21 March 2008
"Now, hold steady there, Dave," I can hear certain people muttering to themselves, "you can't include TISM on a blog solely dedicated to obscure, forgotten artists. Why, TISM were a huge band in Australia for a couple of years, weren't they?"
I'm not about to argue with the above. TISM were certainly big enough to sign to a label owned by Rupert Murdoch, play major venues in Melbourne and Sydney, and get regular night-time rotations on specialist music video shows down under too. To say that TISM "fell by the wayside" in Australia would be rather like arguing that Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine never really did a decent trade in the UK. To be quite honest, though, the success of both acts seems somewhat unlikely in retrospect, was fleeting in both cases, and where TISM were concerned did not translate into any major overseas business. Australia had the only audience who really embraced their slightly unusual ways.
Unfortunately, giving the usual expected facts for TISM - the expected Who, What, When, Where, and Whys - is nigh on impossible due to their insistence that all band personnel should remain anonymous. TISM have never revealed their identities in public, preferring to remain hidden beneath balaclavas and rubber masks. Therefore, accurate details about their precise personnel, inter-band bust-ups and drug habits are going to be impossible to uncover. What I can honestly ascertain is that they formed at some point in 1982, releasing their first single “Defecate on my Face” not long after.
“Defecate on My Face” was a face-tingling slap around the chops for the Australian record buying public. Focussing on Hitler’s alleged sexual preferences during his lifetime, it’s a slightly juvenile if incredibly detailed piece of work lyrically, whilst having a very doomy, serious musical undercurrent. The menacing bassline and wailing vocals, to these ears, sound uncannily like Southend’s early nineties hopes Foreheads in a Fishtank (to the extent that originally I imagined that they and TISM might be related) and also recall the heavy handed approach of numerous Australian acts of the period. I don’t think Nick Cave broached the subject of the fecal related sexual perversions of fascist dictators during his early career, but TISM ran into the fray right when everyone was afraid to.
What was also astonishing was the switch in styles that TISM managed throughout their career. From such uncommercial beginnings they eventually switched to slogan orientated pop, arguing that “It’s harder to write a good pop song than sound like the Jesus and Mary Chain”. Tracks like “If You’re Not Famous At Fourteen You’re Finished” are full of bounce and verve, coming worryingly close to Stock Aitken and Waterman territory. You can almost imagine Jason Donovan bopping along (and maybe he did, how would we know?) but the subject matter never quite tallied. The video for this track was also a half-hearted affair which barely promoted the single at all, given that various members of TISM simply spoke over the top of the song less than halfway through, blithely dismissing both themselves and their record company.
“Greg! The Stop Sign!” is another merry ditty, albeit one which revels in a perverse combinations of styles. Beach Boys harmonies combine with pulsing high tempo electronic music, and a cynical “Life’s hard when you try hard” lyric. Referencing instances of successful party-going coke heads and clean strivers who got nowhere in life, it’s hard not to see their point of view.
The last single in 2004 – possibly ever, if rumours are to be believed – was the rather more straightforward “Everyone Else Has Had More Sex Than Me”. This clearly was the big attempted sell-out disc, as a rather-too-cute animated video accompanied it which caused numerous Internet kids to go “awww”. This is hardly a natural or usual reaction to TISM and their work. It remains their only single that was actually released in Europe, but it still didn’t really do the business (except in Germany) perhaps because it sounds more like a monster mid-eighties chart topper than anything remotely relevant or applicable to the music scene in the present day. Still, it’s an anthemic and addictive piece of work which shouldn’t be entirely ignored.
By no means were TISM to everybody's tastes, and that certainly remains the case. For every fan who thought their costumes, subversive lyrics and antics were intelligent examples of Situationism, there were others who felt they were basically the Bloodhound Gang with silly masks on. I can only disagree - the humour on display throughout TISM's career would shame many a dull Chris Morris wannabe in the UK. Whatever you think of their music, it should surely be hard not to love an act who were apparently the only band to play lawnmowers on a live television appearance. Wikipedia also reveals that they "once gave an interview with Mara Smarelli and Adrian Ryan which was conducted on a football field. The members and interviewers were separated by 50 metre lengths of string. Communication was made possible with the use of megaphones and TISM refused to answer anything unless the string was held taut between member and interviewer".
I doubt even the hardiest of fans would put forward a case for TISM ever having released a "classic album", but the innovation, imagination and wit on disply throughout the work is something which seems peculiarly absent from the mainstream music scene in any country right now. Perhaps it's not too late for the UK to latch on to their wilful ways.
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