TISM are back: The long-awaited return of Melbourne’s cult heroes
15.06.2022

TISM are back: The long-awaited return of Melbourne’s cult heroes

TISM
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Words by Tyler Jenke

It was 18 years ago next week that Melbourne’s TISM released 'The White Albun', their sixth – and though we didn’t know it at the time – final full-length record.

Just five months later, TISM would play what was to be their final show at Goulburn River’s Earthcore festival, leaving their hordes of dedicated followers to scour the archives for any overlooked remnants of the cult band. 

And lo, hidden within the third disc of their final album was a PDF file with unreleased and unrecorded song lyrics. The final track, titled ‘TISM Are Back’, would ultimately take close to two decades to finally gain relevance:

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Too old for love, too young for the pokies,
The skulls of their critics hung up as trophies,
Music’s avengers, bala’s still black,
Quake, all pretenders! – these bastards are back.

Indeed, it’s been two years since TISM – a band once described by influential German musician Nico as “scum” – found themselves semi-active again. A reissue campaign by David Roy Williams ended numerous years of silence in 2020, only to give rise to the inevitable questions regarding when and if a reunion would occur.

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In true TISM fashion though, this long-awaited reunion has finally been announced, only for the group to find themselves listed amongst a cadre of comparatively younger and more contemporary artists on the third edition of the Good Things Festival. Though something of an anachronistic entry to the bill on paper, the group’s placement on such a festival is only the latest chapter in a long and storied history of subverting expectations.

 

The TISM story is one that can be traced back over 40 years to the late ‘70s when little-known progressive act I Can Run were part of the local Melbourne music scene. Featuring future members such as Humphrey B. Flaubert, Leak Van Vlalen, and Eugene De La Hot Croix Bun, the group that would be known as TISM evolved out of a ‘skit’ of sorts that would appear during I Can Run’s sets. Around 1982, the group evolved into the earliest version of TISM, with members Ron Hitler-Barassi and Jock Cheese joining the fold, and recording many early songs whose origins were borrowed from the I Can Run era.

These tracks (later known to fans as the lost ‘bedroom recordings’), would ultimately serve as a precursor to the group’s later sound as they experimented with humorous, esoteric lyrics, and a variety of musical genres. In December of 1983 however, TISM made their live debut at Murrumbeena’s Duncan McKinnon Athletics Reserve, with the appropriately-named ‘Get Fucked Concert’ being considered such an immense failure that it resulted in their immediate dissolution.

It was 1984, however, that many could consider as the first real year of TISM’s public existence. In fact, it was this year that the band would make their first live appearances for the wider public, recording a ten-track demo cassette that would be sold at both local record stores and during a pair of performances at Melbourne University.

As the band’s future manager Gavan Purdy told Beat last year, one of these demo tapes made its way onto his desk, ultimately beginning a professional relationship with the band that would last for most of their career. “One day when I was working at [Melbourne artist agency] Vamp, I’d gone out to grab a bite to eat and when I came back there was this tape on my desk from a band called This Is Serious Mum,” Purdy recalled. “I played it and thought it was really good, but each time I played it, I just got more into it.

“Some people would call TISM a parody, but I never really heard it like that, because musically they weren’t. Lyrically it was pretty clever and the humour was a big part of it and certainly that got me at the start, but the music was pretty electro-punk or something. It was exciting – really new and something different.”

As Purdy explained, the band’s members were a surprisingly enigmatic bunch. Despite their mysterious public persona (complete with artistic pseudonyms and what would become a myriad costumes for their live performances), the core team of TISM was university educated, with a remarkable penchant for writing and recording songs. In fact, their craft was so powerful that despite an antagonistic relationship with the general public, the group would ultimately win a Battle Of The Bands competition held by Triple R (despite the venue’s PA blowing up mid-set).

Nevertheless, the band persisted, and in 1986 they would release their first single, ‘Defecate On My Face’, which came packaged as a 7-inch record in a 12-inch sleeve, with all four sides glued shut. The controversial track was enough for the group to gain the attention of Melbourne’s underground music scene, setting them up for what the future would hold.

“The first gig I saw them play was at The Tote on a Tuesday night,” Purdy recalled. “They already had a vibe – there was probably 100 people in the room. I’d listened to that tape so many times and I’d just fallen in love with ‘Defecate On My Face’. It’s such an amazing song. So I said, ‘I’ll put that out, if you want to?’ They were up for it and it just sort of rolled on from there.”

Roll from there it did, and just three months after the release of the ‘Defecate On My Face’ single, TISM unveiled their first large-scale release, the Form And Meaning Reach Ultimate Communion mini-album. Expanding their musical palate somewhat with more experimental and genre-switching compositions, the band itself had expanded by this point too, with the likes of dancer and vocalist Les Miserables, and saxophonist Jon St. Peenis seeing the group balloon to something of an unwieldy septet.

By 1987 though, the group were already planning bigger and better things, kicking off the recording of what would become their debut album in March of that year. Eventually releasing Great Truckin’ Songs Of The Renaissance in September of 1988, the record was a bold statement of TISM’s artistic vision.

A double-LP release, the first half of the album comprised traditional ‘songs’ (of which seven were issued as singles), while the latter half consisted of various diatribes, interview snippets, live recordings, and tracks taken from their infamous bedroom recordings. Despite the disjointed nature of the ambitious album, it gave fans a solid insight into the group’s modus operandi, and not only peaked within the top 50 on the local charts, but saw third single ‘I’m Interested In Apathy’ win an ARIA Award for Best Independent Release.

As the local success continued, so too did the band’s profile begin to rise. Their live shows had begun to attract greater attention to their subversive, dangerous, and often chaotic nature, while any interactions with the wider public seemed purposely-designed to mystify all and sundry. In fact, an infamous Hey Hey It’s Saturday performance saw membership of the group expand to 28 on live TV, while journalists would often be subjected to all manner of demands, including one who was forced to interview the band in a freezer, or another whose interview took place in a Melbourne restaurant while dressed in a wetsuit.

In 1990, TISM found themselves on the cusp of a commercial breakthrough. Though their first press release had seen them admit a willingness to “exchange their ideals for as much money as you would care to offer”, the new decade brought with it the rather inexplicable signing to a major label, surprising everyone – least of all the band themselves.

But while Phonogram (the local subsidiary of Polygram) put their faith into the band for their second album, the record that would become known as Hot Dogma was far more divisive than their debut, and would later be simply described by the band in 1992 as “dog’s balls”. As the story goes, the record’s lack of commercial success would lead to TISM being dropped by the label only six months after its release, despite still owing tens of thousands of dollars.

Hot Dogma would also serve as the final appearance of founding guitarist Leak Van Vlalen, with Tony Coitus (later known as Tokin’ Blackman) joining soon after. Though despite the turmoil this record seemed to bring about within the band, many fans still look upon the record as one of their finest moments.

Producer Peter Blyton may have indeed made the group rid themselves of their prominent drum machines and keyboards in favour of the so-called digital ‘realism’ that plagued music of the the era, but the record’s singles – ‘The History Of Western Civilisation’ and ‘Let’s Form A Company’ – still remain favourites alongside lesser-known tracks such as ‘The TISM Boat Hire Offer’, ‘ExistentialTISM’, and ‘They Shoot Heroin, Don’t They?’.

But Hot Dogma would indeed serve as the end of what TISM’s 2002 retrospective release would call their ‘Patronage Years’, with the start of the ‘90s resulting in something of a more era-appropriate stylistic shift.

Working with famed producer Tony Cohen (The Birthday Party, The Cruel Sea), TISM returned to their pub-rock roots for 1992’s The Beasts Of Suburban EP, with the seven-track release featuring a version of the band who seemed far more comfortable with the music they were making. More pop-influenced numbers such as ‘Get Thee To A Nunnery’ and ‘Lillee Caught Dilley Bowled Milli Vanilli’ were paired with the trademark suburban Melbourne-isms of ‘Father And Son’ and ‘Mourningtown Ride’, combining to not only showcase what the band were capable of with their new guitarist, but to also show the band operating without any looming commercial pressures.

The EP’s release was undoubtedly well-received though, with it not only nabbing an ARIA Award nomination for Best Independent Release, but also seeing Cohen nominated for Producer Of The Year for his work on ‘Get Thee To A Nunnery’.

TISM’s new musical focus wasn’t set to end there though, with their next release set to serve as one of their most controversial to date. Dubbed Australia The Lucky Cunt, the five-track EP was another selection of guitar-heavy tracks, but made headlines for its artwork – a Ken Done-style koala depicted sucking a syringe. Backlash was swift, and within just weeks of it going on sale, Done’s lawyers sprung into action and copies were ripped from the shelves by Victorian police.

Undeterred, TISM responded by reissuing the EP under the title Censored Due To Legal Advice, complete with a newly-minted cover image of Sinéad O’Connor ripping up the band’s name. Sales of the EP were only bolstered by its controversy, but it too would signal the end of another musical era for the band. 

As TISM would later recall, sessions for what would eventually become their third album were disrupted by a computer virus, supposedly “acting on behalf of good taste everywhere”. However, a desire to not follow the then-contemporary grunge sound saw the band pivot completely, swapping their more traditional instrumentation for a techno-infused sound that was undeniably reaching its commercial peak around this time.

In early 1995, TISM gave fans a taste of their new album by way of a collection of remixes for ‘Jung Talent Time’. Pairing social satire with pop-culture references, the original version of the track would arrive on Machiavelli And The Four Seasons upon its release in May of that year. A far cry from the sort of albums the band had previously released, this record would ultimately serve as the group’s largest commercial success to date – despite a title and cover artwork that made no mention of TISM itself.

Thanks to singles such as the River Phoenix-referencing ‘(He’ll Never Be An) Ol’ Man River’ or the Beach Boys-inspired ‘Greg! The Stop Sign!!’ (both of which would chart back-to-back within the top ten of triple j’s Hottest 100 of that year), Machiavelli And The Four Seasons would ultimately peak at number eight on the local charts and eventually win the ARIA Award for Best Independent Release. Recruiting SBS soccer commentator Les Murray to collect the award on their behalf, Murray infamously gave a speech in his native Hungarian which would eventually be translated to, “When the revolution comes, the music industry will be first to go.”

The success of the record would continue in the months to come, with Machiavelli And The Four Seasons not only resulting in yet another Australian tour for the group (including now-iconic appearances at the annual Big Day Out festival), their sole overseas sojourn by way of a UK tour alongside Carter USM, and a reissue in celebration of its Gold certification.

But was it all part of their schtick? Had the band just pulled the most elaborate ruse of all-time? After all, Ron Hitler-Barassi had once opined that “the greatest satirical statement that we could have made on the Australian rock industry is to actually become moderately successful within it”. It almost seemed as though TISM had taken what some cynical observers labelled a ‘joke’ to its most extreme and satisfying conclusion.

While it would be easy to say that TISM’s mainstream success continued following the Machiavelli And The Four Seasons, it would be disingenuous to claim they maintained the same level of public adoration that this album had brought with it. In 1998, the group unleashed their www.tism.wanker.com album, featuring enduring singles such as ‘Whatareya?’, ‘Thunderbirds Are Coming Out’, and ‘I Might Be A Cunt, But I’m Not A Fucking Cunt’ (whose music video was so explicit it was broadcast on the likes of Rage only once).

Despite a place on the Ceaveat Emptour alongside the likes of Regurgitator and The Fauves, sales didn’t quite match that of its predecessor, and as the ‘90s ended, so too did TISM’s brush with commercial success.

2001 brought with it the release of De RigueurMortis, whose lengthy running time and mix of songs and diatribes drew comparisons to their 1988 debut. But while it did manage to chart within the top 40, it quickly retreated from view, and the following year TISM found themselves feeling nostalgic thanks to the retrospective best.off compilation and tour.

However, it’s 2004 that remains one of the most prominent years in the history of TISM. Sharing The White Albun in June, this final record was issued as a three-disc behemoth, complete with a retrospective documentary on the band, and a full-length recording of their ‘Save Our TISM’ live show – a series of performances presented as a telethon designed to prevent the group’s breakup.

Despite the ominous sign that such a tour seemed to indicate, none of the group’s obsessive fans seemed to believe that TISM would indeed ever take their leave of the Australian music scene. If anything, any speculation surrounding a split would always come down to one simple question, “Why now? Why not 20 years ago?”

Ultimately, it was November of 2004 that brought about the group’s unannounced end. Appearing on the Earthcore festival lineup in stark contrast to the more contemporary dance acts on the bill, it feels almost fitting that the band’s final hurrah would be in front of an audience that comprised barely any of their longtime fans, and featured a crowd that almost exclusively consisted of those who had come to witness the spectacle of TISM.

In the years that followed this show, questions in regards to the group’s very status were raised. Were they broken up? Would more shows or music ever arise? Humphrey B. Flaubert seemed to answer this question in 2006 when a fake Big Day Out poster listed the group amongst the acts that were playing. Upon being questioned by triple j as to whether TISM were still a going concern, he simply noted its members were “slowly moving towards our deaths”.

It was just two years later that the fate of TISM seemed all but sealed when guitarist Tokin’ Blackman (known to friends as James Paull) passed away at the age of 50 after battling cancer.

However, some signs of life continued to show in the world of TISM. Humphrey B. Flaubert adopted the moniker of DC Root for then-nascent alt-country outfit ROOT!, and after a few years together, he once again emerged as part of The DC3, appearing under his birth name of Damian Cowell as he addressed his past for the first time as part of the group’s debut single, ‘I Was The Guy In TISM’.

As the band’s former frontman launched Damien Cowell’s Disco Machine in 2015, any mystique of the past was put to one side. However, he did address the topic of a potential TISM reunion along the way, with Australia’s entrance into Eurovision provoking calls for the group to represent their home country.

“I do not wish to comment on behalf of TISM out of respect for my colleagues and the artistic integrity of the band,” Cowell said in a statement. “However, if a multinational with a horrendous human rights record gives me a large cheque, all bets are on.”

Cowell wasn’t the only member of TISM to put the group in the rearview as they focused on new music. In 2018, Jock Cheese (known to friends as Jack Holt) launched his own band, The Collaborators, who released their self-titled debut album in 2019. During live shows, The Collaborators (which also featured original TISM guitarist Leak Van Vlalen/Sean Kelly) would frequently cover both Jock Cheese solo material and classic TISM tracks, with recent shows seeing Melbourne veteran Fred Negro brought in on lead vocals.

But throughout it all though, never once was the idea of a reunion ever mentioned with an air of earnestness. Even in 2020 when TISM launched a reissue campaign thanks to DRW Entertainment, the idea of live shows were downplayed in lieu of focus being placed solely on the material that was being released.

That said, the lack of focus on a potential reunion likely helped to ensure the impact of the recent releases. A live recording of the band’s final show, a reissue of their 1984 demo tape, a full-length rehearsal from 1987, a compilation of remixes, previously unheard singles, and a few album reissues have since arrived in the years since TISM officially reactivated, allowing old and new fans to properly delve back into the catalogue of one of Australia’s most beloved, and most commercially-divisive bands.

At the end of the day though, should we really be surprised that a TISM reunion would occur? After all, following the group’s initial breakup in 1983, it’s long been the party line that every subsequent gig was itself a reunion gig. Factor that in with the group’s own disdain for putting themselves on any artistic or integrous pedestal and it almost seems like this sort of thing was as inevitable as it was equally unlikely.

But the more things change, the more things stay the same. It was 18 years ago this November that TISM performed their final show in front of a crowd that likely knew or cared little for them, and now close to two decades on, they’ll be making their return as part of a bill that doesn’t exactly seem to be filled with their contemporaries. Or is that just part of the appeal? For TISM to continue their subversive attitudes, even when it comes to their comeback?

Will TISM still be able to capture the same energy, intensity, danger, and essentiality that hallmarked their iconic shows throughout the ‘80s, ‘90s, and ‘00s? Or will it simply serve as a testament to the warnings that Damien Cowell provided us with, alerting us to the fact any reunion wouldn’t live up to the hype? 

Well, let’s try and answer that question with the final line from the never-released ‘TISM Are Back’:

This be a warning from that band of brothers:
TISM are back. Lock up your mothers.

TISM are set to make their live return for the first time since 2004 as part of the recently-announced Good Things festival