By Greg Brooker
If a list was put together of the best underground acts from Australia during the late 1970s and 1980s, there’s a pretty good chance that a significant proportion of the acts were in some way linked with Australia’s great underground rock supergroup the Beasts of Bourbon – a name that reputedly relates to the “alcoholic ambiance” that settled wherever the band laid their collective hats.
The Beasts of Bourbon were born of Tex Perkins’ burden of filling a series of gigs that had been booked ahead of losing a band. Perkins drafted in one or two people he knew, who then dragged in their friends, based on the fact that they could play music, have fun and drink a lot while doing so. This is the stuff of legends. In the early days, the lineup fluctuated based on who was available, with the variables of Brad Shepherd from the Hoodoo Gurus, Hoody’ Hood from the Johnnies or even the infamous Stu Spasm from Lubricated Goat. The initial recorded line up of the band was ex-Victims/ex-Scientists/ex-Hoodoo Gurus James Baker on drums, ex-Scientists Kim Salmon on guitar, ex-Scientists Boris Sudjovic on bass, ex-Johnny Spencer P. Jones on guitar, and the ‘Legendary’ Tex Perkins on vocals and lead menace. To see the Beasts live was an awesome experience; literally, you had the cream of the crop from underground rock, including three talented front men and songwriters (Salmon, Perkins and Jones), as well as superb players (while James Baker could always be relied upon for song writing as well), and there was always the threat of sleaze and violence. They had talent, volume, presence Perkins in Full Swing and hordes of admiring fans already built in.
When they took to the stage, you knew you would get a great show, but what form this took or what direction the evening would go, you never knew.
I saw the group play on several occasions, supporting several of their releases and it was always a night to remember. Before gigs, the various band members could be seen prowling around the venue, drinks and cigs in hand, a visible physical threat (Tex Perkins wearing a virtually see-through shirt with his hair stacked high, adding to his already intimidating height, propping up the bar at the Old Melbourne Hotel) awaiting to be unleashed. Once on stage, the whole was greater than the parts (and given the parts here, that is saying a lot) and the results were spectacular. The audience seethed like some mindless creature, under the control of the shaman on stage. Their first album, The Axeman’s Jazz, was recorded live to two-track, over the course of one booze-addled night*, for a handful of dollars by Australian music legend Tony Cohen. This glorious lo-fi swamp-blues epic was released initially in 1984 by Green/Big Time Records – with each track a classic original or cover version of murder, death, mayhem or teenage delinquency. Most bands would kill to have recorded any of these tracks, let alone have them on a debut. The Axeman’s Jazz could possibly be one of the greatest records to come out of the 1980s. The cover of the album shows the culprits, most of whom wouldn’t look astray on wanted posters. The first single, a cover of Jack Kittel’s 1974 country horror track “Psycho” set the scene for years to come. The other cover on the record is CCR’s “Graveyard Train.” The killer track from an album of beauties is “Dropout,” a paean to alienation and a great drinking song. The album contains other classics such as “Evil Ruby,” “Love & Death,” “10 Wheels for Jesus,” “Save Me A Place,” “Lonesome Bones” and “The Day Marty Robbins Died” (the lead into this track contains the classic piece of technical advice to “Try it more twangy, Spencer”).
As Tex Perkins later stated in an interview, The Beasts were loved by, and provided for “the forgotten 5% of people who liked the fucked-up weird shit,” and the band “was more like a collision than a collaboration.” Their follow-up album, Sour Mash, released in 1988, saw the reuniting of this bunch of most unusual suspects. A much harder-edged record, summed up in the bass-pounding, throat-shredding “Hard Work Driving Man,” an update on Captain Beefheart. Another uncompromising record, blending covers and originals, it continued the legend that the first album had begun. Other stand out tracks are “Hard For You,” “Door To Your Soul,” “The Hate Inside,” “Driver Man” and “Pig” (“Cause I’m A Pig/And I Don’t Give A Shit”). There was a story going around (unconfirmed and, therefore, a piece of urban myth), that at one of the gigs in Perth, Perkins took a disliking to a particular punter in the front row and took a swing at him. As I said, unconfirmed, but believable if you had seen and heard the band at this point. On stage, the combination was a walking talking ticking time bomb. Released in 1990, their third album Black Milk saw a return to the familiar territory of the bar room and is another classic, containing the beautiful Salmon-penned “Cool Fire” and the Jones-penned “Execution Day.” Keyboards were provided by Louis Tillet (formerly of the Wet Taxis and the Aspersion Cast, who was later to release excellent solo material such as Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell).
Much less brutally upfront than Sour Mash, Black Milk could be considered The Beasts’ most “romantic” offering, at least within their unique world. Tracks like “I Hope You Find Your Way To Heaven,” “I’ve Let You Down Again,” “I’m So Happy I Could Cry” and “Blue Stranger” show a new side to the Beasts. As always, the blues were never far away; witness “Black Milk” and “Rest In Peace.” The single cover gracing the album is Hound Dog Taylor’s “Let’s Get Funky.” Between the third and fourth LPs, Baker and Sudjovic retired from active duty with the Beasts (spending more time on their other project, the Dubrovniks) and were replaced with the Surrealists’ rhythm section of Brian Hooper and Tony Pola.
Album four, 1991’s The Long Road, was a lean, mean frightening machine – an aural assault that forgot romance, and showed the downside of life, lyrically covering all of the things that your parents warned you about: Sex (“Just Right,” “Cocksucker Blues”), drugs (“Chase The Dragon,” “The Low Road”) and rock n’ roll (“Ride On”). As always, the covers are dynamite, with the Stones’ “Cocksucker Blues” and AC/DC’s “Ride On,” while the originals like “There’s A Virus Going Around” and “Goodbye Friends” are just as potent and superb. 1993’s From the Belly of The Beasts was a double LP of live tracks, B-sides and demos. The live tracks from ‘91 and ‘92’s cross-country rampage, the B-sides and demos a mix of originals and covers (“Ramblin Man,” “Dead Flowers,” “Train Kept A Rollin,” “Dirty Water,” “Crawfish” and “Anarchy In The UK”).
1993 also spawned a book, long form video and tour all titled “Ten Years Behind Bars” and, unfortunately (as I must admit to being an unashamed Salmon fan), the loss of Kim Salmon, who wanted to spend more time on the Surrealists**.
1996/1997 saw a rebirth with the Beasts rising from the ashes for Gone with a new line up: Perkins on vocals, Charlie Owens and Spencer Jones on guitars and Surrealists’ rhythm section Brian Hooper and Tony Pola. Gone is rockhard, exemplified by anthemas such as “Saturated,” “What a Way to Live,” “That Sinking Feeling Again” and “This Day Is Over” — the songs are stark, raw stabs of rock n’ roll, short sharp shocks to the soul. Produced by the Beasts for the first time, it is again, as expected, a strong release. Unfortunately, Gone stands as the last of the last chapter in the Beasts’ recording history. A best-of compilation Beyond Good and Evil was released in 1999. The band members, however, are still prolific, putting out music under their own names (Kim Salmon with the Surrealists, the Business and solo; Spencer Jones solo and with Cow Penalty; Tex Perkins with the Cruel Sea and solo; and Charlie Owen with the New Christs).
If you are one of the 5% who like the fucked-up weird shit, you ought to discover the Beasts for yourself.
* – The Axeman’s Jazz was supposedly recorded in 8 hours — at the end of which band members started passing out with the assistance of 72 beers and a bottle of scotch.
** – This marked a lull for the band in general, with Tex Perkins seeking more time with his other outfit the Cruel Sea as well.