MORE SINNED AGAINST THAN SINNING
Richard Mason pays homage to THE SAINTS (July 1998)
'Rock music in the seventies was changed by three bands-
the Sex Pistols, the Ramones and the Saints'- Bob Geldof
...and who are we to argue with The Man Who Fed The World?
Summer 1977. The third single by the Sex Pistols is not banned by the BBC. By the time 'Pretty Vacant' enters the Top 20, another punk 45 has been issued by EMI; the third single by an Australian group recently arrived in the U.K. hoping to find the musical climate more tolerant of their brand of high-octane, forward-looking rock'n'roll than their native land, where the club they opened because no established venue would book them had been closed down by the Queensland Department of Health on the grounds that it only had one toilet. By chance the two singles are both featured on 'Top Of The Pops' during the same week.
Throughout the length and breadth of the U.K. many folk, myself included, sat glued to the TV screen waiting for the Pistols to appear. Among the pop flotsam and jetsam, we had to endure in doing so, and sticking out like as much of a sore thumb as the main attraction themselves were four burly, surly, unrepentantly unfashionable (in all senses of the word) men miming their guitars and drums in an offhand and disrespectful manner. The song they performed shot by like an express train through a picturesque country station, a blur of searing minor chords topped off by a caustic lyric sneered into the microphone by a huge singer with a heretical mop of hair. Some phrases stuck out: 'it's all so funny I can't laugh': 'don't need no-one to tell me what I don't already know': but the over-riding impression was one of sullen discontent conveyed at nothing and everything in particular. The Pistols by comparison presented a knowing singalong, a playful two fingers issued from a position of comparative strength and distance; we're so pretty we made a film! Of course it was a great record. But it almost sounds tame and cliched now when compared to the withering wave of sound and fury that constitutes "This Perfect Day" by the Saints. Many overlooked it along with the rest of the songs featured on TOTP that week in the excitement generated by the knowledge that the Pistols were to be on. Similarly, many have since forgotten the Saints or dismissed them as second-rate Bruce-come-lately's on the punk scene. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Singer Chris Bailey and guitarist Ed Kuepper had met at high school in Brisbane and soon formed a songwriting partnership that would form the core of the Saints' oeuvre. Along with bassist/drummer/keyboard player Ivor Hay, another schoolmate, they formed the proto-Saints, initially with Ivor on piano and no drums. Taking musical inspiration from other misfits such as The Pretty Things, the early Kinks and the Stooges, they embarked upon a systematic polarization of the Brisbane music scene, building up both a staunch following and an equally committed opposition. They eventually released their debut single in 1976, the devastating "(I'm) Stranded," on their own Fatal label and sent copies to every overseas music journalist they could in hope of a reaction. They got lucky.
The UK music paper Sounds made it their Single Of The Week in an age when that meant something and the group were eventually signed, with considerable reservation, by EMI Australia, for whom they recorded their debut LP in two days in Brisbane. Released in 1977, (I'm) Stranded still has the power and depth to this day that enabled it to create such an impression way back when. The unforgettable title track sets the pace: a huge rushing sound topped by a breathless, desperate vocal howl of isolation from and contempt for the rest of the planet, yet such is the skill of the songwriting that it remains unmistakeably a 'pop' song, albeit closer to the sledgehammer riffing approach of the Detroit school than to the bubblegum buzzsaw approach of their contemporaries the Ramones. "One Way Street" ups the ante if anything, a frenetic tale of paranoia and dead ends with a devastating hook and a stinging, concise solo from Kuepper, whose guitar playing consistently lifts the songs to another level; exquisitely precise and consistently frenetic.
Other highlights from the LP include... the whole bloody thing. There's the self-explanatory "Wild About You," the slow melancholy swing of "Messin' With The Kid" with its partial take on the Stones' "Sway" (heresy!), the sly fury of "Erotic Neurotic" with its apocalyptic countdown ending to close side 1, the detonating riff that kicks off both "No Time" and side 2 to the more reflective but equally sour and committed "Story of Love" and the comparatively playful "Kissin' Cousins". One constant criticism of the Saints was their penchant for oldies (the 1-2-3-4 EP features breakneck versions of 'Lipstick On Your Collar' and 'River Deep, Mountain High') as if that somehow disqualified them from a status ranking; the Year Zero mentality was in full swing and the 60s revival was a thing of the future. None of this however really prepares the uninitiated listener for the way in which "Demolition Girl" suddenly becomes the astonishing "Nights In Venice" to close Side 2; the real fury of the Saints erupts here in a depth charge of a track that is pure lacerant energy, primitive and unyielding.
Reaction both to (I'm) Stranded and to the group's live performances once they reached the U.K. was, with the benefit of hindsight, predictably parochial. Faced with a choice between groups who would have failed to grasp the irony in Peter Hammill's observation that 'the music plays a supporting role' and the Saints, the majority of British punters opted for the former and dismissed the Australians as bandwagon-jumping hippies. Fair enough, plenty of those about, but the Saints were anything but. They in turn were singularly unimpressed by the parochialism they encountered; 'too many people following slavishly after', as Ed Kuepper tartly observed. The British music press was generally more enthusiastic, but there was still the feeling that the Saints were not the genuine article.
Decried in Britain for not being what they had been persecuted for being on their home turf, the Saints vented their spleen through the songs that were to constitute their second LP, eventually recorded at the end of 1977 in London and caustically entitled Eternally Yours. Musically and lyrically, the development from their debut was immediately evident, no more so than in the opening track, also a classic single, the superb "Know Your Product." From the first strains of the swaggering, Stax-influenced brass arrangement, it was clear the Saints had come to relish their unfashionable status; it meant they felt comfortable to do as they pleased. The trademarks of their sound from the first LP remained; the searing rhythm guitar, the rock-solid bass & drums (Kym Bradshaw had by now been replaced by Alistair Ward on the former) and Chris Bailey's contemptuous sneer of a vocal. But now, as well as the horns, there was a greater variety in the sound, a better production and a marked maturity in Bailey and Kuepper's writing. Not that the energy had been dissipated; "Lost & Found", the LP's second track, was as ferocious as anything that had gone before, as was "Private Affair", where the group laid into what they saw as the inherent parochialism of the U.K. scene with a vengeance:
'We got new thoughts, new ideas, it's all so groovy
It's just a shame that we've all seen the same old movie'
'It's a shame
Cos not everybody wants to look the same
And not everybody wants to think the same
And not everybody wants to act the same
And I say everybody don't wanna be the same'
But the U.K. got off lightly compared to the Saints' native land. The incandescent fury of "No, Your Product" topped anything that had gone before; a killer chorus, biting lyrics and an incredible finale reminiscent of the Clash's superb "Complete Control", but if anything more impassioned, with guitar and vocal at the end of their respective tethers. At the end Bailey is ranting, lashing out verbally at anything within reach, begging the question he screams out at the track's conclusion, totally bereft of remorse; 'Did I commit a crime/Against the state?/Isn't that a shame!' The track shudders to a halt and all you can do is turn the thing over and straight into "This Perfect Day", if anything a more impassioned and darker version than the single. All this has been thinly veiled ranting against the homeland, but by the time you get to "Orstralia", three tracks in on side 2, gloves are off. 'We got no hard times, got no war/No need to use your brain no more' spells it out in words of one syllable. Even the giggling and mugging on the concluding "International Robots" sounds shot through with irony; these robots drink beer all day and lounge about in the sun appears to be the underlying message. Nonetheless, it winds up a superb LP, a development from the debut without being a sacrifice of its intensity and commitment. It also received favourable reviews, but the Saints were still seen by many as somehow not the real thing, too old, most likely hippies on the make to boot. What an injustice.
As 1977 turned into 1978, the U.K. music scene became more open, more prepared to consider and accept experimentation in music again without ceding to a return to the ghastly horror of so-called progressive rock. Groups could bang on in interviews with the music press about being into Lee Perry, Can, Captain Beefheart and Funkadelic without fear of ridicule (mainly because John Lydon had said it was okay) and tracks once again were able to break through the three minute barrier and survive. But the Saints, determined as ever to follow their instincts irrespective of prevailing trends, chose the wrong influences; soul and R'n'B. Moreover, they conspicuously failed merely to reproduce these influences for the benefit of lovers of nostalgia, preferring for some odd reason to incorporate aspects of them into their established style in a mature and measured manner.
Some people never learn. The resulting LP, entitled with the group's trademark biting sardonicism Prehistoric Sounds and recorded in mid-'78, appeared later that year to a tidal wave of indifference. Those that even bothered to listen bemoaned the demise of the frenetic punk rock guitar sound for the main part and questioned the veracity of the horn arrangements and soul covers. Their loss. "Swing For the Crime", the opening track, featured careering horns and more personalised and obscure lyrics, whilst retaining the hard-edged Saints approach of yore. "Every Day's A Holiday, Every Night's A Party" showed the group had not completely reconciled themselves to the land of their birth as they painted a picture of a world where the rallying cry inevitably was 'Let's have another drink'. "Brisbane (security city)" kept up the attack, albeit with a feeling more akin to cynical worldweariness than the out and out rage of previous LPs. "Everything's Fine", Kuepper's lilting solo composition that opened side 2, captured this mood perfectly with droll horns and piano and lyrics illustrating a degree of healthy cynicism about rock music in general:
'When you look at life all you see is a dull reality
Wait until some clown on stage explains to you life's mysteries'
However, the standard overall was slightly down; covers of Otis Redding's "Security" and Aretha Franklin's "Save Me" lacked the fire of old and other originals seemed to divide naturally into those penned by the singer and those by the guitarist, with the former especially seeming to lack something by comparison with the tracks on the first two albums. Songs like "The Chameleon" represented a striving for a new sound and direction, but, unlike more successful tracks, ended up being neither one thing nor the other. However, the LP scarcely deserved its fate. Reviews were hard to come by, and the group was no longer a favourite of the British music press.
Eventually the inevitable happened and the group split, acrimoniously as it turned out, with Bailey continuing to front a group called 'The Saints' to this day, much to Kuepper's chagrin. In partial retaliation, the guitarist later sported a combo called 'The Aints' to show he hadn't entirely lost his acerbic sense of humour with regard to this one. (More to the point, he also formed The Laughing Clowns, one of the most important and unjustly overlooked of all the 'post-punk' bands; hopefully you can read more about them in these pages at some stage in the not-too-distant future.) Scarcely anyone noticed the demise of the Saints at the time; after all, we were far too busy waiting for the next edict from on high from Public Image Limited. Only in more recent years has the legacy of the Saints as one of the truly GREAT '70's punk rock outfits been properly acknowledged; indeed, the recent release of The Most Primitive Band In The World, a CD featuring demos of material from early 1974 that later appeared in different versions on the first LP (this was when the Ramones were still rehearsing and the Swankers were still nicking gear, remember) helps to put them in proper perspective as true originators rather than mere camp followers in the punk vanguard of the late 70s. Unfortunately, as with so many other bands, the ultimate downfall of the Saints was the one human quality they strove against throughout their career: apathy.
Thanks to Richard Ramage for his help with this article. Highly recommended: THE OFFICIAL ED KUEPPER SITE, containing information on, amongst other things, how to get hold of Saints' re-releases on CD via the Anglo-Australian multi-national HOT records, to be found at: www.tt.net/hot/kuepper/
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