an interview with Chris Bailey (The Saints), conducted for All Times Through Paradise
by Everett True
Inspired by Wallace’s recent overview of The Go-Betweens’ Before Hollywood, I thought I’d exhume a couple of articles relating to Brisbane music. First up comes an interview conducted with Chris Bailey. This originally appeared in Plan B Magazine #3, a few years before Ed Kuepper and Bailey reunited as The Saints for the Pig City concert.
There’s a four-CD compilation of Saints songs out now on EMI, All Times Through Paradise.
You may not be aware of it. You should be. Not only does it feature one of the finest ‘punk’ albums ever made, 1977’s raw and alienated (I’m) Stranded – a record full of snarling, bratty vocals and guitar riffs that torched a generation, recorded in just two days flat in Brisbane, Australia. Not only does it feature the incredible third album, 1978’s Prehistoric Sounds, with an entire slew of refrains and oblique religious chants to die for. Not only does it feature THE BEST FUCKING ALBUM EVER FUCKING RECORDED FUCKING EVER – and I’ll punch you out if you say any different – the same year’s Eternally Yours (The Saints’ second), the only successful fusion of horns and loud guitars EVER in the history of rock (and yes, I’m including The Rolling Stones). (‘This Perfect Day’, ‘Know Your Product’ … oh my fucking Holy Jesus and all the Righteous Apostles). Not only does it feature an entire live London concert recording from November ’77 – shit, even Ramones were hard put to match the adrenalin and melodic swing of those tunes. But! There’s also, like, 30 bonus tracks from that first incarnation of The Saints – and you should take anything that’s been released under the same name after guitarist Ed Kuepper left in the late Seventies with a large pinch of salt – including THE BEST FUCKING VERSION EVER of ‘River Deep Mountain High’ … better than Spector even. Yes. Fucking really.
You know what? Fucking quit reading this magazine already. Fucking go and track down some Saints and get them into your life NOW. Then come back. Otherwise, you are not fucking worthy.
Herein follows an interview with singer Chris Bailey about the early days of The Saints. Part two, wherein I talk to Ed Kuepper, will follow next issue. [The second part actually appeared in Loose Lips Sink Ships, and I no longer have it. If anyone can send me a copy, that’d be lovely – Ed]
What was your motivation at the start?
“This involves me going back through a few decades. Like most kids, I always liked music. My first instrument was the bagpipes, which was an ethnic thing, not very sexy or rock’n’roll. At high school, I met a couple of blokes with similar interests. One night there was a party at a church hall with a band playing. We must’ve been a bit pissed, so we raided the stage and played the instruments. Accidentally, I discovered a flair for singing and it turned into a way of life. I can’t imagine a life without music. In the kiddie formation, The Saints started in 1973. Ed may have been in some kind of covers band – but it was my first band. My primary influence was a joy of life: musically, it was pretty eclectic. We were both record collectors, and there was a brilliant secondhand record store in Brisbane back then that sold blues, American R&B and soul. We were lucky to be exposed to a huge swathe of music. I’ve always been very fond of Fifties stuff – Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard – and early English beat groups of the Sixties, like The Beatles and The Kinks. I still don’t find the Seventies inspirational at all.”
How big an influence was your hometown of Brisbane on early Saints?
“I’m sure it was a massive influence, like any place you live in is. My love of wide open spaces, big freeways and open space, all come from my formative years in sunny old Brisbane. Musically, it’s a wasteland. Oftentimes, interesting musical deviations or hybrids are produced in the most parochial or boring places. Growing up in a big city, you’re tied to a scene. In the backwoods, you tend to be much more experimental. In the early days, we were not part of any musical scene. In fact, most scenes rejected us. So we developed in isolation.
“We also felt isolated politically. Queensland is the Australian version of the Deep South, and even to this day it has a hillbilly reputation. In the Seventies, the state government was the National party – very conservative. Australia was involved in the Vietnam War, so it was very politically charged. We were a little bit young to be deeply affected, but it seeped in. I was a member of Students In Dissent, and continually in trouble. One did feel marginalized. We always had that DH Lawrence, Children Of The Sun, element to us, rather than being more obvious like The Clash. We tried to be a bit subtler. Also, The Saints were very disorganised so we verged on the anarchic than the socialist.
“In the 21st Century, I cannot believe that [John] Howard [Australian PM] has managed to pull the wool over people’s eyes – and it’s all down to the climate of fear they’ve manufactured. It’s like the Sixties all over again, with McCarthy and the Yellow Peril.”
Do you feel that you got tagged in with the UK punk bands unfairly?
“We’d done the first record before we’d even got to the UK. We were a little bit aware of punk, cos our label [EMI] had The Sex Pistols, but the first time I heard the expression applied to music was in the Seventies in NYC, when they were labelling Blondie, Talking Heads and Television as punk. I’ve never liked the expression, cos it’s branding. Apart from The Damned, who I liked cos they were shambolic and silly, I found most of the records made were fairly pathetic. It had become a marketing tool by 1977. I heard Jilted John, and I thought that was actually quite funny – but it reminded me of how the English punk scene quickly became ‘Two Pints Of Lager’, Benny Hill comedy music.
“In hindsight, The Sex Pistols’ music was well produced and poppy – in direct conflict with the way they were marketed. It’s similar to the way Oasis are supposed to be bad boys, yet their music is incredibly pristine. There’s this huge gap between marketing and music, and that’s where The Saints always fell down.
“My attitude towards Ramones – and I don’t mean this disrespectfully – was that I thought they were the US cartoon, The Archies. Everything they’ve done is cartoon, done brilliantly. I couldn’t take them seriously on a musical level.”
The Saints were one of the few early ‘punk’ bands Ramones gave respect to.
“Because what you see is what you get. I decided early on that I did want a career in music, but I didn’t want that whole money = success = fame cliché. We’re lucky that we survived and created a niche without too much of the bullshit that goes down in the pop world.”
Why is there such a massive leap in sound between first and second albums, and also to the third album?
“The first single [‘(I’m) Stranded’ b/w ‘No Time’ on Fatal] came out in August ‘76, 500 copies, and it was met with blanket indifference from local media. Then Sounds made it Single Of The Week and EMI sent some boffin out to Brisbane to sign us up, a very nice guy who was working in country and western. They booked two days studio time for us, and we knocked out our live set. We thought it was a demo. It turned out to be the album. So, for the second album, we had a decent amount of time in the studio, and learnt that it was a fun factory and you could do a lot more than knock out your live set. If you listen to the two records, the style is pretty similar. The main difference was we were becoming studio animals. I love performing, poncing around on stage and having a laugh, but the real reason I make music is cos I love the recording studio. This isn’t something I’ve become blasé about, either. You walk in with a blank tape and walk out with a bit of noise – it’s all quite magical. The reason for the differences between the second and third albums was similar, but marked with more experience.”
You actually left The Saints before the third album.
“Yeah. I had this mad girlfriend who wanted me to go run a pub in Cornwall, a strange aberration. It didn’t last for very long. It was pretty obvious even at that tender age that the pub life wasn’t for me, and I didn’t not to want to be a musician – but that’s the power of sex. Also, EMI wouldn’t have given the go ahead to the third album if I’d shagged off, so in a very short space of time I went full-circle and decided to stay in London and continue this mad bohemian life … and it’s been the same ever since.”
What The Saints managed with their second and third albums – that exquisite, magical mix of guitars and horns, has rarely been achieved either before or since. Why do you think this is?
“I love big noisy electric guitars and always will, but it’s a challenge to incorporate other instruments into that without sounding like a tack on. It is hard to get them sound organic. The Rolling Stones managed it. It’s odd, because the saxophone is a very sexy instrument, and the electric fuzz guitar was invented as a substitute for sax. I’ve never thought about it before. Maybe it’s something to do with how you visualise music. I normally see music as arrangements before going near the recording process. Maybe rock musicians don’t usually. It’s like people saying, ‘How do we fill up this gap now?’”
What inspired you to cover Phil Spector?
“At the time, ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ sounded really normal. I heard Ike and Tina’s version and I thought, ‘Man, that’s superior’. I remember we did an Otis Redding cover and it still embarrasses the shit out of me, cos there are some artists you shouldn’t touch. It wasn’t cheeky, it wasn’t breaking down the barriers of anything, it was just a limp version.”
You fell out with Ed big-time: do you still hate each other as much as legend has it?
“Publicly, we seem to be at war, which is probably good press for both of us. Behind the scenes, we’re much more chummy. In public, he seems to have some umbrage at my continued Saintdom – but I think he’s used The Saints over the years more for publicity than I have. I do quite like his catalogue, and he’s an interesting chap, so there’s no enmity from my side of the fence. Except, of course, when he tries to sing everything goes kind of pear-shaped. Ten Brownie Points for trying, though.”