Skip to content

Holy Roller

A tribute to Chris Bailey, the late frontman and co-founder of Australian punk band the Saints, who died a year ago today.

· 11 min read
Holy Roller
Chris Bailey of Australian punk band The Saints performs in the UK at Dingwalls Dance Hall, London, England, circa 1977. (Photo by Gus Stewart via Getty Images)

Shortly after Chris Bailey—the late frontman and co-founder of Australian rock band the Saints—died on April 9th last year, music critic Michael Dwyer recounted his first impressions of the singer in an appreciation for the Sydney Morning Herald. “It was the unvarnished disdain that shocked me,” he wrote. “Bands flogging singles were all satin pants and pearly whites in 1977. They might look angsty in performance but come interview time, their job was to bow and scrape and please. So who was this kid? Sloppy, pimply, slouched, dull eyes under bad hair. Flicking ash with one hand, the other in his pocket, grunting monosyllables. Ray Burgess, mega-dimpled host of after-school TV pop show Flashez, was clearly appalled … and there in my polite suburban loungeroom, so was I.”

It is fitting that the video promo announcing the arrival of the Saints’ epoch-making debut single ‘(I’m) Stranded’ in 1976 began with a door being kicked open. For those of us in this global neck of the woods, the blazing effrontery of the band’s early songs recalls a heady mix of impressions from mid-’70s Australia—a moment when the ultraconservative culture of Queensland’s premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen collided with the electrifying influence of American proto-punk, blues, R&B, and soul. It was the sound of suburban parties, booze and hormones, rebellion and frustration, lipstick girls in cheap perfume and drunken backseat fumblings as Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions crackled on the AM car radio.

You can hear migrant traces, too, because although the Saints’ sound would become synonymous with a particular kind antipodean primitivism, half the band were raised in immigrant households. Born to Irish parents—Robert, an army man, and Bridget (O’Hare) Bailey—in colonial-era Kenya in 1957, Bailey never travelled on an Australian passport. His earliest abiding memories would be of the horseshoe hills of Belfast, where his family lived for seven years. But as the sectarian gloom of Northern Ireland deepened and the portents of the Troubles gathered, they lit out for the land of apparent economic promise down under. At the time, Australia was one of the world’s wealthiest nations on a per-capita basis; the nation’s cultural treasury, on the other hand, left something to be desired. Not least in a state capital such as Brisbane, memorably described by local writer David Malouf as “so sleepy, so slatternly, so sprawlingly unlovely.”

“It was not a good look, Brisbane in the 1970s,” Bailey later dryly recalled. Nor was Inala, the rough-around-the-edges neighbourhood in which he and his family lived. This was the suburban heartland of a city where “poetry could never occur,” as Malouf’s character Dante has it in the bumpy Brisbane novel Johnno. A few years later, Bailey fell in with a couple of schoolmates at Oxley State High: Ed Kuepper—whom he first met in a detention class—and Ivor Hay. Kuepper was a year or two older than Bailey and had been born in what was then West Germany before his family moved to Brisbane in the 1960s. The three began making music as Kid Galahad and the Eternals (after an Elvis Presley movie) before settling on the Saints (after the TV show).

Kuepper would turn out to be a majestically talented guitarist. As fellow Brisbanite Robert Forster, who would go on to make a name for himself as a singer and songwriter with The Go-Betweens, later explained in a first-rate documentary about the Saints, Bailey had the voice that Kuepper didn’t have, but Kuepper had the songs that Bailey couldn’t produce—at least not at that point. They fitted together like burger and bun (or, perhaps, given Bailey’s enthusiastic dialogue with alcohol, rum and Coke). “You put them together—pow!—dynamite,” Forster marvelled. “That was the genius of the Saints: the Irish guy on the stage and the German guy on guitar.”

The Irish guy on the stage could sometimes get a little carried away with the sectarian politics of his birthplace, but Bailey’s immature radicalism did pay an unexpected musical dividend. The local branch of the Brisbane Communist Party—which found the Irish Republican Army and its terrorism rather sassy—allowed the band to use their premises for rehearsals as they fine-tuned their ferocious live act.

(I’m) Stranded’ was an entirely self-financed and self-recorded 45, and it captured something of Bailey’s dislocation, even if it was ostensibly written about some Aussie kid catching the last train home. There’s no preamble or acceleration—like the Stooges’ ‘Search and Destroy’ a few years earlier, the track bursts out of the gate with the urgency and energy it sustains throughout. Kuepper’s guitar is like a tornado combined with the thunderous rhythm section and the sneering disaffection of Bailey’s vocal. Music writer Richard Mason would later describe the single as:

a huge rushing sound topped by a breathless, desperate vocal howl of isolation from and contempt for the rest of the planet, yet such is the skill of the songwriting that it remains unmistakably a ‘pop’ song, albeit closer to the sledgehammer riffing approach of the Detroit school than to the bubble-gum buzzsaw approach of their contemporaries, the Ramones.

Released in September 1976, ‘(I’m) Stranded’ was among the earliest punk rock singles, predating ‘New Rose’ by the Damned (October 22nd) and ‘Anarchy in the UK’ by the Sex Pistols (November 26th), and arriving just a few months after the first Ramones LP (April 23rd). A debut album of commensurately raw material (named after the single) followed in 1977, after the band signed a three-album deal with EMI.

(I'm) Stranded LP (1977)

But Bailey and the Saints were never entirely comfortable with the “punk rock” label that in many respects perfectly described their early music and attitude. On one hand, they were vanguardists of a generation who, for the first time, had the means to buy basic instruments and self-release their music, and they instinctively adopted the aesthetics of proletarian play (to filch the sociologist Simon Frith’s formulation for the style). On the other, was punk really about how young people performed music or who consumed it? Was it the voice of unemployed youth, the sound of bohemian challenge, or a bit of both?

Punk was a “cute little fashion,” Bailey later told me. “It was a marketing plan to some people—not the purveyors, but the recipients—a token rebellion and a way to establish their teenage identity … fortunately I missed out on all that.” That last remark gets to the most important point of all—whatever punk was about, Bailey and the Saints were doing it ahead of the subsequent sociological pondering and before the major labels realised that they had a cash cow on their hands. ‘(I’m) Stranded’ may have sounded like a punk single, but it was recorded before the genre even had a name.

The Saints circa 1977. L–R: Ed Kuepper (guitar), Chris Bailey (vocals), Algy Ward (bass), Ivor Hay (drums) (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

And so it came to pass that the band from a faraway Australian town heard London calling, and promptly decamped for Britain during the first flush of the new wave. In England, they won favourable comparisons with the leaders of what was by now already a burgeoning scene. “Rock music in the ’70s was changed by three bands,” Bob Geldof famously said at the time, “the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, and the Saints.” Nevertheless, the band resisted the conformity of the UK scene, a sentiment expressed with characteristic perversity on ‘Private Affair,’ the fourth track on their sophomore LP:

And now you think you got a first in fashion,
New uniforms, we all look the same,
A new vogue for the now generation,
A new profit in the same old game.

Not that Bailey was opposed to playing up to the stereotype. As Dwyer observed, in early interviews, he seemed to relish the role of sullen and faintly obnoxious problem child, peering disdainfully from beneath a mop of dirty black curls at puzzled or obsequious journalists. But as those of us who met him also knew, he was perfectly capable of holding court in loquacious fashion, replete with literary asides (he was familiar with Orwell and VS Naipaul), riffing in an almost plummy, high-tone accent with the distracted air of a slightly tetchy schoolmaster.

In this first iteration, the Saints would release just three albums. Their 1977 debut (I’m) Stranded was followed in 1978 by Eternally Yours, which yielded two singles, ‘Know Your Product’ and ‘This Perfect Day,’ and saw the band moving in a more polished and sophisticated musical direction. Having already recorded covers of the Ike and Tina Turner hit ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ and a punked-up version of Connie Francis’s ‘Lipstick on Your Collar,’ the band leant heavily into R&B on their third LP, Prehistoric Sounds, later that same year, an album drenched in brass arrangements. It is arguably the most accomplished of their early records, by turns joyous and sinister, hopeful and paranoid. Unfortunately, the usual pressures of “creative differences” and a paucity of disposable cash led to the group splitting before 1978 was out.

Eternally Yours and Prehistoric Sounds (both 1978)

Like many significant songwriting partnerships, Bailey and Kuepper’s relationship was fraught. Mutually respectful, for sure, at least at first, but as competitive as it was complementary, all the more so given their tender years. Their particular alchemy seems to have been a factor of their respective European histories: Kuepper—a multi-instrumentalist who drilled Bailey on the finer points of wielding a guitar—adored continental sheen, while Bailey artistically bathed in the dancehall sounds and spit-and-snarl of the Irish folkways. The diametrically different music they would later make as solo artists captures this divergence. The wonder isn’t that they were as supple together as they self-evidently were for a time, but that they managed to stick it out at all.

Once Kuepper had left, the band seemed to be dead. But three years later, Bailey resurrected the name as a vehicle for his own songwriting, and over the next three decades, he would man a revolving door that would see nearly three-dozen artists appear on subsequent recordings and live shows. As Bailey’s talents as a lyricist and songsmith flourished, he steered later iterations of the Saints in the direction of heartland rock, writing songs that had more than a little in common with the music of Bruce Springsteen. By the time the band released its 1984 album A Little Madness to be Free, the electric guitars that defined their early sound had been discarded almost entirely. That album closed with ‘Ghost Ships,’ a languid ballad that slowly gathers steam to become a gorgeous dance number, and which music critic Geoff Ginsberg would describe as “a track so amazing [that Bailey] went and put it on several more albums, re-recording it twice.” The accompanying video even went down well with the programmers at MTV.

The Monkey Puzzle (1981), Out in the Jungle (1982), A Little Madness to Be Free (1984)

Then, in 1986, the Saints released All Fools Day, which remains the finest record the band had ever recorded. It would also be the first to give Bailey’s work a decent bit of American exposure. He let loose in rare style, layering the record with intriguing musical textures, alternating between spitting out the words and caressing them, something that made his concerts during this period especially memorable. The title song is a stone classic reminiscent of the young Van Morrison, replete with rollocking Christology and exquisite orchestral and guitar arrangements. It casts the still-tender singer as a narrator at the end of his life, preparing to depart the world on a day in which “there is no tomorrow” as he enjoins the congregated faithful to raise a glass of wine. Bailey frequently plundered Catholic imagery, and it is tempting for secularists to scour this work for irony—but irony is the alibi of constipated postmodernists and Bailey really wasn’t that sort of artist.

All Fools Day (1986)

Meanwhile, the album’s opening track, ‘Just Like Fire Would,’ sounds like it was personally written for Bruce Springsteen—or so I put it to Bailey ahead of a sensational show I attended when he toured the album in New Zealand in 1986. “I can see why you would say that,” he replied brightly. So could Springsteen, it turned out, who was so taken with the song that he added it to his setlist when he toured his Wrecking Ball album in Australia. He would subsequently record his own version of it at the 301 Studio in Sydney and include it on his High Hopes album in 2014.

A year later, Bailey retired the Saints project for the better part of a decade, although he would resurrect the band for a third and final act between 1997 and 2012, releasing a further six albums. He passed away on April 9th, 2022, from undisclosed causes in Haarlem, the Netherlands, aged 65. Ed Kuepper’s relationship with his former collaborator was sometimes difficult, but he seemed to have loved Bailey like a brother. When news of Bailey’s death emerged, he tweeted:

But it was Nick Cave who provided the most fulsome posthumous tribute to Bailey’s talent and influence in an entry on his popular Red Hand Files newsletter. Cave posted a picture of Bailey collapsed onstage during an anarchic Saints gig at the infamous Tiger Room in Melbourne in 1977. Cave is standing at the front of the crowd, gazing down at the zonked-out young singer who would later guest on Cave’s Nocturama album:

In the photo Chris is already committed to his life as perhaps the greatest and most anarchic rock ’n’ roll singer Australia would ever produce. Conversely, I am in that stonewashed and uncertain state between failing art school and, well, I am not quite sure what. You can almost see the thought bubble forming above my head as an alternate plan presents itself.

In the late seventies, the Saints came down from Brisbane and tore their way through Sydney and Melbourne with their famously seditious shows. It is impossible to exaggerate the resulting radical galvanising effect on the Melbourne scene—these legendary performances changed the lives of so many people, myself included.

“I can only simply repeat,” Cave added, “for the record, that, in my opinion, the Saints were Australia’s greatest band, and that Chris Bailey was my favourite singer.” Bailey himself was sanguine, in later life, and more modest. “I wouldn’t trade in my rather dodgy little career," he reflected. “In terms of what a working-class Irish Catholic immigrant to the New World could expect, rock ’n’ roll hasn’t been that unkind to me.”

Latest Podcast

Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.


On Instagram @quillette