’90s musical memories: 3/7

Day three, and I figure it’s time to put a bit of sleaze into the mix. So I’ve chosen one of the best: Kim Salmon & the Surrealists’ ‘Gravity’, from the Sin Factory album. It’s true, it’s not the reason I picked it up – that would be the solid-gold riff of ‘I Fell’ and its accompanying filmclip – but in terms of a statement of what that band’s about, I think you can’t go past the opening seconds, where an opening drum snap kicks off a world of full throated fuck-off wailing,

The song demands you listen to it. The Tony Cohen production is great – the drums are like woodchopping, the guitar a fuzzy knife, the bass slinking about somewhere. And the burr in Kim’s vocal is fantastic, as he basically sings about the inescapable notion that you’re gonna fuckin’ die and there’s nothing you can do but (hello, chorus) scream. It’s pretty great.

(I mean fuck, just listen to that rhythm section in the no-guitar part before the first verse repeats: it’s all slinky, pant-sniffin’ Brian Hooper greatness with some super-Cramps style Tony Pola tom work. It’s like flick-knife greasers dancing.) 

I didn’t really know Kim Salmon’s work before getting into it through Sin Factory, other than that he’d been a guitarist in The Beasts of Bourbon, notable for their a) sleaze and b) this excellent song about arse-importing drugs. I certainly had heard some Scientists songs, vaguely, but didn’t really get to know the fuller story until later, including seeing them at ATP NY one year. To me, he was an excellent guitar player who could pull off white shoes and a bodyshirt, the lucky bastard.

There was a Surrealists gig I couldn’t make while I was at university. I had some family thing on, and was driving back from catching up with my mate Jason at his student house in Newtown. I was at the lights on City Road and Broadway, just across from the Lansdowne Hotel. The doors were closed, but through them (and my closed car windows) all I could hear was ow! ow! ow! and the guitar riff of ‘Gravity’. I kind of liked that despite my inability to go to the show, I was able to get its nut graf through my car window on the way home.

I almost went with ‘Non-Stop Action Groove’ as the song of choice from the album, because I think it encapsulates the best and worst of the disc. It’s a fantastic riff, all sweat and swagger and yeah, wah-driven fingerbanging, but then the rest of the song doesn’t really go anywhere. It never takes off, but as a guitar nerd, I kind of don’t care because the tone and the sexface soloing is kind of enough. But it’s an indicator: I really, really love the thing when it’s on, but I don’t miss it, especially, when it’s gone.

(But then, that sort of either/of feeling is obliterated by something as eerily compelling as ‘Desensitised’ which, along with the lead from ‘I Fell’ was one of the first things I figured out on the guitar by ear. It’s masterfully, obsessively controlling. And that solo! And Warren Ellis! And the brushes! It’s recorded danger.)

Kim’s recorded a bunch of other albums, with a variety of lineups. The Surrealists were a local support when U2’s Zoo TV behemoth rolled into town – before Big Audio Dynamite II, thanks –  and it was pretty remarkable to see the trio, dwarfed by the overkill of the megaband’s stage, dealing with a hostile crowd (and shitty mix) by throwing ‘I’m Keeping You Alive’ and ‘The Cockroach’ at people expecting to get misty-eyed to ‘With Or Without You’. There’s something inherently ridiculous yet excellently enjoyable about a tiny crew screaming you’re in my world now… and I declare myself a god! to a bunch of people buying overpriced t-shirts.

Seriously, what a song. Wailing, yet clean and needling before the final crushing recognition that yes, you’re controlled entirely. It’s The Game in under five minutes.

I interviewed him – poorly – for the uni newspaper about the time that Ya Gotta Let Me Do My Thing came out. That album contains one of my absolute favourite Salmon tracks, ‘Insurance Man’. Check it out: the way the drums work in this song are endlessly interesting to me, and it conveys none-too-subtle menace particularly pleasingly.

(There’s a lot more music by the guy to check out, in various guises, You can buy some of it on Bandcamp, which is a thing you should do.)

I saw a lot of Salmon gigs. Some were full rock mode shows, where I would try to see what pedals were being used in typically nerd fashion. But some of the most enjoyable were smaller events. I remember spending a rainy day standing on a barstool at the Sando, pre-renovation, watching what seemed like hours of tunes, originals and covers, played by a leather-clad solo Salmon. The windows misted over, and the show ended with his howling version of Hank Williams’ ‘Ramblin’ Man’, and I walked out into the wet night with ringing ears and the desire to play the guitar.

There’s more polished songs out there, and there’s more grandiose musical experiences to be had on occasion. But there’s nothing that’ll make me want to plug in and play – as loudly as possible – more than Kim Salmon in fuck-off guitar mode.

Sometimes, that’s enough.

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