Beasts of Bourbon
The Axeman’s Jazz/Sour Mash/Black Milk
Though they may have devolved into a pub-rock caricature of their former selves, The Beasts of Bourbon’s first three albums – 'Axeman’s Jazz', 'Sour Mash' and 'Black Milk' – exhibit the band at their eclectic best, writes PATRICK EMERY.
By the time The Beasts of Bourbon imploded in a screaming heap of excess and egos during their 2008 European tour, it was difficult to reconcile the band with their original incarnation. Once known for their idiosyncratic blend of psychobilly, sociopathic country and fucked-up blues, The Beasts had devolved into a spitting and snarling pub-rock caricature of their former self.
The story of The Beasts’ conception is reasonably well known. Tex Perkins had recently moved from his native Brisbane to Sydney with his band Tex Deadly and The Dum Dums. Left with a booking commitment compromised by the departure of some of his band mates, Perkins called upon Johnnys guitarist Spencer P Jones and Scientists bassist Boris Sudjovic to help him out. According to the first of many legends that grew up around the Beasts, the band played solely for alcoholic reward; a scenario that seems entirely plausible.
For the next year or so The Beasts line-up was a rotating cast of local luminaries, including Richard Ploog (The Church), The Scientists’ Kim Salmon and Boris Sudjovic, Stu Spasm (Lubricated Goat), Graham Hood (The Johnnys), and James Baker and Brad Shepherd from The Hoodoo Gurus (the latter eventually kicked out as a quid pro quo for the summary dismissal of Baker from The Gurus).
Eventually The Beasts settled on the line-up of Perkins, Jones, Salmon, Sudjovic and Baker. It was this line-up that sauntered into a Sydney recording studio to record the band’s first album, The Axeman’s Jazz. Like so much of The Beasts’ history, the recording session has become the subject of urban rock’n’roll mythology. It’s said the album –recorded immediately prior to Jones succumbing to a state of alcoholic paralysis, closely followed by Baker, with Salmon stumbling drunkenly into the oncoming traffic outside the studio – was restrained from a near certain fatal collision by Perkins’ watchful hand.
Despite its shambolic conception, The Axeman’s Jazz remains a seminal Australian independent release. From the folksy country-pop of ‘Evil Ruby’ and ‘The Day Marty Robbins Died’, to the Raymond Chandler-inspired ‘Love & Death’ and the murderous ‘Psycho’ (a cover of a Leon Payne song, which became the first single from the record), The Axeman’s Jazz blended psychotic lyrics, B-grade cinematic imagery and psychobilly-stained country licks. Salmon and Baker had contributed ‘Drop Out’ from their Scientists days, while the crowd-favourite ‘10 Wheels For Jesus’ conjured up images of a mescaline-ravaged Hank Williams indulging his inner-demons at the Grand Ole Opry.
“According to the first of many legends that grew up around the Beasts, the band played solely for alcoholic reward; a scenario that seems entirely plausible.”
Despite its initial cult success, The Beasts ceased activity while the various members pursued other projects. By 1988, the members of The Beasts were ready to reconvene. Salmon and Sudjovic had returned from the UK in the wake of The Scientists’ implosion. With his own efforts at European success having ended in disappointment and deportation, Perkins was looking for a more solid outfit to take up the slack from his various ramshackle outfits, which included Thug, Toilet Duck and The Butcher Shop. Baker and Sudjovic took time out from the fledgling Dubroviks, and The Beasts emerged from hibernation to record the band’s second album, Sour Mash, which adopted a similar conceptual pattern to The Axeman’s Jazz.
Jones’ ‘The Hate Inside’ took up where ‘Psycho’ left off, ‘The Big Sleep’ continued the Raymond Chandler indulgence while ‘Elvis Impersonator Blues’ followed in the vein of the oddball humour of ‘10 Wheels for Jesus’. Perkins had also brought with him the misogynist rant ‘Hard for You from The Butcher Shop’, and in doing so arguably sowed the seeds of the linear rock path that would eventually suffocate the 21st century Beasts. By way of contrast, Salmon’s ‘Playground’ might just as easily have found itself on The Scientists’ Human Jukebox or the Surrealists’ Hit Me With the Surreal Feel.
In 1990, The Beasts headed back into the studio to record what would be the final album featuring the original recording line-up, Black Milk. In hindsight, Black Milk is the album that first highlighted the fork in the road The Beasts were rapidly – and presumably drunkenly – approaching. While the title track, replete with Perkins’ breathless vocals and the shards of guitar, returned The Beasts into the darker territory they’d always been comfortable with, Salmon’s contributions (‘Hope You Find Your Way to Heaven’, ‘Cool Fire’, ‘Words From a Woman to Her Man’ and ‘I’m So Happy I Could Cry’) suggested a more complex emotional character that was ultimately outflanked by the Beasts’ boozing, obnoxious public persona. The first single, a blistering cover of Hound Dog Taylor’s ‘Let’s Get Funky’, soon found a regular position in the Beasts’ set-list, alongside Jones’ ‘Bad Revisited’ and ‘Execution Day’.
By 1991 Baker and Sudjovic had decided to concentrate on The Dubrovniks, to be replaced by Tony Pola and Brian Hooper from Salmon’s Surrealists. While the Low Road line-up would solidify the Beasts’ reputation, never again would they exhibit the eclectic style – not to mention the sense of humour – of the first three albums. With the final line-up of the Beasts now laid to rest, and the band’s original output re-released and digitally re-mastered, surely the time is right for a reformation of the original recording line-up. Don’t Look Back, anyone?
The Beasts Of Bourbon The Axeman’s Jazz/*Sour Mash*/Black Milk box set is out now on Provenance/Inertia.