The Saints



A RAINY afternoon on Sydney's Oxford Street. Inside a modest green-tiled hotel a man withflecks of grey in his Botticelli curls is buying drinks for people he's known for five minutes.

"Isn't that Chris Bailey?" asks a girl at the bar. It is. "Is he still with Ed Kuepper?" she whispers. Absolutely not.......

In the mid-70s, Bailey and Kuepper were friends as well as founding members of a Brisbane rock band, The Saints. They recorded a brilliant debut single called (I'm) Stranded, caught the ear of the influential British music paper Sounds andsigned to EMI as the sole antipodean representatives on the British punk scene.

But this pop fairytale had a bitter twist. Refusing to pander to punk'sspiky-haired ethos the band lost their critical approval and sales declined. EMIdumped them after their third album. Kuepper and Bailey contemplated an ongoingsongwriting partnership - "Staying in London and becoming Lennon and McCartney"- but Kuepper returned to Australia in 1978 and formed The Laughing Clowns.

Bailey insists there were no hard feelings at the time. He kept The Saints name and soldiered on. But Kuepper was not always kind about the band after his departure and the duo somehow became estranged. Bailey still isn't sure why.

"I really like Ed and I have a suspicion the feeling is mutual," says the ever-garrulous Bailey. "But he is mind-numbingly antagonistic. I don't know whether we haven't resolved some teenage feud ... because he seems obsessed with that period of his life."

It's a blunt assessment that is typical of the 40-year-old singer/songwriter.

He's just as anxious to dispel the popular notion that The Saints were prescient godfathers of punk. Dropping into a chair and lighting the first of many cigarettes, he puts the whole episode down to luck.

"To glorify the (I'm) Stranded thing as anything but a lucky break ... would be incredibly egocentric and asinine," he says in a weary, yet surprisingly refined English accent. "We managed to get an independent single to the right reviewer at the right time. To say it was planned would be a lie."

It's easy to understand Bailey's frustration with those who pigeonhole The Saints as class-of-77 punks. It diminishes their work in the mid-80s, a period during which they recorded some of their finest songs. The 1986 album All Fools Day is still Bailey's favourite disc.

"The Saints weren't ever part of the punk myth and if we were it was by default," he says. "Since that day we've been dancing around the stereotype." He pauses to draw on the cigarette and permits himself a dry chuckle. "It's been a life ..."

The 80s incarnation of The Saints dissolved in 1989 with the release of the album Prodigal Son. Gathered one night in a "great little bar in Paris", Bailey asked the band to give him one good reason why they should continue. They couldn't. It was the start of a difficult phase. Bailey found himself in the middle of a dispute between the band's Australian label Mushroom and their New
York-based representative TVT (home of Nine Inch Nails). The Saints were barred from releasing material in America until the resolution of the dispute and their leader was "banished" to Tennessee to make a "more American-sounding record" under his own name.

It was a disaster. He describes the aptly named Demons project as "the longest, most painful and ridiculously horrible recording experience of my life". Another "illogical sidestep" was the role of Pope Liberty III in the 1994 Australian rock musical Bad Boy Johnny and the Prophets of Doom. At least it paid well. "I was threatened with a not-bad salary and the chance to be a showgirl for two months in the world's worst conceived raa-wwk musical," says Bailey. "It was purely mercenary."

While the production earned largely lukewarm reviews at least one critic singled out his "wonderfully sleazy old pope" for praise. The physical comparisons with disc jockey Doug Mulray were probably less welcome.

Today things are looking brighter. The 21/2-year Mushroom/TVT dispute is resolved and a new incarnation of The Saints is back on the road and touring Australia. There's even a new album, Howling, a lo-fi garage rock gem that seems perfectly in tune with prevailing music fashion.

Why re-form The Saints? He puts it down to his rediscovery of the electric guitar and the "desire not to live anywhere and travel with a bunch of smelly bastards in a bus". In danger of smiling, he lights another cigarette instead. "I occasionally need and want to be in a rock band and The Saints are it."

Bailey certainly has the air of the professional itinerant. Having temporarily quit his home in Malmo, Sweden, his conversation is peppered with references to cities as far-flung as New York, Adelaide and Paris. Only hours after a gruelling flight from Greece where The Saints played a string of concerts - he strolls into a hotel on Sydney's busiest strip and quickly charms the locals.

He admits to loving life on the road, but even that comes second to songwriting. "I'm a song junkie," he says. "The performance thing is a kickback and it's nice to ponce about on stage. But I could live without that."

Indeed, his aspirations, shaped by two decades in what he derisively calls "show
business", are modest. "I never expected a prize for being the lead singer in a rock band," he says.
"I'm more than happy if I keep the devil away from the door and manage to indulge myself by making records once a year."