In 1976 – regardless of whether he or anyone else thought so at the time – 19-year-old Chris Bailey was the voice of Brisbane.
(I’m) Stranded, the first single he cut with his band the Saints, tore through like nothing else on the radio. Bailey’s singing recalled the young Van Morrison: impatient, howling, spitting out lyrics that radiated the indignities and frustrations of growing up in a city at the arse end of the world.
Bailey’s former bandmate, guitarist Ed Kuepper, has always been at pains to stress that the Saints were not a punk band, because they formed – as Kid Galahad and the Eternals – in 1973, years before any stirrings of a musical movement. But it really can’t be said enough: with Kuepper’s roaring guitar sound, (I’m) Stranded – released in June 1976 – pre-dated the first UK punk single, The Damned’s NewRosefor several months.
More important than chronology, though, was the Saints’ attitude. With no venues to play in Brisbane, they booked suburban halls. As their reputation spread, and the owners of those halls refused to host them, they put on gigs in their own share house, which happened to be right opposite Brisbane’s police headquarters. With no record company willing to touch them, they recorded, released and distributed (I’m) Stranded themselves on their own label.
Along with Sydney contemporaries Radio Birdman, it was that self-sufficiency, as much as the Saints’ sound, that revolutionized the Australian music industry. But it also lit a fire in Bailey’s Brisbane that burned long after the Saints decamped for England in May 1977. By the time they left, a scene had begun to coalesce – the Go-Betweens and the riptidesthe Leftovers and racethe Fun Things and the Apartments.
Robert Forster wrote in the Monthly that punk hit Brisbane like no other city in Australia because we had our own hillbilly dictator, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, “the kind of crypto-fascist, bird-brained conservative that every punk singer could only dream of railing against”, and we had the Saints, “the musical revolutionaries in the city’s evil heart” who gave a city that usually chased musical history its own place in it.
It’s hard to explain Brisbane in the 70s and 80s – the crass venality, the routine brutality, the rank stupidity – to those who weren’t here. Think of Bjelke-Petersen as a prehistoric ancestor to Donald Trump, roaming the fetid swamps and jungles of Queensland, and you’re getting close. “Brisbane is so slatternly, so sleepy, so sprawlingly unlovely,” author David Malouf wrote in Johnno. It was, he said, “a place where poetry could never occur.”
After Malouf, it was Chris Bailey who helped prove that it wasn’t the case. In so doing, he inspired countless others here, this writer included, to find their voices too. The first three Saints albums are all Australian music milestones. Eternally Yours, with its astonishing lead track Know Your Product, and Prehistoric Sounds were a huge leap from (I’m) Stranded. Recorded in London with a horn section, they were an explosive fusion of rock, soul and R&B.
The original triumvirate of Bailey, Kuepper and drummer Ivor Hay splintered after that. Bailey kept the Saints name, which became a banner for a rotating series of line-ups. It was a messy decision, meaning the two epochs of the band would for ever be compared, and Kuepper and Bailey – one of the finest songwriting combinations Australia has produced – sparred constantly. But Kuepper was the first to say he couldn’t have wished for a better singer.
Kuepper had written most of the music for the early Saints, and Bailey was determined to establish himself. The first EP after the split, Paralytic Tonight, Dublin Tomorrow, was released in early 1980; songwriter Paul Kelly said in his memoir How to Make Gravy that he “played it over and over again in a flat in Punt Road”. Musically, it still spat fire, and Bailey’s voice was maturing, his lyrics more reflective and dreamlike, especially on the magnificent simple love.
Eleven more studio albums were released under the Saints’ name, plus a number of solo albums under Bailey’s own name. He increasingly turned towards a heartland rock sound, and had hits with Ghost Ships (1984) and Just Like Fire Would (1986). The latter was covered by Bruce Springsteen on his 2013 album High Hopes, and Springsteen opened his Brisbane show with the song on the E-Street Band’s 2014 Australian tour.
Bailey himself had a tortured relationship with his home town. At what was meant to be a one-off Saints meeting at the University of Queensland in 2007 – the first time Bailey, Kuepper and Hay had played together in nearly 30 years – the singer paused before playing No Time, Stranded’s B-side, and told the crowd: “This is fortuitous – the last time we played this song here, we got kicked out.”
Six thousand fans roared their approval back. As Forster once told me: “We all felt brushed by the Saints’ wings”. Like all good rock’n’roll stars, Bailey had the devil in him. But he sang like an angel that night.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism