Scientists bring a sackload of magic
Kim Salmon in full flight. Photo by Barry C. Douglas of Barry Takes Photos.
Before we start: The Scientists were bloody brilliant; Geelong hosted a magical gig. See them while you can, you may never get this chance again.
Now, then. There really are times when not being a multi-millionaire is, frankly, a bit of a fucking niggle.
So there I was, reading that a certain band were going to tour Australia - they’ve played a few reunion gigs overseas as one of the two guitarists lives in London - but they haven’t toured Australia in well over a decade. So there’s every chance this could well be the last time I’ll ever see them.
+ Shanty Pants + The Electric Guitars
The Barwon Club, Geelong,
October 29, 2017
Photos by Barry C. Douglas of Barry Takes Photos
When I was 19, it seemed to that the world was still bursting at the seams with a vast treasure of amazing new talent. ‘Still’? Well, yeah, because I began to get an extraordinary course in modern music (most of which was well and truly underground) from the age of 12, thanks to my friend Paul.
Truth to tell, I still react to that period. And perhaps I do pay a bit more attention to those people who were so significant back then. Yes, there are of course new bands, young people disgusted or horrified by the mainstream drivel we’re told is significant, relevant culture. However, there’s not as many old-school (as it is now) modern musicians out there taking risks with the same or similar drive.
Here in Australia, people like (for example, OK? this is not an exhaustive list, oh Facebook critics) Michael Plater, Dean Richards, Rossco Jalopeno, Julitha Ryan, Hugo Race, Andy "Doc Temple" Ellard, Andrew McCubbin, Ollie Olsen, Ed Kuepper and Kim Salmon are always worth the price of admission. There’s a raft of others - new overlapping old.
Telly is the same, incidentally; there is no groundswell or undercurrent of people kicking against the ghastly drab… have Netflix screened the film “Sume” at all? ‘Tetsuo’? reruns of “Callan” or “Danger Man”?
Variety is the spice of life. And my decision to do the stupid thing I did last weekend was based not on fond memories of ‘tha good ol’ days’ (‘cause they weren’t that good: I hope I never have to be so damned hungry for so damned long ever again) but on the fact that 1) the band couldn’t do Adelaide; 2) they’re playing with Leanne, one of their drummers I never saw; and 3) as I said: this is probably the last time I’ll have this chance.
There was a sort of student payment thing in place back then. It was about two-thirds of the dole (when I got my first dole payment I was amazed. I felt incredibly, impossibly rich) and, because I simply couldn’t afford to go out much - you paid to get into a gig back then - I chose who I saw with care, even though on numerous occasions I ran out of food several days before I got paid again. A Saints gig at Lark and Tinas springs to mind, as does the Cosmic Psychos first tour of Adelaide, with the Fungus Brains (I saw three of the four gigs) at the same underground hole.
So. I work in a family-run business, and we’re a small operation which, thanks to two particular people, means we punch well above our weight. Which means that I can’t always take time off when a band tours, or when I need to go interstate and do an interview for a book or something, because that puts unnecessary strain on everyone else. Hell, I feel guilty when I’m sick.
So here’s the list of dates. Perth, Friday; Melbourne, Saturday; Sydney, another Saturday, ditto Brisbane. I work Saturdays - so that’s kinda stuffed. I did my timings - if I caught a plane after work on a Saturday I’d arrive at the venue - maybe - at about 10 o’clock.
That’s a bit too tight for comfort. I’ve been on flights which have been delayed or cancelled. So, no thanks.
Then… they added a gig in Geelong.
I looked at the change jar.
Not being the multimillionaire I would like to be, I couldn’t just hop in my F-4 and fly down in the afternoon.
Nor could I fly to Melb on the Saturday, stay over night and train down the next day and train and fly back the next day. Too much.
Could I bus it..? A daylight bus then the train … again, too tight a schedule.
So I was back to doing what I did the very first few times I visited Melbourne in 1983 with Paul (we went to see The Birthday Party, and then Iggy Pop), bus overnight Saturday night with Firefly (who have always been brilliant, by the by, given the strictures they’re stuck with), train to Geelong, train back the next morning at (ulp) 0630, then train and buses to Adelaide, arriving back at 1900. That’s a lot of sitting down and sleep loss.
Getting on the bus the radio was playing Kylie’s first hit, then some of those awful eighties big-voice wailer things, followed by “I Just Can’t Get Enough” … and the bus started. I mean, the mainstream has always been bloody horrible. But why on earth there’s nostalgia for the 1980s or 1990s I cannot imagine. Probably something to do with the people who were young back then never really developing musical taste beyond that period.
The radio chuntered on like it was on a mission to convince. What the fuck was I thinking?
But you know. The sheer charge of decent, innovative music … gets me. And sleep is over-rated… And the bus pulled out and finally the radio was silenced. One of those appalling ‘family’ films was played, you know the sort of thing, tries to appeal to everyone and everyone agrees it’s lame, forced and cost far too much to make. ‘Zookeeper’, I believe it was called. Then a baby started to cry.
After two or possibly two-and-a-half hour’s sleep, at Southern Cross I bought food of some sort while joyless, colourless rap and phased dance/robot hivemind pop slosh ground away. I only go into these places when I absolutely have to; I don’t expect them to play Grong Grong for god’s sake - just something less pukey, if anything. Sometimes the junk over the PA not only doesn’t encourage you to enjoy your food, but not to walk in in the first place.
In between dodging Halloween teenagers (they’d been up All Night - bless!) and attempting to find a half-way clean toilet seat (the dirtiest toilets of the trip, as usual. How is it that Southern Cross don’t sort this out?) I discovered my train had been replaced with a bunch of coaches.
Needless to say, I boarded the bus to the strains of Frankie Goes to Hollywood entreating me to relax so I could cum. Thankfully, this was not followed by what used to follow back then, more INXS or more Chisel, or more Robert Palmer or more Elton John. Just do it. When you wanna cum. Is it any wonder that to me, in the Eighties bands like The Scientists were kind of like saviours?
I found the motel after getting off at the wrong stop and a bemusing walk around Geelong on a Sunday. Looks like a good place, mix of classic old Victoriana and modern. Less vile new buildings, the usual Saturday night splat marks and a few apparently still-whizzing citizens yelling at each other (past infidelities, “forget im e’s not wurf it”, “who used up the drugs”, ‘he’s mine, you bitch!’ and so on).
Which reminds me, whenever I hear whinges about writer’s block, all you have to do is get up early and watch people from 4am on a Sunday. The novels or songs will write themselves.
The people who run the motel, Best Western, on McKillop, were lovely. Older style motel whose rooms have been renovated; the place was modern, clean. You’d have to be a fussy swine to find fault with the place. There was a spa thingy but bed claimed me. I recall thinking vaguely that this might be a good place to stay while exploring but…
Later, I wonkily came to and headed down the road apiece, where four ‘War of the Worlds’-style lighting towers peer down upon a sports stadium not much smaller than the one back home in my ‘capital’ city. So far Geelong struck me as having many of the benefits of a small but prosperous town - but without all the ugliness of a capital. Good place to live.
The Barwon Club, I’d been told, was all sorts of bad. But … it wasn’t. The folks running the place were level and down to earth, just ordinary rock’n’roll folk. The venue was a lot better than many I’ve visited (both in Adelaide and Melbourne) so I felt right at home.
It turns out that quite a few folk had travelled for this: several had come up from Melbourne, one from Canberra (and you know where I’m from). So the locals would have spotted us as outsiders instantly - we were all shown nothing but friendliness, which I thought might be better than a handful of Geelongsters might find in my home town. Expectations. Don't fucking trust them.
The first band, the brilliantly named Shanty Tramp, I managed to miss most of, only catching the last two songs. I enjoyed them - fast tough rock’n’roll - and the lead guitarist uses a Rat pedal. That should be enough to encourage you to see them.
So few bands take anything like a risk with their music these days. We’ve all seen assorted thugs earnestly thrashing away, or plunking along like they’d rather be watching a home renovation show. You know the ones, them what play like a bunch of blokes in a shed or a bunch of kids whose songs are so … inadequate that you just give up and leave them mumbling to themselves.
The Electric Guitars set up and I recognised Dave Gray from Rocket Science. Instead of a bass in the case… hell, the case was his pedal board. Fucking huge! And that’s a hell of a sound he gets. They’re a four-piece; rhythm guitar/ vox, lead guitar and drums.
The first thing you notice, after you’ve taken in their heavy and original use of effects, is that if you took the effects away, the songs would still be damn good. All of them. Then I thought about the context: we’re seeing them alongside a band who were initially rubbished (Robert Hughes' phrase ‘The Shock of the New’ springs to mind), but then the blinkers fell off and they became iconic (and so on) to the point where you pretty much looked like an idiot if you didn’t like The Scientists.
But in-between all that The Scientists worked hard at developing their sound, their approach to their songs, and on making them memorable. They did this by taking risks with songs they knew to be good, working them into things which fit their idea of what they wanted. Not what an audience expected: what the band wanted.
The incarnation of The Models which toured on their first LP, I saw them booed because of their synth-drums; The Reels ditto when they put a large tape-player in the middle of the stage, Mason introducing him as a member of the band (‘Marvin’, I think). People were outraged by the blatant use of a tape machine instead of musicians. I went off The Models fairly early, I’m afraid, but loved The Reels.
So I found myself pondering all this as The Electric Guitars continued: every one of their songs was fine. But I thought they were using effects to the point where I thought, ‘hmm, some people prolly won’t like this’. But, as I’ve indicated above, fuck that. If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing. Hell, boys, use the effects MORE.
Apparently The Electric Guitars have an LP out: I’ll have to find it.
Kim Salmon in black and white.
Expectation is a really strange damn thing. It really is. People - most of whom should know better - expect all manner of full-on blinding rock’n’roll assaults from bands that, frankly, never really did that. Christ, at one gig in the late 80s, some berk was busily pogoing to the Go-Betweens. He clearly wanted the band to be so punk rock, so badly, that he was gonna pogo to them no matter what. Like those poor sad bastards who’d turn up to CBGBs in their punk bondage gear (all the UK trappings) and thrash around even though that was never what it was like, and even though they were decades too late… they had to say they were in the pit at CBs.
Now, please be patient with me. A recent indulgence was The Stranglers recent box set. Hearing those first four LPs for the first time in a few years was a revelation - because I was too young to have sufficient reference points, I failed to realise at the time that some songs were and are definitely on the nose.
Yet, the excitement surrounding bands such as The Stranglers was very much the context, (and “the Shock of The New’”. After a few years, though, we realise that while some songs simply aren’t as good as we thought they were, but that they fitted at the time, while others are every bit as good as we first thought, if not better. That’s reality for you, y’know?
Some people continue to swear by things they’ve never really re-evaluated - that Pil’s best LP is “Metal Box”, for example (I disagree, BTW) as if it’s some sort of truth written on a biblical bloody tablet. Or “London Calling’ is the best Clash LP (I’d go with the extended “Black Market Clash”, which is an LP and is quite an amazing achievement) or that “Sandanista” is boring or too long to take in … and so on.
The Beatles’ white self-titled LP is their worst, too sprawling and so on and so on (I think it’s their best and Bob Short disagrees with me but poo to him with knobs on). These received and clung-to truths are nonsense in the light of day. And lead to juvenile insults, as you have just noticed. It’s a good thing to re-look at what you did or liked back whenever; it’s amazing how often you see the real younger you in the shadows, and the older you peering over and thinking, ‘what was I thinking?’
So, where were we? I loved the reunion of The (Mark 1) Scientists a few years ago; but I’ve been told by several folks that they thought it was OK but “not great” etc etc. Sigh…
At the time, The Scientists were a new thing. There was a huge buzz of possibility about them. There weren’t very many bands this good, or this interesting - same with The Saints, or Birdman. These bands were a bit like having the modern underground come to you, rather than reading about it in the overseas music papers.
If, years later, you go see something expecting fire and brimstone, you’re almost sure to be disappointed - I recall seeing three of the four gigs of The Cosmic Psychos first tour of Adelaide, and I loved them. They were great. But first times are often wonderful. The Psychos are better now, and that’s just fine. But when I see them, I don’t compare that gig with our first (rather deafening) time together. That’s just daft (I mean for one thing, the last two gigs both bands out-numbered both the audience and bar staff two to one, until a very drunk Victorian cricket team came tumbling down the stairs - and of course they all knew each other).
When The Guardian describes The Scientists' live set in the “Place Called Bad” box set as “a stellar live set recorded in Adelaide, which sounds as if it was recorded before an audience of, quite literally, several”, well, tapes from the mixing desk often sound like that. Also, Adelaide Uni Bar always had a crowd, but not all of them paid attention to the band - they’re students, after all, so they're busy getting drunk on their third cider and boasting about how interesting they are.
At that gig, the “several” are basically us lot down the front dancing, and a few folk a bit further back to avoid flailing limbs. The room goes back a fair way, which is where everyone else was. But The Scientists did other gigs in Adelaide without the sound problems - the one gig I wish I had on tape was at some Cypriot centre or something just out of town on Hackney Road, where the band played a blistering, non-stop set and the entire room seemed to go mental. I recall being completely drenched in sweat and feeling like I’d run a bloody race afterwards. But there’s the expectation again - in Adelaide, they never packed places out, but the audience were certainly enthusiastic. I gather they packed out joints in Sydney and Melbourne.
But as Tony Thewlis said, every gig was different. Every single one. So to hang your hat on one brilliant gig and judge every subsequent show by that is just daft, really. Every Birthday Party gig I ever saw were astonishingly different. There was a real vibe, a chaotic magic, a conflation of personalities clashing.
Speaking of magic, I think that, along with Bolan, the Stooges and the Ramones, only The Scientists have achieved so much with, apparently, so little. Their songs have no unnecessary notes, all the elements are there, everything stripped to minimum effort and maximum effect.
Leanne Cowie is a damn fine, strong drummer. In her hands the songs are supple, agile, driving, warm. Again, everything is so simple it makes you wonder why more drummers don’t take this approach. She’s the leader of the push, Boris emphasises it, and - bang! - the band has a groove. And that, I think, is why I love the band so much - they always, always had that groove about them, and they were able to wrench the guitars all around the structure.
A lot of that is down to Boris coming up with a memorable bass line, or managing to play like a throb. Hell, surely a famous Japanese band got their name from Boris? (and if they didn’t, they should’ve)
Thewlis works his amp - there’s not a lot of pedals there. He controls his feedback the old-school way, doesn’t need to scree through every song. And every song, look at the way they’re constructed.
This isn’t some band banging through a set they made up in a shed in a weekend. These songs are finely crafted, carefully worked-up. Each one - and I mean this - each song could easily be slightly tweaked to include a major wig-out. But they never needed to do that - so they rarely do. Hell, tonight they started with ‘Rev Head’, their sonic acid bath - but I won’t reveal the other song they take to town for a night on the tiles.
And Kim tonight… he pours himself into the songs. He’s a better showman now than “tha good old days”, he uses gesture sparingly (but to great effect), just concentrating on expressing the songs. And you can see the huge effort he puts in. He must be knackered afterwards. Magical.
And I’ve always liked Kim’s lyrics. They’re straightforward in meaning, unpretentious in expression, and come with a wry self-conscious smile even as you’re being taken somewhere you didn’t quite expect to go. Imagine a Hammer horror film becoming self-aware (well maybe that’s drawing a long bow but that’s how it strikes me).
Their influences are so much on their sleeves, too. Late night TV. Taking over-blown things and making them more so. But letting us know what they’re up to. Hell, is Bolan in there, and Ronson? Slade, surely. Yes, we know about the first two Alan Vega LPs and the Beefheartian aspect - but look. I reckon glam held a big sway there for a while.
When you realise their approach to their songs radiates consistency, sense, and … ah, hell. It’s like watching a masterclass. Like The Electric Guitars, every song The Scientists play you can imagine being performed by a big name vocalist on a hit LP, or on a film soundtrack as is.
So tonight, The Scientists brought a huge sackload of magic to the stage. As I’ve indicated, they’re in some ways a different animal from that ‘back in the day’. And that is, frankly, a good thing; if anything, they’re better. Kim engages with the audience a lot more, and the band, and the vibe up there looks pretty friendly. They’re enjoying themselves and it shows. You couldn’t always tell that in “the old days”, and that sometimes left the audience kind of in limbo - communicating with people is a lot more difficult than you might think.
None of this reduces the power and impact of the songs; the band still click and fire on all cylinders, and now that I can’t dance quite so much or for so long, I find myself watching the band more closely. By god, they were so fucking good it makes my brain squeak just thinking about it.
Let’s talk about Kim again - he’s the front man, so the weight of expectation weighs heaviest on him. You’d never know there was any weight, really. If it’s there, he hides it well; see, it seems completely natural, Kim’s so into what he’s doing, but very aware of the audience, bringing us in without effort. In fact, what he does is so very natural that toward the end he’s able to take the piss out of the rock’n’roll fantasy stuff; before “Murderess in a Purple Dress”, he placed one foot on a monitor, screwed up his face and then couldn’t help laughing at the idea, the very idea, that he’d fake what he does.
A bit later, playing guitar, he went up to Tony and mimicked that trope we’ve all seen - the heavy metal guitarists lining up and chugging along with a big pose. Tony smiled and shook his head, Kim went toward Boris, who promptly took himself halfway offstage to avoid it. There was a deal of amusement and banter between the band, which Kim of course included us in as well. Boris, incidentally, was able to interact with us as well - he didn’t have a mike, but that didn’t stop his occasional comments and character coming out.
After the set, one lass snaffled the set list. Sensible! However, then the band came back out, so she replaced it. Kim seized the moment - “There's been a lot of this lately! So if you want it, you can pay for it. $50! no, $75!” he said as he folded it up and stuffed it in Boris' back pocket.
I expect Boris forgot about it and, after he takes the white jeans out of the machine there'll be bits of mucky fluff everywhere.
It’s one thing to know the band love each other, but it’s quite another to see that fondness expressed. Rather wonderful - this isn’t something the past allowed us to see - instead, we beheld and were wrapped up in a different magic.
I’d love to see this incarnation of The Scientists again and again. And if you own any of their records, you should be clamouring for them to tour again; reaching into your pockets to finance it. Their audience shouldn’t be down to old farts like me but to young people who’ve forgotten what rock’n’roll is, where it came from and why.
As I made my way to the next train station at 0650 the next morning , I made my mind up to go back to Geelong for a few weeks.
Yeah, alright. When I become a multimillionaire.
Anyway, you’ll know when I win the faffing Lotto, I’ll be making documentaries about bands like The Scientists.