a softer version of Onyx’s Jam Master Jay-produced hit “Slam.” And then there’s “Monsta Mack,” a booty-by-numbers deep cut from Sir Mix-A-Lot’s Chief Boot Knocka about how much he still likes to fuck. There is also Anthrax’s cover of the Beastie Boys’ “Looking Down The Barrel Of A Gun,” which adds meatier guitars and Scott Ian and Co. all doing their best impression of Ad-Rock, specifically. It’s a good cover, but as with “Search And Destroy,” it doesn’t add much to the original—and it just highlights how welcome a track by another, actual hip-hop artist would have been.
Granted, attempting to discern some guiding artistic principle to what was included and why, or to ascribe some meaning to The Beavis And Butt-head Experience as a time capsule of a culture in flux, would be to deny the truth of the album—and the show. Despite the series’ role as rock critic to impressionable dumbasses like myself, neither Geffen nor Judge had any expectation, especially in those early days, of actually influencing anyone. “When the show was starting, I thought, ‘Well, if Beavis and Butt-head like something, maybe that’s an insult to the band,’” Judge said in 2005 of that initial guiding philosophy. “Then I decided, even though they’re really stupid, they have primal good taste.” That primal taste naturally favors some pretty good things: intensity, a lack of pretense or affect, being really fucking loud. But then, you also end up with Jackyl.
Nevertheless, like their lizard-brain humor, there is an attractively zen purity to Beavis and Butt-head’s self-complacence and binary worldview, where stuff is either cool or it sucks, and such judgments are made instinctually. The duo elaborates on this philosophy by means of this mid-album Socratic dialogue:
Beavis: Hey Butt-head, how come some stuff sucks, but some stuff is pretty cool?
Butt-head: If nothing sucked, and everything was cool all the time, then it’s like, how would you know it was cool?
Beavis: I would know. You just said, everything would be cool.
Butt-head: I mean, like, if I wasn’t here.
Beavis: Oh yeah. That would be cool.
Butt-head: No, buttmunch.
So perhaps the fallow points of The Beavis And Butt-head Experience could be read as intentional (“If Jackyl weren’t here, how would you know that Nirvana was cool?”), and are thus, like the show, a statement on the emptiness and arbitrariness of what constitutes “popular” culture. Shrugging cynicism as a response to the critical-commercial complex that decides what is and isn’t cool—instead relying on a simple standard of whether or not it’s loud or has hot chicks in the video—is certainly a valid one, and it definitely appealed to a generation that was learning every day how to better resent the stuff it consumed. In that respect, perhaps the album’s overall suckiness, as with the show’s stupidness, was actually subversively brilliant.
Or, uh, words words words… Maybe it was just a slapdash cash-in that no one cared overly about properly curating. Either way, like Beavis And Butt-head itself, The Beavis And Butt-head Experience introduced me to some stuff I might have casually dismissed due to my adolescent prejudices—and through it I developed my own primitive appreciation of things that “rock,” even if my own tastes continued to hedge more toward things for wusses. And as a result of laughing along with these two cartoon losers as they shit on 90 percent of music, I actually became a more adventurous listener. Whoa. That was cool.