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Beasts Of Bourbon’s Sour Mash: “A potent brew of belligerence and hedonism”

We get caught up in the maelstrom of the Australian band’s most productive period.

The everyday concerns of regional and metropolitan Australia are vastly different. In many ways, they are two different worlds.

While the gap for these concerns may have been closer in the ’80s, by and large when comparing the respective landscapes they have always been parallel universes.

Apart from the Comic Psychos, I can’t think of too many bands that broke down these boundaries of ‘city’ and ‘country’ like the Beasts Of Bourbon did.

As guitarist, Kim Salmon, once said, “Just chuck it all in there and see what happens. It’ll be great in some way, however fucked up and bad it is.”

He was right, of course – the Beasts Of Bourbon‘s approach akin to a roaring bonfire of chaos, which ended up being the band’s greatest boon, the flames spreading like a wildfire across the country.

Joining Salmon was singer, Tex Perkins, guitarist, the late Spencer P. Jones, bassist Boris Sujdovic and drummer, James Baker. Salmon and Sujdovic would move to the U.K. after the band’s 1984 debut album, The Axeman’s Jazz to conquer Europe with the Scientists, which adds to the legend of the Beasts‘1988 follow-up, Sour Mash (more on that shortly).

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Whether Sour Mash is the finest album of the Beasts‘ golden era is debatable.

The southern fried, gloriously unhinged The Axeman’s Jazz may just cut it amongst the Beasts‘ faithful, produced, in the words of Perkins, “on the back of three slabs of Victoria’s finest bitter and a bag of speed.”

Then there’s Black Milk which followed two years after Sour Mash. The refined side of the Beasts and the perfect swansong where the original line-up was concerned, mixing a hillbilly tenderness with that ever present roguish allure.

What probably can’t be debated is that Sour Mash best encapsulated the screaming hell storm that was indeed this incarnation of the Beasts Of Bourbon. Loose-cannon rock ‘n’ roll that held no bounds. So much so that (as many would claim) it made them the strongest live force in Australia since AC/DC. A potent brew of belligerence and hedonism, the key ingredient being illicit substance.

Beasts Of Bourbon (photo credit: Alain Rodier)

They made some of the most unhinged music in that period and while many talk about Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, on Sour Mash the Beasts‘ influences remained firmly within the shores from which they were born.

Like the golden child who was packed off to university, Cave was in Berlin being inspired by Nabokov. Then there was the Beasts.

Despite Salmon and Sujdovic‘s own European escapades with the Scientists post-The Axeman’s Jazz, there was still an air of the ugly step-brother who never forgot his roots, spending an existence in the sweaty climes of a panel beater’s furnace, elbow deep in grease and grime fixing Kenworths. Look no further than Sour Mash‘s opening song, Hard Work Drivin’ Man – a sludge-riddled cow-punk ode to the working class.

And that’s why the Beasts garnered such a fervent following. Through the aroma of cheap piss, stale ciggies and equally dubious narcotics, their themes spoke directly to the average Joe. On Sour Mash, this notion was amplified, much like the band’s sound which was essentially conceived from the depths of a pig slurry.

The Beasts Of Bourbon always had a sense of humour. Look no further than the The Axeman’s Jazz‘s The Day Marty Robbins Died where Perkins sings, “Oh Marty when you rode into El Paso/Wearing your white sports coat.” Years on and it still holds the same hilarity as it did at the first time of hearing.

Listeners have always interpreted the band’s lyrics in different ways which is what good art should provoke from its audience.

Stories on the back of booze and drugs may have been amusing but equally contained a dark undercurrent, exposing wider issues such as domestic violence and depression (look no further than Pig).

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As a society, we aim to progress and the Beasts‘ songs have morphed into different guises over the years, taking on different meanings, forever stirring the subconscious. Whether the band knew it at the time or not, it can be attributed to their sinister sense of humour.

Recorded in two days at Electric Avenue Studios in Balmain, Sydney, Sour Mash followed almost five years after the The Axeman’s Jazz. Perkins, Jones and Baker reconvened with Salmon and Sujdovic upon their return from their endeavours with Scientists to rekindle the spark.

Given some time in-between drinks and with the benefit of hindsight, it’s astonishing to hear how well the band picked up where they left off. The fact that they still possessed their deranged energy to move forward with new ideas is something that would be deemed as madness in today’s culture.

These days, most artists wouldn’t have the mental bandwidth for such a time gap and in the Beasts‘ case, it was a unique synergy between each band member that remained steadfast in maintaining this kind of longevity.

Where The Axeman‘s Jazz leaned heavily on southern gothic influences from afar, Sour Mash held firm on civic virtues.

The production on Sour Mash adds to its legend. The drums, recorded in the studio staircase with one overhanging microphone, with Jones leaving the door slightly ajar to signal to Baker when to end each song after the cacophony of noise from his and Salmon‘s squalling guitars, Sujdovic‘s butcher-raw bass lines and Perkins‘ moon dog howls.

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Hard For You is a lamentable love song bathed in menacing swamp rock reverb. “Gonna drag you through the shit/Gonna rub your nose in it/Hard for you,” grunts Perkins with snivelling gnarly fervour. It is the cow-punk anthem of the ’80s.

It was the Beasts in a nutshell, but participating in unbridled chaos, they quickly shattered that very nutshell with Playground. A creepy number dismantling of the idea of rock ‘n’ roll that unfurls into ode to Yobsville itself. A road to nowhere cry for help through the cold eyes of a drunken panel beater who seeks refuge in an asbestos riddled house crawling with cockroaches.

The aptly titled Door To Your Soul and Today I Started Loving You Again are ghoulish love songs that could oddly be first dance numbers at a farm wedding with the in-laws from both sides on the fringes, threatening to incite an all-in brawl.

Which takes us to These Are God Old Days. Vintage Beasts Of Bourbon. A song lathered in locality, with Perkins highlighting a bloke’s endeavours on Anzac Day. It’s a song of its time and while the themes may not have aged that well, it’s a reference point in history we must not forget.

Beasts Of Bourbon - Sour Mash

And speaking of blokes being blokes, there’s The Hate Inside. A dark twisted snapshot where alcoholism features prominently. It’s backed by the kind of instrumentation that the band would adopt during Black Milk.

Yet again, the rag-and-bone rocker that is Pig highlights chauvinism in the most literal ways, with domestic violence and substance abuse once again being central themes. Pig, as described by Salmon is a “suburban playground lament”, and is as disturbing today as it probably was when the song was written.

The Tom Waits-inspired Driver Man and The Ol’ Shit are demented blues-rock cuts that would probably make sense to someone who’s been on the ale for a good two days straight, while Perkins gets his sleazy croon on with Elvis Impersonator Blues – a hillbilly swoon that sees the band showcase their wicked sense of humour.

Years later, Henry Rollins claimed that the Beasts Of Bourbon blew Nirvana off the stage at Sydney‘s Big Day Out festival. I’m sure those in attendance could attest to such a claim.

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Beasts of Bourbon were the kind of band who stumbled into the party covered in grease and pig shit, but were loved all the more for it, not only by their local contemporaries, but their trans-Pacific cousins, as well.

It’s no secret that the grunge and noise-rock alumni held the Beasts of Bourbon in reverence. Bands like Mudhoney and The Jesus Lizard were evidently drawn to the band’s honesty and heart-on-sleeve persona, not unlike the Beasts‘ fellow countrymen, the Cosmic Psychos.

Generations on and the Beasts of Bourbon have gone on to influence many bands. Since the turn of the century, the cross-pollination and variations of blues, cow-punk and noise-rock have become something based more on ideals, with acts like Slug Guts, Eddy Current Suppression Ring, RVG and countless others adding more of an arty spin to the original framework.

Whilst equally interesting, it’s not a stretch to suggest that it all wouldn’t have been possible without Beasts Of Bourbon and, in particular, Sour Mash.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

12 replies on “Beasts Of Bourbon’s Sour Mash: “A potent brew of belligerence and hedonism””

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