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The Courier-Mail, Brisbane, 17 Sep 2005
Saints 'n' Clowns
by Noel Mengel

The easiest thing for Ed Kuepper to do when The Saints broke up would have been to keep cranking up that fearsome buzzsaw guitar sound which took The Saints out of Brisbane party gigs and to the hearts of fans around the world.

By this time, three years after The Saints had recorded their breakthrough single, (I'm) Stranded, punk rock had spread from the few inner-city haunts to a wider audience. But Kuepper has never been interested in the easy thing.

"I really thought it would have been cheating," he reflects, sitting on the deck of his house in Brisbane, not that far from the garage where The Saints were born.

"It would have been too easy. It's well documented that I made derogatory comments about a lot of the punk stuff when I got to England.

"It dawned on me how easy it was for these bands to simulate energetic playing with a distortion box. And I thought it was a cop-out."

Instead, Kuepper returned to Brisbane, where he met Jeffrey Wegener, whom he had known since high school and had been an early drummer in The Saints.

Thus began The Laughing Clowns, the band in which the two were the constant element across changing – and abrasive – line-ups for five years.

By late '79 the band was in Sydney, where their early shows were greeted with shock by sections of an audience hoping for a reprise of The Saints' full-tilt debut album, (I'm) Stranded.

They didn't get one.

Judi Dransfield, then a young arts student, would become Kuepper's wife as well as produce the artwork for many memorable record covers across 25 years of Kuepper's recording career. She met the band when she did their early publicity shots and was witness to the hostile reaction.

"It wasn't at all what people were expecting," she says. "Some were outraged and walked out. People had no idea how to classify it, they were scratching their heads. And others were blown away by it."

A pointer to this expanding musical direction could be found on the third Saints album, Prehistoric Sounds, but that hadn't yet been released in Australia.

"People came along expecting The Saints Mk II because punk had reached a point where it was well known, two years late in a lot of ways," Kuepper says.

"For me in those days two years was a long time, everything was moving fast and maybe too fast for some of the audience. People argue that The Saints had moved too fast as well, putting out those three albums in 18 months.

"I thought we had exhausted that guitar-driven sound with the first Saints record, basically.

"What I wanted was a band that could perform powerfully, energetically, without resort to having the guitar provide it all."

Kuepper wanted to expand on the use of brass on the two later Saints albums, and to get away from the limitations of the primal thump of punk.

He found the perfect ally in Wegener, an astonishing drummer then and now – as demonstrated in a breathtaking series of shows he has been playing with Kuepper around Australia this year – who took inspiration from the free-spirited approach of Keith Moon of The Who as well as jazz drummers like Elvin Jones.

Soon, the punk diehards were weeded out and new audiences found for the band's highly individual sound, with Kuepper's songs framed by the towering sax lines of Bob Farrell, later replaced in the line-up by Louise Elliott, and the driving force of Wegener's drums.

But the band's volatile chemistry was hard work for Kuepper. They broke up in 1984, and for a long time his negative feelings about the personalities coloured his attitude to the music. Twenty years on he has changed his mind, and the music is again available on Cruel But Fair, a new three-CD collection of the band's studio recordings.

What this makes clear is that the band weren't jazz, jazz-rock or even jazz-punk, as they were sometimes described – quite erroneously – at the time.

The band's Brisbane connection both had an interest in the wilder elements of jazz – Kuepper had been discovering horn players such as Archie Shepp and Pharaoh Saunders – and wanted to capture some of that excitement.

The band weren't freeform but tightly structured around a brace of memorable Kuepper tunes like Eternally Yours and New Bully in the Town.

The release comes with a 24-page booklet featuring interviews with Kuepper and Wegener and photographs and reproductions of the band's cover art by Dransfield.

"Visual imagery is a language in itself and is highly compatible with music, which is another language again," she says. "The images give you clues and links to the music without directly explaining it. The connection you can create for yourself from putting the two forms together can be really exciting."

Kuepper says: "We were difficult to classify but I didn't think we were being wilfully obscure. What I was trying to do was take it to a different spot. If it wasn't punk rock, what was it? It was theatrical music in a way without the band being overly theatrical. Atmospheric without being ambient.

"Cruel But Fair also rectifies the recent historical omission of the Clowns. It's gratifying to have it out to establish that after The Saints and before I went solo, there was a five-year period where I wasn't just lounging around on the beach.

"After a period of time the stuff that gets remembered tends to be the major label stuff. If you look at a documentary like Long Way to the Top, there's a strong Mushroom Records component and they were obviously able to push their acts. I was interviewed but it was cut out and the Clowns disappeared.

"That period was probably one of the few times in Australian music where there was a very active independent thing.

"I think if I was a young artist now I'd find that period inspirational. To totally overlook it was bizarre."

Cruel But Fair is out through Hot/Didgeridoo on October 3.
Judi Dransfield's photography is part of the Images of Women in Rock exhibition showing at the Judith Wright Centre, Brunswick St, Fortitude Valley

Copyright: the owner.