“Some people don’t get metaphor at all”: The acclaimed Texas rocker/songwriter/raconteur on the innate power of words, and what it means when someone like Donald Trump knows how to twist them to suit his own ends.
BY JAMES MCMURTRY
Whatever the front man says or does gives license to those in the crowd. A certain band used to play at the Continental Club in Austin, where my band and I regularly play when we’re home. When they played, a woman danced naked, or very nearly naked, behind a screen on which a light threw her shadow to the full view of the audience. Some of the staff that worked those shows are still working at the club. They tell me that during those shows some of the men in the audience became unusually and uncomfortably aggressive toward the women in the audience. I thought that was terrible.
Years later, while touring through Utah, someone gave me a small sticker that read “I love Mormon pussy.” It actually employed the symbol for a heart, rather than the word “love.” I thought it was funny as hell. I put the sticker on my ESP Telecaster. My label thought it was funny as hell, and put a picture of it on my website. After we got home, we resumed our regular residency at the Continental Club. Some of the staff soon reported that some of the men in the audience were becoming unusually and uncomfortably aggressive toward the women in the audience at my shows. I took the sticker off the guitar and had the label take the picture off the website and that shit quit happening. I didn’t feel so morally superior to that certain band after that.
When Donald Trump said he’d like to punch someone in the mouth, he knew there was a good chance someone would get sucker punched at one of his rallies, and someone did. Donald said it was ok, so someone believed him and made it happen. When Trump said some of the Second Amendment people could do something about Hillary, he increased the odds of Clinton getting shot at and he knew it full well. He’s a front man and he knows the power of the front man. For Trump to deny that he’s inciting violence is beyond full of shit.
But let’s just say, for the sake of devil’s advocacy, that Trump actually was speaking metaphorically, as his spinners say he was. Even if he was speaking metaphorically when calling for the assassination of his rival, he was still criminally negligent because he said those words from the podium. He said those words as a front man, speaking to his millions of followers, many of whom, statistically speaking, are unlikely to understand or even care that their Messiah was speaking metaphorically. Some people don’t get metaphor at all, so anything one says from the podium to an audience of millions must be taken at face value. Trump has crossed the line into unabashed thuggery and is dragging our electoral process down to the level of Augusto Pinochet, Idi Amin, and Joseph Stalin. He should share a room with them somewhere, metaphorically speaking of course.
James McMurtry blogs for Blurt with his “Wasteland Bait & Tackle” column. Find him on the web at JamesMcurtry.com.
And business is good, whether your thing is punk, power pop, garage rock, rockabilly, glam, action rock, and their various spinoffs and offshoots. Our guarantee to you: no Nickelback allowed. Go HERE to read Dr. Denim’s first installment of the series. (FYI: links to key audio and video tracks follow the main text.)
BY MICHAEL “DENIM” TOLAND
As leader of the now-legendary Lazy Cowgirls, Pat Todd created a canon of blazing roots/punk rock & roll that should serve as a textbook for anyone who reveres both Johnny Cash and the Ramones. When the Indiana-born longtime Los Angeleno shifted focus (barely) toward the Americana side of his personality with the Rankoutsiders, he stuck to the same standards – four chords, blasting guitars, a kickin’ rhythm section and more soul than a Baptist church on Sunday. Blood and Treasure (Hound Gawd!), the band’s fourth LP, is another stellar example of Todd’s vision. Jolted by the six-string team of Kevin Keller and longtime foil Nick Alexander, the ‘outsiders rip through blues and ballads, C&W and R&R, with an expertise that should be the envy of bands half their age. Todd’s songs eschew clever wordplay and ironic distance to simply channel the man’s heart from his sleeve to yours, whether he’s fighting bad love (“Tell Me Now,” “I Hear You Knockin’”) or working class despair (“This Counterfeit World,” “Just Another Broken Day”). He won’t give in, though, stating his case most effectively in never-surrender anthems “Stand Up and Sass Back” and “Don’t Be Sellin’ Emptiness.” Blood and Treasure shows Todd and the Rankoutsiders once again reinventing ragged but right by being simply unable to do wrong.
Fronting a freewheeling blend of Detroit hard rock, Nuggets garage punk, dirty Cramps-a-billy and grungy surf, all given an acid sheen, Spain’s Capsula have been blasting away for nearly 20 years to a devoted audience far smaller than it should be. But the Argentina-bred power trio have never let that – or anything, really – get them down, and that same joie de vivre infests Santa Rosa (Vicious Circle), the band’s eleventh album. (Twelfth, if you count its stint backing up Ivan Julian on Naked Flame.) Tempering its live energy a tad (note: if this band comes to a club anywhere near you, do not hesitate), Capsula polishes its songwriting to an even more potent shine, balancing full throttle burners like “Tierra Girando” and “Candle Candle” with midtempo psych poppers “Moving Mutants” and “They Are New Models.” The trio even successfully ventures into ballad territory on “Past Lives.” Proof that great bands can keep getting better. Birth of Joy comes from the same spiritual place as Capsula, but, with the bass replaced by keyboards, trucks in a more expansive sound. Get Well (Long Branch/SPV), the Dutch trio’s sixth album, picks up where its last studio LP Prisoner left off, pushing the psychedelic and jamming tendencies to the fore while not losing the band’s intense rock & roll drive. That proves BoJ equally adept at both short/sharp/shocked bangers like “You Got Me Howling” and “Blisters” and drawn-out epics “Numb” and the title track. Perhaps not the revelation Prisoner was, but a progression, for sure.
With a name like Dr. Boogie, you’d expect a band beholden to John Lee Hooker, or at least ZZ Top and Canned Heat. In this case, though, you’d be wrong – the L.A. quartet owes its soul to the New York Dolls and the heyday of glam and protopunk on Gotta Get Back to New York City (Dead Beat). “Down This Road,” “Queen of the Streets” and the title track rock hard with that ever-so-tricky mix of Chuck Berry and aggression, while “Really Good Feeling” verges on power pop. The biggest surprise is “Together,” which adds a disco beat and “doot-doot” vocals for a dandy variation on the formula. Boasting a clever, “why didn’t anyone think of this before?” name, Indonesian Junk romps straight outta Milwaukee with an impressive self-titled debut album (Rum Bar). Throwing glam rock, protopunk, power pop and R&B-flavored garage rock into a centrifuge, the trio shakes it all down until it comes out as uncomplicated rock & roll. “Black Hole,” “Little Malibu” and “Indonesia” show off a band that rummages through the past, takes what it wants and leaves the rest to rot. Surprise bonus: a cover of Jayne County’s “Fuck Off.”
Though best known for leading U.K. punk & roll band the Almighty and his current frontman position with Black Star Riders (the group that grew out the latter-day revival of Thin Lizzy), Ricky Warwick started banging guitar in imitation of Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen. Despite his schedule with the Riders, the Irish native found time to knock out a double album that serves both sides of his personality. When Patsy Cline Was Crazy (and Guy Mitchell Sang the Blues)/Hearts on Trees (Nuclear Blast) ranges from the hard-edged heartland rock of the first half (“Son of the Wind,” “Johnny Ringo’s Last Ride,” “The Road to Damascus Street”) to the mostly acoustic folk rock (“Said Samson to Goliath,” “Disasters,” a cover of Porter Wagoner’s immortal “Psycho”) of the second. Not out of line for a dude whose first professional job was playing second guitar on a New Model Army tour. German singer/songwriter Conny Ochs takes a similar tack on his third solo album Future Fables (Exile On Mainstream), though he prefers to mix his folk and rock rather than segregate them. Fielding melancholy introspection and cautiously optimistic progression, the record sounds like Ochs decided to blend his twin lives as acoustic troubadour and badass rocker, giving “Golden Future,” “Piece of Heaven” and “No Easy Way” a grit most singer/songwriter records rarely achieve.
If Kiss had succumbed to its 70s glam rock tendencies instead of its 80s hair metal fantasies, maybe it would be half as cool as Watts. The Beantown quartet kicks the requisite amount of gluteus maximus on third LP The Black Heart of Rock ‘N Roll (Rum Bar), happily rebooting riffs from the Stones, ZZ Top and the Sweet as it’s the first time anything like it has ever been heard. “She’s Electric’ and “Strut Like a Champ” brandish serious swagger, “Stage Fright” boogies like Marc Bolan if he’s been born in Texas and “Bye & Bye” reveals the bruised heart under the bravado. If the U.S.A. has ever produced a rock & roll band inhabiting the same dimension as the late, great Dogs D’amour, Watts is probably it.
Led by singer/songwriter Victor Penalosa – younger brother to Hector of the Zeros and Flying Color, cousin to the Escovedo clan, current drummer for the Flamin Groovies – the Phantoms bop all over the map on their self-titled debut (Rum Bar), from power pop (“Baby Loves Her Rock N’ Roll”) and country rock (“One For the Road”) to snotty punk (“Chump Change”) and no-nonsense rock & roll (“Tears Me Up Inside,” “Ditch Digger”). Add the driving heartland rock of “Two Lane Black Top” and Chuck Berry boogie of “The Ballad of Overend Watts” and it’s a party. The band has a solid grasp on anything that requires a backbeat and loud guitars, while Penalosa’s memorable melodies and appealingly plain singing tie it all together. You can probably be forgiven for casting aspersions toward the Two Tens – after all it’s a co-ed duo with a male guitarist and a female drummer, and debut album Volume (Ugly Sugar) was mixed by Detroit super producer Jim Diamond. But the L.A. act is no White Stripes wannabe – the band is far more enamored of 60s garage rock than Zeppelin blues. All the better to rock sweet pop tunes “Sweet as Pie” and “Watching Me” and pounding thrashers “Life” and “Rush Out” into the dirt.
Despite coming from Portsmouth, New Hampshire (or maybe because of it), the Connection has established itself as one of the best 60s-inspired power pop bands going via Little Steven-endorsed rekkids like Let It Rock and the stupendous Labor of Love. So it’s a good time to reissue the quartet’s debut New England’s Newest Hit Makers (Rum Bar). Fresh-faced and sparkling, the record gets down to business quickly and efficiently via “Stop Talking,” “My Baby Likes to Rock N Roll,” “I Think She Digs Me” and other nuggets analogous to the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night era. Delightful. Seattle’s Navins apply similar energy to power poppy tunes that boast melodies by the jangleful on debut LP Not Yourself Today (Green Monkey). Named after Steve Martin’s character in The Jerk, the band (which includes ex-TAD man Gary Thortensen) certainly exhibits a sense of humor, but is no joke, showing serious craft and heart on the winsome “Oceans,” the jamming “Wallet Full of Signs” and the crunchy “Never Wanted Nothing.”
Singer/guitarist Eric Knoxx slung strings for rockin’ surf/lounge band the Vice Barons for several years, but finally uncorks his larynx on Saturday Night Shakes (Rum Bar), the debut album from his new outfit the Backseat Angels. With a nod toward the upbeat melodies of old school punk/pop like the Boys and a wink toward the swagger of bubblegum glamsters like the Sweet, Knoxx and co. bang out hard candy delights “Teenage Rock’n’ Roller,” “To Be a Better Man” and “My Baby Wants to Brainwash My Mind.”
Hailing from Seattle, the town that kicked off the whole garage rock thing back in the 60s with the Sonics, the Wailers and – RIP Jack Ely – the Kingsmen, Liquid Generation takes direct inspiration from its forebears on Quarter to Zen (Green Monkey). Recorded in 1983 and unreleased until now, scrappy snarls like “Hang Up” (a gem from the Wailers’ catalog), “Nothing” (via the Ugly Ducklings) and “¼ to Zen” would’ve landed the band on the Get Hip label and on tour with the Chesterfield Kings had it come out when it should’ve. NYC’s Mystery Lights get even more faithful to the old school on their self-titled debut (Wick) – close your eyes and you’d think this was recorded in 1965. As such, it sounds like a bunch of kids with loud guitars, a handful of chords and a few drugs fueling their rock & roll fantasies. It would almost be too retro for its own good if not for the quality of the songs – the blistering “Melt,” the wide-ranging “Before My Own” and the surprisingly psychedelic “Flowers in My Hair, Demons in My Head” scratch the Nuggets itch as well as anything from the original era.
The blues is, of course, one of the bigger planks in rock & roll’s platform, and bands will never stop using it as the crux of their raison d’etre. So it is with Jane Lee Hooker. The NYC five-piece takes on everyone from Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf to Ray Charles and Otis Redding on its debut album No B! (Ruf). But since these ladies have backgrounds in punk and hard rock – specifically Nashville Pussy, Bad Wizard, Helldorado and the legendary Wives – they simply can’t help rocking the hell out of the likes of Waters’ “Mannish Boy,” Albert King’s “The Hunter” and Charles’ “I Believe to My Soul.” The band’s rip through Johnny Winters’ “Mean Town Blues” hews far closer to the members’ previous day jobs than anything that came out of Memphis. Whiskey-and-cigs singer Dana “Danger” Athens’ original “In the Valley” fits right in alongside genre classics and deep cuts. Northern Ireland duo the Bonnevilles stick to an original program on Arrow Pierce My Heart (Alive Naturalsound), but also punk up the blues like Chess Records filtered through the Standells. “I’ve Come Too Far For Love to Die,” “The Electric Company” (not a U2 cover) and “The Man With the X Shaped Scar On His Cheek” rock raw and dirty, not a million miles away from what the Black Keys were doing in their early days.
For the last decade, Fort Wayne, Indiana’s Left Lane Cruiser has practically defined the idea of punk blues. Beck in Black (Alive Naturalsound), compiled by original drummer Brenn Beck from the albums on which he appears, collects tracks from the then-duo’s earliest days up until right before the band became a trio on last year’s barnburner Dirty Spliff Blues. The Cruiser’s rawboned bottleneck ‘spunk stomps and stammers on “Zombie Blocked,” “Circus” and the mighty “Sausage Paw,” one of six previously unreleased tracks. Shawn James is more of a blues traditionalist than Hooker, Cruiser or the Bonnevilles, but only in the sense of staying acoustic on his latest LP On the Shoulders of Giants (self-released). Wielding a pair of resonator guitars and recording at Sun Studios, the big-voiced Arkansan lays down deep blues like “Back Down” and “When It Rains, It Pours” that would crush boulders if played through a Marshall stack.
The blues is more of a feel than a form for international (counting members from the States, France and Sweden) quartet Blues Pills. Second full-length Lady in Gold (Nuclear Blast) finds the band folding in flavors of psychedelic soul into its groovy rawk stew, which suits brassy singer Elin Larsson on tunes like “Rejection,” “You Gotta Try” and “Won’t Go Back” (all hidden in the final third, oddly enough). Ultimately, though, the band is still about fairly frill-less rock & roll – check “Bad Talkers,” “Little Boy Preacher” and the especially catchy title track. Bonus: a menacing, rocking take on Tony Joe White’s “Elements and Things.” Hailing from Sudbury, Ontario, Sulfur City plays groovy blues rock with a political edge on Talking Loud (Alive Naturalsound). With an electric washboard, a powerful howl, a 60s sense of social outrage and a thing for the Devil (who appears in “Johnny” and “Sold”), leader Lori Paradis cuts a striking figure. Aided and abetted by guitarist/co-writer Jesse Lagace, she sometimes lets her band lapse into a Grateful Dead choogle that sucks the energy out of the performances. But when she and the band grit their teeth, via the swampy “One Day in June,” stomping “Tie My Hand to the Floor” and fiery “You Don’t Know Me,” they show a lot of promise.
Remember when alt.country meant more than folk singers with tasteful bands backing them up? The Right Here does. Sounding on debut LP Stick to the Plan (Rum Bar) like the Old 97’s if they’d just come off a particularly debauched tour with Motörhead, the Minneapolis (of course) quartet takes two-stepping melodies and C&W progressions and thrashes the hell out of them while keeping the songcraft intact. From blazing cowpunkers “Til the Wheels Come Off” (which sounds like a classic set-closer) and “Judge Me When I’m Sober” to the tear-in-your-spilled-beer ballads “Drunk and Rolling Around” and “Fall Asleep, Hate Yourself, or Leave,” the Right Here rips and tears at your heartstrings as often as your ears (and your air guitar). Austin’s New Mystery Girl also fields a rootsy vibe on Crawl Through Your Hair! (Gutsy Dame), but calling them just another band of that ilk is a mistake. Singer/songwriter Chrissie Flatt and guitarist Eric Hisaw have deep roots in country and Americana music, but also a smart pop sense and a raw attack, while rhythm section Bobby Daniel and Hector Muñoz did many years with Alejandro Escovedo. Add quality songs like “Stepping On My Toes” and “I’m Not Ready to Let Go” and a rollicking rip through the New York Dolls’ “Subway Train” and you’ve got something more developed than just roots rock.
The Kingbees were contemporaries of the Stray Cats, but never hit the same heights. That’s partly because the trio simply wasn’t as stylized as Brian Setzer’s crew, and partly because the group’s neorockabilly wasn’t as flashy about its retro stylings. That’s especially evident on second LP The Big Rock (Omnivore), originally released in 1981. Singer/guitarist Jamie James and co. worry less about 50s trappings than in simply continuing the tradition, making streamlined confections of the title track, “She Can’t ‘Make-up’ Her Mind” and covers of Charlie Rich, Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins.
On the way to recording their second LP, the Muffs lost rhythm guitarist Melanie Vammen and traded drummer Criss Crass for ex-Redd Kross basher Roy McDonald. The changes did the band good, however, as evidenced by Blonder and Blonder (Omnivore). Originally released in 1995, the record reflected no radical departures from the self-titled debut. Instead the band refined its melodic punk & roll, with sharper hooks, wittier lyrics and a more aggressive attack. (Credit McDonald, whose spirit animal is clearly Keith Moon, at least in part for the latter.) “Ethyl My Love,” “Oh Nina” and “Laying On a Bed of Roses” rock recklessly without ever losing their grip on the hooks, while “Sad Tomorrow” and the waltz-time “Funny Face” demonstrate growing lyrical sophistication. The Doug Sahmish “Red Eyed Troll” and mostly acoustic “Just a Game” show a group growing beyond its self-imposed boundaries. Blonder and Blonder represents the Muff growing from strength to strength. As with last year’s reissue of The Muffs, this edition adds a gaggle of bonus tracks (including the album-worthy “Become Undone” and “Born Today”), informative liner notes from bassist Ronnie Barnett and Shattucks’ song-by-song commentary.
Careening out of control like a bus driven by a tweaker, Sleeping Beauties reclaim punk rock bash ‘n’ crash for a younger generation with their self-titled debut (In the Red). Slavering meat-eaters “Meth,” “Hands” and “Bobby & Suzie” filter garage rock through the prism of ADHD-addled high school dropouts; “Slumber Party” adds a shit-kicking (if barely recognizable) C&W beat. “Merchants of Glue” and “Addicted to Drugs” pass for ballads, with pretty melodies rolled in the dirt and left to dry in the sun – “South Eugene” even goes full on acoustic. The Pacific Northwestern quintet lays claim to real songwriting chops, which means even the most crazed numbers hold up beyond the initial energy rush. Like the long-gone Squirrel Bait drowning in the Johnny Thunders side of its personality, Sleeping Beauties buries a sensitive soul under a nightmare of squalling guitars, blaring vocals and chemically-assisted insanity, and may very well be what rock & roll is all about.
Michael Toland also writes about metal for BLURT. Go HERE to read the latest installment of his blog, “Throwing Horns,” in which he covers himself in goat’s blood and genuflects before the likes of Cobalt, Melvins, Death Angel, Candlemass, Dust Moth, Lord Mantis, and more.
The Backseat Angels – Saturday Night Shakes bandcamp:
And you thought I was done with a mere record review of that awesome Scientists box set.
By Fred Mills, Blurt Editor / Erstwhile Australian Correspondent
Sharp eyes have already spotted yours truly’s extended review of the new box set from Numero Group, A Place Called Bad, documenting the initial career of Australian grunge pioneers The Scientists. In that review, I quoted from a much earlier feature, circa 1990, I published in the late great US fanzine The Bob about the band and its founder, Kim Salmon. Although no Bob material has ever, apparently, graduated to the digital milieu – and for me, that’s just as well, given my amateurish flourishes back in the day – I still felt that the two-part original Salmon/Sci story was worth posting here at my (cough) sacred forum.
Following my discussion of that Numero retrospective on the band are the scanned pages, direct from my archives (the one above is the cover to one of the two issues the Salmon feature spanned). Click on the pages to enlarge, or download, then enlarge, at will.
Special thanks to David Gerard of the equally late great Aussie zine Party Fears for doing the original Kim Salmon interview… Where are ya these days, David? Drop a line…
Meanwhile, here’s the breakdown of the new box.
“The Scientists, like the Birthday Party, were fueled on negative energy—a very negative sort of group. A bit like the Stooges, the way the group worked is very similar. There’s not many groups that have worked that way. I think the result is intense energy, but rather than force things out dynamically and theatrically like the Birthday Party did, we tend to basically unleash. The momentum is there, and we’re able to pick up on it and let it loose.” —Kim Salmon, 1989
Legendary Australian proto-grunge avatars the Scientists enjoyed—well, maybe that’s an overstatement; let’s just say, “indulged”—a career that lasted, initially, from 1978 to 1987. Co-founder/guitarist/chief songwriter Salmon subsequently re-formed the group in 2006 at the behest of Mudhoney’s Mark Arm to play that year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, and the band additionally has gotten back together a few times since then for events such as the ATP’s “Don’t Look Back” series and as opening act for Sonic Youth.
It’s that initial decade-long run, however, that put the “legend” into the “legendary” for the band, the mid-‘80s in particular cementing the quartet’s reputation as uniquely qualified to shoulder the mantle of “heir to…” such brutality merchants as the Stooges, Suicide, the Cramps, Gun Club, and fellow Aussies the Birthday Party. With this particular lineup in place—Salmon, guitarist Tony Thewlis, bassist Boris Sujdovic and drummer Brett Rixon—the scabbily hirsute, silk-shirt adorned Scientists assaulted frequently unprepared audiences with the demented, unfiltered glee of, yes, a mad scientist, charting paranoia, decay, and bad love against a thundering, howling backdrop of swamp-twang and dissonance.
Admittedly, the group’s name recognition factor may be relatively low in terms of how many rock fans, in 2016, have heard of the musicians, much less actually heard them. But for a certain breed of music lover weaned on the aforementioned icons—that would include Jon Spencer, Mark Arm, and Thurston Moore, who were talking up the Scientists years before either of the latter two had to opportunity to extend their direct support—and tuned in to what was happening Down Under during the ‘80s, it’s likely the name continues to loom large. It certainly does for yours truly, having been smitten early on and obsessively collecting each and every official release alongside numerous live tapes; the ’82 Australian 45 “We Had Love” b/w “Swampland” retains a permanent lodging in my singles playbox, with that epochal B-side also a perennial of my Spotify playlists. (The title of this article takes its cue from a brilliant bon mot Salmon sneers in “Swampland”: “In my heart/ There’s a place called Swampland/ Nine parts water/ One part sand.”)
With the release of a comprehensive new four-disc box set by the astute archivists at the Numero Group label, hopes are high that a long-overdue reassessment by consumers of the band lurks in the wings. Following reissues of both The Scientists debut and the 1983 mini-album Blood Red River, Numero now drops A Place Called Bad, and it’s an essential collection. It breaks up the group’s history into three logical segments: “Cheap and Nasty,” covering the group’s somewhat poppier origins on the Perth punk and indie scene (Salmon had a pre-Scientists band circa 1977 called the Cheap Nasties—more on them in a sec); “Set It on Fire,” the fruitful years when they’d relocated to the Eastern edge of the continent, earning steadily-growing audiences, and ultimate making the pilgrimage to England as homelanders the Triffids, the Moodists, and of course the Birthday Party had recently done with reasonable success; and “When Worlds Collide,” the period during which personnel upheaval, clashes with their record label(s), and just plain bad luck all conspired to bring things to a close, although not without some equally compelling recorded output. The fourth disc for A Place Called Bad, “Live Cuts,” contains, logically enough, 23 live cuts recorded at various venues in Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, and Sydney during 1983, and for any right-thinking Scientists fan, they’re pure catnip. (I should know.)
Included with the box is a thick booklet boasting a nicely-annotated discography; photos (posed; why not live shots?) of most of the various Scientists lineups from over the years; a terrific eye-straining family tree done Pete Frame-style (count ‘em: nine separate versions of the group, plus such precursors as the Nasties, the Invaders, the Exterminators, the Mannikins, the Rockets, and the Helicopters, along with offshoots/members-overlapping-peers like the Hoodoo Gurus, the Johnnys, the Beasts of Bourbon, the Dubrovniks, and Salmon’s post-Sci trio, the Surrealists); and copious liner notes by box co-producer Erin Osmon, who managed to get fresh interviews with Salmon and several other principals. Throw in a remarkably handsome graphic design by Chunklet Industries majordomo Henry H. Owings, and you’ve got a box set guaranteed to prompt a Pavlovian drool among collectors.
Did someone say “drool”? Anyone worth his or her collector salt will have pre-ordered the vinyl edition as well, which replicates said booklet and graphic design in 12” gatefold format, the thick cardboard tip-on sleeve housing two heavy LPs (literally and metaphorically)—which of course means the tracklisting is a distillation of the choicer material contained on the CD box. But assuming you did preorder, you got an advance digital download of the entire thing, PLUS a bonus four-song 7” EP or cassette (!) by Salmon’s Cheap Nasties outfit, pressed on red wax at that, PLUS Cheap Nasties digital-only bonus tracks comprising the band’s entire 10-song demo from back in the day. Somebody please hand me a towel so I can sop up this puddle on my linoleum… I digress…
“The floor was littered with beer cans and bottles of whatever. We got one full bottle thrown—it sailed by my head, missing by about a foot. We had to sneak out of that gig without getting paid, because there were so many people there that really hated us. There was so much hatred. When I say it was common for people to throw bottles at us, I should say we did set ourselves up for it a bit: We tended to work off it, working off negative energy.” —Kim Salmon, 1984
That interview quote (it refers to one memorable Sydney gig in ’83 that found the Scientists opening for the decidedly UN-Scientific Angels), and the one at the top of the page, come from a 1990 article on Salmon and the Scientists that I collaborated upon with Australian fanzine editor David Gerard, who’d kindly allowed me to work in the bulk of a Salmon feature he’d done for his publication Party Fears. Incorporating information from two other equally esteemed Aussie ‘zines, B Side and D.N.A., the story charted Salmon’s journey to date, starting as a teenager discovering the likes of the Ramones, New York Dolls, and Modern Lovers. Listening to some of those early Scientists tunes on Disc 1 now, it strikes me how effortlessly Salmon and his bandmates absorbed their influences: the almost-jangly “Frantic Romantic” sounds like a cross between the Ramones and the Flamin’ Groovies, while the rowdier “Shake Together Tonight” could pass for a Dolls outtake. And neither “Pissed on Another Planet” and “Sorry Sorry Sorry” would have been out of place in a UK punk band’s setlist (think: Clash, Eddie & the Hot Rods, etc.).
By way of brief digression: Salmon, speaking to me in a more recent interview (2008, when he’d collaborated with the Died Pretty’s Ron Peno as the rootsier-sounding Darling Downs), elaborated upon a number of the artists who have informed his musical sensibilities, many of whom surface at myriad points in the box set’s material.
Explained Salmon, “Some of it’s well-known to people acquainted with my music—Stooges, Suicide, Beefheart, Creedence always come up, especially for the Scientists. But I liked most of the U.S. punk/CBGB stuff—Ramones, Television, Blondie. Before that I liked British rock like Zeppelin, the Stones, Bowie and King Crimson… and when it was okay after the initial punk purges, I liked them again, ha-ha!
“I’ve also liked jazz since I was a teenager, especially Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, and On the Corner have had as big an influence on my music over the years as any music. Of the blues artists, Howlin’ Wolf is definitely the one who I’ve taken the most from by a long shot, although I do like most blues. I have always felt a greater affinity with jazz and punk than blues, bizarrely, even though a lot of people think of my stuff as blues—which it is not.
“But none of this tells anything, really. Julie London’s in there, along with Nancy Wilson, Leon Russell —fuck, when I was a teenager I was a dog for Joe Cocker! — Hank Williams, Lee Hazelwood, Can, Blue Oyster Cult… the list could go on… British folk-rock stuff, like Cat Stevens, Nick Drake and Jimmy Page.”
Turning back to A Place Called Bad: In the band for most of the material featured on Disc 1, it should be noted, was drummer James Baker, en route to the Hoodoo Gurus, and Baker’s pop-punk inclinations no doubt influenced Salmon to a degree. But by late ’82, where Disc 2 commences via “This Is My Happy Hour,” a radical rethink of the group’s sound had transpired, as the band, and Salmon in particular, now sounded aggravated and very much on edge, with the term “happy hour” clearly meant ironically—or simply sarcastic, a sentiment underscored by “Swampland,” which with its metronomic rhythm, T.Rex-on-twang riffs, and Salmon’s part-moan/part-sneer, being anything but optimistic. From there the disc hits peak after peak (or mental low point after low point, depending on how you choose to psychoanalyze the Scientists): a whooping, ramshackle cover of Captain Beefheart’s “Clear Spot,” the malevolent, chiming minimalism of “Set It on Fire” (Salmon never sounded more desperate as a singer), some fetid swamp-blues for “Blood Red River,” the dissonant, buzzing “Fire Escape”—this is all the sound of a band who, true to Salmon’s words, was not just fueled by negativity—the Scientists personified it. Salmon, Thewlis, Sujdovic, and Rixon sound like men on the run and pursued by bounty hunters who aren’t necessarily going to be bothered with bringing their prey back alive. It’s no wonder that by mid-’85 the lineup was turning unstable.
Disc 3 can’t quite match its predecessor for sheer sonic and psychic oomph, but it’s not for lack of trying. Although in places it suggests a band for whom all that negativity was catching up with them and taking its toll, tracks like the Taxi Driver homage “If It’s the Last Thing I Do” (boasting the eternal lines “Sometimes I feel like Travis Bickle/ Just wanna shoot up all the bad that’s lurking in this town,” it’s a twangygrindingsexy sonic tour de force), punk-rockabilly pastiche “Atom Bomb Baby” (imagine Eddie Cochrane backed by Sonic Youth), and the subterranean rumble that is “A Place Called Bad” (it conjures an anthropomorphic drill press afflicted with a brutal hangover and puking its mechanical guts out), all conspire to send the band out on a high note. And trainspotters will want to know that, yes, the cover of John Fogerty/CCR nugget “It Came Out of the Sky” is undeniably great, simultaneously true to the original spirit while still utterly recognizable as classic Scientists. It’s unlikely that Salmon knew what or where “Moline,” namechecked in the song, was, but he chews the word around and lets it slide off his tongue like a man enjoying a particularly juicy bite of prime rib.
The live CD is a welcome addition to the canon, because while back in the day I’d heard plenty of ’83 shows via my tape traders’ network, having these tracks in official, cleaned-up, remastered format is a real treat. Highlights and left-field delights include a version of “Happy Hour” that completely wipes the original studio version for sheer, er, negativity, and “Set It on Fire” almost does likewise, particularly in Salmon’s edge-of-hysteria shrieks at the mic. There are several intriguing covers as well, including no less than three tips o’ the Sci cap to the Flamin’ Groovies (“Don’t Lie to Me,” “Have You Seen My Baby?” and a somewhat muffled, but revved-up and righteous “Slow Death”), a semi-throwaway take on “I’ve Had It” (originally done by the Bell Notes, it was covered by a number of bands during the punk era), and—just to return full circle to one of Salmon’s earliest inspirations—the Modern Lovers’ “She Cracked,” served up sleek ‘n’ snotty, just like mama ordered.
All in all, A Place Called Bad is everything a good box set is supposed to be: a collection that tells a specific story with coherence, precision, and painstakingly comprehensive detail. This is true for both the music and the overall package (did I mention how sweet that vinyl version is?), and if this is intended to be the final word—not counting the latterday reunions of course—then it hits that goal 110%.
Perhaps, then, a similar project might be mounted to chronicle Kim Salmon’s numerous projects he’s undertaken since the Scientists’ initial dissolution in ’87, most notably the Surrealists. (There was also Tex Perkins’ Beasts of Bourbon and the Salamander Jim offshoot, the above-mentioned Darling Downs, Kim Salmon & the Business, a number of solo records, and just recently, separate collaborations with erstwhile Scientists drummer Leanne Cowie, aka Leanne Chock, and fellow Aussie legend Spencer P. Jones. You can find plenty of details, not to mention downloads, at his BandCamp page or at his official website.) When I talked to him in 2008, the Scientists had recently completed a handful of reunion gigs, and as he put it to me, “It’s always possible, given the right offer and person to negotiate things, that there could be more Scientists shows.”
Indeed, both anecdotal reports and the 2007 reunion album Sedition, recorded live at the ATP festival in May of the previous year, offer ample testimony that the group hadn’t lost its formidable live powers. If anything, this was a tighter, more focused ensemble that any of the lineups of yore. Salmon confessed to me, though, ambivalence regarding the revived Scientists cutting a new studio album.
“I do think, however, that the set of conditions that made that band work and evolve have passed on forever and that it would be an extremely risky thing to attempt to make another recording of new material with that band. Having reformation shows has been more a matter of setting things up for just long enough for us to recreate what we did have without it going anywhere. I don’t believe we’d go anywhere good if we were allowed to go on for longer than a short time. I haven’t heard any reformation albums that can convince me otherwise, I hate to say.
“It has been great revisiting what the Scientists did, and it has rekindled something that I can pursue with the Surrealists, who never actually broke up and are, I believe, able to grow and evolve. For me, Blood Red River [Scientists, 1983], The Human Jukebox [Scientists, 1987] and Hit Me with the Surreal Feel [Surrealists, 1988] follow a natural path that I got diverted from throughout the nineties. Anyway, it put me back in touch with what I was trying to do back then, and a lot of ideas that have been mulling over in my head for a decade and a half have just fallen into place since doing the Scientists tours…. [And] the Surrealists have just picked up all the ideas and run with them. It’s amazing. We’re definitely going to do another album and it’s going to follow on seamlessly from Hit Me With The Surreal Feel, which was so far ahead in time compared with anything I’ve done subsequently that it won’t be a step back in time.”