Still Here - The Beasts (Bang! Records/Rocket)
In April 2007 I sat opposite Spencer Jones and Greg ‘Tex’ Perkins in a booth downstairs at the Prince of Wales Hotel in St Kilda. The occasion was an interview to promote the release of the Beasts of Bourbon’s first studio album in 10 years, "Little Animals". Having recently arrived back from a short tour of the United States, Spencer and Perkins were weary from the long-haul flight.
Perkins was in Beasts mode – cocky, enigmatic, and just prickly enough to remind you who was the tough guy here. Spencer was, as he always was, just Spencer – the cowboy hat, a faint smile, and a reassuring honesty that defied his decades of service in the duplicitous, ego-obsessed world of rock’n’roll.
A fraught fraternal atmosphere hung over the interview. Spencer and Perkins had been friends, band mates, fellow reprobates and occasional antagonists for the past 25 years. They were like brothers, Perkins once mused, and like brothers they loved and fought. And Spencer and Perkins were the only remaining links to the genesis of the Beasts of Bourbon, an irreverent make-shift band thrown together to fulfil Perkins’ gig commitments at the Southern Cross Hotel, way back in June 1983.
The interview was going well until I asked a question about a song on Little Animals, "The Beast I Came to Be". The bio material for the album supplied by the record company included a quote from Spencer explaining that the song had been written in response to a song offered by Kim Salmon – at Perkins’ original request – for the Beasts’ impending new album.
“Thanks Kim, but we can write our own songs,” the bio quoted Spencer as saying. I already knew about Salmon’s offer – he’d mentioned it, and recited the lyrics during a Surrealists-related interview with me six months earlier – and I asked whether Spencer and Perkins whether they agreed with Salmon’s observations on life in the Beasts of Bourbon.
Perkins’ face immediately turned a thunderous shade of purple.
"Where did you hear that?" he demanded, in response to the reference to Spencer’s quotes.
"In the band bio supplied by your record company," I countered.
Perkins stood up, and rebuked Spencer for poking at the embers of the Beasts’ relationship with Salmon. Spencer didn’t seem to care. But Perkins was riled and stormed out of the interview. As Spencer and I continued the interview – Spencer seemed vaguely bemused by Perkins’ antics – Perkins could be heard abusing the hapless label employee for their transgression in including the offending material. The Beasts of Bourbon was always a Trojan horse for love, hate and a convoy’s worth of bad behaviour.
Almost 10 years to the day, the Salmon-penned tribute to the beastly behaviour of the Beasts of Bourbon, "Pearls Before Swine", was recorded by a motley collection of members past, present and still living, the day after Brian Hooper’s funeral in April 2017. It was a bittersweet event: Hooper was gone, and Spencer in failing health. Back in the day the Beasts of Bourbon had drawn inspiration from death – almost all of the tracks on The Axeman’s Jazz draws on the morbid topic in one fashion or another – but now it seemed the Grim Reaper was now having his way.
With various Beasts of Bourbon (Perkins, James Baker, Boris Sujdovic, Kim Salmon, Charlie Owen, Tony Pola, Spencer) in Melbourne in town for Hooper’s funeral, Perkins suggested they take the opportunity to convene in the studio. The session produced eleven songs, a mixture of new and old tracks contributed by all of the attendant members, all of which are tethered by black humour to the tragic events in which the Beasts of Bourbon now found themselves mired.
The result became "Still Here", now released by Bang! Records under the moniker of the Beasts. The Beasts Still Here benefits from its eclectic character, an aspect of the Beasts of Bourbon that often went missing in the wake of Salmon’s departure. Perkins’ "I’m On My Back" and "Just Let Go" are the closest things to the linear-riff Beasts of Bourbon of "Gone" and "Little Animals". They’re solid if not inspiring tracks, made better because of circumstance and players.
Close observers will note that Spencer’s "At the Hospital" – the only song on which the ailing SPJ was fit enough to play – is the same song as the title track to "Little Animals". Perkins does his best to give the song’s wry lyrics justice, but it could never be as good as Spencer’s solo version.
"Pearls Before Swine", released previously by Salmon under his Precious Jules moniker in 2011, packs a punch, a timely reminder of the unbridled brutality of the Beasts of Bourbon at the height of their Low Road infamy. The darkness of Sujdovic’s "Don’t Pull Me Over" (a sleeper for best track on the record) is mesmerising; close your eyes and this is territory the Beasts of Bourbon might have explored if Sujdovic and Baker hadn’t thrown their lot in with The Dubrovniks all those years ago.
Baker’s "Drunk on a Train", recorded twice by The Baker’s folk-punk band The Painkillers, is classic James Baker, a garage-pop gem from arguably the seminal figure in the Australian garage-punk scene. Brian Hooper is honoured with the recording of "What the Hell Was I Thinking", a rhetorical enquiry with which the self-reflective Hooper often grappled in the aftermath of yet another dramatic event.
The spontaneous conception of "It’s All Lies" and "Your Honour", both derived from jam sessions in the studio, is reflected in the songs’ fresh edge. The former captures the sturm und drang of Spencer and Salmon’s guitar dynamic (notwithstanding that it’s Owen playing guitar on the track) and the mocking tone of Perkins’ lyrics is enough to get the song over the line.
While Perkins seems hell-bent on countering untruths, to suggest there are lies in the Beasts of Bourbon’s mythology is to assume the existence of a concept universal truth. That’s a misguided proposition: there is no objective truth, only competing foggy, often self-serving interpretations of historical events.
"Your Honour" finds the Beasts of Bourbon in the proverbial dock of public opinion, defiant as ever, Tony Pola’s syncopated drum beat affording the song an almost reggae feel. Maybe it’s inadvertent, but if you look beyond the façade of the crime of cheap rhyming couplets interrogated in the lyrics, there’s an element of post-modern jurisprudential enquiry in the track.
The Beasts of Bourbon have been accused of many crimes, real, perceived and lauded. Rock’n’roll has always purported to define itself on the basis of decadence, depravity and anti-social behaviour. Without deviance, rock’n’roll is nothing, a cheap commodity served up the masses by duplicitous, money-grubbing industry spivs. The Beasts of Bourbon knew that.
The covers included on the album are inspired. There’s "My Shit’s Fucked Up" from Warren Zevon who, along with Randy Newman, was arguably the most insightful songwriter to spring from the too-often stagnant waters of 1970s Los Angeles. Then there’s Frank Zappa’s "The Torture Never Stops". One wonders what the famously hyper-critical (and abstemious) Zappa would have thought of this groups of Australians, with their fucked-up take on libertarian behaviour. But Zappa always hated the music industry, and those who sought to cleave to its specious promises of fame and glory. And the Beasts of Bourbon could never dance to anyone’s tune.
Perkins is adamant The Beasts aren’t the Beasts of Bourbon. He’s dead right. Without Spencer’s physical presence, the Beasts of Bourbon can never again crawl out of their drug and booze stained cave. Brian Hooper’s charismatic, sometimes inebriated swagger typified the Beasts of Bourbon’s notionally evolved form.
But the Beasts are a collage of the Beasts of Bourbon, past and present, light and dark, funny and angry, fraternal and dysfunctional, beautiful and beastly. "Still Here" preserves, celebrates and enhances the legend of all Beasts of Bourbon, present and absent, living and dead.