New documentary Stranded looks at the Brisbane punk scene of the ‘70s through the lens of their progenitors The Saints, who became accidental heroes and embroiled in the global scene just by railing against the local backdrop.
From the very opening stanza of new documentary Stranded the vital role played by Brisbane rock band The Saints in helping to usher in the rise of punk rock in the mid-‘70s and the overthrowing of the bland music of the day (which had been dominant too long) is placed on completely level footing with the similar roles played by their more well-known contemporaries the Ramones and Sex Pistols, making their respective hometowns of Brisbane, New York and London a most unlikely nexus for the birth of the genre-shattering movement.
Produced by Veronica Fury, Stranded begins by looking at the “sleepy, bland, suburban” Brisbane of the era, the “Deep North” capital which was then under the iron grip of nefarious anti-hero Joh Bjelke-Petersen. It’s a warts-and-all look at a virtual police state – elsewhere in the post-Vietnam War world music was being used as an instrument for change, but the notoriously conservative Queensland weren’t interested in adaptation and instead used a regime of unaccountable violence and brutality to crush any semblance of anything even vaguely resembling the counter-culture. Four young men from suburban Brisbane railed against both the boredom and tyranny that were so prevalent in their hometown at the time and channeled it into angry, primal music.
The Saints also had to struggle against the reality that there was next to nothing in the way of original music or infrastructure for same in Brisbane, putting on their own shows in local halls – which were routinely busted up by police and often ended in violence and arrests – and eventually went on to release the world’s first ever independently-released punk 7”, (I’m) Stranded, a furious howl against suburban alienation and oppression that seemed to resonate all over the globe. A cavalcade of international and local punk rockers and musicians are paraded to parlay the importance of the role this song played in what was to come – Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys), Jean Jaques Burrel (The Stranglers), Bob Geldof (Boomtown Rats), Steve Diggle (Buzzcocks), Pauline Murray (Penetration), Mark Callahan (The Riptides), Nick Cave and Mick Harvey (Boys Next Door) – and it’s fascinating to see the band relocate from Brisbane (where as The Saints’ guitarist/songwriter Ed Kuepper surmises “they couldn’t get a gig let alone a record contract”) to London where they were feted and soon headlining venues like the Marquee and playing alongside bands like Ramones and Talking Heads.
Stranded goes on to entail how this excitement summoned by The Saints’ DIY success lit a fuse not only globally but back in Brisbane, and examines how bands like The Leftovers, Xero, Razar and The Riptides kept on fighting the good fight in increasingly hostile circumstances. The Bjelke-Petersen regime somehow became even more corrupt and unfettered and reliant on police brutality in pre-Fitzgerald Inquiry Queensland, evinced eloquently by not only the Brisbane musos who suffered but also members of The Stranglers and Dead Kennedys who experienced the backwater tyranny firsthand. It’s quite staggering thinking about how recently this all occurred, but also how it spurred an incredibly resilient music scene (comprising those who stayed rather than decamping south to less violent climes) of top-notch acts like The Go-Betweens (who would also eventually scurry away) and in the process not only united all and sundry against a common foe but also fostered the amazing sense of community that’s still so prevalent in the Brisbane scene today. We see the somewhat acrimonious dissolution of The Saints (courtesy candid chats from all four original members), the eventual toppling of the Bjelke-Petersen regime and it’s all tied up succinctly towards the end by Violent Soho’s eternally parochial guitarist James Tidswell who espouses, “Knowing that it’s okay to be from Brisbane, that’s the legacy that [The Saints] left”.
Stranded fits a lot into its allotted 55 minutes and is sure to draw as much criticism for what is left out as for what we see on screen, but all in all it’s an enthralling tale told well and augmented by a wealth of contemporaneous archival footage which gives a tangible sense of the repression and oppression so prevalent in ‘70s Brisbane. It’s all interspersed with fast-cut b-movie footage to bring much-needed levity to these occasionally grim portrayals, and the story unfolds smoothly via Neil Pigot’s narration and the continual stream of first-person accounts from people who saw the action firsthand (including prominent Brisbane musicians and scene identities). Even though the last few decades of Brisbane’s resurgence are covered almost as a postscript, it’s still heartwarming to see the city gradually shed its (probably deserved) erstwhile reputation as a cultural backwater and slowly morph into the world-class capital it’s still becoming today, and it’s also imperative to continually examine the mistakes of the past to ensure that they never happen again (scarily it looked at times like Brisbane was sliding inexorably backwards in that direction under recent conservative regimes). A truly fascinating look at how this collision between outsider art and socio-political factors in the most unlikely of sub-tropical locales had a massive and oft-overlooked influence on changing the global musical landscape forever.
Stranded airs tonight on ABC1 at 9.30pm