A biography of Ed Kuepper, written in 2000
by Everett True
Inspired by Wallace’s impassioned overview of The Go-Betweens’ Before Hollywood, I thought I’d exhume a couple of articles relating to Brisbane music. You can find the first here. This second one is a biog I wrote for Ed Kuepper’s record company Hot Records, in 2000. I really don’t like writing promotional literature for record companies, and this is a rare example. (I did one for Sonic Boom … I don’t recall writing any others.) It was written in 2000, just after we returned back to the UK from Melbourne. I think.
Clearly, between writing this article and interviewing Chris Bailey a few years later, I must have finally heard Eternally Yours.
Forgive the dreadful opening paragraph.
It was Elvis Costello who once said that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. It took Ed Kuepper to prove it.
In the early 90s, a select band of music critics at Melody Maker would regularly compete with one another to find fresh ways to praise the moody Australian genius. Every time a new album of his appeared – whether it be one of the quartet of superlative Aints albums, or one of his own lush, consummately crafted solo outings – we would fight to be given the honour of reviewing it. Andrew, Sarah, James, Sharon, David and me. Fortunately, we had much to fight over. Every couple of months, it seemed, there was a new CD of Ed’s work emerging from Sydney, Australia.
My favourite was the six-track 1991 Aints album Ascension of which I said:
“The man is a God. No other word suffices. Six songs which blister and piss on all the rest of 1990’s wannabe guitar pyromaniacs from a great height.”
Or was it the hand-picked collection, 1993’s The Butterfly Net of which my fellow teenage MM critic (Sarah) stated bluntly,
“What they’ve been saying all these years is true. The man’s a God”?
Certainly, there were some major arguments to be made for the incredible 1990 LP Today Wonder – the haunting, melancholic answer to Ed’s first three electrifying solo albums. Our man on the spot (James) wrote,
“Welcome to the world, everybody. If you only buy one record this year etc.”
The only thing we disagreed on there was that each one of the remaining five of us would have preferred to have been writing those words.
We also rather liked the Aints’ 1993 compilation Cheap Erotica, on which Ed proved that age is no barrier to either auto-cannibalism or playing a guitar nastily. The same month it was released, two artists named Kuepper tracks as among their 10 Most Influential Songs Ever – Jim Reid of the somnambulist Jesus And Mary Chain and Michael Hutchence, he of dubious sexual preferences.
Then there was the self-descriptive 1991 Honey Steel’s Gold which featured ‘The Way I Made You Feel’ and really did appear only a couple of months after both Today Wonder and Ascension. This was the one which firmly put the lid on Edmund’s prolific reputation and also became the first independent album to debut in Australia’s Top 50. Black Ticket Gold in 1992 wasn’t exactly shabby, either – winning an ARIA down under, and causing the select Maker half-dozen to lose our hearts once more.
Let’s not forget the electric tirade of the same year’s Aints’ Autocannibalism – or, of course, the live Aints album S.L.S.Q. wherein Ed set a torch to his original Saints material (The Saints being the band who started this whole wonderful mess off). And we don’t want to overlook his first three solo albums… Electrical Storm, Rooms Of The Magnificent and Everybody’s Got To … perhaps the finest run of records ever released by one performer in the history of popular music. If you do not possess these three records, stop what you’re doing right now. Stop it! Get on the phone to Hot Records immediately, and plead forgiveness. And then pledge your life savings against purchase.
Sorted? Good. Let’s continue …
Er, sorry, couldn’t stop myself there. The man’s a GOD, I’m telling you. A bloody God! And I haven’t even begun to mention his previous two bands or later solo career, shorn of supporting musicians, yet. Time to move on.
This is where we pretend that it’s cool to pontificate about music that was only ever intended as a three minute blast of sexual frustration.
You know what strikes me most when I go back and listen to early Saints demos recorded around 1975? The power. The serrated guitars. The melodies. The tension. Damn, I wish I’d been there.
OK. This is how Mr Kuepper’s musical career started, loosely. He formed The Saints with vocalist Chris Bailey in 1973. Originally, they were called Kid Gallahad And The Eternals, and Kuepper was based in Brisbane. Too early to be called punk, they certainly had far more in common with the raw edge of The Stooges and The Troggs than anything currently fashionable. It just so happened that their debut single ‘(I’m) Stranded’ hit the streets in 1976 at around the time everything else started kicking off. Hence, The Saints were branded punks. It has to be said that both that, and the indescribably genius ‘This Perfect Day’, are among the most succinct, uplifting punk rock singles ever recorded.
The Saints with Ed Kuepper recorded three albums. (The Saints without Ed Kuepper went on to record several more, forever tarnishing their name – which is precisely why Ed decided to form the contrary Aints in the early 90s, to try and salvage his reputation.)
Anyway. The Saints with Ed Kuepper recorded three albums. To my eternal shame, I’ve only ever owned one. The debut (I’m) Stranded is as fine a masterpiece of intelligent disillusionment as the Adverts “Crossing The Red Sea” – and is heralded as such by about as many critics. The second Eternally Yours is acknowledged as a post-punk masterpiece. Apparently. The third, Prehistoric Sounds, I was fortunate enough to be played late one drunken evening in Melbourne last year by Go-Betweens biographer and ace drummer David Nichols. It sounded to me like brass-given nectar in musical form – an obvious pointer to the next stage in Edmund’s career wherein he embraced everything shiny and jazz-textured and created possibly The Greatest Live Band Ever Seen Even To This Present Day, Official.
Ed left The Saints around 1978, perhaps already fed up with the idea of being typecast a spotty punk.
It says on the sheet in front of me that 1993’s Serene Machine is a “gorgeous and haunting tapestry of odes and ballads suffused with a dreamy mid-summer beauty.” I see no reason to contradict or improve upon those wise words. As one of the Melody Maker’s Magnificent Six (James again) noted at the time,
“The man’s made four astonishingly diverse albums in 18 months … that’s not prolific, that’s genius.”
It was perhaps at this moment that the Maker’s coverage of the Kuepper phenomenon reached its absolute nadir with the advent of the headline “Fancy A Kuepper”. Ahem.
This he followed up with the aforementioned The Butterfly Net and 1994’s rather exotic Character Assassination with perhaps the most OTT recommendation from The Maker Six yet –
“Those of you whose lives are not yet thus blessed are unreservedly urged to buy this. And then absolutely anything else you see with Kuepper’s name on it.”
Yes. Thank you, Andrew.
After that, I lost track momentarily. Nothing to do with Ed – he was still releasing wild albums like 1995’s A King In The Kindness Room which even featured an AC/DC techno cover and saddened surf rock. No, it was just that I’d lost track of life generally.
When I caught up again, Ed was in the middle of releasing a brace of Mail Order Only CDs – 1995’s intimate, acoustic I Was A Mail Order Bridegroom; the same year’s atmospheric, filmic The Exotic Mail Order Moods Of Ed Kuepper wherein he took Nick Cave and the Animals to task. The following year’s Starstruck – Music For Films And Adverts was even weirder – 28 soundscapes that were intended to be utterly unexpected.
Are you keeping track of all this?
If so, you’ll realise I’ve deliberately skirted past 1996’s incredible psychedelic swirl of songs and colours, Frontierland. There is a reason for this, but I refuse to reveal it until the end of the section. 1997 saw two albums… hold up. When artists are this prodigious, it usually means they have no quality control. You think the sometimes grumpy, always perfectionist (he’s lost more band-members this way) Kuepper has no quality control? You know what? Stop reading this biography right now, and get the fuck out of here. You don’t deserve beauty.
Anyway. In June 1997, The Wheelie Bin Affair appeared – the time-honoured collection of B-sides and ‘rarities’. This was rapidly followed up with another album consolidating Ed’s position as a premier artist with a considerable body of work behind him – his first ever live album With A Knapsack On My Back, recorded in Hamburg. It was a fine example of his skill as an arranger. Then came Cloudland later that year, another instrumental LP. Haunting, imaginative, wonderful.
After working solo for 18 months, Ed formed The Oxley Creek Playboys – another trio. They released a live album in 1998, wittily called Live, mostly notable for its fierce passion and jazz-textured rock. A third instrumental album followed (The Blue House) as Ed and his merry men went back to their part-time occupations of setting Australian venues alight.
In 1998, after living in Sydney for nearly 20 years, Ed and his family moved back to his home town of Brisbane. Late that year, the guitarist released the awesome interpretative collection Songs Of Ol’ Golden Eye – on which he showed Nick Cave once again who’s the boss. And that’s about it. Ed’s career in a nutshell – or 1726 words, whichever sounds better. I don’t think I’ve left anything out.
*The reason? I have no words left to describe its dizzying heights.
Damn! Only forgot to mention the finest live band which ever existed ever ever ever – Ed’s jazz-textured Laughing Clowns. Sorry. Can we pretend it’s just mine and Ed’s and a handful of extremely lucky fans’ personal secret and move along? All this talk of Ed’s God-like genius is starting to give me a massive inferiority complex.
Here are two tales, both true.
The first time we saw Laughing Clowns circa 1982 (ish), we had no idea who they were. Support to our favourite band at the time – Nick Cave’s Birthday Party – they unobtrusively sauntered on to Victoria’s Venue stage and blew our lives apart. Sax, guitar, drums. We were dancing from the first note. Seriously now. Afterwards, satiated and trembling, we stood there surrounded by late-come Goths whose idea of a decent song was some number bewailing the death of a farmyard animal (‘Bella The Goose Is Dead’). We left without seeing our favourite band. There was no way they could compete.
The only decent record ex-Creation boss Alan McGee ever stole in his life was a copy of the first Laughing Clowns single to make it over to England – ‘Theme From Mad Flies, Mad Flies’. Somehow, it reminded me of Winifred Atwell’s ‘The Poor People Of Paris’ – for the energy pulsating through the bass-line. Needless to say, it didn’t go on and influence Oasis, Primal Scream or My Bloody Valentine. If only. Back here in England, indie might never have been invented. Sigh.
Enough already. The two Hot albums, 1984’s Law Of Nature and 1985’s swansong Ghosts Of An Ideal Wife, are both among the finest records ever committed to vinyl. But today, I think I’ll recommend History Of Rock’N’Roll Volume One as the perfect introduction to their five blisteringly wonderful albums and move along sharp-ish. I have some serious Antipodean listening to catch up on.
Ed Kuepper has a new album out. It’s his first new vocal work since 1996 – and his first to utilise electric guitar and full studio band since 1989’s rather wonderful Everybody’s Got To. Now, I’m not gonna start comparing one body of the man’s work to another, but…
No, I’m not.
All I can say is that it certainly doesn’t seem like Ed Kuepper has been recording songs for over two decades now. This record still sounds as fresh and poignant as his earliest Saints demos. In the joyous brass-led grooves of ‘I Still Call This Failure My Home’ you can hear echoes of latter-day Laughing Clowns and the pyrotechnic magic of his first three albums. There’s a wired, wiry cover of Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’ – a staple of the solo live shows – as mischievous and swaggering as the day Ms Lee torched her first heart. ‘Here To Get My Baby Out Of Jail’ recalls the mail order catalogue years – subtle instrumental colouring and weird instrumentation complete. There’s the raucous ‘Pay Me My Money Down’ which is like a sea shanty without any of the embarrassing connotations that phrase usually carries. ‘Without You’ slows the pace down a fraction – having little to do with Mariah Carey’s over-stated cover version and everything to do with countrified emotion. ‘Starstruck’ even sees Ed indulging in his usual game of tidying up old songs.
I know. I know. I’ve made it sound like it’s a retread of past glories. That’s what happens when you have an artist with such an illustrious history as Mr Edmund Kuepper. Believe me, it’s not. It’s as vital and wonderful and confusing and controlled as any record you’re gonna hear in a very long time indeed … in fact, until Ed’s next album.
As one of the Original Maker Six said back in the day,
“If you buy only one record this year, etc.”