By PATRICK EMERY
Kim Salmon claims to have a patchy memory of the recording of The Scientists’ debut mini-album, “Blood Red River”, which the band will play in its entirety as part of the Don’t Look Back concert series. Recorded in Melbourne’s Richmond Recorders in 1983, eighteen months after The Scientists had arrived in Sydney to pursue their musical prospects, Salmon describes the recording process for Blood Red River as “speed-addled and alcohol-ridden...midnight-to-day recording sessions”. But the passage of time hasn’t quelled Salmon’s pride in the album, or the period in the Scientists’ life that it represents. “There was very good chemistry in the band,” Salmon recalls. “It was formative, but also its defining days. It was the best period for us.”
Salmon had formed the first line-up of The Scientists in Perth in the latter part of the 1970s. The first line-up included James Baker, at the time recently of The Victims, and subsequently a founding member of Le Hoodoo Gurus, the Beasts of Bourbon and The Dubrovniks, together with a revolving door of notable musicians, including Roddy Radalj (Hoodoo Gurus, Dubrovniks, Surfing Caesars) and Boris Sudjovic.
The first incarnation of The Scientists bears only marginal resemblance to the swamp and grunge of the 1980s version, with the band’s repertoire more attuned to Baker’s attraction to the 60s garage tradition (see the Citadel CD re-release “Pissed on Another Planet” for a survey of the Baker-Salmon era Scientists). “The songs from the first line-up of The Scientists came from a songwriting partnership between James Baker and myself,” Salmon says. “We wrote what came naturally to us. But that style of music wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do when I was gripped by punk rock,” he says.
The apex of The Scientists Mark I’s tenure came arguably with its appearance on Australian pop music show Countdown where they played "Last Night":.
The Scientists returned to Perth, where its prospects appeared limited. Salmon, for his part, was gravitating back to the dark, jagged and swamp shade of punk he’d initially been attracted to. “As the first line-up of the band peetered out I became interested in The Cramps, and renewed my interest in The Stooges,” Salmon says. Salmon hooked up with fellow Perth residents Kim Williams and Brett Rixon to form Louie Louie. “Louie Louie was the prototype for next version of The Scientists,” Salmon says. “’Swampland’ was written in that band.”
Around the same time Salmon bumped into former Scientists bass player Boris Sudjovic, who’d recently moved across to Sydney. Sudjovic was looking for a musical outlet, and suggested to Salmon that The Scientists were likely to find a more receptive audience on the eastern seaboard. His interest piqued by Sudjovic’s description of the Sydney music scene, Salmon set about rebuilding the Scientists. “I asked James Baker, but he was already in Le Hoodoo Gurus,” Salmon says, “and Kim Williams wanted to stay in Perth”. Louie Louie drummer Brett Rixon assumed drumming duties, while the second guitar spot was filled ultimately by Tony Thewlis, another Perth resident.
“I spoke to Tony, who’d wanted to join the previous pop version of The Scientists,” Salmon says. What Thewlis didn’t know immediately was that the band he was joining was a different creature to the band he’d wanted to join a few years before. But that didn’t stop Thewlis embarking on the long car trip to Sydney to seek the band’s musical fortunes. “All of us went to Sydney,” Salmon says. “I had this idea of what we were going to do. Brett knew what we were going to do because he’d been in Louie Louie. I think it was more that Boris had a problem with it,” Salmon laughs.
"Blood Red River" recording line-up.
Sydney in 1981 was still in the grip of the Radio Birdman legacy. “When we first went to Sydney it was very much post Radio Birdman,” Salmon recalls. But The Scientists’ sharp deviation from the prevailing Motor City twin guitar style didn’t seem to hamper the band. “We were very aware of the Radio Birdman thing when we moved to Sydney,” Salmon says. “We didn’t want to continue with the tradition of paisley shirt and the Talk Talk retread riff,” he says. “We had our own agenda. I think for a lot of people in Sydney it didn’t occur that could do anything different”.
Salmon muses that The Scientists sound – later described as the progenitor of the ‘grunge’ style that swept through the independent music industry in the early 1990s – was the zeitgeist waiting to happen. “When we recorded and played ‘Swampland’ people loved it,” Salmon says, “so there was something going on”. Salmon says that the sound was striving to achieve was born of an interest in Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Cramps and The Gun Club (at that time arguably at the peak of their creative powers).
“A band like The Cramps has a definite schtick,” Salmon says. “With us – or with me – it was very much a case of looking for something that hadn’t been done”. Salmon suggests that part of the attraction of The Scientists was its multi-faceted character, or conversely, the difficulty of pigeonholing the band’s sound.
“People heard in it what they wanted to hear,” Salmon says. “Some people thought we were a psych band, some people thought we were a garage band, and other people thought we were none of those things,” he laughs. So were you looking to define the band’s sound, or to explore it? “That’s interesting,” Salmon replies. “It was a bit of both, I think,” he says. “To me I can hear things in that band all the time,” Salmon says. “I can hear Can in the band, and Krautrock,” he says. “And there’s a lot of jagged edges in that band as well”.
Withing a short period of moving to Sydney The Scientists were building a reputation for impressive live shows – despite the band’s lack of enthusiasm for sound checks.
“Dave Graney asked me the other day ‘So, are you going to do a sound check?’, because we didn’t sound check in those days. One time we came to Melbourne to play the Seaview Ballroom and we got straight out of the van and just started playing,” Salmon laughs. It was also in Melbourne that The Scientists met Bruce Milne and Greta Moon, at the time principals of the AuGoGo independent record label, which would go onto release “Blood Red River”.
“I’d seen Fast Forward [the independent music zine published by Milne, which came with a cassette compiling independent bands of the time] and thought it was a good idea,” Salmon says. “I gave Bruce a copy of our cassette we’d made, and I did an interview with him about what I thought rock’n’roll was all about. Later on he offered to put out our mini-LP,” he says.
Final days line-up in Europe.
Twenty-five years later “Blood Red River” withstands even the closest scrutiny. Rumbling beats, jagged guitars that hurl a spear through your musical senses, with Salmon’s peculiar guttural vocal chants describing vivid tales of confusion and angst that could have been procured from a Edgar Allen Poe short story. “Set It On Fire” – replete with Salmon’s hair raising screeching chorus – remains a certifiable classic, while the fatalism of “When Fate Deals Its Mortal Blow” is as harsh as any convict novel.
“Those songs were my first attempt at writing lyrics,” Salmon says. “It was life seen through the eyes of a 20-year-old living in Sydney. Someone described it once as ‘a filthy sub-world of hate and lust’,” Salmon laughs.
For all of the imagery in the songs – the title track itself is worthy of a post-graduate academic treatise – Salmon says there’s nothing much to the lyrics. “It wasn’t particularly apocalyptic, even though some people thought it was,” Salmon says. What about the song Blood Red River? “There was cowpunk around the time, and I think it was influenced by that,” Salmon says. “They’re just lines, they don’t mean anything”.
That said, some of the tunes – “Burnout” and “Revhead” especially – give a clue to the members’ backgrounds in Perth. “We were all from the suburbs of Perth,” Salmon says, “not from Caulfield Grammar”.
Salmon is keen to pay tribute to Chris Logan, the record’s producer, who achieved a ‘fat’ sound on the record later Scientists recordings were unable to replicate. “He was doing our sound at a gig, and he came up to us later and said ‘you guys are a wild bunch’. He was a pretty idiosyncratic chap – he looked disturbingly like Francis Rossi from Status Quo. He was very particular about what he did, and very dedicated to the craft of making sound – he was a slide rule sort of a guy,” Salmon says.
Listening to the record now, Salmon is still impressed at Logan’s production efforts. “It’s very fat, and it’s got a lot of bottom end,” Salmon says. “Thanks to his meticulous skill and those fantastic side burns he managed to get a great sound,” Salmon laughs.
And it wasn’t just Logan’s production skills that did the trick – Logan also claimed an empathy with The Scientists that turned out to be authentic. “Chris believed he knew what we were about, and he probably did,” Salmon says. “Chris deserves a lot of credit that he probably hasn’t ever received,” he says.
In 1984 The Scientists packed their bags and headed to Europe, joining the exodus of Australian bands including The Moodists, The Birthday Party and the Go-Betweens. “We eventually ended up leaving Sydney. Brett had had enough, and he was a bit frustrated, and he said ‘we’ve got to get out of here’,” Salmon says. “We ended up in London in 1984. It was a very difficult thing to do, but it was lucky in a lot of ways”. Despite the mythology of poverty, squats and tinned food that’s regularly promulgated by historians of the era – a mythology that fellow expats of the time like Mick Harvey still objects to – Salmon says The Scientists found almost immediate favour. “We ran into Ken West who gave us some names that we called up,” he says. The manager of New Order arranged for the band to go to Manchester (“he said ‘our bass player would like this’ “), and things quickly fell into place. “Straight away I found myself talking to a whole lot of enthusiastic journos,” Salmon says. That said, there were the occasional negative commentators.
“Some Perth journalist who was working for NME said we were copying the Birthday Party,” Salmon says, rolling his eyes. The notoriously fickle English music press had plenty to say about The Scientists, not always in tune with what the band was thinking itself. “The thing about NME was that later on when we’d lost the plot they said ‘they’ve lost that post-crucifixion blues thing’,” Salmon laughs.
The Scientists circa 2006.
Eventually the The Scientists’ European sojourn ran its course, as the band’s sound began to stray from its original course – the Human Jukebox period of the band is a precursor to where Salmon would pick up with his next outfit, the Surrealists – and the relationships within the band began to fray. “One day I got fed up with that angsty sort of thing,” Salmon says. “Then Brett left. The stuff afterwards was never as good,” he says.
The band had also been plagued with legal problems, after its relationship with AuGoGo went pear shaped. Salmon isn’t keen to discuss the legal dramas in detail, though it’s clear he learned a lot about music contracts (albeit the hard way) from the experience. Suffice to say, AuGoGo asserted its rights under the contract, and the band disputed those rights, and never the twain shall meet.
Salmon eventually returned to Australia, and embarked on a final Australian tour in 1987 before retiring the band for almost 20 years. Salmon formed the Surrealists shortly after the demise of The Scientists, before teaming up with ex-Scientists Boris Sudjovic and James Baker (and Tex Perkins and Spencer Jones) in the Beasts of Bourbon.
In 2000 Salmon put together a rotating band of musicians to promote the release of the “Blood Red River” CD release, followed by another series of shows in 2002 (this time featuring Tony Thewlis on guitar and Boris Sudjovic on bass). In 2004 Salmon formed a new line-up of the band featuring Stu Thomas (who’d played with Salmon in the Surrealists and the Business) and Leanne Chock (who’d joined The Scientists’ not long before its demise in the late 1980s), undertaking a short tour of Europe. I
n 2006 The Scientists, this time with Sudjovic and Thewlis on board, were invited to play at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in England, which became the catalyst for the band’s appearance as part of the Australian leg of the Don’t Look Back festival. The Scientists will play “Blood Red River” in its entirety, together with a selection of tracks recorded around the same time, including “Happy Hour”, “Swampland”, “Fire Escape” and “We Had Love”.
As the interview winds to a close, Salmon reflects on the potency of The Scientists in its “defining” era. “I don’t think there’s even been a band that could play two notes as good as us,” he says. But Salmon is also quick to dismiss any suggestion The Scientists was a simplistic musical outfit. “I spent a lot of time dumbing it down and making it simple like The Ramones, when it really wasn’t,” Salmon says. “I invested a helluva lot in that band – there’s a lot of things going on in there that people hadn’t done,” he says.
Salmon’s reference to the Ramones leads me to muse self-indulgently on the paradoxical skill of rock’n’roll to continually explore the near-infinite artistic reaches of three chord riffs – a contrast, I suggest, to the multi-dimensional orchestral layering of Mozart. Salmon’s response is swift.
“The Scientists are like Mozart!” he says, without a hint of sarcasm.
Don't Look Back - The Scientists play "Blood Red River"
(with headlining Sonic Youth playing "Daydream Nation" where indicated*)
Wednesday 13th Feb: Perth Int. Arts Festival - Beck's Music Box
Monday 18th Feb: Sydney - Enmore Theatre † sold out †
Tuesday 19th February: Sydney - Enmore Theatre *
Wednesday 20th February: Melbourne - The Metro † sold out †
Thursday 21st February: Melbourne - The Metro *
Friday 22nd February: Adelaide - Fowlers Live Courtyard *
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