Ed Kuepper still remembers the first time he saw Jim White play drums. It was back in the mid-1990s and Kuepper – founder of the Saints, Laughing Clowns and Aints – was headlining the Prince of Wales in Melbourne, supported by a rising instrumental trio called the Dirty Three.
“I know the Dirty Three aren’t strictly speaking a rock band, but they were playing at a rock club – and they were supporting me, the King of Rock & Roll,” Kuepper says, his tone as dry as a desiccated old biscuit. White, joining us on Zoom, hoots with laughter in the background.
“It was an unusually expansive way of playing,” Kuepper says of White’s drumming. “He was playing the rhythm but wasn’t just focused on keeping a strict tempo. That always catches my ear, and you don’t see it happening all that much.”
Forty-five years since the Saints released (I’m) Stranded, Kuepper and White are touring Australia as a duo for the first time, performing songs from Kuepper’s five-decade repertoire.
Kuepper had bookmarked White as a potential collaborator ever since that first encounter at the Prince of Wales, but the Dirty Three relocated overseas soon afterwards. White then became busy with other projects, working with Cat Power and Xylouris White, among others.
It was the pandemic that brought them together: White returned to Melbourne last year and, with no gigs on the horizon, both musicians had time to consider new possibilities. Kuepper got in touch, and White, who had drawn early inspiration from the great Laughing Clowns drummer Jeffrey Wegener, instantly agreed.
The tour was booked before the pair were even able to play together, with rehearsals delayed by snap lockdowns. “Last year I got into a state of mind where I thought everything was very finite, and made no attempts at thinking in the long term,” Kuepper says. “I’m still in that basic state of mind.”
When they finally got into the same room, the pair clicked immediately. “The first take of the first song basically confirmed what I thought from having watched Jim play over the years: that it wouldn’t be a struggle … The overall feel and pulse of the songs, it’s all there.”
White agrees: “It was unusual to book a tour without having played together, but the situation was what it was,” he says. “I thought there was a good chance it would mesh easily, but you never really know.”
He describes the sound the pair make as “lean”, while retaining an ability to stretch the songs into new directions. “With a two-piece you can turn on a dime, so it’s not going to get lost. It’s not minimal, and neither of us are interested in jamming, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do different versions of songs and still have this intention and result.”
Those songs will run the gamut of Kuepper’s career, going back to the Saints. But there is no suggestion at this stage that the pair will enter a studio. Kuepper, who has released more than 50 albums in various forms, describes recording in the streaming age as “a dead format”.
Which is funny, because he is also reissuing three different compilations of his solo years, the Laughing Clowns and the Aints. But new studio recordings have been scarce in recent years. “I’ve got literally shitloads of stuff that I haven’t recorded – who knows if any of it is ever going to see the light of day,” he says.
“In a way, it seems more and more a vanity project these days, in terms of the old imperative of getting music out to your fans – I think people are a little bit more detached from it … I’ve got a lot of songs, but I also feel like I’m changing musically a little bit. When I’m in that state and I’ve got a lot of old material, I tend to put it away.”
Meaning, if everything is finite and impermanent, as Kuepper suggests, this tour with White could well end up being a one-off.
The cultural contribution of Ed Kuepper to the city of Brisbane is set to be formally recognised, with a park close to his childhood home in the south-western suburb of Oxley set to be named in his honour.
Ed Kuepper Park – the sign for which is now being made – adjoins Oxley Road and Lawson Street. The name was approved by the council after a petition by local resident Maurice Murphy quickly gathered more than 800 signatures.
Kuepper, who was born in Bremen, West Germany before migrating with his parents to Australia in 1960 aged four, co-founded the Saints with singer Chris Bailey and drummer Ivor Hay in 1973. The group wrote many of their classics in the Kueppers’ garage.
Their single (I’m) Stranded and the subsequent album of the same name, recorded in 1976, is recognised as a cornerstone of the punk movement, even though the band was quick to disavow any association with it.
The band recorded two more internationally lauded albums for EMI, Eternally Yours and Prehistoric Sounds before splitting in late 1978, although Chris Bailey continues to record and tour using the Saints name.
Kuepper went on to the post-punk Laughing Clowns and a prolific solo career, nudging the top 40 with his 1991 album Honey Steel’s Gold and its accompanying single, The Way I Made You Feel.
He is touring in October under the name The Aints, a wry moniker he used on three albums in the early 1990s.
Murphy said councillor Steve Griffiths, of Moorooka ward, had not previously heard of either Kuepper or the Saints, but had been supportive and helped him through the application process.
On top of the park, there are further moves to have the Saints’ pivotal place in Brisbane’s musical history recognised.
John Willsteed – a multi-instrumental contributor on the Go-Betweens classic album 16 Lover’s Lane – has applied for state government funding to mark the band’s second rehearsal space, on the corner of inner-city Petrie Terrace and Milton Road.
This was a share house for Bailey, drummer Ivor Hay and Jeffrey Wegener, who went on to be a virtuoso drummer with the Laughing Clowns. It became a rehearsal space for the Saints and a place to play, since no one in Brisbane would book the band.
When someone hurled a brick through the front window in protest at the noise, it was boarded up with plywood, with Kuepper daubing the words “Club 76” on it.
Despite the club’s location, directly opposite police headquarters in what was then a notorious police state, Kuepper said the club was actually shut down by health and fire inspectors.
“I know that sounds funny, but it was because we didn’t have adequate toilets – there was only one toilet downstairs. And also the fire department; there were just issues in terms of general safety.
“What brought things to a head was … There wasn’t a lot going on in Brisbane at the time, so we starting get a whole bunch of people [we didn’t know] crashing it and we started experiencing problems.
“It started to get violent, there was a degree of unpleasantness, so we would have stopped anyway, had we not been planning on moving out of town.” The band left Brisbane for Sydney, then London shortly afterwards.
The Go-Betweens have already been officially immortalised in Brisbane via the Go Between Bridge, which links Hale Street in Milton to Montague Road in South Brisbane.
Willsteed said it was time the Saints were given similar credit.
“When we look at Brisbane’s cultural history in the last 50 years, internationally, the Saints [and] the Go-Betweens, whether we like them or not, they’re the names that always come up, so I think they’re inextricably linked,” he said.
“We have some kind of international reputation, thanks very much to them, and so I think we really should acknowledge it. People come from overseas knowing that this is the place where the Saints and the Go-Betweens came from.”
Willsteed said that if successful, the application would fund a mural on a wall along Upper Roma Street, a stone’s throw from Club 76 and around the corner from the location the cover photo and parts of the film clip for (I’m) Stranded were shot.
Kuepper said he was flattered, saying he thought it was important generally that artists were recognised in any city’s history.
“When I was a kid, I liked being pointed towards where certain things happened. A friend of mine was living across the road from Tony Worsley, who was a local hero, a 60s garage singer [with The Fabulous Blue Jays].
“That kind of thing really impressed me. So yes, I do think it’s nice having little plaques around to point out that such and such a person did this at a certain place, or this incident happened here or there. Be it arts or history, I like it.”
Robert Forster, co-founder of the Go-Betweens, writes that in the small, but febrile post-Saints Brisbane music scene of the late 1970s, everyone knew each other. That should be no surprise: really, they still do. But even back in those days, he says, he and the late Grant McLennan knew of Peter Milton Walsh before they had met him; he was a man with “whispers and claims on his trail”.
Walsh is the near-myth behind the Apartments, the group he named after one of Billy Wilder’s greatest films. It speaks of him. He wore impeccable suits and shades under a big mop of blond hair in Brisbane’s sweltering heat. He had a taste for the arcane and the exotic. His music is of another time: of post-punk, certainly, but also of Burt Bacharach and Jacques Brel; Françoise Hardy and Serge Gainsbourg.
He is a star in France, yet all but unknown here. He lives quietly in Sydney, rarely performs, and has just made his first album – his fifth overall – in 18 years. The man himself is no mystery; just not one to make a noise about himself. He deadpans he has been “hard at work developing my sitting still and keeping quiet talents, which to me are a little bit neglected in this world”.
Walsh had a very brief stint in the Go-Betweens in 1979, but he already had the Apartments, and he quickly returned to them. (The Go-Betweens honoured him with two songs: That Way, from Before Hollywood, and an early B-side, Don’t Let Him Come Back, with the lines: “Who’s that dressed in black / Who’s that in his apartment / With his crazy walk / Don’t let him come back!”)
In the years since, following the release of the Apartments’ debut album The Evening Visits … And Stays For Years on the prestigious Rough Trade label in 1985, he has slowly built a reputation as a songwriter’s songwriter. One song from that album, Mr Somewhere, was covered by British ensemble This Mortal Coil (keeping company with tunes written by Tim Buckley, Big Star, Syd Barrett and Gene Clark). A later single, The Shyest Time, featured in the John Hughes film Some Kind Of Wonderful.
In the 1990s, Australian soul legend Renée Geyer tackled another of his songs, Knowing You Were Loved, on the recommendation of another fan, Dave Graney. That song had come from Walsh’s second album, Drift – a record which reputedly sold some 25,000 copies in France, but less than 200 in his home country. It amounts to, one critic wrote, “one of the great crimes of neglect in Australian music”.
Graney, who first met Walsh in the early 1980s while the latter was serving a brief stint as bass player in Ed Kuepper’s band the Laughing Clowns, describes Walsh as “a great songwriter, very individual. He has dark and shifting tones, with a pop default, but epic peaks and falls. Great to talk with – always talk laced with references to arcane literature and music. Always carried a dramatic back story about him, impossibly authentic. You can’t make that shit up.”
But the back story to The Apartments’ new album No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal – released after a crowd-funding campaign on a tiny French label, Microcultures – is so traumatic that, by Walsh’s own estimation, it is a miracle that it exists at all. It begins a full 18 years ago, in 1997, on the last day of mixing his fourth album, Apart, when the family GP rang.
It was about Walsh’s son, Riley, whose blood tests had come back. The doctor told Walsh to take him to the Sydney’s Westmead hospital immediately where, he was told, a specialist would be waiting for them. Riley had been diagnosed with a rare auto-immune disorder that meant his body wasn’t producing white blood cells to fight off infections. The Walsh family spent the next two years “on a death watch, basically – the cold that another child gets and beats back, is the cold that will kill yours”.
Riley lost the fight he was never going to win in 1999, aged just three years and eight months.
Walsh was eviscerated. A pall descended: to borrow a line from the song Twenty One – a lament for all the birthday parties that would never be held for his son – he’s been “stuck in the same quicksand since 1999”.
Not that Walsh has been inactive. He continued to write songs for himself, and for Riley – just never with the intention of recording or releasing them. One of the first to arrive was Swap Places, where he recounts: “Walking round the hospital, Friday afternoon / Other children going home / Wondering if the day will come when that might be you, if you’ll ever come home?” It ends with a chant: “Where’s the God in all of this?”
He quotes lines from a poem, Old Marx, by Polish writer Adam Zagajewski: “He still had faith in his fantastic vision / But in moments of doubt / He worried that he’d given the world only / A new vision of despair.”
“That poem absolutely haunted me for ages,” he says. “And I just thought, OK, I’m not going to do anything with these songs.” He didn’t share them with anybody – not even his wife, Kate, with whom he has two other children.
But that, Walsh says, amounted to “another kind of death”. For years, silence had seemed like the only way to suitably honour his son’s passing, but the more songs that came, the more they weighed. “I [couldn’t] go on if I didn’t do them,” he says. “It was like a necessity because here he lives, in these songs – do I just throw them away, so that’s another thing that’s forgotten?”
In 2007, he began to dip his toes back in the water: first a few very low-key gigs in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane; then, a couple of years later, he played a sold-out show in a Parisian club, L’Européen. There he was introduced to a young French singer, Natasha Penot, who had covered his song Sunset Hotel. A duet was organised, and his first music since Riley’s death – a song called Black Ribbons, recorded by Sydney producer Wayne Connolly – was released as a seven-inch single by Melbourne label Chapter Music in 2011.
Connolly had first met Walsh in 2004, when they met to discuss the idea of recording. “Peter told me at that meeting that the subject matter of the songs was related to the loss of Riley and that he wasn’t sure if he could ever actually record them. He wrote to me soon after to say that it was unlikely that he ever would,” Connolly says.
But then, seven years later, came Black Ribbons; the following year, Connolly joined Walsh on another tour of France. During the first gig, Walsh unexpectedly threw Twenty One – which no one else inside or outside the band had then heard – into the set. “It’s impossible to describe what I felt, but I had never stood on a stage with tears streaming down my face before,” Connolly says.
Finally, late in 2013, the pair entered the studio. Sometimes, songwriters talk of writing and performing songs as reliving a kind of trauma; few, surely, have lived through anything approaching Walsh’s. “The songs were very hard to play, very hard to record.”
“At some point we had a discussion about his doubts, and it was evident how close to the surface the pain of [Riley’s loss] was,” Connolly says. “But, as it is for so many involved in music, it’s possible to find joy in a beautifully played hi-hat or piano or a nice bass line. Peter loves to be immersed in sound – as long as there’s a generous amount of reverb! – and I got the sense that he began to appreciate it as a therapeutic/cathartic process.”
In September, Walsh will return to France, where he’ll be confronted with a new challenge: playing the songs in front of an expectant audience. In the meantime, there are press duties, which he is understandably keeping to a minimum. It is, he says, “like a mountain I haven’t yet climbed, so I’ll just have to see what it’s like. But that’s part of the deal I made when I made the album. Songs are like windows, sometimes they’re trapdoors, and memories come cartwheeling out. You just have to deal with them.”
The video begins, appropriately enough, with the sight of a door being kicked open – then a hurricane of noise rushes through. Until very recently in Brisbane, it was still possible to visit the decrepit building on Petrie Terrace and stand in front of the fireplace on top of which the words “(I’m) Stranded” were once daubed in red letters, where the Saints shot the primitive but charged clip for their debut single.
It’s not quite where Australian punk rock was born – that, arguably, happened a little further down the road, in the Saints’ rehearsal room on the corner of Milton Road, not far from the Castlemaine XXXX brewery. Club 76, they called it. But the Saints had been going for a few years by then – since mid 1973, by guitarist Ed Kuepper’s reckoning.
Being first can be an overrated virtue, but in the Saints’ case, it needs to be stated over and over again. (I’m) Stranded, which appeared on the band’s own Fatal label in September 1976 (the same month the 100 Club in London held a festival featuring a colourful assortment of new bands including the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Damned) was the first independently produced rock single in Australia.
In doing so, it beat all of the English punk bands, as well as Sydney’s Radio Birdman, onto plastic. The one band they didn’t beat was the Ramones, a fact Kuepper was crushed by: when he first heard the debut album by the New York pinheads a few months earlier, he knew everyone would see the Saints – a bunch of teenagers from provincial Queensland, fronted by singer Chris Bailey – as the copyists.
At that point, the state was still under the tyrannical thumb of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s regime, and in no small way, (I’m) Stranded helped kick off a social revolution, at least in Brisbane. At the time, though, the Saints had little choice but to leave. Copies of the single soon landed in England, where it was ecstatically received. Sounds magazine dubbed it “Single of This and Every Week”.
It must have sounded like an emergency telegram from a lost land. Such is Stranded’s urgency, there’s no time for a guitar solo (the B-side, which actually was called No Time, did have a solo – of one whole note). True to its lyric, much of the song was written on a midnight train, and whether intended or not, the central idea of being marooned came to stand for something bigger.
It’s one of punk’s many ironies that the London offices of EMI, desperate to claw back lost credibility after sacking the Pistols in the wake of their infamous expletive-flecked confrontation with Bill Grundy, instructed their baffled representatives in Sydney to sign the Saints post-haste in the wake of Stranded. The band immediately recorded their debut album, also titled (I’m) Stranded, over a weekend.
That album was later described later by England’s Dreaming author Jon Savage as “up there in punk Valhalla with Ramones and Raw Power”. But the Saints never fitted the punk straightjacket. When they arrived in England in May 1977, they were aghast to find EMI were designing a “Saints suit” for them: lime-green shirts and spiky hair all round.
Bailey’s tousled mop remained in place, and the band went on to make two more brilliant albums, Eternally Yours and Prehistoric Sounds, before imploding. Both records featured extensive use of a brass section – a move that won them few friends in a scene that regarded Never Mind The Bollocks as a blueprint rather than a full stop, but which dramatically expanded the band’s sound.
Having kicked the door open, the Saints soon found themselves back out on the footpath. Kuepper returned to Australia and formed the radical post-punk band the Laughing Clowns, while Bailey stayed in Europe, kept the name and pursued a much more traditional path towards heartland rock and mainstream success: Bruce Springsteen recently covered Just Like Fire Would on his album High Hopes.
But (I’m) Stranded has remained a touchstone – perhaps a millstone – the perpetually sparring Kuepper and Bailey would always be identified with.
Late in the last week of January 1974, following a flood Brisbane would not see the like of again for close to another 40 years, a 17-year-old Ed Kuepper was on watch in the tough south-western Brisbane suburb of Oxley. There had been looting as the filthy water finally began to recede, and a caravan, from which residents could take turns keeping lookout, had been set up across the road from his parents’ house.
Kuepper – who had formed his first band, the Saints, just a few months earlier with school mates Chris Bailey and Ivor Hay – was a little tipsy. The local alderman, Gordon “Bluey” Thomson, had just visited, bringing beer. He was also carrying a revolver, which he gave to Kuepper. “Don’t drink too much, but look after the gun!” he told him.
Later, as the adults continued drinking, the young Kuepper walked down his street, “gun-slinging”, cockily twirling the loaded weapon as if he were a character in a western. Suddenly, a car turned into the street. Kuepper hailed it down, directing his torch into the driver’s eyes. It wasn’t until the vehicle was alongside him that he realised it was the police.
The driver looked the skinny teenager up and down. Kuepper sheepishly lowered first the torch, then the gun.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” the cop said, before driving off.
THE apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. In a Poinciana-lined street off Oxley Road, Ed Kuepper lives quietly with his partner of close to 40 years, Judi, and their adult children Karl and Friedrich (whose names should tell you something). It’s just a few kilometres from the old suburban home where his now elderly parents still live, despite suffering through the heartbreak of another great flood in early 2011.
He and Judi had made a point of checking flood levels before purchasing their home. “Even though they said it would never happen again, I wasn’t prepared to get something that went under in ’74, so this was way above it. For this house to be affected, the city would be gone anyway. And yet if you went that way” – he gestures back towards the main road – “the shopping centre at Graceville Avenue went under, and you wouldn’t guess that we were so much higher.”
It’s quiet here. Only the Kueppers’ dog Oscar, who gives me a rousing if suspicious greeting, breaks the silence in the torpor of a warm Easter afternoon. Judi, whose beautiful watercolours line the walls of the home, and whose art has graced her husband’s album sleeves since the days of Ed’s post-Saints band the Laughing Clowns, brings hot-cross buns with jam home-made from a backyard mango tree.
It’s all a far cry from the days where Kuepper’s paint-peeling guitar playing was sufficiently obnoxious to result in a brick being hurled through the plate-glass window of the building on the corner of Milton Road and Petrie Terrace, where the Saints once rehearsed. The window was boarded up, the words “Club ’76” daubed on the slats, and for a short time the house became a venue – until police from headquarters across the road shut it down.
Speak to many in the Australian music industry and Kuepper will be quite casually described as a legend. Robert Forster, whose band the Go-Betweens was among the first and most enduring of the first wave of Brisbane groups directly inspired by the Saints, described him (in The Monthly) as “one of the very few Australian guitar geniuses”, comparing him to both Neil Young and Kurt Cobain; “sonic adventurers who can take sheets of electric noise and get songs out of them”.
As a Saint, he’s a member of the ARIA Hall of Fame, but his musical career spans 40 years, from the sometimes abrasive Laughing Clowns, through an immensely rich and varied solo career. More recently – and briefly – he was a member of Nick Cave’s band, the Bad Seeds. You could practically go broke collecting the sheer volume of music the man has produced, although probably not as broke as he’s sometimes been while making it.
But who is Edmund Kuepper? It’s likely you’d know several of his songs – (I’m) Stranded, the Saints’ first single, has been a Rage staple for 20 years; The Way I Made You Feel was a minor hit from his 1991 album Honey Steel’s Gold, which cracked the Australian top 40 during a golden period for the songwriter. But, while he continues to sell out shows, he’s far from hit machine. (An unkind reviewer once compared his music to some kind of strange and mouldy cheese: an acquired taste.)
His public persona, to many, is akin to how Churchill described Russia: a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. In fact, as Forster also pointed out, he is “intense and inward, of German extraction”: born in Bremen in 1956, before his parents emigrated to Brisbane at the age of four. (Saints singer Chris Bailey, born in Kenya to Irish Catholic parents, settled nearby a few years later: so often, the history of Australian rock & roll has been made by migrant kids.)
Peter Milton Walsh, singer-songwriter for one of Brisbane’s great lost treasures, the Apartments, talks rapturously about Kuepper’s music. (Of the Laughing Clowns, of which he was once briefly a member, he says: “They were playing poker when everyone else was playing bingo.”) But he demurs when pushed on the man himself. Eventually he offers this: “Rock & roll is filled with people that are very happy to talk about themselves. That’s not really what’s on offer from Ed.”
Others are more forthcoming, though all talk about Kuepper’s singular devotion to his craft. “He’s a very warm person when you get to know him; he’s quite soft and he’s got a great sense of humour,” says Julian Knowles, professor of music and media at Macquarie University in Sydney. Another music academic, QUT’s John Willsteed, describes him as “a quiet, funny, shy guy”.
Everyone attests to his incredible work ethic. Willsteed, who also plays in Brisbane band Halfway, refers to his “Teutonic” side. “He’s very forthright with his opinions, and he knows what he wants when it comes to work.” Knowles: “Once he gets into the groove and he starts working, there’s this incredible focus. He works in popular music, but he has the mindset and approach of an artist.”
The Church’s Steve Kilbey, who once engaged in a memorable online stoush with Kuepper, has called him as “wry and lofty”, and that much seems fair; he’s sardonic, ironic and, by his own admission, can be a bit above it all. He is certainly reserved, but not unfriendly. Get past the imposing size and death-grip handshake, and there’s a twinkle in the eye and a faint smirk lurking behind the pirate’s goatee.
Judi recalls her first impressions after interviewing him for a student magazine in 1979. “I thought he was a lovely, gentle, intelligent person – very intellectual. He’s very open and interested in all kinds of different ideas. He’s very aware of public events. He seemed to be a font of wisdom; he had an incredible knowledge of what was going on; not just in music, but in film and art, and I guess that’s nourished our relationship – just a passion for, and commitment to the arts. And he’s really generous. He really wants to share and connect with people.”
KUEPPER spent most of 2013 on the road, performing a successful run of “Solo and By Request” shows, trying his hand at almost any song from his career that his audience challenged (and sometimes taunted) him to play – a daunting prospect, given his immense repertoire, but he pulled it off. “There were probably only two or three occasions when I declined to have a go at something.”
He had spent a good chunk of the previous year performing as a Bad Seed, filling in for Cave’s long-term musical arranger Mick Harvey. The prospect of what Kuepper might bring to the Bad Seeds’ musical palette tantalised fans of both, but Cave’s last album, Push The Sky Away, featured almost no guitar at all, and Kuepper’s services were not required. There seems little prospect that his tenure in the band will be ongoing.
Kuepper describes working with the Bad Seeds as “very structured”, and it’s here that you get a sense of his constant musical wanderlust. “It was verging on the choreographed in some ways. I kind of decided to do something that was about as removed from that as possible, and that was basically just go out and push it as far we could actually go with it. And by “we” I mean myself and the audience.”
One of the songs that Kuepper was reluctant to play was (I’m) Stranded, the track that launched his career. “I thought there was something really powerful captured in that original recording, and it’s not that easy to capture it again,” he says. “And I couldn’t work out how the fuck I was actually going to just sit there with an acoustic guitar and play the song.” In the end, with the audience calling for it every night, he bit the bullet, and made it work.
The Saints have reformed twice in recent years – first a celebrated one-off show at the University of Queensland in 2007, then a national run for the travelling festival All Tomorrow’s Parties in early 2010. The latter ended in disaster, culminating in a show at Riverstage which Kuepper describes as “incredibly embarrassing, the worst show I’ve ever done in my life”. (The band had been booked to perform the album (I’m) Stranded in its entirety; incredibly, they didn’t even play the title song in front of a bewildered home crowd.)
Still, the experience didn’t prevent Kuepper from reuniting with Bailey, with whom he has had a famously tempestuous relationship, for a run of shows together as a duo the following year. I ask Kuepper if we’re likely to see him on stage with the Saints again. “Probably not.” What sort of relationship does he have with Bailey now? “Not much of one, really.”
There’s a bit of back and forth on this point, and Kuepper obliges, if only out of politeness, but it’s clear the subject of his old sparring partner still makes him uncomfortable. I ask if he’s heard Bruce Springsteen’s cover of Just Like Fire Would, Bailey’s biggest hit recorded under the Saints name, long after Kuepper had left the band. (The song appears on Springsteen’s most recent album High Hopes.)
“I haven’t. The funny thing is, when the song first came out [in 1986], I actually thought it was … Not Springsteen, but John Cougar Mellencamp. When I realised it was Bailey I thought, oh fuck, he’s going to change his name to Chris Bailey Mellencamp! It was kind of ironic that Springsteen’s attention was drawn to the Saints via (I’m) Stranded, but he actually covered the one song that actually sounds like it was ripped off him.”
If this sounds like sour grapes, consider, first, that Kuepper has toiled in relative obscurity for decades, and there have been times when he’s seriously considered chucking it in. “Sometimes, you know, when you’re running at a loss month after month – and I mean no income at all – lots of stuff goes askew. So it’s constantly a battle of how do you make things work.”
And, second: around the time of the Saints’ performances at All Tomorrow’s Parties, Kuepper’s manager got in touch with the band’s old label, with the idea of presenting the group with a Gold Record for (I’m) Stranded – presuming that, in the 38 years since its release, it would have easily sold the required 35,000 copies within Australia to qualify. He was astonished to be told that the label had not kept records prior to 1998. The necessary paperwork for an acknowledged classic – for which Kuepper has received very little money over the years – was conveniently missing.
It’s one of the oldest divides in rock & roll: Bailey – so desperate to prove he could make it on his own after the break-up of the original Saints in late 1978 – has the commercial success and, following Springsteen’s endorsement, the money in the bank. Kuepper has the status, the undying respect of his peers and the lion’s share of critical plaudits. Probably, both would like at least a little of what the other has got.
KUEPPER’S newest album is both a return to his roots, and a continuation of his recent solo performances: that is, it’s just him and his guitar. The Return Of The Mail-Order Bridegroom features mainly acoustic re-workings of some of his best-known songs, as well as a couple of covers. (It follows 1995’s I Was A Mail-Order Bridegroom, a similarly-themed album which kicked off a personal cottage industry of mostly live recordings, sold directly to fans through his own label, Prince Melon.)
Opening the album is a song called Brisbane (Security City), originally recorded in 1978 for the Saints’ third album, Prehistoric Sounds. The song painted a vivid portrait of Queensland as a police state during the Bjelke-Petersen years, and captured the oppression of both the heat – “Thirteen hot nights in a row,” goes the opening line – and the political climate. Apathy sits uncomfortably next to paranoia: “With mangoes ripe, who needs to grow?”
Thirty-six years after it was written, the song is more pointed than ever. Kuepper has been vocal about Queensland’s swing back to conservatism. “Part of it I think is that a large portion of the voting public is too young to remember the stench from the previous National government, you know,” he muses. “I just don’t think people remember. Anyone under 40 probably never voted back in the ’80s.”
Kuepper has had, at various times, an ambivalent relationship with his home town; something that he has often addressed in song: Electrical Storm acknowledges that, by staying in Brisbane, he is letting the world pass him by; but he finds himself mesmerised by the lightning and thunder. And on Security City, he confesses: “I don’t want to let down my own hopes for this town.” The family resettled here in the early 1990s.
“There were a lot of really good things about growing up here; I enjoyed a lot of it,” he says. “And I think you always want the place you grow up in to be a good place, to fulfil something worthwhile. Plus, after the Fitzgerald Inquiry, Brisbane in particular went through a bit of a golden age, I think. There just seemed to be this air of celebration for many years; it had a good vibe about it. It had changed.
“The ’80s was the worst time. There was always this sort of weird hostility around the place. The cops – they had power that they shouldn’t have had. I’m all for supporting the local police force and letting them do the job that they’re supposed to do, but once they become a political tool, then that becomes something else.”
And that’s when Kuepper remembers the story of Bluey Thompson, and the unimpressed reaction of the policeman who confronted him – a foolish teenager packing heat, that day after the floods in 1974. Don’t do anything stupid.
“See, I thought that was actually quite a reasonable response, under the circumstances,” he admits, chuckling.
First published in QWeekend (The Courier-Mail), July 26 2014
As promised from yesterday. I’ve tried to cover as many bases as possible in terms of decade and genre, avoiding multiple selections for the same artist.
Without further ado, here’s the list from 40 to 31.
40. COSMIC PSYCHOS – Lost Cause (1988)
It was Spinal Tap who pointed out the fine line between clever and stupid. In Australia, you won’t find three smarter beer-swilling yobs than The Cosmic Psychos. This isn’t a song about punching above your weight – it’s about being out of your weight division entirely. “Dr” Ross Knight, the band’s bass player, is a farmer from outside Bendigo who’s been known to cancel tours when his tractor breaks down. At the time he wrote this song, he was working part-time in the medical records department of a local hospital, where he fell under the spell of an attractive young lady who’s “only 19, not a has-been!” “I was about 25, 26 at that point, a bogan fucking pisshead,” Knight recalls. “I said to a mate of mine, ‘I wouldn’t mind taking her out,’ and he goes, ‘Nah – have a look at you! She’s a lost cause, mate!” The song was later covered by L7 and The Prodigy.
39. DO RE MI – Man Overboard (1985)
After the comic ribaldry of the Cosmic Psychos, it’s nice to follow Lost Cause with the best piece of feminist polemic set to pop music in Australia since Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman. Do Re Mi’s lean, agitated funk provided all the space required for Deborah Conway’s sharp-eyed, razor-tongued portrait of a relationship in terminal decay. Critic Toby Creswell reckoned Conway had a voice like a braying donkey. If that’s the case, it’s even more impressive that a song with no chorus and lyrics that referenced sexual boredom, penis envy and anal humour actually became a top five hit.
38. SEVERED HEADS – Dead Eyes Opened (1984; remixed 1995)
Australia is not well known for its electronic music output, but long before the Avalanches scored with Since I Left You in 2000 there was Tom Ellard’s brilliant Severed Heads. Exploring the space between the industrial terror of Suicide, the pop smarts of New Order and the minimalism of Kraftwerk, the creepy Dead Eyes Opened was both of its time and ahead of it, and proved it by being a hit twice: once upon its release in 1984, and then again with a remixed version in 1995.
37. DAVE GRANEY & THE CORAL SNAKES – You’re Just Too Hip, Baby (1993)
On one hand, Dave Graney is an eccentric from Mt Gambier, South Australia who’s read too many Raymond Chandler novels. His genius is in filtering his influences through his own uniquely idiosyncratic worldview, and you won’t find a better example than this minor hit from 1993 that set the former Moodist on his way to unlikely Australian King of Pop status a couple of years later. “You take a feather from every bird you see / You’ll never fly” is the perfect rejoinder to a jaded hipster, accented by Rod Hayward’s stinging guitar breaks.
36. MENTAL AS ANYTHING – The Nips Are Getting Bigger (1979)
One of the all-time great Australian drinking songs. It starts out just drinking beer, then it progresses to Jamaican rum, and things are all downhill from there for poor Martin Plaza: “Wiping out brain cells by the million, but I don’t care / It doesn’t worry me even though I ain’t got a lot to spare.” Reg Mombassa’s splashes (splatters?) of guitar are as colourful as his designs for Mambo, but it’s Plaza’s sad, funny and true portrait of everyday alcoholic waste that, once heard, never leaves you.
35. REGURGITATOR – ! (The Song Formerly Known As) (1997)
First, there’s a chuckle. Add a clipped white-funk guitar (which actually sounds more like Chic’s Nile Rodgers than Prince), then a belching bass keyboard fill, and voilà: instant party. Except it’s a party that Quan Yeomans doesn’t want to go to. He’d rather stay at home, dancing in ugly pants in the comfort of his suburban lounge room. Regurgitator are amazingly versatile – they can do hardcore, they can do pop, and their contribution to Australian hip-hop is massively undersold, but this wonderful paean to the socially awkward is their finest moment, and propelled its parent album, Unit, to triple-platinum status. Thank you, Mr DJ.
34. THE CRUEL SEA – This Is Not The Way Home (1991)
This is a driving song, best suited to very long, very straight, very red roads far beyond Woop Woop, with a bunch of mates and a case of beer for company: just leave the actual driving to whichever one of you is least inebriated. Snatches of conversations, casual observations, hints of violence and a chugging rhythm – Dan Rumour’s introductory snippet of guitar before the rhythm section kicks in is akin to a smooth change from third to fourth – and you’re away, with the throttling slide guitar in the chorus putting the whole thing into overdrive. Somehow, I’ve never been busted speeding to it.
33. DIVINYLS – Back To The Wall (1988)
Boys In Town, Pleasure And Pain, Science Fiction and the masturbatory epic I Touch Myself were all bigger hits, and it would be easier to choose any of them for popularity’s sake. But on this killer tune, Chrissy Amphlett nailed her tough but vulnerable rock-chick persona for all time. Swathed in co-conspirator/lover Mark McEntee’s echoing Rickenbacker and unobtrusive keyboards, this is dangerous, borderline stuff, all the more compelling for its restraint: the predicted eruption never arrives, but Amphlett’s threats hang in the air, leaving you cowering in a corner.
32. SCIENTISTS – Swampland (1982)
Years ago I was trying to write a book about Australian garage rock under this title, and I bumped into the song’s author, Kim Salmon, at a Mudhoney show earlier this week. He joked that at the rate I’m going, he’d have his memoirs out before my own effort. He’s calling his work-in-progress Nine Parts Water, One Part Sand: How I Invented Grunge, and while he’s at least partly joking, there are plenty (Mudhoney included) who don’t dispute his claim. The Scientists were doing the soft-loud thing long before the Pixies, and with equal style: imagine the Count Five, the Cramps and Creedence jamming in a garage, and you’re back on the Bayou.
31. LAUGHING CLOWNS – Eternally Yours (1984)
After the Saints, Ed Kuepper formed the all but unclassifiable (and, occasionally, all but unlistenable) Laughing Clowns. With three virtuoso players in their ranks, the Clowns were musician’s musicians, with Kuepper – one of this country’s greatest guitarists – backed by drummer Jeff Wegener and saxophonist Louise Elliott. Here, Elliott’s the star, building from an austere melody to a stupendous climax: prepare to have your breath taken away at 4.21, when she holds a long note for eight full seconds, before taking flight for an extraordinary finale. Rock music doesn’t get much more stirring than this.