Hey, it’s my birthday.
What’s something I can do that’s really worth it for this day? What self-aggrandising thing can I put out there that you’ll feel obligated to check out? What have I held off on sharing up until this moment…?
Imagine the sound of knuckles popping as lips draw up near a mic and a voice says, low, and slightly menacing, as Paul McDemortt prepping to launch the punchline of a truly vile joke in the livest of Doug Anthony Allstars shows, I guess that it’s time.
A content warning for this article is I’m going to use the word ‘cunt’ a few times, which I don’t normally do? Sorry!
It had to happen, eventually.
TISM are one of the most Australian things you’re ever going to see me talk about. Generally, I don’t bother with ‘Australian media’ except to point to some work and express how even in our ‘global culture,’ the culture we’re in is still overwhelmingly North American, because I couldn’t possibly share TISM to people outside Australia and have it work for them the same way that other, sanitised, Americanised musicians do. Still, let’s do our boilerplate opening.
De Rigeurmortis is a 2001 album from Australian ‘alternative-rock’ group TISM, whose name is an acronym of the phrase ‘This Is Serious, Mum,’ a band that you could call a Problematic Fave, or maybe a Guilty Pleasure if you want me to talk like I’m ashamed of this literal art project of a band being made by people who would resent the idea of being called an art project, though strangely, I’m not.
TISM are definitionally challenging to grapple with. I referred to them upstream as an art project, something that they would most surely not agree with. They’re a band with a host of working class members, that use curse words and subject matter wholeheartedly true to the heart of the culture, but also owning intellectual understandings of complex topics betrayed in their regular use of juxtaposition. Their songs and albums are full of these deliberate connections of seemingly disparate topics, playing with homonyms or bridging, unrelated words.
The band performed in disguise. The argument they presented always mutated, with some claims that it was to conceal the work of other performers in the project, some claims that it was to avoid hurting their day jobs, and some claims that it was a deliberate rejection of the idea that you had to be beautiful to work in pop. The answer that always came up in these conversations though was the idea that they just weren’t very interesting and if they didn’t have the gimmick, you wouldn’t recognise the band.
Since they performed in the pre-smartphone era, and they generally had a bunch of respectful people working with them, TISM were able to keep their identities secret until they decided to out themselves in the last days of the band – revealing an array of people who, yes, were largely unexciting, working class Australians. The eventual end of the band came not at the hands of popularity, either – they were happily chugging along, touring and making albums and showing consistent success from what can only really be called a devoted, small fanbase, as much as they’d hate the cliche. No, what felled TISM and led to them outing themselves was one of the members, James Paull, having to quit the band to grapple with cancer, which eventually claimed his life.
Now, I refer to them as an art project, and I don’t know how else to get you in the framing of this is a rock band that performed for thirty years, live, in disguise, hiding their identities successfully not because they had something worth hiding, but just because they wanted to. There’s a deliberate archness to that, a very thoughtful positioning of ideas designed to make the audience who learns the fact go huh, what. They were people who rejected superficial appeal of rock music and in the process finding an aesthetic that somehow transcended it.
TISM were famously hard to deal with if you were a member of the press. They would do stunt press meetings with the general press. One interview they conducted at opposite ends of a football field, with the band at one end, the journalists at the other, a bullhorn being passed around at each end. Another time they scheduled their interview to be held via fax machine – but not any fax machine, a dot-matrix fax machine in the back of a sweltering fish and chip shop. Journalists had to fax one question at a time to the band from that location, and they got their answers from the band directly. There was a deliberate attempt to make life hard for the music press that covered them.
When they went on live radio or TV to talk about their music, they almost always did something deliberately weird, usually because they found a lot of the music journalism scene offensively banal. Oh, they had great relationships with some journalists, people who they thought regarded the work with the proper disdain, but they were incredibly dismissive of people who they thought didn’t have an actual respect for their work and understood them – people who both tried to frame them as a generic pop product and people who sought to elevate them above their station.
Now, if you already know TISM, you’re either a weird fan like me, or you know them from one of two standout incidents. Particularly, you might know of them as ‘the band that got into a fist-fight with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers over the death of River Phoenix,’ which is a story that kind of just tells itself right there. The other thing you might know TISM for is their widely distributed and pretty good song Everyone Else Has Had More Sex Than Me, which was the subject of a music video challenge.
As far as a general content warning goes, TISM are not a band who I would think of as progressive or deliberately proud of progressive credentials. Their work is more than a bit socialist, with open disdain for capitalism and music as a business, especially as it relates to exploiting teenagers. Theres a lot of deliberately rough language, particularly in the Australian venacular – this band was the centre of a firestorm from the song I Might Be A Cunt But I’m Not A Fucking Cunt, which… again, extremely Australian. The emotion conveyed by those swears is meaningfully different, but it feels like explaining that sounds like nonsense. They do reference sexual violence and assault in some songs, and they regularly talk about death and suicide. Not so much so on this album, but definitely in general.
There’s also a fairly dismissive attitude towards the feminine masculine – they’re quite specifically disdainful of prettyboys, which is a bit shit of them.
Their work overwhelmingly focuses on men, too. There’s a lot of passive misogyny in just that when women are mentioned in their songs, it’s as an other, and often an other seen in terms of how men want them.
Racial politics in their work are also a little weird because their want of short, sharp, punchy lines in songs means that at best they don’t care about the topic. In one song, BFW they refer to a beef between rappers as ‘one pack of vicious blacks hates another,‘ which is pretty fuckin’ awful. Definitely not a thing to defend.
Finally, if you dig into this, one of the band members, Peter Minack, performed under the stage name Ron Hitler Barassi, which is a stage name that makes people blink and go huh, what? The notable thing is that it’s a rugby joke (Ron Barassi), coupled with the fact that Minack was grappling most of his life with knowing that his grandfather fought for the Germans in World War 2.
Okay, what other stuff in the content warning… oh, they worked with Derren Hinch? The band does a lot of stuff with self-loathing? This album comes with a rock opera they made called 2pot Screama, which is not only terrible, but also uses a lot of adolescent racism that, while very true to the venacular of Australian teenagers, is awful?
They hate – hate – Australia’s conservative commentary class, but they also hate the idea of people turning to pop stars for their insights into the world, for their spiritual or moral values. This meant they deliberately gave extremely bad answers to these ideas, and made a point to treat that kind of question with disdain. So on the one hand, they refer to John Laws and Alan Jones as subhumans (good), and treat Moby (remember Moby?) as an idiot, but on the other, they’re pretty god damn dismissive of whether they should be listened to, either.
Okay, got you braced, I hope.
What’s so good about this album, alright. Why this, and not tism.wanker.com, or just focusing on one of my favourite songs like Thunderbirds Are Coming Out. This album, this album specifically.
First, the album is made to be listened to all at once, with a track listing that is about half songs and about half playing with the kind of stuff you can make in a recording studio. There’s some poetry, some recurrent narratives, and at one point, a three minute long silence. Some of those poems are really good, too – I like Moby Dickhead, The Young Vandal Extemporises, To Whom It May Concern and the positively amazing The Man From Popular Culture. The Man From Popular Culture describes the idea that a single person dropped by to check what you wanted popular culture to be and the conversation between this person and a normal, everyday Australian bloke and what he cares about.
Particularly, there’s this exchange:
Do you ever get the impression intellectuals laugh at you?
Couldn’t give a fuck, mate.
It has a joke that pays off in the last line which ripped me in half laughing.
I also really like Geniuses Are Turds:
Dylan Thomas was a pisshead!
Jackson Pollock was a prick!
Norman Mailer hates women!
It’s an end of season trip!
Heroes seem so from afar
But if you meet ’em, you’ll think twice
Genius is different from the rest of us
Most of us are nice
I think that a large part of what’s helped me rebuild myself through my life has been just having these poems and songs around with this sort of thoughtful disdain. I used to think it was important to be a genius, that my young brilliance demanded attention and my failure to become famous was a moral failing. This poem pointed out to me a lot of the famous geniuses I knew were arseholes and maybe there was something about the selection criteria we were working with.
As for the songs, the album opens with some great ones; If you’re not famous at fourteen, you’re finished opens with a quote from one of the hosts of a music TV show, Countdown, a sample from an Australian TV Show from 1987. they pulled Gavin Wood out of the mothballs to ask him, fifteen years later, to introduce their act on a song making fun of the idea of hype machines exactly like Countdown. Then you get Five Yards, which is a kind of list song that TISM loved (they revisted this style a lot). Ten Points for a Razor Scooter is another list song, kinda, with the idea of it being a sort of driving game about crashing into people on the road.
I’m not wild about Thou Shalt Not Britney Spear and I’m equally not wild about Fat Boy Slim Dusty – and I feel like explaining the titles or gimmicks of these songs is itself a kind of fun game. Thou Shalt Not Britney Spear is a redoing of To His Coy Mistress, a poem by Andrew Marvell from 1681, and Fat Boy Slim Dusty is a split reference between Fatboy Slim, a British DJ and Slim Dusty, an Australian country musician known for Bush Ballads. The song’s about how they felt about the basic, repetitive pop techno that was popular at the time, which I think more and more is about being mad that their techno style wasn’t being appreciated. TISM were often extremely proud of their ability to construct a good pop song, three minutes of interesting music, and then play around within that space.
Schoolies Week is another one of those Extremely Australian Songs – referencing an Australian phenomenon that kind of compares to spring break, I guess, where large numbers of freshly legally-adult teenagers head to their first event post-high school and make a mess of a single city every year. There’s X-Treme Sports Can Kiss My Arse, which concludes with a line that’s both brilliant and incredibly dated:
I think I’ll watch the footy
I know it’s not extreme
why take it to the max
when you can take it to the mean
That’s a really good math homework joke!
Probably my favourite song on this album is Fourteen Years In Rowville, which is about a part of Melbourne that was, at the time, poor and working class, and full of people who comparatively speaking, were seen as goons and yobs, in the ever-fancying urban landscape. They talk in a documentary about how all the hills around Rowville are houses bought with drug money, and the most interesting thing the dealers could buy is a nice yard and a place to sneer at Rowville.
This is also one of the most ‘unpackable’ TISM albums – the poems are all explained easily as poems, the narratives about extremely Australian moments kinda translate, and the fact it’s dated makes it easier to grasp as a thing from elsewhere. You don’t need to know about specific ad campaigns, or how loosely we use the word cunt in this culture.
If you want to check out TISM’s stuff, see if you like how they sound and figure you can dive into the obscure, citation-needed weirdness of the rest of their ouvre (which does include some of my favourite songs!), then this is a place to start.
Oh, and this is the Paddlepop Lion:
That should cover everything you need to know, right?
In a lot of ways the music that’s following me as an adult is music that’s mostly about not being over being a teenager, hm.