Ed Kuepper and Chris Bailey at the Vanguard, Sydney
There’s drama and even great beauty in the juxtaposition of opposites. Good and evil. Light and dark. Tragedy and comedy. Sacred and profane. Digital and analogue.
The pairing of Ed Kuepper and Chris Bailey performing songs from the three albums they made together as The Saints, and selections from their subsequent solo careers is a conceptually profound juxtaposition of opposites. There are obvious differences in character and style: Chris’s powerful soulful voice and his deadpan goofy theatricality. Ed’s evenness and calm within the electrical storms of sound he generates with his guitar. At times over the past few years they’ve both performed pared-down versions of their songs and at these shows it’s just the two of them, each playing guitar and singing.
I bought two practically acoustic recent records by Chris, and I’ve gulped down twenty years of Ed’s solo albums in the last couple of years, after returning to Australia from living in America. What I’ve gleaned is superficial, without context, but the extremes of the differences in their solo work are riveting. Chris’s traditional Delta blues readings of Saints songs and ballads with bright flourishes of acoustic guitar and Ed’s abstract, phenomenally beautiful washes of sound in the spare new arrangements for Laughing Clowns songs.
By chance I called into the Customs House library on my way to see Ed and Chris perform at the Vanguard in Sydney and borrowed Robert Forster’s collection of music criticism, which was among the display of books from writers featured at this year ‘s Sydney Writer’s Festival. I re-read Robert’s review of the first Saints show in thirty years, in 2007 in Brisbane.
“Punk hit Brisbane like no other city in Australia,” Robert writes. “The tentacles that grew out of New York and London from the musical explosion of 1976 affected the receptive waiting enclaves in each major city around the globe in various ways. As the music and images of the Ramones, Patti Smith, early Pere Ubu, Television and the Sex Pistols were heard and seen, bands formed, systems started and the word spread. Brisbane was different, for two main reasons: we had Bjelke-Petersen and The Saints. Bjelke-Petersen represented the crypto-fascist bird-brained conservatism that every punk lead singer in the world could only dream of railing against. His use of a blatantly corrupt police force, and it’s heavy-handed response to punk, gave the scene a political edge largely absent in other states. And The Saints were musical revolutionaries in the city’s evil heart.”
The timeline is clouded but it’s possible that The Saints single “(I’m) Stranded” might have been the first punk rock single, and it gave them enough momentum to move immediately to London where they compressed an entire geological epoch into a couple of years: going from wild primitive rawness to remarkable refinement and complexity, without sacrificing any of the brute strength of the sound, in just three albums. Then they stopped and Ed and Chris went in opposite directions.
The only time I ever saw The Saints perform was at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival on Cockatoo Island in 2008. I only ever owned the third and last Saints album, Prehistoric Sounds, and I never listened to it properly until I was already completely in thrall to Ed’s next band the Laughing Clowns, who were a wonderful, incredible shock to my system. Until then I’d listened almost entirely to silky, sensual jazz: Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie with Lester Young, Miles Davis when Gil Evans was his arranger and Bill Evans was his piano player, and the electrifying funk groove of Weather Report. Any of the Laughing Clowns songs might have produced the shock that profoundly altered my appreciation of music, but “Holy Joe” is a good example. There’s dissonant piano, an almost painfully wailing saxophone, the precise, powdery thunder of the drums, a morse code kind of bass line but with the addition of a driving guitar rhythm and catchy lyrics it seems like a potential rock hit. I quite simply never heard music the same way again after hearing the Laughing Clowns. The Laughing Clowns of the 21st century are a polished and mature evocation of the 20th century lineups. They’re experimental in a sharper, more cerebral way and the old songs have new sonic textures of singular beauty.
I’ve gained some appreciation of the breadth and intricacies of Chris’s music indirectly. He sang on “Bring It On” from the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album Nocturama. It’s the most moving and inspiring love song of our time from an album that deals unflinchingly but with tremendous warmth with the challenges of our generation. In a ruined world where we can have no hope that things will get better, we must face reality but still create joy and live meaningful lives with humility about our place in the natural world. Nick’s songs have multiple perspectives: In “Bring It On” God is telling humankind He will not abandon us though we are in the process of destroying the earth. And Nick is encouraging the woman he loves to tell him her faults, the mistakes she’s made, and he will accept them and love her even more. Chris’s performance is grandly romantic, not with sweet words and hypberbole – the lyrics are in no way sweet – but the sheer soulfulness of his singing, which makes one gladly swoon at the prospect of facing up to bad news with courage.
Mick Harvey’s talent for intelligent appreciation doesn’t re-make the songs he covers in his own style but removes the clutter and distractions of style from the originals. His version of Chris’s song “Photograph” uncovers a tenderness and vulnerability at its heart. Mick’s cover versions are generous of spirit, he sends one back to the originals with a more nuanced appreciation of their qualities.
My disappointment with Ed and Chris’s show at the Vanguard had nothing to with the musicians or the music or the performance and everything to do with a lack of imagination in the support systems: the staging, the merchandising and the absence of a vibrant independent media with critics whose insights might give us a context for a repertoire that includes Saints songs that Ed and Chris created together as well as songs from their markedly different solo careers that they play now together. It’s a show that deserves a thoughtful appraisal.
Chris made an ironic reference to himself and Ed being part of string quartet playing to an aged audience in a dusty conservatory. There was a creaky, ramshackle quality to the atmosphere and dinner/theatre format that did them a disservice. I wished for a sense of occasion, that the show had been staged at an arty, classy joint, the side room at the Museum of Contemporary Art, perhaps, where the Creative Sydney forums are held, which has the atmosphere of a speakeasy for eggheads. They deserve a sexier, more elegant setting, with well designed chairs and good lighting, and seriously good martini’s at the bar. It’s a show that can and should have a polished, coherent structure. The new Laughing Clowns shows have seemed spontaneous but planned. The Laughing Clowns show at the Forum in Melbourne during the jazz festival last year was flawlessly plotted: opening with a slow instrument by instrument tuning up that becomes a collective dirge which had the quality of a prologue and a crisp, upbeat clearly defined finish, the sonic equivalent of a “the end” title card.
One of the many joys in seeing the shows played by the Laughing Clowns Mark II is how the arrangements change and that each show has a different repertoire. With these performances Ed and Chris deserve to have the show augmented by an online playbill, which lists the pool of songs they’ll be drawing from and links to buying them through iTunes, and the playlists for each show in each city, as they happen.
Music downloads strip the music of context: dates, musician credits on the tracks, liner notes. Some albums have pdf booklets, but they’re generally unsatisfying, seemingly just scanned from regular cd-inserts. With Ed and Chris’s performances there’s an opportunity to invent a new kind of boxed set, spending the t-shirt and stubby cup budget on commissioning intelligent liner notes for their solo music, which could be brochures with or without redemption codes for the music, or viewed online, in a format that makes it easy to follow.
Ed’s solo records are impressively varied and unusual but I have almost no frame of reference for them. I yearn for the kind of liner notes that Bill Evans wrote for MIles Davis’s Kind of Blue album, where he likened their intuitive, spontaneous development of tunes from mere fragments, to a form of painting practised by Zen buddhists in Japan.
And augmented by the kinds of technical appreciations of musicians that Bad Plus piano player Ethan Iverson writes on his blog, for example his appreciation of Lester Young:
“Lester Young was born 100 years ago today. He died just over 50 years ago, in March 1959. Young is the most important link in the chain between early jazz and modern jazz. He sounded good playing with both New Orleans-style musicians and beboppers. If he were around now he could probably go to Smalls tonight and sit in with whoever was on the bandstand without any problem. While few other jazz musicians from the pre-1950 era continuously invented new phrases, serious Young lovers get every record he’s ever made because they know that there’s always the possibility that he will play something they haven’t heard before. In addition, Young had one of the most swinging beats in the history of the music. And though he could deliver a honking, stomping tenor, even his most frantic outbursts sound curiously relaxed. He never tried too hard or worked for the impossible. He just was: Cool. In fact, he may have literally invented the word “cool” and given it to the English language, for his verbal jousting and pre-beatnik beatnik behavior gave him a iconic mystique almost inseparable from the sounds coming out of his horn. The improvisation, the beat, the cool, and the mystique has made him one of the most well-loved musicians of the 20th century. These posts document my attempt to learn from Lester Young in the 21st.”
It’s hard to find a way to evaluate Ed’s skills and the way he thinks about music: I’ve always considered him a masterful arranger as well as a musician and admired him the way I admire Gil Evans. Ed surrounds himself with musicians of dazzling virtuosity – the piano players Chris Abrahams and Alister Spence, and drummer Jeffrey Wegener – and his arrangements for them are a kind of cartography, a landscape drawn for them to inhabit. Gil Evans’s arrangements for Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain are sonic landscapes, for example, and the new arrangements for the Laughing Clowns are panoramic in this way. Gil Evans had an expansive definition of brilliance and wrote arrangements for Jimi Hendrix’s songs that Hendrix himself would have played if he hadn’t died. Jazz can relate to the Laughing Clowns rock songs in a similar way.
Ed’s curiosity and ideas can’t be explained by observing trends. In the liner notes for the Laughing Clowns three volume retrospective – which I don’t have to hand, so I can’t check the reference – it’s suggested that his unusual perspective might have its origins in perversity. When he was recording the Saints albums in London, and the Sex Pistols were at the centre of a savage media and fashion storm, Ed mentions he was listening to the Tony Bennet and Art Blakey album, Beat of My Heart, which features cool, Cary Grant suave renderings of high society songs. But it’s perverse in itself for wholesome renderings of decadent subjects. Tony Bennett doesn’t acknowledge the dark, haunted Southern charm of Johnny Mercer’s songs, or that Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You” is a hymn to intoxication. The drumming however, at the centre of the arrangements, is crisp, intricate, sophisticated, full of personality and with that relaxed cool that Ethan Iverson attributes to Lester Young, and has the qualities that Jeffrey Wegener would later bring to the Laughing Clowns.
Ed appears, like Gil Evans, to see what’s going around him from a sharply different angle than everybody else. When Gil Evans started his orchestra his points of reference were the dapper orchestras led by the likes of Duke Ellington, but he encouraged his reed players to play oboes, flutes and English horns. “His use of woodwinds in a dance band context was almost unheard of at the time,” the Gil Evans biography Out of the Cool observes. “Twenty years later, Gil’s scoring for these instruments in a jazz setting was still considered unique.”
There are threads running through Ed’s solo albums I wish I could follow: for example, he’s remade the Laughing Clowns dirge thriller, “Collapseboard” with its trapdoors and false-endings into the surf guitar “Diving Board”. His music has clearly defined cues and clues – Indian ragas, Civil war era drummer boys marching with soldiers, Euro-disco – and I want to be able to intelligently evaluate these references.
Ed and Chris are two different substances balanced on a set of set of scales. The worst of rock criticism reduces them to a pantomime: wicked Mr Punch ridiculing and bludgeoning the nearly silent authority figure. Chris Bailey deserves a portrait drawn with a finer granularity. I’ve seen him perform exactly twice, but it’s enough to sense that his bizarre wit is drawn from some deep well of cultural references. His lyrics allude to literature. He’s recorded a slow version of W C Handy’s jaunty “Careless Love” suggests a knowledge of early jazz. Maybe it’s an homage.
There are a lot of reasons for the renewed interest in Chris Bailey and Ed Kuepper: Ed’s inclusion in the Bad Seeds at a time Nick Cave’s fame is growing is provoking an interest in the origins of these musicians, the middle-aged existential dread of their original audience, the interest of a whole new generation sparked by performances of The Saints and the Laughing Clowns. And the fact that Ed and Chris still have new ideas and confound expectations.
“The Saints strode the stage like giants,” Robert Forster wrote in the conclusion to his review of The Saints first reunion performance. “This is a band that still breathes fire. If they do no more, ever, then this one-off show has burnished the myth rather than tarnished it. More shows in the future, or a tour, would be most welcome, and if the rebirth of The Saints as a live band turned out to have occurred in Brisbane, it would be a lovely touch. And finally, if there is recording to be done with this line-up, then, based on the sparks on display an album to join the glory of the first three would not be beyond them.”
That fourth album may be a recording from these duets between Ed and Chris.