The Saints — The Monkey Puzzle
The Saints — The Monkey Puzzle — New Rose — ROSE 1 — France — 1981
Presumably I don’t need to sell you on the greatness of the first two Saints albums. I’d guess anyone who is familiar with them would agree they’re among a handful of records at the top of the heap when it comes to the punk rock of the first, and only truly genuine, generation. And as a band they were more “real” and down-to-earth than most of their contemporaries as well, eschewing the customary safety pin chic and radical politics posturing and sticking to a pure, basic, animal sort of rock and roll distilled to its crucial elements. The Saints were just plain old rock and roll that rolled out of bed and went direct from the garage to the sweaty little club, with a great singer, a wonderworking minimalist guitar savant, terrific songs, and very little bullshit. Plus (starting with album #2): horns. There’s no music I love more. (And if you’re not familiar, get thee down to the links at the notes below instanter and listen to I’m Stranded and Eternally Yours — you won’t regret it, trust me.) e.g.:
There’s divided opinion on the third album, Prehistoric Sounds, which complexifies and soulifies the straight-ahead rock and roll of the first two. I like it, mostly: singer Chris Bailey is a soulful singer, in the pugnacious “60s punk” R&B/garage mode, and I think it works here, though I admit it did have to grow on me. When I heard it playing in a Durham, NC bar a couple weeks back (to my amazement) I was struck anew by it’s broad sweep and unlikely against-all-odds fulfillment of a ridiculously ambitious program. Not everyone agrees, however, including, apparently, Bailey himself, who described it as “the sound of a band falling apart.” And the band certainly was falling apart. Founding guitar player Ed Kuepper left before the release, the record flopped, and the band was summarily dropped by their UK label (Harvest / EMI) and sent home to Australia.
Their fourth album, The Monkey Puzzle, is rarely mentioned and seems all but forgotten, even by Saints fans. Like its predecessor, it was never released in the US. I think most punk rock people had, like their UK label, simply written them off by that point. But I’m here to try to sell you on it. It may not be “the perfect album” but it’s got a lot going for it, and I consider it a kind of hidden gem.
The main thing it’s got going for it is the title track, which, incredibly, was never released as a single. It is simply a dazzling rock and roll production, better, it could be argued, than any single Saints song of the classic era and basically as good as anything else I can think of. It’s called “Monkeys” on the original Australian release on Lost Records; the New Rose (French) pressing I have retitles it “Monkey (Let’s Go.)”
I missed this album when it first came out, like a lot of people, and when I belatedly heard the song I was just… obliterated by how great it was. Listen to it now and turn it way up. That guitar arrangement, a slow and subtle build up and layering of basic boogie woogie figures (if “boogie woogie” means what I think it does) that kind of blossoms into an ornate yet still minimalist pop eruption before a return to the steady rock is one of the great guitar moments in rock and roll. There are more discrete hooks packed into this guitar arrangement than on any other recording I can think of. It’s a work of genius. The fragmented lyrics leave the specific sentiments a bit obscure, though they seem to be basically in line with the cynical “Know Your Product” ethos of the earlier era. Yes, it can be very entertaining to be sold. Maybe it’s a kiss off to the record label, a time honored tradition. What that has to do with monkeys, or shagging a pony like Boney Maronie, I have no idea. But it doesn’t matter. Nothing can obscure rock and roll when it’s at its best as it is here.
So that’s the crowning achievement, and it’s enough. As for the rest of the album: while this track doesn’t suffer (at all I would say) from Kuepper’s absence, there is an arguable lack of focus about the album as a whole that could be attributed to it. It’s basically a new band at this point, and they sound like they’re feeling their way forward. Bailey was the pop Paul to Kuepper’s gritty rock and roll John I suppose. The “new” sound has turned from pure punk rock to “power pop,” leaving the gritty R&B punk styling largely behind, but sonically it’s got more guts than many more familiar examples of that “style,” if such it be. It is this tone, the mere sound of it, the “atmosphere,” that gets me. There’s a wistful, slightly dark quality interwoven in the spunky prettiness that is hard to characterize. Just speaking subjectively, it evokes a similar mood as “Shake Some Action” or the Kinks’ “This Time Tomorrow”. It’s a great record to listen to when you’re sad, if you want the sadness to deepen rather than dissipate. (Am I the only person who tends to choose that path? I can’t be, surely.) My point is that it creates a mood and a feel that take the listening experience beyond a simple matter of assessing the songs per se. I like it better and better every time I hear it.
I know what people mean when they criticize some tracks as “competent yet uninspired workouts,” filler, and the like, but there’s a sonic argument running underneath it all that this perspective doesn’t grasp. Saints, what do you have for us? Well, we’re going to sell you Heavy Power Pop, is the assertion. And they do it, at least as far as I’m concerned. That the world, such as it was, had stopped listening by that point only makes the winning argument all the more poignant and meaningful.
That said, “Miss Wonderful,” “Always”, the Byrds-fronted-by-Van-Morrison-ish “Let’s Pretend” are solid winners, as is the “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” cover that ends the album. As is the song “In the Mirror,” weirdly left off the sequence of the present copy (a 1981 French repress.)
I, personally, have some experience with the fairly well-worn tradition of creating a would-be masterpiece that breaks new ground in a way that absolutely nobody digs. Complexifying your art and getting away with it can be mightily challenging. It doesn’t help that you can see their point, which you usually can. But what am I supposed to do, you ask, shaking your fist at the stars, record the same album ten times in a row before finally bashing my brains in with a hammer? Why, yes, that is in fact what they want you to do. Literally. Let us know when you’ve secured your hammer, and we’ll write a respectful obituary, they seem to say.
I mean, okay, Eternally Yours is objectively better. But with that attitude, you miss out on a lot of great things. And most people have that attitude, including me.
I saw the Saints once in San Francisco in the mid-80s. They apparently had some success on MTV with the album All Fools Day, which was then, and is now, more or less beyond my ken. I was one of those who’d written them off, not in any deliberate way, just in the way where you go, the first two albums are great, that’s good enough for me I’ll just stick to that, but I might as well put in an appearance since I got the tickets for free from KALX. The jangly pop thing didn’t interest me too much, coming from them, though I liked it well enough in Paisley Underground form I suppose. I hate to admit that I didn’t pay all that much attention. My mind was made up. Indifference drowned everything out. I saluted Chris Bailey sincerely yet inattentively, and thought that was enough. Now I wish I’d paid more heed. Maybe they played some of these songs, maybe not. I wish I knew.
So Chris Bailey, I’m sorry. I screwed up. We didn’t deserve you. And this is, in fact, a great album.
— The Saints — “Monkeys (Let’s Go)” on YouTube.
— The Saints — The Monkey Puzzle (playlist on YouTube of all the tracks of the album, plus extra songs.)
— discogs: Aussie 1980 original.
— discogs: French 1981 repress.
— The Saints — (I’m) Stranded: playlist on YouTube, including extra tracks.
— The Saints — Eternally Yours: playlist on YouTube, including extra tracks.