While the American and U.K. punk underground spent the late-’70s and early-’80s going nuts over hyper-speed hardcore and Oi, Australian bands never really got over the sound of proto-punk, from The Velvet Underground up through The Ramones and The Sex Pistols. The Scientists were one of the bigger Australian bands of that era, and A Place Called Bad is their first comprehensive career retrospective: a four-disc set covering everything from their 1979 debut single, until their demise in 1987 (though they’ve played the odd reunion concert since).
It’s chronologically ordered, with Disc 1 rehashing the band’s earliest years, when they played ragged-but-right pop-punk inspired by The Rolling Stones and The New York Dolls. A few songs from this era hit the mark dead on – “It’s For Real”, “Last Night” and “Frantic Romantic” are the best of the bunch – but singer Kim Salmon’s lightweight lyrics defang an otherwise potent attack, putting the band in league with soft-punching (if still fun) pop-punk like The Undertones and Generation X. Not bad, but not something you’d want 80 songs of.
Well, things changed drastically in 1981, with the band moving from Perth to Sydney, picking up a new guitarist (Tony Thewlis) and drummer (Brett Rixon) on the way, and taking on a new and improved sound, influenced by The Stooges, Suicide and Captain Beefheart. Those fluffy songs about girls were replaced with noisy, psychotic swamp-punk that welcomed comparisons with contemporaries The Birthday Party, The Gun Club and The Cramps. You could even make a strong argument that The Scientists’ dirty guitar sound from this era – best heard on tracks like “We Had Love” and “Rev Head” – was an influence on the early Seattle grunge sound, with The Melvins and Mudhoney both huge fans. Perhaps their rhythm section was a little too unrelenting in their pounding to make the band as great as their peers or influences, but when they’re on they’re fantastic. “Swampland” is the best example of their output from this chaotic era, but “Solid Gold Hell” is worth mentioning too, with one of Kim Salmon’s creepiest vocal performances. Plus, it somehow sounds exactly like its nonsensical title. This was peak-era Scientists.
A Place Called Bad’s back-half is less successful. Disc 3 covers the band’s final years, with several line-up changes, and poor production weakening their core sound. Kim Salmon, the band’s only constant member at this point, tries to salvage the situation with some of his darkest lyrics and most intense performances yet, but he’s actually throwing too much of himself into these songs, sometimes abandoning melody in an attempt to create almost murderous moods (a complaint I’ve also had about The Birthday Party, so if you like them, this may not be an issue). Even on the way out they still occasionally found the right alchemy on a few classics like “Atom Bomb Baby” (though “She looks real pretty/I’m her Hiroshima City” isn’t exactly great poetry).
The final disc compiles twenty-two live recordings, including twelve from a single show at the Adelaide UniBar. The performances are as intense as expected, but the lo-fi sound makes it challenging to listen to. It does contain a few songs that were never recorded in the studio, though, making it a nice bonus for fans.
If you want a bang-bang Scientists album, where every song is a killer, you’d probably be better served by a one-disc best-of. But if you love the band and want more, A Place Called Bad is a great opportunity to get it all at once.