A Place Called Bad - The Scientists (Numero Group)
Barman, how many bottles can I get away with putting on this? If you’re a literalist, it’s five. Because you can’t go over 100 percent, by definition, can you?
Can you, fuck! Eight bottles, Barman. (ED: Go home, Robert, you're drunk!) This is a special, wonderful box set. Long overdue.
So, yeah, it’s mortality on my mind. After hearing Marilyn Rose and the Thorns’ cover of “Set it on Fire”, I thought, yeah, I should pull out that box set I bought from Kim Salmon a few weeks ago.
So, there has been much speculation about the future of the Crown and Anchor Hotel in Adelaide after its recent purchase by the Karidis group. “The Cranka” has been a refuge for innumerable local, interstate and overseas bands for decades. And yes, while there will always be places for bands to play, “The Crank”’ has a special place in the hearts of thousands of local punters and musicians.
In fact, I recall trudging home after another night working in a hotel when I heard the final encore of a Surrealists show, realised what I was missing and quit the job.
So both the place and Kim Salmon are forever linked. The new owners have apparently realised that the place can continue as is (but haven’t really advertised that too well - radio 3D and Bside mag would seem to be obvious ways to pack in more punters).
Of course, I won’t dwell on The Cranka’s immediate “back-stage” area (er, the alley with the wheelie bins), nor the number of times Fear and Loathing have been banned and then re-allowed to book themselves (imagine it: ‘Thou shalt not be naughty and enter the front bar area whilst singing, and hoist thyself along the fucking bar, you bastard’), nor list the times that Pete “The Scud” Howlett has combed his hair while playing guitar upon its stage.
Because that would make me think of the Tivoli Hotel, where I saw such wonders as The Birthday Party, The Triffids, The Scientists, The Laughing Clowns, Hunters and Collectors, The Reels … hell, even The Residents. There were innumerable other bands, of course, varying from superb to Ratshit and beyond.
The venue part of The Tiv is still there, and they hold discos, functions and so forth. It’s now attached to a large apartment building, so things mustn’t be too loud. Naturally, the huge Hieronymous Bosch print (‘Hell’, I believe) is long gone - prior to rock’n’roll taking over in the late ’70s, the joint was a jazz club. They even enticed Art Pepper.
The world is a mellowing place, daddyo, and while I must say I am glad the dense fog of cigarette smoke doesn’t come down like a blanket on our heads as it once did at The Tiv (and that venues now use the airconditioners most of the time instead of at the end of the night to blow the cloud out), right now I’m thinking about how the past influences the present and future, and how patterns of behaviour never really seem to alter.
For example, you could throw a stone across the road from The Cranka (the first band I ever saw there was The Lizard Train in, I think, 1987, all squidged into a corner of the front bar. By fuck The Lizard Train were mighty affair) and hit what I have always thought of as the Lego Offices, which occupy a large city block, one part of which faces Hindmarsh Square.
It’s all context, so bear with me.
When I arrived in this town I was a noisy munchkin and it was a busy, but green city. Lots of warehouses but lots of lovely, stylish buildings. What the developers do - rumour has it that such folk are often ‘linked’ to members on the Adelaide City Council - is buy everything on the block or area, flatten the lot and build.
That’s fine if we’re looking at rather ugly corro iron warehouses, as was partly the case with the land the Leggo Offices now occupy. But, not very nice if, as was also the case, two rather large and lovely old hotels, one of which happened to be a critical part of the folk music scene, get stomped into history and a pastel box goes up instead.
But there will always be places for bands to play. Fear and Loathing celebrated their 35th year of ugly noise - they really are the original “mess and noise” of Australia - at the Land o’ Promise Hotel, alongside the Ent Cent and hard by The Gov. What does the Land o’ Promise offer that The Gov and the Ent Cent doesn’t? Well, pokies. And (except when Myley Cyrus is playing the Ent Cent) strippers.
And, occasionally, rock bands. So, yeah. Mortality. And sex, and magic, really.
Which brings us to the Scientists and Kim Salmon. Let’s start with the liner notes, which for once in a box set aren’t too bad. Certainly there are things I disagree with (one example: I first heard the term “grunge” in early 1983, in reference to Adelaide band (later termed legends by Jello Biafra) Grong Grong - but it was a term already in use then.)
Stuff like that really doesn’t matter that much. Music history is so much down to where you were at whatever time, anyway. It’s a subjective thing, like tides. One country has a tidal wave, others don’t.
The Goth link with The Scientists always seemed absurd, as if the UK music weeklies had no idea what to make of them. Just like The Birthday Party in their day. Find a pigeon-hole and stuff them in. Anyway. Erin Osmon has interviewed several band members, and these comments alone make the box that much more special: the notes form a rather thick booklet well worth a read. This is substantial stuff.
For me The Scientists began in 1979, when I bought their single “Frantic Romantic”; they toured Adelaide later that year and was most upset that I couldn’t go. Friends told me, though, and I acquired a couple of live tapes. Which were fabulous.
Their split had seemed inevitable, and their ‘Pink Album’ didn’t seem to set the world ablaze, but a tape came out of Perth a couple of years later, and suddenly we were hearing rumours of this new thing in Sydney. A new Scientists. I made sure I saw every gig they played in Adelaide (and always have).
Funny how being away from Australia sends people back to their drearies. The crowd I recall from the ’83 gigs, for example, was a bit different from that at the 1987 gig at Le Rox. They were there to see the Conquering Heroes, rather than what I’d done at all their other gigs… (which was to dance like a fuckwit).
The development of this band can be likened not so much to a science experiment, but almost like a kid’s idea of a science experiment: “Let’s put Mentos into a can filled with lemonade!”
You kinda know what’s going to happen. But you don’t, not really. And the can more or less explodes… and there’s an unholy mess in the living room and Dad’s due home in about eight minutes…
Listening back to the band that took on the world, and lived, somehow, and managed to influence generations of swine (with some genius mixed in)… well, a few of the songs aren’t quite as good as I recall them. Which I kinda expected, cos people have developed onwards from this point… and it’s been, what? 30+ years? … but most of the songs here, as in well over 90 percent not only hold up, but there’s still few bands who can hold a candle to The Scientists.
Hell, I remember first hearing Nirvana: on the mainstream slug-sucking local radio, just prior to their tour here. Which of course I didn’t go to, because - hell, this mild stuff is s’posed to be the new thing? There were so many bands (still) doing this so much better that, to this old fart, Nirvana seemed inconsequential.
I’ve since revised that opinion slightly: mostly because of two songs, and also because of Kurt’s gutsy championing of the Meat Puppets. For that last alone, Nirvana have a special place in my heart, but it’s not a physical, sex and magic thing. Mudhoney, I had an affair with them (they were fucking wonderful). But, you know… I still loved The Scientists. Now that’s a physical, sex, grease, engines, throttle, burning rubber magic thing…
That said, the ’83-87 Scientists piss all over … well. Yeah, there are hordes, actual hordes of bands who use the Scientists as a starting-point, even if they’ve never heard the name (much less the band). Far more than Nirvana (to pull a random example out of the air), The Scientists wrote tunes, melodies and had lyrics which resembled condensed Eliot stuffed in a blender with road-racing gangs and roo-shooters on a bad morning after a night on the home brew.
The band argued about how the songs should be structured, competing with each other to make the songs bigger, more out there, and at times deliberately uncommercial. All this results for a back catalogue as groovy, ripping and significant as any you’ll ever hear.
Listen: you can hear ‘50s rock ’n’ roll there, along with bubblegum pop sensibilities (sometimes given a thorough trashing), jazz references, late-night black and white movies in a cold London room, tight pants and scenes of crimes, make-up, Dolls, Vega’n’Rev, pizza and junk food, the beach and the grime of the city, and that slide guitar freak, Mr Zoot Horn Rollo… C’mon.
And the damn thing is, The Scientists make it all sound so natural, so easy.
I won’t go on about the discs. You either need them or you don’t. The thing is, if you love rock ’n’ roll, but have never really, no, never really listened to The Scientists, even if you think you don’t need them…. yeah, you know. You do.
OK. A small irk. The original recording of “Rev Head’”I recall being disappointed with, as Tony Thewlis’ guitar seemed somewhat muted. It seems to come up a tad on here, but still nothing like the hurricane he shoved out live. “Rev Head” was a live favourite.
The Adelaide Uni live gig on the last disc in this set, I recall astonishingly well, considering, and the tape is from the mixing desk, so we can forgive the occasional wonky placing of the vocals or whatever as the mixer struggles to find balance between the members.
Before the stage were a smallish group of total dickheads writhing, bouncing and struggling to stay upright as they were touched by the hound of sonic gods. The rest of the crowd, mostly students and the curious, gave us space and stayed well back. I gather they enjoyed themselves as well, but frankly, right then I couldn’t have given two fucks. The Scientists were here for us, and we were delighted. They played just fine, too. Hard and noisy.
After the Adelaide gig (I needed a lie-down and a Nanna nap after boinking round the living room) there are a few live snippets in chronological order, taking us from 1979 to early ’83. And the development is … well.
A bit later that year (1983), I remember I found myself with a couple of live Scientists tapes, and a couple of Hoodoo Gurus live tapes. Now, the Gurus and the Scientists had both released great debut vinyl around the same time, and we were excited that we could have two such brilliant outfits in the country.
But the Gurus live tapes, and their LP, for me, well, I got tired of them. Always the same. Good songs, good performance, don’t get me wrong. But … they weren’t dangerous, weren’t lurching from the gutter the way The Scientists were. Their scope, their determination to shoulder aside the appealing structure, seemed to me to be the thing. Yet they maintained that pop sensibility in a way that the Nirvanas of the world could never approach. And I can still hear it on these discs. Bloody wonderful.
Just quickly: get the vinyl (2 LPs) if you like vinyl. Sure. But get the 4 CDs as well, because there’s a lot more on them. The Scientists were one of Australia’s great bands - that they influenced the rest of the world is, as far as I am concerned incidental.