Every decade’s snotty kids are the same, as Australia’s Saints handily proved. These Brisbane punks emerged in ’77 with a raw, driving sound recalling the Pretty Things of more than a decade earlier. On (I’m) Stranded, Chris Bailey sings with the same irritable snarl that band’s Phil May had back when he was considered competition for Mick Jagger. The rest of the Saints (guitarist Ed Kuepper, drummer Ivor Hay and bassist Kym Bradshaw) respond in kind, issuing sheets of rough, gray rock’n’roll noise, including the title track, a pioneering international punk hit.
Eternally Yours refines the attack without diminishing the impact, boasting tighter playing and even a horn section. Highlights include the cynical outburst of “Know Your Product” and “Run Down,” the kind of putdown bands like this have to do well to maintain credibility. With consistency and tasteful variety (handling sharp acoustic ballads as well as the standard burners), the LP is deservedly regarded as a punk classic, and even yielded a UK Top 40 single, the searing “This Perfect Day.”
On Prehistoric Sounds, the Saints abandoned punk (for good) in favor of a brooding, bluesy, R&B-flavored style they’ve been expanding on since, best characterized by the melancholy and hypnotic “All Times Through Paradise.” Though a bit of a downer compared to the meteoric energy of the first two LPs, and containing claustrophobic bits of paranoia like “Brisbane (Security City),” a succinct condemnation of boring-town inertia, and “The Prisoner,” the album has a strange, soothing effect. Unfortunately, it was the last LP by the original lineup.
Chris Bailey re-emerged in 1979 with an all-new band of Saints, and debuted the group on the French-only Paralytic Tonight Dublin Tomorrow EP, the first-ever release on the now mighty New Rose label. There’s hornwork on several of the five tracks, but the rip-roaring energy drive finds these Saints working into something like punked-up Chicago blues.
Prehistoric Songs collects highlights from the preceding albums, along with various singles. Hearing a bunch of their ragged cover versions in succession can be unsettling, but it’s also thrilling, in a sick way, to witness “River Deep, Mountain High,” “Kissin’ Cousins,” “Lipstick on Your Collar” and Otis Redding’s “Security” being put through the meatgrinder. Not for the fainthearted or tradition-minded.
The Monkey Puzzle continues to develop the new Saints’ tone. Although this lineup is not nearly so abrasive as the original band, the devotion to rootsy no-nonsense rock’n’roll remains undiminished. See the buoyant cover of “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” for details. (The CD appends Paralytic Tonight.)
Out in the Jungle finds Bailey at his most polished, handling brooding ballads and horn-laden rockers with impressive aplomb. Although still a superlative growler, much of the exhilarating edge of previous Saints classics has been unduly muted by professionalism. Brian James, then in the Lords of the New Church, guests on guitar.
Bailey recorded his first solo album, Casablanca, in Paris; accompanying himself only on simple guitar (acoustic/electric, double-tracked in spots), he sings like a folk/blues troubadour. The songs are mixed in quality — from a straight reading of Jimmy Reed’s “(Take Out Some) Insurance on Me” to the pretty “Wait Till Tomorrow” — and, lacking domineering rock power to drive them, have a tendency to drift a bit. Nonetheless, some of the songs are quite strong, and gain urgency from the stark presentation.
What We Did on Our Holidays followed: half acoustic solo, half backed by a full band. With the exception of one original (“Wait Till Tomorrow” again, retitled “Ghost Ships”), this album is all covers: folk/blues on the acoustic side and Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Wilson Pickett, etc. on the electric side. A good workout for Bailey’s rich voice, which is obviously growing deeper with age. (The CD adds eight of Casablanca‘s twelve songs.)
Bursting with fresh enthusiasm, Bailey then reassembled the Saints, and made two studio albums that are the crowning achievement of a long career. A Little Madness to Be Free reveals him to be a consummate arranger, as violins, cellos, trumpets, you-name-it fill the record without cluttering up the sound. “Ghost Ships,” “Down the Drain” and “The Hour” are lush, yet powerfully dramatic.
All Fools Day, the Saints’ first US release in nine years, is more of the same formula, only even better. Recorded at Rockfield Studios in Wales with Hugh Jones producing, the LP even features the return of original drummer Ivor Hay and a batch of the strongest Saints material ever, particularly on Side One. With more strings, horns and soul/blues influences than ever, it’s a brilliant and inspired work.
After two phenomenal albums in a row, Prodigal Son is a bit of a step back, although Bailey’s singing and a batch of characteristically good songs make it worth a good listen. With a variety of alumni on hand, the backing is familiar and simple, approximating past successes on the best tracks (“Grain of Sand,” “Before Hollywood” and “Fire and Brimstone”). But two substitutions on the US edition (an ill-advised new recording of “Ghost Ships” and a dull cover of the Easybeats’ “Music Goes Round My Head” done for the Young Einstein soundtrack) and lackluster commercial production (by Bailey and Brian McGee) drag the LP down enough to make it the least significant in the group’s large catalogue.
Live in a Mud Hut is an official bootleg of sorts, taken from a 1984 European tour. The recording quality is fair, but the LP is best avoided by all but fans who already own the studio versions. The performances range from flat to buzzed, but the biggest problem is the lack of a horn section or any other embellishments. (Live in a Mud Hut is appended to the CD of A Little Madness to Be Free.)
Best of the Saints is hardly a best-of at all, as its track selection almost mirrors that of the previous greatest hits anthology, Prehistoric Songs. However, as the early Saints LPs are largely out of print, it can serve as a useful introduction.
Likewise, Side One of Scarce Saints isn’t scarce, merely a reprise of much of the same early material as Prehistoric Songs and Best of the Saints. Side Two, however, is a 1981 live set from London’s Dingwalls, presumably by the lineup that made Monkey Puzzle. Despite a preponderance of punk standards, the tracks showcase the group’s later rock’n’roll side, and is much better than Live in a Mud Hut. The final track is a ’77 recording from a Sydney gig, a razor-sharp runthrough of “Nights in Venice.”
The New Rose Years is an appealing sampler covering 1980-’84, the years when a lot of early fans lost touch with the band. The overall quality is excellent, and offers an effective précis of the three superb albums and one EP from which it was primarily culled. (There’s a smattering of tracks from Live in a Mud Hut, singles, etc.) The CD adds five more tracks from related sources.
If your pockets are deep and your Saints collection lacking, the Australian boxed set offers a tidy vinyl package with a tempting lure for even the most diligent collectors: the eight studio albums (including, oddly, the American version of Prodigal Son, which was subsequently released in Australia), Scarce Saints and a disc of post-’85 outtakes that are not otherwise available.