The Upshot: Career-chronicling box set for the Australian combo sets in motion more than just a reappraisal of an influential group—it makes a convincing case for the primacy of “negative energy” in the rock world.
BY FRED MILLS
“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, the above-mentioned Darling Downs, Kim Salmon & the Business, a number of solo records, and just recently, separate collaboration 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 in London 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 at the time, though, of having 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.”
True to his word, Salmon’s Surrealists cut Grand Unifying Theory in 2010, and he has also mounted several brief Scientists reunion tours, including a 35th anniversary tour of Australia in 2015 featuring the group’s earliest lineup and then again a couple of shows in 2015. Maybe there will be more to come? Stay tuned.
For the time being, though, A Place Called Bad is a more than worthwhile step back in time. Get ready for some serious negativity—the good kind of negativity.
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