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Tales from pig city

The Saints

September 2007Medium length read
 

Pig City isn’t a nice name for a town, is it? When Unkle Fats and the Parameters released a single in 1986 called ‘Pig City’, the meaning of its title was immediately clear. ‘Pig’ meant police and ‘city’ was the town where the band lived, which was Brisbane. When the local music journalist Andrew Stafford released a book in 2004 on the history of the town’s music scene and its related cultural forces, he named it Pig City: From The Saints to Savage Garden. And now comes Pig City the Musical! Well, not exactly a musical, but a big day of bands under a circus tent to kick off the Queensland Music Festival, and in the coup to end all coups, the headline act of the day, hitting the stage at 8.40 pm, is The Saints.

Not The Saints that lead singer Chris Bailey has been fronting for years, but a line-up that includes original guitarist Ed Kuepper and original drummer Ivor Hay. The stakes are upped considerably. This is a reunion that doesn’t have the feel of inevitability about it. And for all the publicity and drawing power of the other bands on the bill, covering the Brisbane scene over the past three decades, without The Saints there’d be perhaps 1000 people here; with The Saints it’s full at 7000 and has the sort of buzz which means, no matter what happens during the day, that the night is going to end with a massive cherry on top. For this formation of the band hasn’t played together for almost 30 years, and when they walk on stage - Bailey and Kuepper from opposite sides, as it turns out - they are going to put the whole legacy on the line, in a one-off gig in front of a home-town crowd.

Punk hit Brisbane like no other city in Australia. The tentacles that grew out of New York and London from the musical explosion of 1976 affected the receptive waiting enclaves in each major city around the globe in varying ways. As the music and images of the Ramones, Patti Smith, early Pere Ubu, Television and the Sex Pistols were heard and seen, bands formed, systems started and the word spread. Brisbane was different, for two main reasons: we had Bjelke-Petersen and The Saints. Bjelke-Petersen represented the kind of crypto-fascist, bird-brained conservatism that every punk lead singer in the world could only dream of railing against. His use of a blatantly corrupt police force, and its heavy-handed response to punk, gave the scene a political edge largely absent in the other states. And The Saints were the musical revolutionaries in the city’s evil heart.

The Saints, as far back as 1973-74, were joining the dots of the coming revolution. History gets hazy here, and a little contentious in trying to place the band in the queue of punk’s forerunners. But in 1976, with the release of the almighty ‘(I’m) Stranded’ single, the band landed early and with a considerable thump. They left Brisbane soon after, having stayed long enough to record their debut album, before leapfrogging Sydney and Melbourne to London, where they recorded their second and third albums. That became the total catalogue of the first, and clearly best, line-up of the band. The fact that they came from Brisbane, and thus gave a city that usually chased music history a place in history, was not lost on the following generations of bands or the city’s cultural arbiters. It also meant, as is often the case with famous artists from provincial cities, that the relationship the artists have with the city is prickly, old scores are not forgotten as the city struggles to accommodate the artists’ burgeoning myth, and this is certainly the case with The Saints.

At the centre of the band is the relationship between Chris Bailey and Ed Kuepper. In terms of intriguing rock couples, this one is a beauty. In Brisbane there is a legion of observers of the friendship; sub-branches exist in Sydney and London. Every move one of them makes in relation to the other, every crack they have at each other in the press, every sleeve or thank-you list in album re-issues from the past 30 years, gets analysed and turned over. The rumour mill about both of them is ridiculous. In the days before the Pig City show the word is that they’re not talking to each other, that they’re having the time of their lives, that Kuepper’s fed up and vowing never to do it again, that they’re spotted laughing together in a pub; Bailey’s mad, Kuepper’s angry, Kuepper’s mad, Bailey’s angry. I have two days of people giving me breathless and completely contradictory accounts of what’s happening. In the end it’s so confusing, and the changes in people’s perceptions so regular, that it’s hard not to believe Bailey and Kuepper are orchestrating the whole thing themselves, and then phoning each other late at night to chuckle over the mayhem and hyper-analysis that follows in their wake.

But the differences between them are real: the acrimonious split-up of the original band back in 1978, Chris Bailey’s use of The Saints’ name without Kuepper (or Hay) and the clear fork of their solo careers show two artists at variance with one another. Teenage years may have thrown them together but their moves since 1978, the music they have made apart, would not lead you to believe that they were once in the same band. The points of divergence between them can be chased down a number of routes. First, there’s the clear personality difference. Bailey is the showman on and off stage, flamboyant and gregarious: the Irishman with his poetry, soul and wine in tow. Kuepper is intense and inward, of German extraction: he is the technician with his eye always on the music. There is also the division between Bailey’s more mainstream take on rock, soul and folk, and Kuepper’s far more eclectic journey through jazz, country and on to noise. From 1973 to ‘78, though, they worked brilliantly together; it got them out of Brisbane, and left three albums that stand up extremely well against much of the post-’76 punk-rock deluge.

What happened between them is that they complemented each other. Kuepper’s song-writing magnificently served Bailey’s voice, while Bailey got to sing and provide lyrics to melodies better than he could write. The personalities were a natural play-off, too: Bailey the charismatic lead singer; Kuepper hunched over his guitar, feeding Bailey the confidence to take his front-man persona as far as he wanted to take it. And for the audience there was the sheer joy of seeing two very different guys, each with his own strong points, go into some kind of jigsaw lock that instantly produced fully formed and powerful music.

The first song they play at the Pig City show is ‘Swing for the Crime’, off Prehistoric Sounds, their third and best album, and straightaway you know it’s going to be a great night. Ivor Hay is pounding the jungle beat, Caspar Wijnberg is solid on bass, but all eyes are on Kuepper and Bailey. The former is in front of two Marshall stacks. He might not be playing the red Gibson SG from the ‘70s to satisfy the obsessives, but the sound is instantly recognisable. Kuepper is not going to cut corners; this is the original guitar sound resurrected, and it’s massive. Bailey - thin, rat-haired, in a black suit and white top - is the consummate rock front-man. But the first ten minutes spin by in a daze. I’m almost lost in just realising that this reunion, always thought highly improbable, is happening. That’s the first feeling. The second is how bloody good they are.

You can see the chemistry immediately: Chris Bailey and Ed Kuepper make one of the best partnerships in Australian rock, or rock ‘n’ roll anywhere. Which is not to forget the role of Ivor Hay. He is vital, not only because of his inventive drumming but also because of the authority he holds over Kuepper and Bailey, both of whom turn to him regularly through the performance: Kuepper for rhythmic sustenance and to wind down the endings of songs; Bailey to find an encouraging grin every time he turns to the drum riser. The genial Hay, who has spent the past 16 years away from the music business, also has a role as a useful third party to the machinations of the Kuepper-Bailey partnership.

The set is a dream run through the band’s early catalogue. Helped by a brass section that trots on and off the stage, the songs visit two camps. There are the big, driving ballads from Prehistoric Sounds: ‘Chameleon’, ‘The Prisoner’ and ‘All Times Through Paradise’. And there are the very best of the short, sharp tunes scattered across the first two albums: ‘(I’m) Stranded’, ‘No Time’, ‘Know Your Product’ and ‘This Perfect Day’. The total effect is unrelenting quality and depth of vision. This is no punk ram-a-lam, but a full showing of the original breadth and beauty The Saints were able to put out in an era and in a town (London) which demanded that punk bands play by punk rules. The Saints’ wilful bucking of the trends then allows the music to storm now. There is wonder here, and the brass section, with its stabs and swing, is no ‘soul music’ affectation or quote, but welded into the rock form like few other bands have ever managed.

Chris Bailey’s been waiting for this, no matter how much he might deny it or be blasé about it. Thousands of people in a tent in his home town is what he’s been dreaming about. And we get it all. He flounces; he pirouettes; he speaks absolute gibberish between songs that somehow makes sense if you’re in on the cosmic joke. Every rock-star gesture is down pat - the cigarette held elegantly in hand, the sweeping back of the long hair, the occasional jog from one side of the stage to the other - and not for one minute does it seem forced or have the feel of cliché about it. It’s because he is both an original and a master of the lead-singer pose. Lesser mortals in front of big, brooding rock bands fall down on this stuff; Bailey strides with no hesitation, willing to take it to the limit. And if for a second he stumbles and looks the fool, then there’s that voice. It’s lost some of its phlegmy sneer from the ‘70s and now has a higher-pitched, stadium-rock veneer to it; if anything, and he was a great vocalist the first time around, he’s got better. His singing is the revelation of the night. Kuepper’s guitar playing, and the fine brace of songs they have, were known. But Bailey’s singing - its presence, its soul - stuns.

And then there’s Ed Kuepper. It’s a pleasure to watch him wrestle the catalogue. If Bailey can at times seem a little cavalier with The Saints’ legacy - though at this gig he is not - Kuepper is taking the opportunity to lay down the law on the way these songs were played originally and should be played henceforth. It’s a master class in electric-guitar playing which has you realising that he’s one of the very few Australian guitar geniuses. Obvious comparisons are with Neil Young or Kurt Cobain, sonic adventurers who can take sheets of electric noise and get songs out of them, while also being able to solo a hurricane of notes that mean something to the song. The force of Kuepper is such that he commands half the stage. It’s a wall of sound and intensity, and it’s telling that Bailey only enters Kuepper’s side of the stage when he is at the peak of his rock-star game. When Bailey goes into one of his pre-song raves, such as the mock-Elizabethan (“His hair it was longeth, and it groweth”) one he did before the band hurled itself into ‘(I’m) Stranded’, Kuepper grins, and it’s not from embarrassment. You get the feeling he likes this side of Bailey: this antagonistic, no-holds-barred gonzo front-man who is just as out-there and in-your-face as Kuepper is with his guitar. Kuepper can sing and lead a band, but not like Bailey. And like all great duos, they pump each other up; when The Saints are on, it takes a place this size to hold the charisma and magic.

The Pig City performance is a triumph and, without wishing to besmirch any of the performers that came before them, The Saints strode the stage like giants. This is a band that still breathes fire. If they do no more, ever, then this one-off show has burnished the myth rather than tarnished it. More shows in the future, or a tour, would be most welcome, and if the rebirth of The Saints as a live band turned out to have occurred in Brisbane, it would be a lovely touch. And finally, if there is recording to be done with this line-up, then, based on the sparks on display, an album to join the glory of the first three would not be beyond them.

About the author Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

 
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