The Saints, The Garage, London

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The Independent Culture

In 1976, a garage band from Brisbane, Australia, released the single "I'm Stranded", a slab of wall-of-sound rock'n'roll that was recorded so loud that many record players struggled to cope with it. NME made it single of the week; Sounds made it single of the year; and EMI bigwigs demanded tickets to the other side of the world to sign the group, The Saints, and bring them to London.

But EMI had a habit of signing bands without knowing what to do with them (it did it with The Sex Pistols, too). Despite the label, the band made a clutch of peerless garage-punk anthems, and a third album, Prehistoric Sounds, that, with its melding of Stooges-style rock and Otis-Redding-style horns, is the great lost way forward for punk. Bob Geldof has said that the three bands that changed the course of music in the Seventies were the Pistols, The Ramones and The Saints.

Nevertheless, a year and a half and three albums into their career, the legendary guitarist Ed Kuepper and the drummer Ivor Hay fled back to Australia, leaving the singer and songwriter, Chris Bailey, behind. Since then, Bailey, with various Saints line-ups, has released 10 or so albums of surprising diversity that should have earned him a place at songwriting's top table. Instead, he's at best a cult figure, last surfacing singing backing-vocals (and stealing the song) on the Nick Cave single "Bring It On". But now, his latest line-up has a new album, Nothing Is Straight in My House. EMI has also released a box set of early Saints CDs.

Bailey's voice is a rasping baritone produced by years of devotion to red wine and cigarettes. It's still there as the band steam into the Stooges-like opener from the new album, "Porno Movies" - but where is Bailey? Where's the fat bloke with the fag? And who's the slim, fit-looking lead singer?

The physical transformation is remarkable (it transpires that he has been ill and is now well), but the sound is still there, largely courtesy of the latest guitarist, Marty Willson-Piper, of The Church. "I'm Stranded" and then "No Time", its original B-side, arrive with a gusto that belies the songs' impending middle age. More early classics follow: "This Perfect Day", the one they did on Top of the Pops, only for EMI, allegedly, to run out of copies as sales rocketed; and even "Messin' with the Kid", a piece of glorious, lyrical teenage angst. Yet the new stuff doesn't suffer by comparison. "A Madman Wrecks My Happy Home" is so garage, it reeks of second-hand carbon monoxide.

Bailey is a charismatic, even Byronic, front man, with the quick wit of a stand-up comedian. He also has a quiet side that can flummox those who think that he's no more than a mouthy punk, and a solo acoustic interlude climaxes with the peerless "Ghost Ships". But there is no mistaking what this Saints line-up is about, as they close with the incendiary cover version with which four bored teenagers first shook Brisbane garage foundations in 1974 - "River Deep, Mountain High".