Tony Thewlis and stories of Weird Love, Blackadder and a re-possessed TV
Tony Thewlis and Kim Salmon fronting the Scientists at Sydney's Southern Cross Hotel in 1982.
The Scientists at their peak were unmatchable. A glorious collision of droning, caustic, fuzz guitars, minimalist bass, anguished lyrics about alienation and ominous, funereal rhythms, they created something unique after landing in Sydney in 1981.
Originally ragged New York Dolls-inspired popsters back in Perth, the re-constituted Scientists stripped their music back to its darkest roots, concoting their own brand of psychedelia and incorporating influences like Suicide, the Stooges and Captain Beefheart.
Too big for their own Surry Hills backyard, the band moved to the UK in 1982 and, in typical expatriate Australian underground band fashion, starved before going on to influence countless other acts into the ‘90s and beyond.
The Scientists were swamp rock before it had a name.
Post their 1987 break-up, members went on to other bands. Sporadic reformations have been keenly anticipated and I slavishly received, so the news that the classic 1986 line-up of Kim Salmon, Boris Sudjovic, Tony Thewlis and Leanne Cowie (nee Chock) would playr a handful of Australian dates has the faithful salivating.
ROBER BROKENMOUTH already gave Kim Salmon the third degree last month, so would he knock back the prospect of a chat with the band’s other guitarist, Tony Thewlis, from his home in England? You know the answer. Read on. - THE BARMAN
TONY THEWLIS: I first saw the Scientists on "Countdown". We lived in a tiny country town nearly 200 miles from Perth and I was learning guitar by playing along with Chuck Berry, the Beatles, the Stones and the Shadows records.
We could only get one TV station (the ABC) so the only music programs we got were "Countdown" and "Flashez" (I think "GTK" had gone by then) and there wasn’t much “new” on any of them that really did anything for me.
Most of the time it was JPY, Air Supply, the Little River Band and Daryl Cotton week after week), except maybe Blondie and Neil Finn-era Split Enz and the Knack, so I stuck to the Beatles, etc, because I didn’t know there was anything else current and worthwhile out there.
A friend's mum came back from a holiday in England with "Never Mind The Bollocks", which was fantastic for its sheer power, obviously, but punk rock as it was reported on the news seemed a bit frightening, with all that having to spit and vomit and stick safety pins in yourself. I formed a group with a few school friends and we played instrumental versions of, funnily enough, Chuck Berry, Beatles, Stones, Shadows, Blondie and Sex Pistols songs.
By then I wanted to be in a proper group in the big city (Perth…) and would scour the Sunday Times “musicians wanted” ads, but there was nothing that sounded like what I thought a real group should sound like, although I didn’t really know what that was myself.
But I suddenly knew exactly what it was one Sunday when “Last Night” exploded into our lounge room. I was literally shocked and stunned. This was my group! It was as if all my muddled and fumbling thoughts had been harvested and crystallised into extraordinary reality by four other guys!
A few weeks later a friend and I drove to see them in Perth. We did that every time they played until they did their final gig (as a four-piece) with Ben Juniper at Hernando's Hideaway.
The next day I went to White Rider Records to try to find a copy of "Frantic Romantic", and there was a poster with James Baker’s phone number on it saying the Legendary Scientists were looking for a new guitar player who “must be interested in rockets and girls and know the difference between the Heartbreakers and the Heartbreakers”.
I only knew of the Tom Petty ones (if I ever write a memoir it’ll be called “But I Didn’t Know There Was Anything Else!”) but I liked girls and I could draw them a lunar module from memory, if they asked. And I could already play most of their songs (there weren’t too many distracting girls to like, out in the country).
So, I rang and James Baker (drummer) invited me round to his house We had a chat where he mentioned loads of groups I didn’t know existed, but he seemed to like me and was encouraging so I went home expecting that the invitation to join them was pretty much a done deal. I must have called him a few times when I didn’t hear, just to check that his phone was working and I think he eventually said something like: “Well, if you lived in Perth we’d ask you to join but you are too far away, out in the country.”
Anyone with any sense would have realised he was letting me down gently, but a few weeks later I knocked on his door again to let him know I’d just moved to Perth and was now living a just a mile away. Alas, he had to tell me with great regret, it was now too late as they’d just decide to carry on The Scientists as a three-piece.
When they emerged as the three-piece I went to every gig they played, mostly they were at the Governor Broome, and was knocked out every time. Eventually I got to know them a bit, mainly through Kim’s girlfriend who took pity on me in my home-made Scientists tee-shirt and told me about other groups that they all liked. I’d go away and get records by the Heartbreakers, New York Dolls, The (English) Boys, the Ramones etc.
When they broke up my own sub-Scientists group supported them at their last gig and I somehow stayed in touch with Kim and went to see Louie Louie a few times where he started telling me about the Cramps. One day I ran into Kim in the Hay Street Mall and he told me he was giving up on Louie Louie and moving to Sydney to start a new Scientists with Brett (Rixon) from Louie Louie, and Boris (Sudjovic), who was already living in Sydney.
Boris had been telling him that none of the current Sydney groups were not much chop and the place was wide open for someone decent like the Scientists to come in and take over the town.
I dragged Kim into some underground bar and bought him drinks all afternoon until he finally agreed that I could go too. He drove across in his P76 and I flew over a few weeks later with just my guitar and with all my clothes stuffed in the back of my amp as my “suitcase”.
RB: What on earth is a P76? It sounds like a government form!
TONY THEWLIS: Ha! A Leyland P76 was a big American-style car that (at the time) had a similar reputation to an Edsel. Ie, completely shoddy and unreliable and likely to break down all the time, but Kim’s did get him across the Nullabor. It had an enormous boot which could hold big amps and guitars, but when it rained the water flooded in so there were always 2” puddles on the floor under your feet.
We called it “Swampland”.
I’m not sure if the name came after the song or if the car inspired Kim Williams’ lyrics.
(When we got to London we went to loads of shonky Arfur Daly used car places (usually on vacant lots so that they could move the entire operation once a sucker had parted with his cash) trying to find an actual big American car, hopefully with fins and with a big enough boot for all our gear. Brett was particularly gutted and disappointed when we became sensible and bought a knackered old van, instead.)
SCIENTISTS MARK II
We started by playing a mix of Scientists songs ("Teenage Dreamer", "Walk The Plank", "Pretty Girl") and Louie Louie songs ("Swampland", "Gonna Make You", "Suzanne", "Hopeless Case") and did a few gigs like that, but we did have lots of discussions about whether to ditch the poppy Scientists stuff (disappointing to me) and going for a wilder, more pure rock-and-roll thing.
By then, we all had discovered new influences that we wanted to channel - Alan Vega (Boris), The Cramps/Suicide (Kim), the Stooges (Brett) and (the more chaotic) Alex Chilton (me).
So, Kim wrote new stuff in that vein (often starting with one of Boris’s two-note riffs that he churned out on bass each day). We also evolved a “look” which was basically based on the fact (that Kim had noticed) that in the '60s and '70s, Australia got fairly up-to-date photos of English groups in the papers, but the actual music didn’t arrive until at least a year or two afterwards.
So, you had groups like the Loved Ones dressing 1968 with long hair, but sounding 1966. But that evolved (or devolved) into a competition to see who could find the most outlandish (but stylish) shirts (it had to be something you would expect Brian Jones or Cyril Jordan to wear) and to wear the lowest cut trousers (where was Leggy Mountbatten when he was needed?)
The Scientists were a “proper” group, just as I’d hoped and imagined it. Almost everything we did for five years was solely about the music and the band, and we lived on top of each other, at home, in vans and in hotel rooms for all that time.
Obviously we all had our ups and downs with the other three over the years and with Kim and I both out front on stage (I mean geographically) sometimes that could become a battle of guitar noise-power one-upmanship - if we were narked with each other. Kim might do something with an attitude (I might think) of 'OK, lets see you top this, nitwit…' and I’d go, 'Right. Easy. Cop this, knucklehead'.
But there are often things where we work together as best we can to complement each other. And all those things seemed to work, musically and sonically. If they hadn’t and it had just been antagonism between us then it would have obviously been a problem and we wouldn’t have survived five years.
Most on-stage arguments people may have witnessed would almost inevitably have been Kim grumbling he couldn’t hear himself sing because I was too loud, and me saying I couldn’t turn it down any more without losing all power and oomph. Like I said, the Scientists were a group, it was really all about the music being the best and most powerful and impressive thing.
We lived pretty much the same way as most people in inner Sydney lived back then - without much money. At first I slept on an air-bed in Boris’s room in a house he shared with Kim. Then Brett (Rixon) and I moved into a house with some other people, with most of our “furniture” and bed-bases made out of milk bottle crates.
We’d often run out of cash and drop in on Brett’s sister just around dinner time, coincidentally enough. If we did have a bit of cash we’d frequent happy hours in various pubs, or if we were down to our last $2 we’d go to No Names or Skinny’s in Darlinghurst, where for that $2 you would get a huge bowl of spag bol, two-litre flagons of red and white wine on the table (and if you quaffed them both they’d usually bring another).
And then the owners’ grandmother would often tell us we looked pasty and force us to take some fruit with us as we left.
MOVING TO LONDON
Life in London was fairly tough as we were strapped for cash most of the time, but that was pretty much considered normal and we were used to it and just got on with it.
Boris, Brett and I went first and all stayed in Brett’s sister’s spare room (luckily, the same sister we used to drop in on in Sydney had by then moved to London). Kim came over a month or so later and moved into a flat in Brixton with Nick Combe (later to drum on "The Human Jukebox") and a friend who Brett and I had shared a house with in Sydney, who’s girlfriend by then was Leanne Chock, which is how we met her.
After another month, Brett’s sister took it upon herself to find the other three of us a flat. One of the main things I remember about it was we didn’t keep up the rental payments on the TV that was there when we moved in and one night we were just sitting down to watch "Blackadder" when there was a knock at the door and men came in and repossessed it.
We stared at the space where it had been for half an hour, then pooled all our money and realised we had just enough for a pint each in our local pub…
Gig-wise, we had absolutely no trouble at all. I think Bruce Milne put us in touch with the All Trade booking people (I think they were an arm of Rough Trade) and they immediately booked us loads of gigs, both on our own or as supports. I think our very first gig was supporting the Birthday Party at the Lyceum (which is a big theatre on the Strand - these days it seems to be the permanent home of the Lion King).
I’d been there a couple of weeks earlier to see The Heartbreakers (the real ones) so I guess I assumed it was normal to be able to basically come from nowhere and easily walk into such prestigious gigs and we started getting a following straight away.
I’m sure it helped that we started at places like the Lyceum where it was easy to be loud, brash and impressive, rather than battling the odds at somewhere like the cramped Hope & Anchor where we would have been shouted at to turn down (although playing there didn’t do The Saints any harm!)
Next, some promotor put us on at a festival in Rotterdam. At the time it was just another gig that had been offered to us and we probably didn’t realise what help it would give us or how difficult it must have been for bands to get on it. We probably only said yes because Johnny Thunders was on the bill and we wanted to see him.
The Thewlis-Cowie-Salmon-Sudjovic line-up reform for the ATP festival in England in 2006.
But that festival opened the flood-gates to numerous tours of Europe, particularly around Holland. It got so that we would groan when another tour of Holland was booked in. “Gawd. Do we have to go there again? We’ll miss 'The Young Ones'/'Comic Strip Presents'/'Blackadder'/'Sherlock Holmes'….”
Back in London, we just worked up new songs and played loads of gigs. We had a residency downstairs at the Clarendon in Hammersmith, and seemed to do Dingwalls every couple of months.
When we heard the Gun Club were touring I wrote to them via their record label in LA (we didn’t know them personally at all) and told them we should support them and, amazingly, Kid Congo wrote back and said: “Sure”.)
Then Nick Jones, the manager of the Sisters of Mercy, saw us and gave us the support slot for their UK tour. After that he became our manager and got us the support for a massive Siouxie and the Banshees tour. Which, crucially, had a day off the day that Alex Chilton played at the Mean Fiddler.
So we drove from somewhere in Scotland, back to London, supported him and then drove back up to the next Banshees gig in somewhere like Newcastle. He also got us supports with Alan Vega (who played upstairs at the Clarendon).
The most frustrating thing in London was not being able to record new stuff. Au Go Go were being oddly obstructive and claiming they couldn’t afford to advance us any money for studio time. A guy from Brussells who had a studio saw us live and invited us to go and stay in his house and use his studio for a week, which was wonderful.
We ended up getting four of five decent things done there which ended up on the "Demolition Derby" EP and, later, "You Get What You Deserve" (the rest of which was financed at much personal sacrifice by the marvellous Nick Jones).
I just wish we’d appreciated all of this more at the time, and had been able to make a few more records. Maybe we were completely done by “the end” but, who knows?
In the last 30 years I’ve obviously been setting the world alight with the various “solo” stuff I’ve done. When Kim went back to Perth in '87 I vaguely planned to stay behind in London and do my own group, The Scoundrelles with Rob Coyne (we did some recordings and played “support” at one of the last Scientists’ shows).
Then Nick Combe and I went back to Australia for the disastrous tour with Brett on bass, and I could either spend the last of my money getting back to London or stay in Sydney, which I did and started the Interstellar Villains with Richard and Alan (initially doing some of my Scoundrelles stuff).
In 92 the Villains did a (yet again disastrous) tour of Spain and then I limped back over to London and eventually got a version of the Scoundrelles going, which became Panther Burns-esque in its revolving members who came and went and came back again.
Then I played with Rob and Diggory Kenrick in Dig’s group Venus Ray (and Dig was also in the Scoundrelles).
The Groovin Flames fronted by Chris Wilson (centre) with Tony Thewlis to his right.
For a while, the core Scoundrelles also backed various other people that we liked (Amy Rigby, Sky Saxon) and Chris Wilson’s Groovin’ Flames was really just the Scoundrelles backing Chris Wilson and for me the dream job of pretending to be Cyril Jordan. We really hoped to do a similar thing with Roy Loney but, alas, that never happened.