The Patience of a Saint
Being a rock musician can afford some of those perfectly idyllic moments. Over the summer, Chris Bailey nearly had one.
A veteran of the rock wars since 1976, when his band, the Saints, stormed out of Brisbane, Australia, with a gloriously primitive shot of punk-rock called "(I’m) Stranded,” Bailey found himself sitting in a beach-side bar near Amsterdam, sipping wine and listening to familiar-sounding strains wafting down the strand from a neighboring drinking establishment.
A jukebox or radio was playing one of the stately, orchestral-rock anthems from “All Fools Day,” a sublime Saints album from 1987 that is one of pop’s great unknown masterpieces. Or so Bailey thought.
“I was concentrating more on the wine than the music and could have sworn that it was something from ‘All Fools Day,’ ” he recalled in a recent interview from the Netherlands, where he now lives. “I thought, ‘That’s odd.’ ”
Paying closer attention, Bailey realized it wasn’t one of his obscure nuggets, but, as he found out later, one of the season’s most acclaimed mega-hits: “Bittersweet Symphony,” by the Verve.
Once again, Bailey was a day (or a decade) early and a dollar (or a few million) short. But he’s not one to gripe that somebody else reaped a windfall for splendid symphonic rock sung in a chesty, nasal-husky voice, or that when people talk about the origins of punk-rock they speak of the Ramones, Sex Pistols, the Damned and the Clash, forgetting, or simply unaware, that the Saints were independently and simultaneously making the same rude sonic breakthrough Down Under.
“This is the world in which we live,” said Bailey, 41, a heartily urbane talker who comes off more like the coolest professor on campus than the not-completely-reformed punk-rocker he actually is. “Bitter and twisted is something I don’t see any advantage in being.”
If Bailey and the Saints (the band has had a revolving cast, with Bailey the lone constant as singer-songwriter) get overlooked in Americans’ musical memory, perhaps it’s because they’ve mastered the art of the 10-year disappearing act.
The first two Saints albums, "(I’m) Stranded” and “Eternally Yours,” were released in the United States in 1977-78. Bailey continued to pump out music, but it wasn’t until “All Fools Day” in 1987 and “Prodigal Son,” in 1988, that the Saints landed another U.S. record deal. Tours to promote those albums brought the Saints to the United States for the first time. Then came another vanished decade.
A Flock of Albums
Bailey said it happened because his Australian label, Mushroom Records, and his American label, TVT, got embroiled in a lawsuit, “and I was caught in the middle, as is often the case. The settlement precludes me from going into great detail, but it was like a schoolboy argument. I don’t think either party had the high moral ground.”
Bailey continued to put out records in Europe, both under his own name and the Saints banner, but he was again missing in America, save for a 1994 tour as a solo performer opening for Concrete Blonde at the invitation of Johnette Napolitano, his friend and sometime songwriting partner.
Last year, Amsterdamned Records, a subsidiary of Los Angeles punk label Triple X, reissued "(I’m) Stranded” and “Eternally Yours,” and released a new Saints album, “Howling.” Another new album, “Everybody Knows the Monkey,” already released in Europe, is due early next year on Triple X.
Bailey’s solo-acoustic show Sunday at Club Mesa in Costa Mesa is part of a four-concert stopover in New York and Southern California en route to Australia to play for 80,000 people at a 25th-anniversary bash for Mushroom.
Bailey was born in Kenya, the son of an Irish Catholic sergeant in the British army. He spent most of his early childhood in Belfast, Northern Ireland, then the family moved to Brisbane in the mid-1960s after his father smelled the Troubles coming.
Inspired by American blues, soul and ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll, Bailey and a schoolmate Ed Kuepper started the Saints in 1974. Two years later, stoked on Iggy Pop and the New York Dolls, they entered a studio and came out with one of the sludgiest, most unself-conscious and unrestrained albums imaginable.
At the time, Bailey said, the Saints didn’t know that anybody else was making crude, simple, aggressive records with the same underground influences and rebellious, back-to-basics musical stance.
The Saints moved to England, but Bailey wasn’t keen on being part of the burgeoning punk scene.
“I saw [punk] as a marketing gimmick. Even as a teenager, I didn’t like the notion of being [sold to] a demographic.”
That aversion fueled most of the lyrics on “Eternally Yours.” One prime example is “Know Your Product,” a horn-driven broadside against music as a business.
Now that punk is salable beyond anything imaginable in the late 1970s, Bailey isn’t about to jump on the bandwagon he declined to be a part of when he was 19.
“I don’t want to say I’m a total fool, but in the context of show business, I’ve always been very clumsy. I don’t think I’ve got massive ambition. I like to live comfortably and buy copious amounts of red wine. I will do whatever needs to be done for me and my colleagues to just make records. Part of me looks at others who have made megabucks. That’s nice, but I’m not terribly envious. We have a niche. Not comfortable, but enough to keep me occupied.”
An Undulating Ride
“Howling” shows that Bailey is still in the right occupation. It’s a tuneful, emotionally intense album in which he’s equally at home playing elegantly crafted folk-rock ballads, bluesy, noir-ish extrapolations from Howlin’ Wolf and, on “Shadows,” garage-rock that, if it’s possible, sounds even more cheaply and haphazardly recorded than the Saints’ debut album.
The songs take the listener on an undulating ride between states of utter depression and moods in which Bailey musters enough faint hope to make tentative affirmations.
Characters are ridden with drug problems and suffer devastating romantic losses; Bailey says he’s not playing back his life, but making little sketches from his imagination.
“To me, songwriting is just magic when you become a little internal cinema and you play a game. I don’t think what I write is even remotely autobiographical. I just make this up.
“I don’t think that’s bad or shallow. That is just the process. I think [“Howling”] achieves my benchmark for an album: It does drag you through the pit a little bit. I don’t understand why I write so many dark songs, because I’m actually a happy-go-lucky idiot. I may think the world [stinks] fairly regularly, but I can’t help being an optimist, somehow.”
* Chris Bailey, Joe Wood, members of Shattered Faith and other guests play Sunday at Club Mesa, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa. 10 p.m. $5. (949) 642-8448.