"I was there right from the start / I was ready to play my part," sings Chris Bailey, over a repeating guitar figure. "Looking out at the changing signs / A miserable fag end on the edge of time." Despite the bleak imagery, his voice conveys wry acceptance rather than despair. And although it's three decades later -- and half a world away from his group's origins in working-class Brisbane, Australia -- Bailey's words bring to mind The Saints' initial reception in London, in the late 1970s.
"I have to admit, growing up [in Australia] as a teen-ager, I think, did give me an interesting world perspective," says Bailey by phone, from his home in Amsterdam. "Especially when we first moved to London, I was quite proud to be a 'colonial.' And it kinda fits in, because my nationality is Irish, my people and background are Irish. So there's something about the colonial-rebel thing fits perfectly together."
The down-under quartet moved to London in 1977, after releasing the influential single, "(I'm) Stranded," and inking a deal with EMI. Yet The Saints' musical and stylistic intentions lay outside the typical parameters of U.K. punk; by 1979, after three albums and frustrations with both the record industry and each other, the original lineup was down to just one man: songwriter and vocalist Chris Bailey. And he kept the name.
That's about where The Greatest Cowboy Movie Never Made picks up. The new box set, just out on Wildflower Records, documents the years between getting dropped by EMI and finding another wave of success in the U.S. with 1986's more classic-rock influenced All Fools Day. The box set includes the "lost" EP Paralytic Tonight Dublin Tomorrow and the independent-label releases The Monkey Puzzle, Out in the Jungle and A Little Madness to Be Free. Also included: A Gallon of Rum Is a Harsh Mistress the Morning After, which documents The Saints' raucous new lineup, performing live in Australia during the period.
Of course, this is all ancient history. Since then, Bailey and the numerous lineups of The Saints have amassed both a sizable catalog -- fusing punk, classic rock, R&B and folk flavors -- and quite a body count: Bailey counts 33 musicians who've contributed to the band. The current lineup, a trio for the first time, includes Caspar Wijnberg on bass and Pete Wilkinson on drums; Bailey is now the sole guitarist.
"I can't really explain the longevity thing," says Bailey. "Is it because we're stubborn? Stupid? Or is it because there's numbers of people who genuinely think what we do is worthwhile? And I hope it's the latter -- I hope we touch a nerve, I hope we're still relevant. I've no idea what I would do if I couldn't do this for a living," he adds, with a laugh. "I'm not rich enough to be a permanent tourist, or a kept woman. And I find the fact that I can travel the world playing music -- that just astonishes me."
The trio has just released Imperious Delirium, also on Wildflower, which some have hailed as a return to The Saints' '70s roots: a fuzzed-out, rough and ready, "live in the studio" sound. Though the melodies and tunes sound fairly upbeat, wistful even, the lyrics tend toward fractured romance and apocalyptic dread. "Ghetto blasting neo nazi jack booted thugs are running up and down my street," Bailey sings on "Learning to Crawl," "Bombasting me with their cataclysmic visions of a world where I can't compete."
It's lyrics like that that have contributed to The Saints' reputation as misanthropes; Bailey jokingly cops to penning "some of the most hideous, minor-key, slash-your-wrists, the-world-is-so-bleak kind of songs."
But it's hard to argue with Bailey that such music can be a rational, even healthy response to a sometimes hostile world -- one that's certainly bruised him up a bit over his three decades in the music industry. "I think for me, music is just a Band-Aid on the world," he says. "There are some Nina Simone tracks that can reduce me to a blubbering mass of useless humanity. Which is really a good cathartic process for getting yourself out of a black hole.
"I make light of music quite a lot, I make light of rock bands quite a lot," says Bailey, "but I think we perform some kind of vaguely useful function. I mean, we're not as important as people who make bread, or good wine." He pauses. "But we're kind of somewhere in there ... in the middle rung of importance."
The Saints with Sonic Chicken 4, The Cheats and Haywire Deluxe. 8 p.m. Sun., Oct. 28. 31st Street Pub, 3101 Penn Ave., Strip District. $10 ($12 at the door). 412-391-8334 or www.31stpub.com