Australian musicians played and recorded some of the earliest punk rock. Perhaps the most notable example were The Saints, who released their first single in 1976. Bands playing sub-genres or offshoots of punk music, such as local hardcore acts, still have a strong cult following throughout Australia.
The earliest incarnation of The Saints was formed by Ed Kuepper (guitar) and Chris Bailey (vocals) in Brisbane, Queensland in 1973. They shared a background in immigrant families (Kuepper's German and Bailey's Irish), and an admiration for high energy 1950s and '60s music, such as the Detroit rock of The Stooges and MC5. Queensland at the time was controlled by the conservative, authoritarian Country Party democratic government of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen — an environment with plenty of inspiration for creative and alienated young people. The result was a frenetic, pulsating sound, topped with Bailey's sardonic lyrics. Unable to get regular gigs, they played at a house in inner city Petrie Terrace, where they soon attracted unwanted attention. Police arrested fans for trivial offences, often in a brutal fashion, but their approach only created more interest in the punk scene. The Saints gigs' got bigger and their fans started to form bands, both punk and dissimilar in sound, beginning a distinct Brisbane punk scene, one of the first in the world.
During 1974, Radio Birdman began to form in Sydney, led by another immigrant, a Detroit-born and bred medical student named Deniz Tek. They too shared an interest in The Stooges and MC5, albeit with a result arguably more akin to hard rock than punk. Their dynamic live shows soon gained a fanatical following at inner city venues.
Many art rock bands, like Melbourne's Boys Next Door, formed by Nick Cave and Mick Harvey at their school in 1974, later attended gigs by The Saints and Radio Birdman, and would adopt elements of their sounds. However, the Boys Next Door (later renamed The Birthday Party) are usually regarded as post-punk, rather than punk.
In Perth — a geographically-isolated city with social and political similarities to Brisbane — young musicians like Kim Salmon, Dave Faulkner and James Baker were also influenced by the Detroit bands, as well as New York protopunk figures like Lou Reed and the New York Dolls. Salmon led the Cheap Nasties, and then The Scientists, before embarking on a solo career (and is regarded as a pioneer of grunge). Baker was in a short-lived act called The Geeks, before forming The Victims with Faulkner in 1977. They recorded an acclaimed single, "Television Addict", before breaking up. Baker later joined The Scientists. Faulkner gravitated towards poppier sounds. (In 1981, he and Baker founded a highly successful retro rock act, the Hoodoo Gurus.)
In mid-1976, The Saints recorded and distributed copies of their single "(I'm) Stranded", which met nearly no critical or public response in Australia. In the UK, however,Sounds magazine received a copy, and declared it: "single of this and every week". As a result, the band was signed to a three-album contract with EMI. Later the same year they recorded their first LP, which was also called (I'm) Stranded. Hampered by poor production and the indifference of radio stations, the LP failed commercially. In December The Saints moved to Sydney. Radio Birdman released an EP ("Burn My Eye") and an album (Radios Appear) with better production values, but with similar commercial results to The Saints' endeavours.
By 1977, other bands were starting to form in Sydney, under the influence of local and overseas punk acts. Among the first was The Last Words, from Liverpool in Sydney. (They recorded their first single "Animal World/Wondering Why" in 1977.) Other Sydney bands in 1977 included the Hellcats (featuring Ron Peno, later lead singer of the Died Pretty), the Psychosurgeons (later known as Lipstick Killers), Johnny Dole & The Scabs and the Thought Criminals (who featured Steven Phillip, later of Do-Re-Mi and John Hoey, who was also later in Died Pretty).
Fully-fledged punk bands like The Reals (featuring Ollie Olsen) and The Babeez (later known as The News) were also being formed in Melbourne.
In Brisbane, The Survivors (who showed a 1960s influence), The Leftovers (diverse influences), Razar (contemporary British punk) and the Fun Things (Detroit rock) all followed in the wake of the Saints.
After the British punk scene took off in 1977, both The Saints and Radio Birdman moved to the UK. This proved to be disastrous for both bands. Neither of them fit in with, or were inclined to adjust to aspects of the London scene at the time, such the now-established punk fashion in clothes. Radio Birdman were dumped when their record company got into financial difficulty, and soon broke up. Later recordings saw The Saints adopt soul, blues and jazz influences, although their most successful single, "This Perfect Day" — which reached number 34 in the UK pop charts — was typical of the band's musical style. After another acclaimed single, "Know Your Product", and second and third albums failed to make an impression, EMI dropped The Saints. (Kuepper left in 1979 and Bailey began to pursue a more mainstream musical direction.) Last Words later followed their predecessors to the U.K. and also failed to make a strong impression.
By the end of 1977, the "supergroup" Young Charlatans had formed in Melbourne out of the ashes of earlier bands. Ollie Olsen, Rowland S. Howard (guitar, later in The Birthday Party), Jeff Wegener (drums, former member of The Saints, later in the Laughing Clowns) and Janine Hall (later in The Saints). The band recorded the first version of the Howard song "Shivers" (made famous by the Boys Next Door and hard rockers Screaming Jets). In Sydney, a Birdman offshoot, The Hitmen, had started to gig and Ian Rilen formed the longevitous X.
Entrepreneurs began to realise the potential of the growing scene and Michael Gudinski launched the Melbourne-based Suicide Records, which in May 1978 released a compilation, Lethal Weapons. The album included tracks by the Boys Next Door, Teenage Radio Stars (featuring future Models members Sean Kelly and James Freud), JAB (ex-experimental rockers from Adelaide, featuring Bohdan X and sythesizer player Ash Wednesday), The Survivors and X-Ray-Z (former pub rockers from Adelaide). However the royalty rate offered by Suicide was low and both The News and Young Charlatans decided not to get involved.
Australian chart success eluded all of these bands in the late 1970s. Radio programmers were conservative and unenthusiastic about punk. The above artists who eventually found success either did so overseas, or after a remove of several years in Australia, and/or in different bands.
During the late 1970s, former members of Radio Birdman contributed to several new Sydney bands: The New Christs, The Visitors, The Passengers (featuring Angie Pepper) and The Screaming Tribesmen. Two distinctive, long-lasting Sydney bands, The Celibate Rifles and Lime Spiders, were formed in 1979.
In Melbourne, post-punk sounds began to take over, typified by the "little band scene". By the early 1980s, only a handful of bands were still playing songs with a classic punk sounds, such as the Cosmic Psychos and the satirically-inclined Painters and Dockers.
Quick and the Dead, who played in Perth during 1979–81, pioneered a sound closely related to Oi!. They attracted media attention resulting from the behaviour of some fans, including violence and the use of Nazi regalia.
Some Brisbane punk bands prolonged their unique punk direction from the Seventies, that was in part due to Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen's continued use of the Queensland Police against perceived threats to the government.
The Boys Next Door, renamed The Birthday Party in 1980 and featuring Nick Cave, were pioneers in incorporating "darker" elements into their image, with connections to the genres of Gothic rock, Horror Punk and Deathrock. Other prominent examples included included Brisbane bands Vampire Lovers (Australian band) and Mystery of Sixes.
A fourth generation of bands, such as the Hard-Ons (from Sydney) and Exploding White Mice (from Adelaide), also emerged. Former members of the The Celibate Rifles and Lime Spiders formed The Eastern Dark, a short-lived but well-regarded act.
Australian hardcore punk acts also emerged, such as Massappeal, who began gigging in Sydney during 1985.
By the early 1990s, the success of grunge music, American punk veterans and revivalists, as well as local bands like The Meanies, Frenzal Rhomb and Screamfeeder led to the formation of punk-influenced bands such as The Living End, Jebediah, Bodyjar, 28 Days, Align and Guttersnipes. Punk revival scenes began in various cities around Australia.