Still here, The Beasts continue to challenge
Boris Sujdovic, Tony Pola, Kim Salmon, Tex Perkins and Charlie Owen are The Beasts.
The Beasts of Bourbon formed, somewhat by accident, in 1984. If you were 12 today, would you really be inclined to take the trouble to listen to something recorded by a bunch of blokes who started back then?
Well, the hell with your boring old 12-year-old self. The new album by the Beasts of Bourbon's direct descendants, The Beasts, is called "Still Here" and it rates seven (if not eight) bottles (out of five) in my books. It's really simple: "Still Here" is essential if, as you claim, you're a Beasts of Bourbon fan, or if you think of yourself as someone who loves rock'n'roll.
Tex Perkins' idea here, to celebrate this band, one of Australia's most beloved, is a sound one. Pondering the past (and the inaptly named "good old days") I find it curious that I'm writing this on our National Squabble Day, at a time when so many things serve to disunite and fragment us ... when really, all one needs in life, surely, is a damn good rock'n'roll band, the beverage and company of your choice, and the opportunity to ridicule those who richly deserve our ire and contempt.
Curious also, that for the first time I decided to listen to JJJ's "Hottest Top 10". I gave each song longer than I would have ordinarily - that is, if it hasn't impressed me inside two minutes I figure it never will. The 10th song, by a Northern Beaches band, reminded me of Dragon, a band I always found unutterably uninteresting and dull. The ninth top band also bored the pants off me, as did another handful who I won't mention.
Look, I get why so many young people are turning away from the obviousness of so much modern music, and I will say this is a pleasant change in attitude. But I have Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen and Scott Walker and Townes VZ, and a host of others who simply wee-wee-wee all the way home over this stuff. The only song I'd consider buying was by Billie Eilish; I suppose Mallrat were ok but that's by comparison. Childish Gambino I thought was fun, and Travis Scott - well, it's not my thing, but what he's up to is impressive. Fisher's 'Losing It' was frankly bloody ordinary given what has been and gone before (hot tip: listen to more J.G. Thirlwell youse guys).
The nation's top pick, apparently, is Ocean Alley again, with more of the most dreary schmaltz - they make Sherbet appear positively muscular and interesting. I mean, Daryl used to have that macho German Shepherd...
And yes, I do understand that 2JJJ's "Hottest" Top Ten are songs chosen by real people, and I get that my taste is a little hard to nail down, and that all songs are not made specifically to impress me. So, I conclude that 1) this generation have deliberately moved away from previous generations (thereby condemning their parent's gangsta rap to the dustbin) (a GOOD THING) and 2) the very concept of democracy is a mind-numbing and horrendous creation, and that 3) while dismissing the old coot's music is usually a good idea, must you replace it with this...?
If I were 12 again, I'd like to think that I would reject the entire ghastly JJJ Hottest Emptiness in favour of "Still Here", an LP by a bunch of old coots called The Beasts. As I recall it, back then the charts were mostly appallingly dull, and racing and footy didn't appeal. But any form of expression to break the damp pallid grip of the endless suburbs was an exciting prospect. Christ, no wonder there were so many novelty songs.
Put it another way. If "Still Here" (pictured above) was the first LP by these blokes you'd ever heard ... you'd not only shell out, you'd be booking tickets (if not flights) for the upcoming tour. You would not want to miss this.
"Still Here" is a bloody great LP. Some songs will be familiar, but none in this context. And, sure while purists may rant, The Beasts still wield that hunk of scraped-out blues with a touch of country; the music, itself a glorious slang underworld, lives on as it shifts, changes and rotates into the light.
Let's cut to the chase, though. The press release indicates that, after the last Beasts of Bourbon gig (last year's) Brian Henry Hooper benefit, Tex thought of getting all the main men into the studio again, more of a celebration of the band. Which is a grand idea. I mean, you get one or even a couple of these folks in a room, and ... OK, you know they're there. But when the outfit is all in the same room, invisible sparks fly, there's a tangible, indefinable tension. It's a bit like the atmosphere before an old 1950s gang fight with flick-knives, zip-guns and bike chains. Like they're ready to go out and rumble with the crowd.
The first song, "On My Back" is like a blast from the past. Specifically, that period just as glam was fading and bands wanted to keep the heavy, thrilling crunch but were aiming for a bit of reality at the same time. The snarling, snaring guitars are absolutely spot-on, recorded with the right amount of squall, detail and crystallinic potency. Back then, of course, "On My Back" probably wouldn't get airplay once the gold-chain hairy-chest moguls got their ears round the subject matter.
Shall I spoil it for you? Nah. Here's the clip.
Here we see The Beasts, a dirty great juggernaut looming up out of a hacked and gouged grey quarry. Rock stars... The bass player is cool, and knows it. Shakes his bass at us. The drummer has transformed into a gold prospector, but his brother is with him, in spirit, and on his chest.
One guitarist deliberately dresses functional, the other an explosion; their guitars harmonise in restrained brutality. The singer carelessly lobs a can of VB at the wittering drone, and we see the crew, the cars and the reality is revealed.
Kim Salmon's "Pearls Before Swine" is equally ferocious, albeit with a knowing smirk, and Tex's voice sounds like he's been spending weeks on the fags and booze. Warren Zevon's "My Shit's Fucked Up" is a glorious confessional - the arrangement is, I think quite inspirational, but I'm not telling you why. Perkins' "Just Let Go" winds us up before winding us down in classic Beasts style; I'd like to see Ocean Alley attempt a lament as droll and savage as this - they wouldn't understand it, of course.
Jonesy's "At the Hospital" is next, and, on the one hand it's a droll Lit trip, with what sounds like his favourite bang bar, and on the other it just brings tears to your eyes; his voice is so powerful, so fragile, so beautiful, so bloody funny - rhyming "diptheria" with "cafeteria", FFS. Oh god...
A change of mood opens the second side, as James Baker's "Drunk on a Train" is "Nuggetsy" (with a dollop of those spoken-sung novelty songs from the 1950s like Nervous Norvous). Fucking hilarious, all too familiar and right up there with "Born to be Punched", and if they're gonna do a second single, it should be "Drunk on a Train".
Frank Zappa's "The Torture Never Stops" is next, and the approach is straightforward, drags you forward over the studs - very un-Zappa-ish (something of a relief to this listener).
"It's All Lies" is one of the two songs The Beasts developed from studio jams and it sounds a bit like you've got your balls caught in the car door. It's fabulous!
Hooper's "What The Hell Was I Thinking" is another confessional ballad - it brings another tear to the eye hearing Tex singing this instead of Brian, but - Tex is in fine voice and does the song superb justice. Fuck, this is a good LP.
Sujdovic's "Don't Pull Me Over" is a great way for the band to open their sets. It's big, brooding and brutal, and represents, for me, a possible new doorway for the band to barge through.
"Your Honour" - another song created as a jam - ends the second side, and as you'd expect, it's another cracker. I've heard the concept before, as I'm sure you have: put the rocker on trial for crimes against rock'n'roll. It's a brilliantly positive way to close the LP, self-mockingly self-referential, funny and smart.
Seems there's life in the old dogs yet.
The info sheet provided by the band (that's the thing that other websites copy verbatim) is interesting; it closes with the caveat: "With respect, this isn't The Beasts of Bourbon. It would need to have Jonesy on every track to be that! But loudly and proudly this is: The Beasts Still Here."
I was offered the chance to email interview bassist Boris Sujdovic. You may be sure I grasped the bull's horns ...
Now, as far as I'm concerned, this is still The Beasts of Bourbon - but is it?
Boris: Well, I guess it is. Basically we didn’t feel we should continue with the name Beasts of Bourbon out of respect for Spencer, because he'd played every Beasts show.
The emotional make-up of the band has frequently shifted - how does it feel now, 30-odd years after the band started?
Boris: Yes, it’s changed frequently. Every time I come back and play with the band an enormous shift has occurred. After we recorded "Axeman’s Jazz", Kim and I spent three years in the UK (with the Scientists), and we got back together for "Sour Mash" and "Black Milk".
"Sour Mash" was a more thought-out record compared to "Axeman’s Jazz" which was more of a side project and seen as a bit of fun. The line-up changes helped with the longevity of the band, I think. The vibe now is good, one of respect for each other, which makes recording and playing much more pleasant.
How did you put the songs together for the album?
Boris: A couple of songs were shared around as demos before we went in, and the rest were just shown at the studio. We would work on them, and when a take had gelled enough, so as to have no mistakes, we'd move on to the next one. Similar to the way we did "Axeman’s Jazz". Things could have been done better, with more takes, but then again we could have fucked them up as well. Most of the guitars (and drums) you hear on the album, were live, basically made up on the fly.
How did it feel, recording so soon after Brian had died, and with Spencer so sick? What was the mood in the studio? Did that change?
Boris: The main reason we did it when we did was that Spencer was still with us. The idea was to include all the Beasts, so we included one of Brian’s songs and one of James Baker’s songs . We felt good about doing these and the two days Spencer came along to the studio were great.
You've played Europe with this line-up - how did it feel? What was the response?
Boris: We just did one festival show. It was supposed to be the original line-up, but in the end Spencer couldn’t make it. We held out till the last minute but the decision had to be made, and while it was devastating for us, it was the right one. Spencer would not have made it back from Europe, I think. The festival was great, but the best part was rehearsing and hanging out in Bilbao for three days prior. Great little R’n’R town.
Are you planning a tour of the US - I'm assuming you'll return to Europe as well…?
Boris: No plans for US tour yet, which is OK with me, because I’ve just got back from there with the Scientists, and we’re heading back again in April and again in July, but probably Europe next year.
How on earth are you coping with Tony's ginormous fuzz-muff beard?
Boris: It's great, we can crack jokes about it all day and its great for smuggling stuff into the gig.
Had Kim previously suggested "Pearls before Swine" as a Beasts of Bourbon song?
Boris: Yes, but how did you know that? He presented it to them for their last album, but in the end they didn’t use it.
You've played in a number of very different bands - what makes The Beasts so enduring, and so special?
Boris: Well, just the fact that Kim and Tex are working creatively together again makes it special, and now the way Kim and Charlie have collaborated on guitar makes it exciting for me.
How different is the music scene today from when the band started, or from when you joined?
Boris: Apart from all the digital stuff, one of the biggest changes I’ve noticed is that there’s a lot more women playing in bands. It seems every bar I go to in Melbourne there’s a fucking great girl punk band playing.
Boris (second from the left) in the contemporary Scientists.
You 'Still Here'?
I'm tempted to rant on for a few more pages. I'll save that for another year. Brian Henry Hooper would have loved it. Spencer P. Jones too. Notwithstanding Brian's posthumous LP 'What Would I Know?', and the SPJ posthumous LP in the works, 'Still Here' is a wonderful memorial for them. Go get 'Still Here' (I'll be buying a copy), and go see The Beasts.
[Footynote: Music purists are the grammarians of the rock'n'roll world, and are the bane of almost every band, it seems - I know such polar opposites as Hugo Race, and The Animals have copped flak for 'not playing the blues right' or whatever foolish nonsense they believe in like 'he should still be living in a squalid squat and playing the toilets and living on wagon wheels like when he first was'.]
Read Patrick Emery's review of the album here.