Keith Cameron explores the history of the Australian punk scene

You thought punks in the UK had things to be angry about? Over in Australia, bands had a real fight on their hands, says Keith Cameron

It was hard for Chris Bailey not to think that Johnny Rotten was employing some poetic licence. The day Bailey's band, the Saints, played their first UK gig, Rotten's cry of "God Save the Queen! The fascist regime!" had scandalised its way into the British Top 10. But for all the tinpot conservatism of Britain in June 1977, it was a far cry from where the Saints had come from.

The Saints were the fiercest of the original Australian punk bands. Their hometown was Brisbane, the capital of the Australian state of Queensland. It was ruled by the virulent rightwinger Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who used a corrupt police force to suppress demonstrations with violence, bugged political opponents, supported the South African apartheid regime, made law that disciminated against Aborigines, and relied on gerrymandering to keep power from 1968 to 1987. Bailey, unlike Rotten, actually knew what it was like to live under something approaching a fascist regime.

"Queensland is a very wealthy state, lots of minerals, lots of cattle, not very many people," says Bailey, who had arrived in Brisbane from Belfast in 1967, aged 11. "Being immigrants, my people were quite poor. And so there was a certain feeling of alienation. Also, Oz was involved in Vietnam as America's little puppy, so the society was politicised. The Communist party was still strong in the 70s. There was a feeling that the revolution was just around the corner. And we were very excited by that notion."

By the end of 1978, the Saints - in their original form - were finished, having become swiftly disillusioned by punk's crushing conformism. Yet their impact on Australian music was already indelible. After struggling to get gigs in Brisbane and having been shunned by the mainstream music business, the Saints had released (I'm) Stranded as a single on their own label in September 1976 and then mailed copies to music magazines abroad. The Saints had the same wired velocity as the Ramones, although their geographical isolation - even within Australia, let alone the world - was such that when guitarist Ed Kuepper heard the first Ramones album, he wondered how four New Yorkers had been able to hear and copy the Saints.When the UK weekly Sounds declared (I'm) Stranded "single of this and every week", EMI pounced and brought the band to Britain.

On arrival in London in summer 1977, however, the Saints' thoughts of imminent insurrection were quashed. The punk scene they arrived in had already been commodified into a fashionable freakshow by the mainstream music industry. EMI presented them with a stylist and designs for special "Saints suits". Horrified, they responded with a single, This Perfect Day, that was quite the most startling, wound-up noise recorded under the punk banner to that point. Bailey spat out the opening lines, atop the band's adrenalised clatter: "Don't talk to me about what you done/ Ain't nothing has changed it all goes on/ And they'll keep laughing till the end." It earned the band their sole appearance on Top of the Pops, on the same edition that featured the Sex Pistols performing Pretty Vacant. Next to the Saints' sweaty mania, the Pistols seemed like a cabaret turn.

As Australia struggled to fathom how a band of scruffy teens from a parochial backwater such as Brisbane had landed themselves a ticket to London by playing obnoxious rock'n'roll, groups of similarly disgruntled youths across the continent followed suit. In Melbourne, Boys Next Door were a group of art students led by singer Nick Cave and guitarist Mick Harvey, toying aimlessly with the more sophisticated elements of glam rock - Lou Reed, Bowie, Alex Harvey, Alice Cooper - without ever finding their own sound. Seeing the Sex Pistols on television and then hearing the Saints' debut album concentrated their minds.

"Punk freed you from the adornments of music and got you back to what was simple and effective," says Mick Harvey. "We thought the Saints were fantastic. That may be the Australian sensibility: there was something there I connected with more than the English punk bands. And coming from Brisbane. It might as well have been Timbuktu! How did they even form a band up there? How did they not just get arrested for even being in a band? Really peculiar."

Renaming their group the Birthday Party, Cave and Harvey would go on to enjoy substantial infamy. Years later, as Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, they assumed the mantle of idiosyncratic elder statesmen, never losing the bloody-minded attitude engendered by punk's liberation theology. Says Harvey: "It was fantastic for Nick and I to have that touchstone as we wobbled through the 80s."

Australian punk happened for the same reasons as British and American punk: a sense of disillusionment with what was on offer, musically and socially. But unlike the UK and US scenes, which were concentrated in London and New York, where musicians could feed off each other, Australian punks were scattered across the vastness of the country, and had only the flimsiest idea of what punk even meant. In 1975 in the Western Australian capital of Perth, more than 2,500 miles from Oz punk's notional centre in Sydney, an 18-year-old art student named Kim Salmon was hungry for change. "Imagine the end of the hippy era," he says. "So when the idea of punk, and of rejecting that laidback hippy philosophy, came along, I decided that I would become 'punk rock', whatever it was. I read an article about CBGBs, which mentioned the New York Dolls, the Stooges and the Velvet Underground. So I bought some records, located the Modern Lovers in my quest, and straight away decided I'd form a band."

Salmon's outfit was called the Cheap Nasties, and although they never made a record, their legend in Perth galvanised others into action, notably the Victims, whose single I'm Flipped Out Over You remains a quintessential punk artefact: 73 seconds of deranged, lustful noise. Together, the Cheap Nasties and the Victims put in the unglamorous but vital grunt work required to forge a new scene, hustling gigs from dubious local promoters who disdained this new breed and its unruly ethics. "There was a place called Hernando's Hideaway started up in 1977 by the Victims," says Salmon. "It was a jazz club. The proprietor, an Italian guy called Andre, allowed punks in on Wednesday nights. While accommodating at first, he was always complaining about the punks damaging his toilets."

Eventually Salmon formed a new band with the Victims' drummer, James Baker. As the Scientists, they released another classic Oz punk single, the doomed love anthem Frantic Romantic, and embarked on the long trip east to play Melbourne and Sydney. Although the Baker-Salmon lineup of the Scientists split in 1981, Salmon stayed in Sydney to put together a new version of the band, forging doggedly ahead with his swamp-rock vision, subsequently proving a key influence on the grunge sound of Seattle. Having sought to "be" punk, he confesses to the profound effect its values of self-expression and individuality have had on his life. "On my deathbed, I'll find out if it's been a positive or negative one," he chuckles.

While the Saints and the Scientists were born out of the alienation felt by free spirits amid smalltown parochialism, the most durable of all the Australian punk bands emerged from the relatively cosmopolitan environs of Sydney. Nonetheless, Radio Birdman's fearsome high-octane urban blues was forged in opposition to the city's staid rock establishment, which favoured what singer Rob Younger calls "posing and feathered haircuts, copying Free, not getting stuck in". Formed in 1974, when Detroit-born guitarist Deniz Tek and Younger bonded over a mutual appreciation for the Velvets, the MC5 and the Stooges (both of whom Tek had seen before his family emigrated), Birdman had the brooding aura of an outsider gang. Unable to get gigs, they took over a pub in the Darlinghurst district that they named the Funhouse, around which a subculture of like minds grew. Whenever Birdman ventured beyond the Funhouse, their gigs prompted trouble. "Our fans offended proprietors and patrons just for dancing wildly and for the way they dressed," says Younger. "Their jeans were a bit tighter." Like the Saints, here was a pre-punk band that flourished once the punk aesthetic vindicated their approach.

"Punk made it dead apparent you didn't need to be particularly good on any instrument to turn out great music, you just needed to project some personal style," says Younger. "That's pretty significant."

Radio Birdman's personal style was the hot topic when Australia's two leading punk bands finally came together on April 3 1977, for a show at the Paddington town hall in Sydney. "We'd like to thank the local chapter of the Hitler Youth who put up the fine props," announced Chris Bailey from the stage, referring to Radio Birdman's use of miltary-styled insignia. Though footage of the event suggests only a few Birdman fans on home turf took umbrage, Oz punk legend maintains this demonstrates a Clash/Pistols-style schism between the two bands. Today, both Bailey and Younger laugh at the memory.

"I'm trying to remember what particular brand of whisky I was given that night," says Bailey. "I wasn't being mean. I just thought it was worthy of comment. But boy, were they pissed off."

"There's probably more kinship than some would have you believe," says Younger. "I wasn't offended in the slightest. It was funny. I originally suggested we wear a uniform because I thought it would annoy people anyway. I was told Chris's sister tore down our flag that night and said something about homosexuals and Aborigines being bashed in Queensland because of fascists like us. That was funny, too."

Having split in 1978, owing to "social disintegration", Radio Birdman reformed in 1996 and have been touring and recording ever since.

Last week the Saints played their first public show featuring both Bailey and Kuepper since 1978, a one-off performance at the Queensland music festival in Brisbane, an event funded by the largesse of the Queensland state government, these days a New Labour-esque regime. The irony is not lost on Chris Bailey, a man who for 30 years has been asked about punk and still claims not to know what it means.

"We've never become a household name but still to this day we have a following in the world," he says. "Who are these Brisbane ratbags and why are they still doing this? I guess if that makes us a punk rock group, I begin to understand."

Blizzards of Oz
How to hear Australian punk

Although individual artefacts by all but the biggest names of Australian punk are hard to come by, there's a handy one-stop shop that gathers together every significant band the movement produced. The two-CD set Do the Pop: The Australian Garage-Rock Sound 1976-87 (Shock) features key recordings by Radio Birdman, the Saints, the Victims and the Scientists, and takes the story through the various Birdman splinter groups through to the 80s bands, such as the Hoodoo Gurus, who took the music towards powerpop. There are 50 tracks and barely a miss among them.

To hear Radio Birdman, track down the Sub Pop compilation The Essential Radio Birdman 1974-78. Marvel at how a band whose anthem was called New Race (about the need for teenage rebellion, they say) and who wore red armbands with inscrutable insignia could ever have been mistaken for fascists. Know Your Product: The Very Best of the Saints (EMI) rounds up the best of their punk period, including their three indispensable songs: (I'm) Stranded, This Perfect Day and Know Your Product. Although out of print, it's widely available through internet sellers. The Scientists' back catalogue is surprisingly well served, with three compilations spanning different periods in print. For the 1978-81 line-up, you need Pissed On Another Planet (Sympathy for the Record Industry), though a reformed band released the blistering live album Sedition on ATP earlier this year.

Finally, YouTube offers some gems, including footage of the notorious Birdman/Saints Paddington town hall show: see Chris Bailey insult his hosts at the end of This Perfect Day at

, and Radio Birdman perform New Race that same night at
Michael Hann

Keith Cameron

The GuardianTramp

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