by Dave Thompson
This text was lifted from the Gallery of Sound a highly recommended Ezine.
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|They were, as the more erudite critics would say, the cat's pajamas. Blasting out of Brisbane, Australia, in 1976, at a time when the entire continent was known for nothing more than didgeridoo virtuoso Rolf Harris, and the Little River Band, for Chrissakes, the Saints slavered and slobbered across some of the greasiest three chord rock you've ever heard, a twisted tsunami of mutated old Stones riffs, dipso Stooges half-breeds and a seriously damaged din in any book. Australia had seen nothing like them.
"The Saints were a massive influence in their attitude towards things," recalls Nick Cave - one of a host of future Ozrockers who would fall beneath their malevolent spell. "They would come down to Melbourne and play these concerts which were the most alarming things you've ever seen, just such anti-rock kind of shows, where the singer [Chris Bailey] wouldn't come on stage, and when he did, he was this fat alcoholic. It was so misanthropic, it was unbelievable, and the whole band were like that. They were so loud!"
They still are, dear boy. Even though Bailey himself now reckons that "thousands, literally thousands" of musicians have passed through the ranks of the Saints still then, clock any of the albums which are currently on the shelves - reissues of their first two, or their spanking brand new latest, The Howling - and though the players may change, the playing remains the same. Misanthropic, unbelievable, loud.
Bailey laughs at Cave's recollections, a kind of "pot calling the kettle black" laugh (although he does not say it himself); then explains.
"The last few records I made under my own name were quite the antithesis of what The Howling became; over the past few years I've been making fairly acoustic, quite lovely little records, but a few years back I was going through a songwriting session with a friend, and she banned me from bringing in an acoustic guitar. And I kind of had vague plans to do something Saints-wise, so...." So, he gathered together the umpteenth line-up of a bona fide rock'n'roll legend, plugged in and let rip.
The Saints story, gloriously debilitated though it is, remains one of startlingly lost opportunities. Announcing their existence with one of the classic singles of the era, "Stranded," the Saints arrived in London in early 1977, drawn by the emergent punk scene. Their first major gig saw them opening for the Ramones and Talking Heads at the Roundhouse in June; by the end of the summer, their debut album had been released on EMI's Harvest subsidiary, and the band was fully absorbed into punk's body politik. Or was it?
"I was never terribly fond of the punky rock scene in England," Bailey admits. "If it hadn't been for that scene, I'd probably still be working in an abattoir in the antipodes, so I suppose I should be grateful to it, because it did get us a bus ticket to the other side of the world.
"But the thing I didn't really like about it - when the band were still impressionable teenagers, and we were living in a very parochial part of a very parochial country, I think we took it all very seriously; it was the end of the Vietnam period, the height of that idealistic 'we're not going to sell out, bah humbug' thing, talking revolution and all that kind of thing. And you only had to spend two days on the Kings Road to realize that wasn't true."
Eternally Yours, the Saints' second album (and, like Stranded, newly reissued through Triple X), appeared in 1978, and went out of its way to reflect that distaste, from the exaggeratedly "fat man with beer gut" cover photo, and Bailey's decidedly unpunky long stringy hair, through to the souped up R&B in the grooves. And their record company hated it. "It was all very corporate and we got into a lot of trouble for not wearing the right clothes, having the right haircuts... if we had come up fifteen years later, we'd maybe have been part of that grunge scene, but timing has never been one of the Saints' big things."
"It all came down to producing an image to go with the product; what I think happened, EMI lost interest because they thought they were buying one thing and of course they got another; management lost interest because EMI lost interest; the group was very young in a lot of respects, and quite green; there were internal squabbles which there always are amongst children; and Ed [co-founder Kuepper] and I didn't like London very much."
A third album, Prehistoric Sounds all but died, and the band was dropped, to roam the wilderness of quasi-legal European cult labels, dodgy demos which snuck out as new albums, a mess and a muddle which was not truly resolved until almost a full decade later. "We signed to TVT in America, right after they stopped being a TV theme music label - Fred Flintstone was their first signing, the Saints was their second, and that ended badly."
Very badly indeed. Prodigal Son in 1989 was the band's last album. "I stopped making Saints records for a while, and it was partly out of... I was kind of forced into a corner by litigation; TVT, management, there was a lot going down, millions of dollars were at issue, so that made things a little difficult. And then, as is always the case, I get distracted very easily, so I did the albums under my own name. So the whole Saints thing is years behind schedule."
The Bailey solo albums which followed, however, remain unmitigated delights: Demons (1991), 54 Days At Sea (1994), and stuck in the middle, Savage Entertainment (1992), an album which seriously ranks alongside the best of Seventies Dylan, and if it was the only record he'd ever made, would still have established Bailey amongst the greatest songwriters of the age.
The Howling, though the first sound you hear is a wall of distortion, and the remainder is a brain-bruising blurge of sonic assault, does not diminish that standing. "I think of this record as being quite low-fi, very unpretentious," Bailey muses. "This is my idea of what bands should be, and I think it was a matter of rediscovering how much fun you can have, just plugging in without too many effects. It's very hard for me to be objective about my work as a songwriter, the people you work with tend to cover you. But I wanted to make the kind of record I'd have made if I hadn't made any other records."
So, what about all the accusations that dredging up a dear old band name, then going out on the road one more time, is simply a callous, cold, manipulative nostalgia ploy, designed not for music, but to make the proverbial buck? Bailey, who admits he still regard the Pistols reformation with as much cynical vitriol as any right-minded observer, simply shrugs. "There is a bit of that going about, but I don't think it really applies to the Saints, simply because making a buck and being in the Saints seem to be mutually incompatible. Plus, I'm not terribly fond of nostalgia.
"Anytime I do anything loud - I wanted to go back out on the road in a band situation, and whenever I've made rock albums, the Saints is the only band I've ever had. It would have seemed silly to me to go out as the Gay Biker Son Of Death Metal Combo, although it might have been a bit more topical given how retro the world of showbusiness has become. But I've had the Saints so long it would have seemed silly not to carry on. Plus, I kind of enjoy the fact that this shambolic thing continues to maintain itself on the periphery of showbusiness."