THE SCIENTISTS ? ?PISSED ON ANOTHER PLANET?
Recently a scientist (a real one) asked me what the deal was with the Scientists early stuff. He liked everything post “Swampland” but wasn’t sure about the lyrics in all those early songs with titles like “That Girl”, “Girl” and “Pretty Girl”. My answer was that I didn’t write those lyrics. The songs were written thus: James Baker, the original Scientists drummer, would announce that he had a song and “sing” the lyrics for me to play back to him. From his atonal renderings I would invent a melody with an appropriate chord sequence and perform it, to which he would say, “Yeah, that’s how it goes” or, “No, not like that”, if he didn’t like it. In defence of James’ lyrics, the “girl songs” were part of his celebration of rock and roll of which dumb lyrics were, as far as we were concerned, “de rigueur” along with other things not normally revered, like playing too loud, posturing and “not giving a shit”.
Perth, being the most isolated capital city in the world, does harbour some parochialism. My main memories of it feature a huge inferiority complex about what was referred to as the “Eastern States”, i.e. not some hierarchy of levels of enlightenment but all that was to the east in fact, everywhere in Australia! Getting to the Eastern States meant a three-day drive across the desert or forking out for an airfare comparable to an overseas flight – and that was just to get to Adelaide! It was in the realm of dreams. Why waste dreams on going somewhere that was pretty much the same as home? We didn’t need the Eastern States!
1975 was a big let down for me. There I was in Art School (Western Australian Institute of Technology Faculty of Fine Art) waiting for the non-stop drugged out free love-in that I’d heard about as a nipper in the sixties only to get patronised by a bunch of ageing hippies (actually 20 something fellow art students). By the time I was able to go to the party it was over!
Reading about a far off place called CBGB in NYC and its leather-clad denizens, all with names like Johnny Thunders, Richard Hell and Joey Ramone, got me thinking. The article, by Charles Shaar Murray in NME, was titled “Are You Alive To the Jive of ’75?” I immediately went searching for Punk Rock. What I found were “The Modern Lovers” and “The New York Dolls” albums.
I recalled seeing an ad with a photo round ’74 stuck up in 78 Records. It had two very glammy, almost tranny, looking dudes with fancy writing saying what looked to me like “Blink City Boys” and they were looking for members. That always struck me as unusual for Perth. Thinking back, I wondered if they were “punk”. Whatever. In the meantime, I drafted some school friends into a band and called it “The Cheap Nasties”.
Over the course of 1976 I devoured all that was punk. All that was punk was evolving fast. At the start of ’76 the punk universe consisted of the Dolls, Stooges and Velvets. While I waited for the Ramones, Heartbreakers, Television and Blondie to get records out, the Punk Axis had shifted to London with the Pistols et al. There was a new band to read about each week in the British trade weeklies. Then there was the call from 78s to tell me the Ramones LP was finally in! Bringing it home and putting the needle in the groove and hearing that mix of bubblegum, buzzsaw guitar, tribal drums and Joey Ramone’s “Hey Ho Lets Go” was one of the perfect moments of my life. The Cheap Nasties’ repertoire had varied (a little too much perhaps) from the more melodic “poppy” end of the punk spectrum to fairly psyched out jarring Stooge/Modern Lovers style thrash-outs. The compromise of directions no doubt stifled the band’s potential?. As one might expect of a band that was pursuing something unknown, there was more than one idea of what that thing was.
This, of course, led to warring factions, namely the other guitarist and myself. The band split. But not before getting out and doing shows prior to the end of 1976. There are those who claim to have been in punk rock bands before us. The thing is none of them, including the Slink City Boys ever really made it out of their bedrooms.
The Nasties precipitated the beginning of Perth’s very own punk-scene. James Baker was amongst these people. He, of the pudding-bowl haircut, had travel experience, had seen the Ramones, Heartbreakers, the Sex Pistols, and The Damned (he’d even smoked a joint with Joe Strummer). With this worldliness and cool image he was looked up to. Also amongst our fans were Rod Radalj and Boris Sujdovic, a pair of Slavic yobbos who just decided to learn to play the guitar and bass respectively.
My friend Dave Faulkner, or “Flick” as he was now known, was conspiring with James, who it turned out, was the drumming half of the Slink City Boys and a bass playing chap they called Rudolph. They called their collaboration The Victims. They all moved into a squalid fleapit of a house in East Perth. They cleaned out all the “hippy dirt” from the previous residents and painted over all the bad art on the walls dubbing the place “Victim Manor.” It took about a month for them to let the “Manor” slide back to such a filthy state that none of them except for Rudolph could live there. There they threw a party where they performed their first show and instantly became the darlings of “the scene”.
Over the next year The Victims acted out a drama parallel to that of the Sex Pistols, being banned from various venues and the bass player cultivating a drug habit. They also managed to have a truly original interpretation of the Punk sound. They left a couple of recordings, including the classic “Television Addict”. In their time, due to having no regular venues to book them, The Victims found a jazz club called “Hernando’s Hideaway” and managed to secure a Wednesday night residency there. With a place to hang, and for its new bands to play at (supporting The Victims), the “scene” soon sucked up all kinds of dubious trash from the suburbs and grew.
With the split of the Nasties I soon found myself in Rod and Boris’s band The Invaders. I was not allowed to play guitar but had to sing each of us playing what we were worst at. Our drummer, a chap known as Johnno, and Rod were always fighting. Eventually, Johnno left which coincided with The Victims split early in ’78. Seizing the opportunity we snapped up James who joined on the condition that I did play guitar.
We had a jam. James came up with some “girlie” lyrics. It wasn’t the Iggy I was hoping for but I was able to hang a nice melody on them. The combination of that and the punk racket of ragged two note bar chords and floor tom-heavy drumbeats were like a collision between the Stooges and Herman’s Hermits. Straight away, “a sound”! With a song under our belts we convened on the verandah of “Victim Manor” and brainstormed to find a moniker that would capture our caveman essence. The Troggs was already taken so we opted for irony and came up with The Scientists.
Come 1978, anyone and everyone were into punk. And Punk Rock claimed to destroy Rock ‘n’ Roll. We were the next thing beyond punk (just plain contrary in hindsight). We chose to take the next step that, to us, was to go through the rubble and pick up the things we liked and reassemble them. It was all very post-modern. But being unaware of that term at the time we didn’t give a shit. We just wanted to rock!
The truth of the matter was we were perverse. We revered the stylish loser, the unsung hero, the uncompromising unconventional unseen dandy, and the misunderstood misanthrope. Cyril Jordan, Walter Lure, Reg Presley, the Ashton Brothers (not the regular circus brothers but the Stooges) and Arthur Harold Kane were our mentors. Anyone could admire a Johnny Rotten, an Iggy or a Johnny Thunders but it took a real understanding to see beyond the obvious layer of showbiz (or so we thought). Our heroes were incurable. They couldn’t help it. They were rock ‘n’ roll to the core. And so it was for us.
People had got The Victims. They didn’t get us. We were loud, loose as buggery and yet had pop melodies and wore moptops. And loud shirts. Were we punk? Old school rock? Or making some kind of art statement? Nobody could tell. There was something at the time going round called “Power Pop”. We were most definitely not that! What fans we had liked us for any one of the above reasons and probably got us as much as our detractors. At first we didn’t care but soon it became apparent to us that we were becoming musical lepers around town. This only added to our righteousness.
Our first recording was a demo made in the “loft”, my “apartment” in the part of Perth now gentrified and called Northbridge. It was never released but it features the original line-up. In many ways this recording is truest to the ethos of The Scientists in the Perth years (see bonus tracks 12, 13 and 14).
I don’t recall there being any dispute about “Frantic Romantic” being our single. I do recall it being particularly easy to compose. I guess that’s an omen to why it was such a monster hit in six dimensions and throughout most of the galaxy. Pity about Earth?(or Perth for that matter).
Being a “guitar-head”, I was on the quest for the perfect sound. I had a clear idea of the sound I wanted. It was somewhere between Steve Jones and Johnny Thunders but better. I had five different amplifiers over the course of the first year in the Scientists. I dragged Rod and Boris with me on this. I think Boris had an HH slave amp with an Orange head and Rod an HH VS guitar head. James had a red drum kit.
By the time we got into Sweetcorn studio to record “Frantic Romantic / Shake Together Tonight”, Boris was no longer in the band. A bloke called Denis Byrne was. For five minutes? but long enough to be on our first single. This was my and Rod’s first time in a recording studio. The Steve Jones sound was eluding me and I was spiralling down a well of despair. I was so pre-occupied I don’t know what the others were thinking. Someone called in our friend Chris Tuna (who’d mixed our loft tape) who I have to say earned the title of producer by saying my sound was cool. He lifted the “vibe” completely and the rest of my memories of the session are fantastic. There were tambourines, handclaps, double tracked guitars; it was an overdub fantasy.
Soon after recording the single, Rod and Denis respectively followed the dangling carrots of The Rockets and The Paper Dolls. Rod felt more at home and Denis was being offered a guitar spot, i.e. they left!
One night at “Hernandos” I drunkenly allowed a tall geeky curly headed chap called Ben talk me into having the band try him out. Effete Bowie fan, Ian Sharples, lived in the same share house as James. Ben could share the lead stuff on guitar and could sing harmonies. As well as being a bass player Ian could string more than two words together and was able to add a touch of sophistication (not too much I hasten to say) to the lyrics. He wrote the words to “Pissed on Another Planet”.
Somewhere along the line Perth stopped hating us. We secured a Friday night residency at a pub in North Perth called the Governor Broome. A residency was perfect for scene makers to have somewhere to hang. People got a chance to know us and some even got to like us.
Various US fanzines had praised “Frantic Romantic” likening us to the New York Dolls, those Mexican Ramones – The Zeros and, of course, The Heartbreakers (Johnny Thunders not Tom Petty). NME said we made “A pleasing Noise” with “na?ve jangling guitars and a Brian Jones haircut”. Hip US label, Bomp, took 500 copies of the single. The round trip world flight tickets must have gotten lost in the mail?
Someone in the band must have had the disgracefully un rock ‘n’ roll trait of being able to save because it wasn’t long before we were back in the studio, this time doing an EP.
We got in a chap who had produced a cassette tape for “rival” band, the Mannikins. He was also rumoured to have worked on Queen sessions (now there was a recommendation for punks like us?I don’t think). It soon became apparent that he thought we were crap. He wasn’t going to put anything on tape until we “improved”. I just wondered how the Stooges or the Damned could have gotten anything done if they had guys like this around. We sacked him! We figure he’d worked on the Queen session sweeping the floor. It wasn’t long before Chris was back in the seat saying, “Sounds cool to me”. I borrowed Dave Faulkner’s newly acquired 50s Les Paul Junior and a tough rockin’ sound was ensured. At one point “fellow new wavers”, the Triffids, came in wondering when the acoustic guitar was going to be put to tape!? We took great pleasure in telling them, “There ain’t gonna be any acoustic guitar on this record, baby!”
The results were compiled onto an EP for local label White Rider Records at the time but have since been repackaged with the single as “The Sweetcorn Sessions” and later as “Pissed On Another Planet” not to mention several bootlegs.
Sooner or later it had to happen …… The Eastern States! It was Doug Thomas, the owner of Adelaide’s Umbrella records, who liking our single, thought he could get us some shows and knew someone who could do the same in Melbourne. James knew a booker in Sydney so a national tour got thrown together. We just piled into a Combi and my Valiant Regal, took off across the Nullabor, into “Oz rock” oblivion. Not once but twice!
The Eastern States were crap. They only had two records. “Candy O” by The Cars and “Regatta de Blanc” or whatever the first Police album was called. I heard them on every PA at every soundcheck for the entire tour. There were only two good bands. The Lipstick Killers and the Wrecked Jets (OK, OK, the Marching Girls, Japanese Comics and The Dagos were all right as well … and the Sputniks I’m told). Jo Jo Zep’s roadies seemed like pirates and I made that connection that the “crew” is in fact a modern day crew of pirates. If you don’t believe me, look at the shaved heads, tatts, missing limbs and bandannas.
Eastern States bands had got the wrong end of the “new wave” stick. There was Flowers who were really just a T-Rex cover band with some Ultravox thrown in, Mi Sex were a bunch of brickies in eyeliner, Roland Howard from The Boys Next Door told one of us, “I can see that you are very good at what you do but don’t you think people have heard enough of this kind of thing?” (Perhaps, if one compares a song like the Boys Next Door’s “In a Catholic Skin” to our song “Pissed On Another Planet” one can see that we were indeed coming from very different places in more ways than one). We had to do it though. Just to show those Eastern States bastards how it was done.
We drove back to Perth in one and half days, stopping only to refuel, eat, go to the toilet and watch ourselves on TV (explanation to come) in front of some bemused truckers in some godforsaken Nullabor roadhouse.
Perth was crap. The Rockets had usurped us at the Broome, The Mannikins were the darlings of the underground, there was a plethora of hideous clubs like Blazes, Adrians, The Perth Underground, but nowhere for us! The scene had been taken over by trendies and skinheads. Everything had turned ugly.
We decided to go three piece with just Ian, James and I. Our dedicated followers often remarked that this was a very good move. Our sound cleaned up no end and got a bit tougher with it. Any positive moves were a bit late though. We struggled to even find a gig. One booker even laughed at us when we told him we’d been on TV. “Pull the other one,” he said.
We entered a songwriting competition held by one of the University radio stations. The prize was free recording time. The judges actually acknowledged that we were the best entry and that technically we won the competition but they decided to award the prize to The Triffids because we already had studio time booked. I ask you. How typical is that? This could only happen to the Scientists!
Anyway, all was not bad. We did have financial backing from three devotees, Kim Williams, Rob Samson and Clint Walker (an artist not the writer…or the actor) to go to a place called Shelter Studio and record what became known as the Pink Album.
After doing so, we decided we’d had enough. The mixing of the Pink album was left in the hands of jingle writer and producer Peter Simpson. Perhaps we should have stuck around but we were just too tired.
As a teenager I used to tell fellow high school students, just to annoy them, that I would appear on the nation’s main pop show “Countdown”. Australians don’t like people to get ideas above their station and that feeling is ingrained early.
I shall end these notes saying that we got to appear on “Countdown” on the very last day of our second Eastern States eight-week stint. And just as we were leaving THEY PAID US!