The Scientists: solid gold

Back in the early 1980s, Kim Salmon once claimed his group the Scientists played the devil’s music. Over a couple of chords and a minimalist beat, they could whip up a furious storm approximating the title of one of their songs: Solid Gold Hell. Their hair was ridiculous (think big) and their clothes were gorgeous.

Ahead of a long-delayed national tour to promote Negativity, the band’s first full-length album since breaking up in 1987, Salmon – whose hair is, if anything, wilder than ever – has finally created a Facebook page for his old band. Going through old photos, he can now see the Scientists for who they were: “This skinny bunch of cute boys that made this really hideous noise.”

After innocent beginnings in Perth, and an early appearance on Countdown, Salmon moved to Sydney in 1981. There he formed a new version of the Scientists, which began thrilling, terrifying and occasionally repelling inner-city audiences. In a rare trip to the suburbs, they had cans of beer hurled at them by Angels fans; soon after, they moved to London.

Salmon wrote for the unique characters in the band, particularly drummer Brett Rixon, as if they were his muses: trying to capture their peculiar mix of sullen apathy and bursts of self-destructive energy. Otherwise, he says, “we’d have sounded like any number of garage-rock bands from Sydney at the time.”

Slowly, the legend of the Scientists spread. When U2 took their behemoth Zoo TV tour to Australia in 1993, they asked Salmon’s subsequent band, the Surrealists, to support. Warren Ellis, of the Dirty Three and later the Bad Seeds, said the Scientists “wrote fantastic singles and looked like they just crawled out of the ooze. What more could you ask for?”

Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore credited the Scientists with proving that “rock & roll could be played by gentlemen in fine silk shirts, half unbuttoned, and still be dirty, cool and real”. And Jon Spencer, of Blues Explosion fame, put it this way: “The Scientists turned my head around and made a man out of me! They put hair on my palms and made my socks stink!”

Most notoriously, their soft-loud dynamics and dark racket was influential on Seattle’s grunge movement. Mudhoney are devoted fans; a biography by Douglas Galbraith is titled Kim Salmon And The Formula For Grunge. (The so-called “formula” is humorously drawn from the chorus of their early single Swampland: “Nine parts water, one part sand”.)

But reconstituting the formula several decades down the line has not been easy. Rixon, whose sound was foundational to the group, left in 1985 and died in 1993. He proved difficult to replace; eventually the band’s road manager Leanne Cowie (formerly Chock) began filling in.

It took 20 years for the Scientists to begin playing again with any regularity, with Cowie rejoining Salmon, his fellow guitarist Tony Thewlis and bass player Boris Sujdovic. The band supported Sonic Youth on an Australian tour in 2008, playing their mini-album Blood Red River as part of London promoters All Tomorrow’s Parties’ concert series, Don’t Look Back.

But the Scientists were constantly looking back. They rejected the prospect of recording, wary of the response of old fans and the danger of distorting the group’s legacy: “We’d always put the kybosh on it, mainly because old bands from back in the day doing new stuff is kind of fraught,” Salmon admits.

They relented and recorded a couple of singles, including a cover of the French-pop classic Mini Mini Mini, following the release of a career-spanning box set by prestigious reissue label Numero Group in 2016. Over the next two years, the band mounted tours of Australia and Europe, and made plans to head to the US.

Then the pandemic hit. With the rejuvenated band unable to tour, writing new music was all that was left. This time, however, Salmon was composing for a group that was decades older, and with more input from the other members. A new EP titled 9H2O.SiO2 (there’s that formula again) was released in 2019. Negativity followed in 2021.

“The challenge was really to try and encapsulate what the band had actually become in those post-years,” Salmon says. “I love the 1983 period of the band, it was this sprawling mess and complete anarchy – we were making stuff up on the spot as we went along a lot of the time. But we became a lot more concise.”

As for the title of the latest album, it was more a play on words than a state of mind. “Tony Thewlis hated it, and he was really adamant that wasn’t going to be the title, but everybody else liked it, so he was out-voted,” Salmon says. “But then he realised, when Covid hit, that being negative on a PCR test was a thing to aspire to. He came around because of that!”

Salmon is one of Australian music’s survivors. Along with Sujdovic and Tex Perkins, he is one of the few surviving members of the Beasts of Bourbon, in which he was a primary creative force. Spencer P Jones, Brian Hooper, Tony Pola and the band’s producer Tony Cohen are all gone, as are Rixon and Linda Fearon, Salmon’s ex-wife and former Scientists manager.

Last year, Salmon mounted a tribute to them all titled Haunted Grooves, using a loop pedal to conjure up the ghosts of his departed friends. “It was a way of keeping certain ideas about them alive,” he says. “I know they’re gone, but they’ve left their story, and much of what they contributed is still around. It’s been a bit of therapy for that.”

First published in the Guardian, 11 February 2023

Scroll to Top