To be a diamond in the rough, to be a cat among pigeons, to be a tenderloin in a turd butcher, is to be an innovator. An antagoniser. A revolutionary. An apt description perhaps when describing Gandhi or Mandela, strong words perhaps when attempting to convey the apparent evolutions of an obscure little music scene in Sydney, Australia in the late 1980s. But everything rings true; Kim Salmon and the Surrealists truly were diamonds in a scene growing rougher and turdier by the day.
After close to a decade of tunnelled avant-noise and art-school experimentation, Sydney’s Black Eye scene by the early 1990s hadn’t so much grown stale, but was in clear and present danger of swallowing itself whole in an orgiastic feast of experimental oneupmanship. Wild and incredible acts like Thug, Lubricated Goat and Box the Jesuit whilst crucial and balls-out insane, had either disbanded, or were in the throngs of becoming parodies of themselves. Gone was the primal urgency of output such as the Goats’ Paddock of Love or the challenging bedroom antic brutality of Black Eye’s now infamous compilation samplers, Waste Sausage and Leather Donut, in place several wishy-washy attempts at outdoing the un-outdo-able.
Thank the rock gods for Kim Salmon and the Surrealists.
At the time of release of the Surrealists’ debut LP ‘Hit Me With That Surreal Feel’, Kim Salmon had already cemented himself as an underground rock icon. From his early days in the late 1970s spelunking around Perth’s punk rock scene with The Cheap Nasties, The Exterminators and good buddies The Victims, it was clear that Salmon was a different cut than the thousands of punk rock clones stomping around Australian cities at the time. By the early 1980s, Salmon had successfully catapulted the Scientists into the collective consciousness of London’s trendy post-punk scene, ensuring that songs like ‘We Had Love‘ ‘Swampland‘ and ‘Solid Gold Hell‘ would forever remain in the annals of rock history. In 1983, with Scientists in full swing, Salmon joined the iconic Beasts of Bourbon featuring ex-Thug/Tex Deadly and the Dum Dums frontman Tex Perkins, Scientists bandmate Boris Sudjovic, Johnnys’ guitarist Spencer P. Jones and Le Hoodoo Gurus and ex-Victims drummer James Baker. A supergroup by any other name.
So, by 1988’s Surreal Feel, the formula that was the fledgling Surrealists -Salmon (vocals/guitar) and rotating Beasts of Bourbon members, Brian Hooper (bass) and Tony Pola (drums)- was already destined for success, and by 1991’s difficult third LP, the sleazily psychedelic ‘Essence’, that destiny had been fulfilled.
With worldly music elements gritting to the soles of their shoes like forty-year-old woman flock to a 2017 Backstreet Boys concert, the Surrealists had well and truly carved their niche in the underground music landscape, dragging the Black Eye scene, and indeed Black Eye Records, kicking and screaming into the slightly more conventional, less experimental 1990s. Bold influences like Serge Gainsbourg, Lee Hazelwood, Burt Bacharach and Hal David as well as 1960s garage and psychedelia had perforated both Sydney’s and Melbourne’s local music scenes, both of whom were looking to start afresh from the ultimate devastation that the decadent 1980s brought. Black Eye had evolved. In, the sleaze rock of Kim Salmon and the Surrealists and Beasts of Bourbon (Red Eye Records) and out, the crazed mechanical loopery of Thug and the acid-fried extortion of Lubricated Goat. In a post-1990 world of Seattle grunge and circling major labels, rock ‘n’ roll was back in vogue.
1993. Grunge was dead. Already. Not a slow death; quick. But no less painful. Pearl Jam and Stone temple Pilots pillaged and plundered the airwaves unwittingly paving the way for late-decade grunge lite to swoop in and luckily for us, die equally as quickly. But Salmon’s Surrealists stuck fat. They remained true to everything that they were; fierce, sleazy, dumpster rockers borne out of punk and scuzz and dereliction. Cue one of the decades’ great releases ‘Sin Factory’.
There’s something joyous about the sound a three-piece rock band churns during solos and bridges. There’s no layering, no pretension. Just the chug-a-lug of drums and bass holding together a precarious, tightroping shred of blistering guitar. It’s raw. Primal. Such is the essence of ‘Sin Factory’. As a behavioural correctional tool for complex, over-thinking musicians, this album oozes primeval urge and positively drips with sexuality. There’s nothing suggestive about it. It’s obscene. Pornographic. The most in-your-face get-your-fuck-on album since Marvin Gaye’s ‘Let’s Get it On’. And that’s before Salmon utters a single lyric.
*Handy hint: As the album peaks and troughs, ride the bumps. But make sure to sync your climax with the penultimate track ‘Non Stop Action Groove’. It’s made for it. The final track ‘The 1st Person’ is made purely for lighting cigarettes and cuddlin’.
Key Sin Factory tracks ‘I Fell’ ‘Gravity’ ‘Come On Baby’ ‘Rose Coloured Windscreen’ and ‘Non Stop Action Groove’ compel the senses to do just that. Groove.
Many consider this album to be Salmon’s magnum opus, not just with the Surrealists, but with Scientists and the Beasts of Bourbon included. That’s purely objective. What ‘Sin Factory’ is though is a coup-de-gras for the Black Eye scene as it was known and essentially for that present incarnation of the record label itself. In a nutshell, the scene had swallowed itself whole. The scene is dead.
Testament to this is the fact that many bands previously signed to the Black Eye label, including the Surrealists, had outgrown everything to do with it and ultimately needed to move on up to the mothership, Black Eye’s enveloper and birth-giver, Red Eye Records.
*Red Eye Records was eventually acquired by Polydor and picked apart like a chicken carcass by Universal.
But no matter how one feels about such things, this cannot be denied: Black Eye Records and its incestuous little scene in 1980s Sydney, from avant-savagery to sleaze rock, is still to this day one of the most important and creatively vital movements -yes, it was a movement- not only in Australian music history, but indeed universally. As mentioned in previous Sniffing Dirty Laundry articles, its influence spreads far and wide, to the early sounds of Seattle’s proto-grunge, to the Berlin art and punk rock scene, and even to the stubbornness of rival scenes, Melbourne and Adelaide.
I find it most fitting that something that began with a Thug and a Dum Dum, grew into a tour-de-force of secret message to the insane and absurd, and ended in an epilepsy of surrealism and wonder, with Kim Salmon and the Surrealists.
May the whole damn thing forever live on in our ailing memories.