scientists adelaide 23 

The Scientists
Earth Tongue
Cull - The Band
Lion Arts Factory, Adelaide
4 March 2023
Photos: Alison Lea

It's the middle of Festival season here in Adelaide. As I walk toward the Lion Arts Centre, in the mid-1980s a sprawling, possibility-ridden centre of the most extraordinary range of Fringe shows for several years, Adelaide is chockas with assorted revellers starting out on their Saturday night of revelling, or whatever it is people do on a night roaming from club to club.

Many of the professional scroungers have arrived and are already parked on the footpath. A few will raise enough shrapnel for a box of goon and spend the rest of the night abusing passers-by until they're either kicked or arrested or both, followed by Maccas for brekky at the cop shop. A top night out; Adelaide can compete in the big leagues.

It's early yet (6.30pm), the doors open at 7, and the first band, Cull, will be on shortly after.

So. I see this bloke amble out of the venue. Spotting me, he ambles down the stairs and comes over. It's probably my new Josh Lord “Neotribalism”. T-shirt (huge red skull on the front) (note product placement). He comes over; 'Are you here for the gig?'

I confessed, and we had an astonishingly good chat. Turns out he's a scene veteran; funny the way that seeing bands over the years makes you one of a select club.

We noted how the American underground scene, before The Grundy Incident (TGI) was heading in a far more varied and disparate direction than the English scene, but when TGI broke, it was like a series of waves of muzzled young folks had found the door. Or, like a house at the end of a month of 37C+ days, when the weather finally breaks, the temperature drops twenty degrees and the wind blows... you open the house, and the relief and shift in mood as well as atmosphere is palpable.

We talked (because we're old gits now) about “young people today”, how they're able to skim both old and current music and scenes, stay in the background before they venture to dip a toe in the water. When, at the same age, we'd have taken the risk earlier, entering a nether-world of far greater potential of danger, disaster, shitty music and crap drugs.

So, no avoiding it, tonight was, for This Old Git (TOG) partly a reappraising blink or two at the present, with forceful reference to my past.

Adam made the excellent point about The Ramones, that they loved (among other things) the 1960s pop, the Phil Spector stuff, the early Beatles, and were trying to do something like that, with lyrics steeped in their street experience coupled with late-night black and white movies. But they couldn't do it, really, and accidentally made their own style. So when The Ramones became more widespread, saturating the underground on both sides of the Atlantic, bands looking to emulate Da Bruddas started in the wrong place, with buzzsaw guitars. And an entirely new thing, based on misunderstandings, glam and ... that open door at the end of the heatwave ... began. You could argue something similar with The Cramps.

Funny where we start and end up. Back in the day, The Scientists were, to a broad brush of the underground, The Thing (among quite a few other Things). Back in the 1980s you could still be beaten up for looking “different”; you might be attacked at any time. Certainly the verbal abuse (particularly for women, I remember) was widespread.

For at least four years it was not uncommon for a stupid fight to break out at a gig. Those risks have largely gone now; I mean, these days you might be attacked by a coward from behind, but that could happen to anyone, anywhere, for no reason whatsoever; whereas back then you were taking a firm cultural stance (in effect, an unintended political stance) which was like a red rag to assorted bull-headed dingbats.

Am I over-exaggerating? Well, while I still have neck and back damage, I know people who had it much worse than me. And more who didn't survive. Some folk have referred to it, rather tongue-in-cheek, as “the punk wars”; this wasn't just Adelaide, by the way, it was prevalent in the major cities.

In 1984 a friend who'd migrated here from Perth commented that when they left a venue they weren't worried about skinheads (as we were in Adelaide at the time) as the police, who delighted in beating up “punks”. Most of us were misfits, by the way. Some identified as “punk”, but not that many. Most, as I say, were an awkward fit, and we looked for something we could identify with.

Music, night life, the underground was a welcome which stayed with us; we really had become part of a secret society, of shared desolations and overt desires. Of course, even there I was an awkward fit - I didn't smoke (ciggies or weed) at a time when 90 percent seemed to smoke joints and 99 perrcent smoked ciggies.

As veterans from the various music scenes know, it's one thing to hear a band on CD, or record, or a download. In person and on-stage, a band might be not-as-good-as or about-as-good-as their recorded output. Some bands rise above the physical record. Not all, however, by any means.

tony adelaide 23Scientist Tony Thewlis.

The Scientists do this effortlessly. The set has been plucked from 1984-1986, with a bunch of songs from the new album “Negativity”. Their sound is precise, simple yet layered and multifaceted, riddled with dark humour, extremes, band in-jokes and a desire to ... absolutely get in your face in the most inarguable fashion.

The first time The Scientists did a reunion tour of Australia, and hearing their songs out of chronological context for the first time. See, as the band developed in the 1980s, they changed ... if you listen to the songs in that kind of order, you can get a feel for them. Their power was ... vast and ugly, they clamoured for you to pay attention, yet they were so insular.

Kim, guitarist and singer, seemed aloof, in his own scraped-out world. There was a distinct electrical charge of personalities between the members, it wasn't necessarily obvious the way it was with The Birthday Party, but it was ... stifled ... onstage. Which meant that their impact was huge, profound and enigmatic.

Hearing friend's stories of their gigs in Europe in the mid-1980s, then seeing for myself how the band had ...altered... on that last Australian tour in (I think) 1987 was extraordinary. Every time you looked, the band had turned in on itself, shovelled itself down a rabbit-hole and come up with some weird refraction of the way we see the world.

That reunion tour was a revelation, at least to me. Their songs stood up, you could see the band in a clearer context, and they were, if anything, better.

And now? They're playing songs from their first LP in 35 years, and you'd perhaps expect the songs to jar against the older material.

Nope. They're a perfect fit. And this is no mean feat for a band who always deliberately went against the grain, determined to both simplify and complicate matters. To those of you who didn't bother catching this tour, like The Ramones, it's not about the buzzsaw guitar, or the feedback. It's about the approach, where the band are coming from, and their internal attitude.

All those bands who took baby-steps from The Scientists and found themselves with 'grunge' or The Year Punk Broke (TYPB) ... none came close. They couldn't mimic The Scientists. And the grunge kids? Most of them, I reckon, never really knew ... but hey. How many Captain Beefheart fans also own Howlin' Wolf records, and know the connection?

Someone shut me up before I do meself a mischief.

What do The Scientists sound like? Themselves, but more so. They're a force of nature, truly. Four growling dragsters heading straight for you, plumes of foul rubber bursting behind them. The room positively reeks of danger, stifled furies and dry wit.

Onstage tonight, you can still see The Scientists' individual personalities wedging up against each other. There's less emotional tension and conflict now, more acceptance of each other. Tony ... if you can imagine a guitarist who expresses a sort of casual brutality in his guitar, with a wry, amused exterior, legs crossed as he leans against the amp, waiting for Kim ..? bloody hell, is he Tony Thewlis actually Tom Wolfe with a battered guitar?

The noise he gets out of the thing. I've never seen a guitarist detune a guitar so often nor during so many songs. And retune so nonchalantly before the next song. It's Thewlis' hooks, those occasional inverse C&W tones which sound like deadpan sneers from an old greaser movie, which hint at bottomless dry wells in the dry South, everglades swallowing entire towns ...

boris adelaide 23Ageless Boris Suidjovic.

Boris looks exactly the same as he did 40 years ago, which frankly can't be right. If anyone has a magic wand, it's him. His fine, distinctive bass sound is emphasised by his economy of playing. Boris ain't Mike Watt, who plays 13 notes when two (if that) will do. It's the spare economy of Boris' playing which adds a further grimy tension, further sharp sunlight, to the band. The power emanating from him belies his friendly demeanour.

And Leanne - don't get me started. Drummers such as the mighty metronome Thomas Wydler of Die Haut (and sometime Bad Seed) are an extraordinary instrument for a band to wield. But no drummer I've ever seen is like Leanne Cowie. She seems to pour herself into the rhythm, head down with a ferocious focus, as if she's willing the beat to turn into some monstrous force, which of course it does.

Her concentration is desperate, furious, as if the rhythm will get away from her, run amuck ... attrition on a battlefield. Between songs, she laughs and smiles with Boris and Kim. Then, she puts her head down and she becomes that monstrous form. Utterly extraordinary.

leanne adelaide 23Leanne Cowie.

Kim's control of his sound and effortless precision playing (on a guitar which is so worn and battered it looks like someone put it through a Mixmaster) is a joy to behold, simply because he frequently loses himself in the song. And it's evident he's having a blast up there. There's a sense of fun, of Pan-ish glee to him, even when he's erupting with a wide-ranging vocal (from a deep gurgling snarl to a high yip). A vivid and engaging frontman, we are drawn to him like flies to sherbet; yet they're all equally compelling. If that were not enough, Kim's banter between the band makes us love them all the more.

Love? Oh, yes. Tonight the room is filled with love. See:

There are a few old familiar faces, people I know who were at those far-too sparsely-attended early 1980s gigs before the band left for UK in late 1983. A large number of people I know who were, once upon a time, hugely into this band, weren't there tonight. More fool them, of course. Instead, the crowd is a thick mixture of grannie and granpa-aged old coots, folks between 40 and cootish, and a remarkable number who are well and truly 'under 40' (there should be a sitcom, call it “The Under-Forty-Somethings”).

Now, there are a lot of distractions here at the moment. First, the Adelaide fucking Festival and Fringe. I've met so many folks over the years who save all year to come to this stuff here in Adelaide. They'll see 60 shows in three weeks or something. Adelaide is a real tourist destination around now, filled with interstate and overseas characters eager to pounce on the feast.

Locally, large numbers us are beguiled and are eager not to "miss out" and clog the streets and pubs and so on. For Adelaide, a third of Melbourne's Saturday night revellers makes for an uncomfortable crowd.

As for me, every year, the most I'll end up seeing is probably two or three shows - if that. There's also usually a few I wouldn't mind seeing, but don't. My income simply won't allow - and never has allowed - me to be a festival/fringe animal (or even an occasional tippler). I have always had other priorities. And I expect the RBA's last four ill-advised rate hikes haven't helped - economists always seem to fix the funds/flow problem on the anvil of the poor, never the folks with the comfortably-cushioned bottoms. In the 1930s there were protest marches of near-starving men throughout the country.

For me, as for very many other Adelaideans, the Festival, the Fringe, the Car Race, Womad ... they're all a bit of a nuisance, really. If I had a magic wand no, of course I wouldn't wish all this away. But I do rather wish I had a second home in another state (waves fork hopefully) (crickets) (bugger).

And, no, I ain't alone. See, so while there are hundreds of festivally events on tonight, and while students, tourists, professional beggars and performers throng the streets with the usual folks who've had too much meth or booze, the locals are tossing up between the couch and Netflix, The Master's Apprentices (who are also playing somewhere else), The Meatbeaters at the Cumby (sorry, boys ...) or fixing the gutters.

And, did I mention Billy 'big-nose' Bragg is playing as well? Here's what he said about happiness in 1999: "Is happiness when you wake up in the morning and don't ever think, 'Oh God, I don't want to do this'? Because that happens to me quite a bit. In a couple of weeks' time I've got to pack my bags, kiss my wife and kids goodbye, steel myself to get on a plane and go to the other side of the world for five weeks and to be honest I don't really want to do it."

All I can say to that, and to many other performers who inflict themselves on their adoring fans and generally get underfoot of the rest of us (not mentioning any names but surely these characters are the real spawn of Satan:
princeharrysparewindsorstingcyndilauperregurgitatoredsheeranrosswilsonjohnschumanntismsupertrampchicagoamericaandbillybig-nosebragg) is: don't worry. Be happy. Don't fucking tour. And especially, don't fucking tour here.

There are people I know who cannot miss Every Big Gig (like bignose); there are people who will always hurry out to see The Meatbeaters. And, as we know, it's harder as we grow older to get out of the house. We've got kids and grandkids, ailing mums and dads to look after, and then the guttering flooded the office and killed the hard drive; and then there's general fatigue. We forget what we did, what we wanted to be, because we're this now, in this bubble.

So what's it take to winkle the grannies and grandpas out of their usual haunts (ie, cooking shows, snoring, binging on Netflix or the local boozer) on Saturday night?

It has to be a special event.

So, despite there being no shortage of options tonight, the choice was simple ...

The crowd tonight who packed themselves into the Lion Arts Centre ... they were there because they had a damn strong desire, if not a need, to be there. The people who turned up tonight ... it wasn't just random curiosity, they weren't interested in seeing Fringe comedians or going out to be seen at a hip watering hole. Nope, this crowd made an effort, not just to get off the couch, but to give a firm and fruity middle finger toallthe other distractions.

Get thee behind me Satan, we're off to see The Scientists. Do yer worst, demon dickhead.

I made a point of looking at the crowd tonight. They were rapt. A lot of people, a spectrum of ages, who were really, really pleased and happy. You could feel it at the front, this wave of love, affection and delight rolling over us and engulfing the band. You could see the band responding to it, teasing each other between songs, Kim and Tony genially baiting each other, Leanne laughing. In person, the band all seem a little surprised by the attention and affection we bestow upon them. I don't think they quiteexpected this.

Now, there were two support bands. Cull - The Band were up first and put on their usual sweaty, physical, hammering rock'n'roll spectacular.

It's a treat to watch Pete Howlett going through his extraordinary array of gestures, flinging the guitar about and bashing it like he's trying to pummel it into an early grave (he's actually a bloody good guitarist, but the music takes him away).

On the other side of the stage is the precise and more racketty Jeff Stephens, and in the middle is Ben Gel, doing things with his fingers on that bass which look quite impossible. Behind him is Shane Forster, who shoves the band along like a fuckwit's truck through a crowd. They take turns singing, sweat buckets and, as they're an Adelaide favourite, produce shouts and cries of delight from the assorted throng.

If you think you like rock'n'roll, but don't own Cull's LP, think again.

Earth Tongue are the second band. Never heard of them. Their Bandcamp page describes them as “Heavy psych/fuzz two-piece from Wellington, New Zealand”,which ... well, first, they make a bloody big noise. First, the drumming - not at all the “right” beats, but well and truly off-kilter and - yeah, compelling.


The bass comes in loops - not always the whole way through the song, so singer/guitarist Gussie Larkin sometimes taps at the loop pedal in frequent bursts. The songs jump around, causing you to wonder what's coming next. The polyrhythms being set up by drummer Ezra Simons, coupled with the singer's vocals, add a vibrant dimension to their songs.

I recall seeing (for about two songs) The White Stripes. Their records might be grand but they didn't interest me; at the BDO, they sounded thin. The last two-piece (bass, drums, guitar and vox) I saw was Sydneysiders Shark Arm; if there's any criticism - any - to be made it's that when you're tied to the bass loop pedal it restricts your movements. And a moving performer is what the crowd zero in on.

Gussie knows about those limitations, so while some songs keep her in the one spot, they've made the songs with her movements on stage in mind; and the crowd were rowdily appreciative. I'm gonna have to get their records. You should too. And top marks for The Scientists for putting them on.

So. A top, magical night all round.

The only thing I'll add is that I bloody well hope The Scientists had the foresight to record some of their shows this tour. It's well and truly time The Scientists put out a live LP. A double.

What type of vinyl would be appropriate, you ask? nah, not those coloured or splattered vinyls. Everyone does those.

Maybe one LP made from old x-rays, and the other from cremated folks.

The photos are by Alison Lea, photographer (and editor of “King Ink Strolls Into Town”, which covers The Birthday Party's memorable gigs in Adelaide in early 1981); her work will appear in the upcoming documentary about The Birthday Party.