History always tends to be written by the victors, and in the competitive race to be declared the home of the first ‘punk’ movement, New York has often been declared to have just shaded London for that honour. The Ramones, born out of NY’s Lower East Side, are often deemed to have been the catalyst for the explosion of copy-cat power chord thrashers that emerged in the ensuing years after 1976.
Serge Ou’s documentary film, ‘Stranded: The Saints & The Birth Of Punk In Joh Bjelke Peterson’s Brisbane’ (Umbrella Films DVD) does its best to revise this established view – and make the case that Brisbane, the capital of Queensland in Australia’s north-easternmost state, was in fact the epicentre of the seventies punk tsunami as it was from there that The Saints unleashed the world’s first true punk single -‘I’m Stranded’- upon an unsuspecting soft rock saturated world. Whilst Australia’s musical starmaker program of the era, ‘Countdown’, initially only showed a 5 second clip of the song, UK weekly music magazine ‘Sounds’ named it ‘Single of the Week (and every other week)’, ensuring a word of mouth buzz would create a welcome environment for the band when they later ventured to London in search of a more appreciative audience and market.
To verify the claim that The Saints started it all, and give this some credibility, Ou calls upon such first wave luminaries from both sides of the Atlantic, as Steve Diggle (from The Buzzcocks), Jean-Jacques Burnel (The Stranglers), Pauline Murray (Penetration), Bob Geldof (The Boomtown Rats) and Jello Biafra (The Dead Kennedys) to retrospectively acknowledge that Chris, Ed, Ivor and Kym did indeed lead the charge into those heady musically anarchistic days of the mid to late seventies.
Biafra even recounts a conversation with Joey Ramone, circa ’76, where the lanky frontman exclaimed to the excited fanboy, ‘Have you heard The Saints from Australia? They sound just like us!’
Ou also deftly weaves a significant amount of socio-political news footage into this narrative serves to remind those who lived through that era, that whilst England was dealing with the hardline of Thatcherism, and New York was being refused a financial bailout from Jimmy Carter to stave of bankruptcy, Queensland was also struggling to stay on its feet under the corrupt dictatorship of its former peanut farming Police Commissioner – turned dictatorial Premier – Joh Bjelke-Peterson, who had his police force go as far as to arrest people coming home from the produce markets for carrying concealed weapons in public, even when all they were lugging home was a pineapple in a brown paper bag!
The Saints are shown to be defiant innovators, blending MC5, Stooges and Velvet Underground influences into a new garage band musical mélange, playing to illegal gatherings of repressed youths, and in doing so becoming an inspiration for the myriad of local bands that sprang up in their wake. The band showed it was possible to get an international profile even when you came from such a seemingly disconnected and oppressive place as Brisbane is painted here to have been in the seventies.
The film is quite short (62 minutes) so does not labour its point, and does include a smattering of musical snatches from The Saints first three albums (although nothing from any later Saints’ output, or from other musical projects undertaken by members of the original line-up, is focused upon here), as well as snippets from other Brisbane outfits such as The Go-Betweens, The Riptides and Razar, whose anti-police force protest song, ‘Task Force’ is especially singled out for attention.
The documentary, originally aired on the ABC’s art channel and on iView, has had its share of critics. Clinton Walker, himself an author of a text focusing on similar territory and also titled ‘Stranded’ has slammed the doco as a ‘dog’s breakfast’, and described its content as ‘second rate pap’, despite the fact that he is one of the people interviewed in the film. Ed Kuepper, however, has reportedly been positive in his assessment of the finished film.
People who were part of the scene – like Walker – have often got their own version of how events unfolded at the time and as it was such an integral part of their coming of age, and has such powerful emotional connections. As a result, such people can be a little precious when others try and take ‘ownership’ of the period’s personalities and events and assert opinions that may conflict with their own blinkered historiographic recall of their formative experiences.
I am sure there will be others, therefore, who will agree with Walker’s views, expressed in his blog entry entitled ‘Stranded In Shit’. But, setting apart emotional critiques such as this, what the film does do is cast light on an era of shameful political decision-making that we cannot afford to have repeated and in a time where such right-wing views and actions are being championed once again, this aspect of the film alone, renders the film relevant and deserving of being seen by as broad an Australian audience as possible.
‘Stranded’ does not set any new standards in style or approach but it is an important addition to the canon of texts detailing Australia’s rich musical history, as it fills in some colour and detail of a period that has often been under-represented in other historical overviews of Oz rock history.
Extras on the DVD are limited to extended interviews with a selection of the ‘bigger names’ appearing in the main feature.
Rating: 3 stars