The Saints
Wild About You 1976-1978

Complete Studio Recordings - Liner Notes (Raven Records RVCD-107)

NIGHTS IN VENICE by Clinton Walker

I first became aware of the Saints in 1974, while living in Brisbane. I had transferred to a new school, Corinda High. There, in art class, I met a gaggle of antisocial young long hairs that revolved around an embryonic band called the Saints. Perhaps the strongest common bond I had initially with the guys in art was that we all hated hippies. I fell in with them, and it wasn’t long before I fell in the Saints’ thrall too.

The band wasn’t actually playing at that time, so I met them before I ever heard them. But even then, there was an impressive aura surrounding them. Through the Saints, all my suspicions were confirmed; everything that had been amorphous coalesced. They had an absolute arrogance, contempt not only for the adult world of authority generally but everything else as well, especially the music you were supposed to like.

The Saints had already discerned the aesthetic revolution to come. They seemed to know about all the skeletons in rock’s closet. Like the MC5, the Stooges and New York Dolls. It was tapping these sources – as was happening not only in Brisbane, but also, as we couldn’t have known at the time, in different places all round the world – that provided the foundation upon which punk was built.

In New York at the same time, Patti Smith, Television, the Ramones and Blondie knowingly experimented on the same turf the Velvet Underground called its own. In England, the London SS predated the Sex Pistols – Malcolm McLaren was, in fact, in America at the time, managing the latter-day Dolls. The London SS, which gave members to the Clash, the Damned and Generation X, was inspired by the same sources.

A record finally reached Brisbane that had first come out in 1972, a double compilation of sixties American garage bands called Nuggets. Compiled by Lenny Kaye, it was one of the first quality reissues. Not only that, it offered an alternative reading of rock’s history. The name unofficially coined for the bands, ‘punk rock’, was particularly fitting. The music substantiated the dream that rock could be reclaimed. Punk rock was going back to the garage to unlearn all the bullshit, putting it back within the grasp of the white suburban boy who begat it in the first place.

Pre-Sergeant Peppers British Invasion bands – the Who, the Stones, the Kinks, the Yardbirds, the Pretty Things, the Small Faces – were as much an antecedent as the Nuggets-style bands like the Seeds, the Standells, the Count Five, the 13th Floor Elevators. The Saints put their own spin on the classic set of influences by not only listening to the usual suspects like the Easybeats, the Stones, Eddie Cochran, the Supremes and Stax soul, but also Sinatra, Connie Frances, Noel Coward or Jacques Brel, even the Bay City Rollers and the Monkees. There was an acceptance that rock was essentially trashy; in that, as opposed to the ‘progressives’ pretensions to art, lay rock’s real potential.

There was also an awareness within the Saints of being an Australian band, continuing a local tradition. They thus accorded the likes of not only the Easybeats, but also the Loved Ones, the Masters Apprentices, the Missing Links, even Normie Rowe, a status at least equal to their counterparts overseas. Tony Worsely and the Blue Jays, the Bee Gees and the Purple Hearts were especially revered as fellow Brisbane bands. There was even inspiration to be found in that other much-maligned era – the pre-Beatles sixties – in Del Shannon, for one, whose ‘Runaway’ the Saints covered.

I finally got to hear the Saints hanging around at a rehearsal in the shed out the back of drummer Ivor Hay’s place. I was trembling with excitement. I knew I was privy to the birth of a whole new future for rock’n’roll. That early in the piece, the Saints were already well developed, playing much of the material which would end up on their first album, not to be recorded for another two years. Rehearsal tapes from this period later appeared on the album that Hot Records issued in 1995, The Most Primitive Band in the World Live From the Twilight Zone Brisbane 1974.

I had effectively joined a club no one else wanted to join, which, of course, was part of the appeal. The battle lines were by now clearly drawn. In possession of this secret knowledge, I felt an absolute certainty that eventually the hippie world would be overturned, that all the squares and nay-sayers would be shown up for what they were and real rock’n’roll would prevail.

Iggy Pop’s words “I am the world’s forgotten boy/The one who searches to destroy” were taken as a battle cry.

Chris Bailey and Ed Kuepper were an imposing pair as teenage partners-in-crime. Born of Irish parents in Kenya in 1956 and raised in Belfast, Bailey immigrated with his family to Australia in 1967, and settled in Brisbane at Inala. Kuepper was born in Germany in 1955; his family immigrated when he was four and they settled in nearby Oxley.

For Bailey, as an Irishman, music co-existed with politics and drinking. Living in Brisbane under hillbilly dictator Joh Bjelke-Petersen, at a time when the Vietnam War was still raging, compounded a sense of indignation. In 1969, aged 12, Bailey started hanging round a group called SID (Students in Dissent). Kuepper had simply been attracted to pop music as a kid growing up in the sixties, and it was through music that he connected so strongly with Chris and Ivor.

Kid Galahad and the Eternals, as the Saints were originally known (after the Elvis Presley film Kid Galahad), appeared in public for the first time almost by accident at a Corinda High function at Chelmer Hall.

The British punk movement of 1977 was typically portrayed as politically driven and working class. But this was just how the self-important London music press wanted it to be. It’s equally generally accepted that punk in Australia could not possibly have been politically motivated since we in the Lucky Country had so little about which to complain. This is ignoring the fact that the reformist Whitlam government was thrown out of office in 1975, that unemployment ran almost as high in Australia in the late seventies as it did in Britain and that the Joh Bjelke-Petersen regime in Queensland had banned street marches. Yet, even a band like the Saints, despite a genuine and justified streak of left-wing radicalism, encompassed a musical revolution before anything else.

One of the very first actual shows I saw the Saints play, in 1975, was a benefit for the Communist Party, at its Brisbane Trades Hall headquarters. Jeffrey Wegener, another old Corinda High boy, was then playing drums for the band. Ivor Hay was on bass. The event was imbued in my mind with a certain amount of freedom-fighter chic, but the reality was that the Saints were too far out even for this supposedly liberal audience.

By 1975, rock music was getting fatter and fatter while at the same time, ironically, growing thinner and thinner. Frampton Comes Alive, for instance, was inescapable at the time, and yet in remains the most vapid record ever made. There were by now storm clouds gathering on the horizon. You wouldn’t know it to read RAM (Rock Australia Magazine), which was launched in early 1975, but in two overseas magazines, NME and Rock Scene (based in New York), it was quite apparent. A British equivalent to Nuggets, called Hard-up Heroes, landed in the import stores, its very existence further acknowledgement that it’s not necessarily the winners, but often the losers and fringe-dwellers, who have something significant to say.

The English press was starting to bear traces of a change. In the London-based NME, the byline ‘Nick Kent’ kept cropping up above stories that argued the case for ‘the dark stuff’, as he himself would later put it. Visionary critics like Kent and his American soul brother, the late Lester Bangs, who edited Creem during its heyday, must be credited as harbingers of punk as much as anyone. The Sex Pistols had played their first gig in November 1975. By the middle of 1976, references to them kept cropping up. Again, everything about them – the name, the look, the song titles, the crits – seemed right.

In Brisbane, of course, nothing much changed. The Saints, as they were now known, with Ivor Hay back behind the drums and one Doug Balmanno on bass, entered a Battle of the Bands contest. We barracked for them at the final held at Festival Hall. They failed to win a place. The Gatsby revival was at its height in Brisbane and the event was won by some band that came on all decked out as gangsters, carrying their guitars as if in machine-gun cases.

As one English writer later said of the Saints, doubtless unaware just how close to the truth he was: “They aren’t trend followers, and they don’t have an established anti-establishment to support their contempt for the rest of society. They have thus far been totally isolated, and their very existence is probably an affront to their families, their street, their town, their state, their nation…”

By autumn 1976, with new bass player Kym Bradshaw inducted, the Saints were rehearsing and playing semi-regularly at parties at the house Ivor Hay rented on the busy Petrie Terrace/Milton Road corner on the edge of town, opposite police headquarters. Dubbed ‘Club ‘76’, the place became a general hangout.

In the same way the London SS found themselves compelled to suss out this band called the Sex Pistols when they advertised for a guitarist “not worse looking than Johnny Thunders”, we were intrigued when we got wind of a band in Sydney called Radio Birdman. They’d won the so-called Sydney Punk Band Thriller that RAM had run over Christmas 1975, and then in March 1976, scored a full-page story in Rolling Stone. For an unsigned act, at a time when the Australian music industry generally was in the thrall of all things would-be West Coast – Little River Band and Richard Clapton were two of the period’s most successful new acts – this was amazing. The story read, in part: “Radio Birdman are not your average pub band. No Doobie Brothers nor Leo Sayer imitations here thank you; nor Status Quo, Alice, Led Zep… In the space of two hours they’ll perform self-penned songs, as well as versions of songs made (in)famous by their main inspirers: Blue Oyster Cult, Dictators, Iggy/Stooges, MC5, New York Dolls, Doors…”

We couldn’t believe it up in Brisbane. There was actually another band in Australia on to this stuff!

It was an exciting moment. The air was electric with anticipation. The Saints in full flight at Petrie Terrace was a humbling, thundering experience. For those of us believers, it was an opportunity to get lost in the oblivion of it all and yet feel, at last, like this was somewhere you belonged. The band would play maybe three sets a night. Their own material was leavened by a handful of covers like ‘Runaway’, ‘River Deep Mountain High’, ‘Knock on Wood’ and the Easybeats’ ‘Funny Feeling’. Many of the original songs were given extended workouts, surging into a hypnotic realm of white noise at which the recorded version of ‘Nights in Venice’ only hints. This was release at its purest, shared by band and audience alike.

The cops seemed more upset by people spilling onto the street to cool off between sets and generally seeming to threaten the traffic whizzing by only inches away, more so than the noise. When they finally fronted up – as they inevitably would – they were met with resentment and insolence, if not outright abuse and someone was always hauled away.

The arrival of the Ramones’ debut album was an epochal event. The Ramones themselves hardly changed over the course of a 20 plus-year career, but they changed everything. They established a blueprint for the generic punk sound. Listening to the album for the first time brought a strange mixture of elation and relief. Elation that it was perhaps exactly what I’d expected. Relief for the same reason: that we weren’t on the wrong track; that the allies I’d hoped for in a band like the Ramones did actually exist. The Ramones album proved we were operating on an even keel.

Kuepper feared the worst: he knew they were going to be labelled as being influenced by the Ramones when nothing could be further from the truth. Had the Saints not been sequestered away in Australia, they might have had more impact on the international scene. By the same token, it was perhaps precisely because they developed in isolation that they boasted such a willful individualism and weren’t feted and fucked-over before they’d even got out of the blocks.

The Saints booked themselves into the studio in June 1976, just before the Ramones album hit, and with the objective of putting out a single. This was almost unprecedented. It became standard practice a year or so later, after the British punk movement elevated the do-it-yourself ethic to scripture. But in Brisbane in 1976 – or anywhere, for that matter – so few others had done it, it was charting unknown territory.

More records were trickling in. Patti Smith’s first album, Horses, produced by John Cale (the former Velvet who’d also produced the Stooges’ first album The Stooges), came out before 1975 was over. It was a more mature and literate offering than the obnoxious aggressive noise of adolescent anger for which I really pined, but it was still breathtaking. Patti covered the hoariest old garage band chestnut of them all, ‘Gloria’, and managed to turn it into something transcendent. Horses was the first offering proper of a whole new era.

The Sex Pistols were gaining momentum but it was the Damned who became the first English punk band on vinyl. ‘New Rose’ was one of the first releases on Stiff Records when it appeared in early November 1976. Television’s chilling debut single ‘Little Johnny Jewel’ finally arrived. Richard Hell’s ‘Blank Generation’ became the anthem it aspired to be. French labels were among the first to re-release long-out-of-print albums by the Stooges and the Flamin’ Groovies.

The Saints actually beat the English punk bands to the punch. In September 1976, the ‘(I’m) Stranded’ single came out on the band’s own Fatal label. The band members distributed it themselves, which meant they took a box around the shops in town, and mailed copies to magazines and record companies round the world.

‘(I’m) Stranded’ was incendiary, but it fell on deaf ears at home. Then the news was heard on ABC radio, out of the blue one afternoon: “An unknown band from Brisbane by the name of the Saints has earned rave reviews in England for a record they made themselves,” the reader announced, perhaps surprised himself that the story had warranted the ABC’s attention. Word spread like wildfire. My own reaction was incredulity but elation. Sounds magazine had made ‘(I’m) Stranded’ ‘Single of this week and every week’. As for the Saints themselves, it was a real feeling of vindication.

It wasn’t long before Kuepper was fielding all sorts of enquiries, nearly all from overseas. One was a proposal, from short-lived English label Power Exchange, to release the single over there, which the band accepted. Kuepper also got a call from EMI Records in Sydney. The label’s London office, which had just signed the Sex Pistols, had suggested it might be a good idea to chase the band up. A&R manager Chris Barnes and producer Rod Coe flew up to Brisbane to meet the Saints. As the executive responsible, supposedly, for discovering and developing talent (‘artist and repertoire’), Barnes signed the band as instructed.

Momentum generally was mounting, and it seemed a real explosion was imminent. At the end of September 1976 – although we didn’t know it at the time – the 100 Club in London staged its now-infamous two-night ‘Punk Rock Festival’ showcasing the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Subway Sect, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Damned, Chris Spedding and the Vibrators and the Buzzcocks. In October Radio Birdman’s debut EP, ‘Burn My Eye’, was made available by mail order. A month later, the Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy in the UK’ was released simultaneously in Australia and Britain. I picked up a local pressing in Woolworths before it was black-banned.

In the first week of December, as ‘(I’m) Stranded’ was released in Britain, and the Sex Pistols played the ‘Anarchy’ tour with the Clash, the Damned and Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers – at least, played whatever gigs weren’t cancelled in outrage – the Saints went into the studio in Brisbane to cut their first album. Producer Rod Coe was more accustomed to working with country artists like Slim Dusty. All he could do was sit back and let the band go. The album was completed inside two days.

The band was offered a spot supporting AC/DC (who were on a return tour of Australia after being confused for punks themselves in England and Europe) at the Miami Hall on the Gold Coast. They duly played to an empty theatre. The Saints had already been told they would never work in Brisbane again following a support slot to Mother Goose at Cloudland Ballroom. Likewise, AC/DC’s road crew were affronted by the Saints’ general ‘lack of professionalism’. The hostility and resentment the Saints generated was extraordinary. As Kuepper has noted wryly, “The Saints were never highly regarded as musicians”.

Small-minded Australia wasn’t going to contain the Saints though. The plan was to gather forces in Sydney, and then head for England, where the release proper of ‘(I’m) Stranded’ had inspired much anticipation, if some bigoted incredulity that anything so good could possibly have come from ‘downunder’.

The (I’m) Stranded album was out in Australia by February 1977; to celebrate, and bid the band farewell, my sister threw a party. It was a pretty quiet affair, just the regulars, maybe 20 people, simply playing the album over and over again in sheer delight. The cops soon arrived and broke things up.

In April 1977, Radio Birdman played a gig at Paddington Town Hall. They went there in the first place because they couldn’t get anywhere else to play. They’d been run off the suburban pub circuit, having scared shit out of promoters and punters alike. Inert Australian record companies were still terrified of Birdman, even if the band’s audience was swelling. Radio Birdman had always ensured that on the infrequent occasions they did play, it was an event. But on this occasion they wanted to mount something very special. The Saints were now living in Sydney, and so it seemed appropriate that Australia’s two equally infamous prophets of punk join forces for one night.

The Saints went on the road to Melbourne as well as playing around Sydney before appearing at the Paddington Town Hall show. The headlining Radio Birdman’s constituency was responsive to the band, but resentments were also stirred.

“We’d like to thank the local chapter of Hitler Youth for their stage props,” Bailey uttered as he left the Paddington stage, referring to the imagery on the banner Birdman had strung up. This was typical of the Saints’ abrasiveness, but they didn’t care. Sydney was just a stepping stone anyway.

When the Saints arrived in London at the end of May 1977, punk’s ‘summer of hate’ was raging. The music industry was desperately trying to divest itself of last year’s things; anything with spiky hair had to be good. This was red rag to a bull to the Saints. Bailey let his hair grow long.

As much as the do-it-yourself ethic was empowering, it was inevitably limited. The Ramones had set a musical blueprint, and it was the most so many bands could to copy as faithfully as possible. Punk quickly became generic, with the English press developing a conception of punk that encouraged its homogenisation; it gave New York acts that broke the mould like Patti Smith, Television, Blondie, Richard Hell and Talking Heads short shrift.

The Saints copped it too. The band played its London premier at the Roundhouse on 5 June, supporting American label-mates the Ramones and Talking Heads (the Saints had signed a US deal with Seymour Stein’s Sire label). Because the Saints didn’t look like punks, the UK press decided they must be terrible. The general consensus, as one review went, was that the band was “a very poor copy of the Ramones, with none of that band’s virtues” – which was precisely what Kuepper had dreaded.

The press was smitten by the urban guerilla image of the Clash. The Saints’ politics were genuine, but their packaging was wrong. Kuepper, in particular, quickly became disillusioned and cynical as a consequence of being lumped in with the Sex Pistols, the Clash and punk in general, a movement he came to detest.

The Saints had jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. But in the space of time before EMI too changed its mind, the band saw a potential unimaginable in Australia, In that sense, arriving in England as Kuepper said, “was when the lights came on”. It was the first time the band members were getting a wage, going into a decent recording studio and suddenly thinking, “shit, we could be the Beatles, or we could be the Kinks”. Kuepper will forever stick by what the Saints created, but has acknowledged that, had he known something about the music industry back then, they would have retained control of it all. For all their independent stance, the Saints lost control very quickly.

Bailey put it rather more phlegmatically: “We had a lot of money spent on us when we were very young, and it was wasted because the band just wasn’t together enough to cope.”

The Saints were selling plenty of records in Europe, and when their first English-recorded single ‘This Perfect Day’ was released in August 1977, it sold 75,000 copies in two weeks to leap to #34 on the British charts. EMI ran out of stock and it plummeted from view.

After playing another British tour in October to support the release of the EP ‘One-Two-Three-Four’, the Saints went into the studio to start work on their second album, Eternally Yours. It was a time that saw the release of not only Never Mind the Bollocks, but also both the Buzzcocks’ and Wire’s first albums. Howard Devoto had left the Buzzcocks and formed Magazine amid much anticipation; and Pere Ubu and ‘power pop’ were the hot tips for 1978. Yet the Jam copped a critical hiding for daring to diverge. the Clash, who could do no wrong themselves, got in Richard Hell as a support act and he was bottled.

The Saints went out on the road in January 1978, with a brass section no less. The blazing ‘Know Your Product’ was released as a single in February. It stiffed. After that didn’t sell, EMI was hinting that the Saints didn’t know what they were doing. EMI thought they should be busy doing more songs like ‘This Perfect Day’. Naturally, this generated a great deal of ill-feeling all round.

After Eternally Yours, the Saints retreated within themselves. Bailey actually left the band, but Kuepper asked him to stay for one more album. When Prehistoric Sounds emerged, the powers that be at EMI were horrified. ‘Security’, one of the covers, was the first single. The band acquiesced for fear that EMI might shelve the album altogether. Yet Prehistoric Sounds remains an extraordinary record – one of the period’s best bar none – a brooding, melancholic collision of electrically charged rock balladry and swooping, brassy arrangements. Widely misunderstood, it meant nothing to no one. Sire didn’t even bother releasing it in America.

With morale at an all- time low, Kuepper and Bailey separately recorded demos for a possible single for EG Records, but when they compared them, they both realised the twain had diverged. Terminally. Kuepper returned to Australia, as did Ivor Hay; Kuepper to lick his wounds in Brisbane (later to form Laughing Clowns), Hay to join Johnny Kannis and the Hitmen, alongside former Birdmen Chris Masuak and Warwick Gilbert. Chris Bailey remained in London, to pick up the pieces with a new incarnation of the Saints.