Although deservedly a legend in his native Australia, Ed Kuepper is virtually unknown in North America. What little awareness of him there is resulted from the lanky guitarist’s beginnings as a teenager in Brisbane, where he formed the band that would become the Saints in 1973 with singer Chris Bailey and launched an international punk sensation. No genre retrospective is complete without the Saints’ classic Kuepper-penned singles: “(I’m) Stranded,” “This Perfect Day” and “Know Your Product.”
The group split in 1978 after three brilliant albums (although Bailey again used the name in the ’80s) and Kuepper formed the equally uncompromising, eclectic and jazzy Laughing Clowns before going solo in 1986 with the sparse, sprightly Electrical Storm. Though (like the Saints and Laughing Clowns) this formative effort features sterling horn work, the title track and “Car Headlights” herald a pleasant retreat to the folkish rock that’s been Kuepper’s forte ever since.
Rooms of the Magnificent is no departure, but employs deeper production touches and boasts one of Kuepper’s best tracks (with his best horn use since “Know Your Product”), “Also Sprach the King of Eurodisco.” The guitarist deftly mixes Laughing Clowns’ edgy stubbornness and skewered, rhythmic force with more accessible hooks. Not a Soul Around contains three songs from the first two albums, including an edited version of “Also Sprach the King of Eurodisco,” and the title track’s preview of the third.
Everybody’s Got To, Kuepper’s only solo LP for a major label, is even better. Self-production with a more commercial sensibility enhances rather than blunts such numbers (both released as singles) as “Burned My Fingers” and “When There’s This Party.” The blistering brass that punctuates “Not a Soul Around” is a quintessential Kuepper moment; the album has the Australian’s single most inspired set of songs.
Jettisoning three-fourths of the quartet that backed him on Everybody’s Got To (retaining only drummer Mark Dawson), Kuepper went on a tear, recording no fewer than twelve albums in the first six years of the ’90s (plus greatest hits packages). Today Wonder, which started the wrecking ball rolling, is a low-key acoustic outing, with covers of Tim Hardin, Donovan, the Animals and Skip James showing Kuepper’s artistic breadth. His originals (including a sharp reworking of the Clowns’ “Eternally Yours”) maintain the quality level.
Kuepper formed the Aints with Celibate Rifles guitarist Kent Steedman to play his old Saints songs for two gigs, one of which was recorded and released as S.L.S.Q. Live. There’s no quibbling with the stunning material, but the album is strictly a hadda-be-there souvenir: this rag-tag bunch are horribly outclassed by the old Saints’ live documents found on such compilations as Live at the Hope and Anchor or Scarce Saints. Still, the gigs inspired Kuepper to form a “real” Aints with new players (exit Steedman). For the superheated “It’s Still Nowhere” alone, the fiery Ascension is a hell of a record; one imagines mixing-board needles melted into the red. A treat for fans of Hendrix, Cream and the Who more than narrowminded punks. Autocannibilism is much the same, only it’s not as well-produced (actually, it’s quite murky) and the material isn’t as convincing.
Returning to his solo work and enlarging on the melancholic acoustic base, Honey Steel’s Gold is Kuepper’s most brooding, reflective LP, its simple character belied by the lush timbre of the piano, acoustic guitars and his bluesy voice. Like refugees from the Saints’ Prehistoric Sounds, “King of Vice” and “The Way I Made You Feel” (another Kuepper classic) display a veteran master at his sharpest. The US release also tacks on the four B-sides of the Real Wild Life EP, including covers of the Kinks (a lackluster version — Kuepper does this inspired choice way better live — of Village Green’s “Last of the Steam-Powered Trains”), Paul Revere and the Raiders and Willie Dixon.
Black Ticket Day is effectively part two of Honey Steel’s Gold. The mixture of the acoustics and the lower registers of Kuepper’s voice combine for unique moods, as on “There’s Nothing Natural” (redone from Today Wonder’s more stripped-down version) and “It’s Lunacy.” Though uneven, this weaker work still has plenty of great moments.
There’s still not much change on Serene Machine, but Kuepper is starting to claw more, with a harsher bite on such dramatic songs as “When She’s Down” and “Sleepy Head (Serene Machine),” which employs surprising gospel-ish backing vocals on the choruses to dramatic (as opposed to clichéd) effect.
Character Assassination is Kuepper’s best ’90s LP, a confidently etched and unnerving work. The violins throughout are dazzling, especially on “Little Fiddle (And the Ghost of Xmas Past)” and “By the Way”; the acoustic guitar is so well recorded it’s like he’s playing in your room. Kuepper even deftly reinserts tasteful Stax-style horns on such numbers as the fuming “My Best Interests at Heart.” (Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” sounds great with trumpets, too!) It’s amazing how Kuepper can use such carefully constructed backgrounds and an acrimonious voice to stir up the same tension and intensity that once required much louder music. The Butterfly Net best-of is proof of how long and how well he’s managed this trick. This perfectly chosen overview is both made to order as a sparkling introduction and a testament to the songwriter’s best gifts. (Legendary Bully is another compilation.)
Having accomplished so much, A King in the Kindness Room finds Kuepper searching for a new direction. An ambitious mish-mash and a lot weirder and more experimental than his other records, this wobbly album includes a few out-and-out duds. But it also contains a few gems. No Saints fan will be unhappy to learn that “Messin’ Pt. II” (an update of 1977’s “Messin’ With the Kid”) makes great reuse of that timeless blues riff. Or that “Pissed Off” is a pop single with a harsh dance beat that belongs on any Kuepper best-of. (He also reinvents Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown” and AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” in bizarre covers.)
Sings His Greatest Hits for You, the Australian best-of, covers the same period as the American Butterfly Net, only far less comprehensively. Likewise, Shelf Life Unlimited, the Aints anthology, can be neglected in favor of Ascension, which outclasses the other two LPs to the point of being a virtual best-of all by itself.
Kuepper has been on a tear for years now, releasing several Australian albums a year in a variety of veins, many available only in small editions by mail. Only his most rabid supporters are likely to be aware of the surprisingly essential I Was a Mail Order Bridegroom. (The title refers to the fact that Kuepper didn’t want this LP of unplugged versions of his best songs commercially released, and thus it was sold only by mail.) This rare album is well worth obtaining, however. All sixteen tracks were recorded live in the studio with a big, ringing sound. Kuepper attacks the strings as if it were still 1977 and likewise hits every period of his career. The highlights include the Saints’ “Messin’ With the Kid” (originally sung by Bailey) and a cover of the Who’s “The Seeker.” Despite its obscurity, this is one of Kuepper’s best albums. Exotic Mail Order Moods is another non-retail album.