Perth and Sydney in Australia, then London, and back to Sydney: none of these cities were particularly good to the Scientists. The band built a decent fan base in each city and, some 30-plus years later have been accorded legendary status within the Australian music scene, for what it’s worth, but they were on the dole and beholden to a bad record contract wherever they went during their performing and recording heyday.
Bandleader Kim Salmon’s artistic vision followed a unique course, from punk wannabe (based solely on reading a description of the Heartbreakers) to creator of a post-punk swampy rockabilly amalgam that remains unnamed but which has been identified by some as a precursor of grunge. Salmon and the band’s classic lineup of Boris Sudjovic on bass, Tony Thewlis on guitar, and Brett Rixon on drums recorded a sequence of albums and eps between late 1981 and mid-1985 that referenced equal parts Cramps, Suicide, and the Stooges. They could have been Australia’s answer to the Replacements: their concerts were as drunken and raucous, but they tended to use the studio to bring out their darker inclinations, burying most traces of pop under an angry buzz.
The lineup’s early single “Swampland”, which laid out the map of what was to come, would be as close as they would get to accessible pop. Not surprisingly, this was one of their few songs to make a dent in the burgeoning American college radio scene of the early ‘80s. But where compatriots HooDoo Gurus (whose Dave Faulkner has a role in the Scientists’ gestation), the Church, and Midnight Oil, were able to convert college radio airplay into major label interest, the Scientists’ contentious relationship with their label Au Go Go resulted in inconsistent distribution of their records. The Scientists, as far as the American music market of the early ‘80s was concerned, were an underground favorite even among underground fans.
The Numero Group’s comprehensive box set A Place Called Bad corrects a grave historical oversight, finally making the work of this influential and, what’s most important, enjoyable band available to a broad audience. The four-CD set collects all of the Scientists’ studio recordings on the first three discs, beginning with their 1979 debut single “Frantic Romantic”, extending through the lineup’s classic years, and finishing with 1987’s The Human Jukebox, when Salmon was the only original member left standing.
The fourth CD collects a full 1983 live show along with a healthy assortment of other live cuts from the band’s classic early years. The handsome package includes a 65-page booklet dominated by an excellent and definitive history of the band composed by Erin Osmon, and there’s even a bonus pull-out mini-poster outlining the band’s hectic and eclectic family tree. A lot of care went into this package, and it shows, both in the physical product and in the sound mastering. The latter is an important issue because, in the band’s final years, the ongoing feud with Au Go Go resulted in different versions of albums being released, requiring the band to re-record some of their cuts for copyright reasons.
The music is incredible, start to finish. Opening with the band’s instant classic first single, “Frantic Romantic”, the first disc focuses upon Salmon and Co.’s still developing talents and aesthetics. Had these been all the band had accomplished, songs like “Bet Ya Lyin”, “Teenage Dreamer”, or ”Pissed on Another Planet” would be mainstays of any Down Under punk or garage compilations. Meanwhile, “She Says She Loves Me” and “That Girl” offer the jangly elements of bubblegum pop heard in the Paisley Underground scene then developing on the opposite side of the planet.
Disc two, subtitled “Set It on Fire”, demonstrates the hunger and growing confidence of the Salmon-Sudjovic-Thewlis-Rixon lineup as they weave a seemingly common set of reference points into something absolutely uncommon. Sudjovic and Rixon could have been the rhythm section in an industrial band, and they would have been, but for Thewlis and Salmon’s buzz-addicted, guitar crash assault wrapped around Salmon’s snarling, echoey vocals. Salmon’s voice and vocal style most immediately evokes the Cramps’ Lux Interior, but there are elements of the Fall’s Mark E. Smith at work as well, particularly in the way he spits out the lines he especially wishes to emphasize.
Disc three contains some of the band’s strongest tracks including “Demolition Derby”, “Atom Bomb Baby”, and “Murderess in a Purple Dress”. Even as the classic lineup fell victim to exhaustion and splintered, Salmon was able to maintain a high standard in the studio. The highest standard, though, seems to have been held for the stage. Disc four, “Live Cuts”, may be the jewel of the box, 23 slices of Scientists on stage between June 1978 and August 1983. That 1978 cut, “Don’t Lie to Me”, shows a band as loud as and visceral as the Sex Pistols. The first 12 cuts are a complete show recorded in Adelaide before a highly partisan audience. It is a revelation, start to finish, of everything great that the Scientists were, and of all that we who never got the opportunity to see them missed.
Once upon a time, building a comprehensive Scientists collection required time, luck, and a lot of cash spent on imports. Numero Group has performed a great public service here for aficionados of joyful noise. Anyone who spent time left of the dial during the heyday of college radio should pick up this collection.