TISM

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Our thanks to a reader named Rallan for reminding us about TISM, a band that actually had a fairly large following in Australia in the ’90s and early ’00s but is mainly famous back here in the States for pissing off the Red Hot Chili Peppers. More on that in a bit.

TISM (short for This Is Serious, Mum) formed in the early ’80s, when New Wave was in the air and college kids all over the globe were discovering The Residents. Such a group of college kids, supposedly, was TISM, although the members all insisted on wearing masks and keeping their identities secret, so details of their origins remain a bit sketchy. What we do know is that they began playing clubs around Melbourne by about 1985 or so, and in 1986 they released their first song, a jaunty little DEVO-esque number called “Defecate on My Face” sung from the perspective of Adolph Hitler, who supposedly enjoyed a little scat play with his mistress Eva Braun every now and then.

TISM’s music got poppier over the course of their next several albums, but their trademark balaclava masks (usually white, occasionally black or some more elaborate variation, like puffy silver spaceman outfits) remained, as did their knack for controversy. Their 1993 EP, Australia the Lucky Cunt, had to be recalled because its festive, childlike cover drawing of a koala with a syringe in its mouth supposedly bore too close of a resemblance to the artwork of Ken Done, a famous Australian artist whose, as far as we can tell, would have to sue every third grader on the planet to keep his work from being imitated. (Australia the Lucky Cunt was reissued as Censored Due to Legal Advice).

In 1995, they released their most famous single, “(He’ll Never Be an) Ol’ Man River,” better known by its opening refrain, “I’m on the drug that killed River Phoenix.” The song’s irreverent tone offended quite a few people, including Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, a friend of the late River Phoenix, who depending on which version you believe, either challenged TISM to a fight, threatened to kill them, or maybe even tried to sue them. Among their other songs that have offended various people, or at least tried to: “I Might Be a Cunt, But I’m Not a Fucking Cunt,” “If You’re Not Famous at Fourteen, You’re Finished” and “Death, Death, Death, Amway, Amway, Amway.”

Throughout their career, TISM were famous for punking both the media and their own fans, doing things like playing three-minute concerts and forcing reporters to don scuba gear before interviewing them. They used their masks and secret identities not only to maintain their air of mystique, but to downplay the usual trappings of being in a popular rock band (and they were popular—their 1995 album, Machiavelli and the Four Seasons, was certified gold in Australia and won the ARIA Award, Down Under’s version of the Grammys, for Best Independent Release). They allowed rumors to circulate that they had all maintained their day jobs (for awhile, it was widely believed they were all schoolteachers, because they’d only tour during school vacations) and routinely talked shit about the record industry. When they did appear on television, they might, say, perform their biggest hit on traditional Greek instruments.

Sadly, TISM broke up in 2004. Their swan song appears to have been a sunny piece of power-pop called “Everyone Else Has Had More Sex Than Me.” Since then, most of the former TISM members have laid low, with the exception of the band’s singer/drummer, Humphrey B. Flaubert (real name: Damian Cowell), who has gone on to form not one, but two bands: an alt-country combo called ROOT!, and a rock trio called the DC3 whose first single was called “I Was the Guy in TISM.” Also, the band’s guitarist, James “Tokin’ Blackman” Paull, died of cancer in 2008. Wonder if he was buried in his mask?

TISM left behind a slew of music videos and concert clips, having released something like six different video compilations over the course of their career. And while their live performances are nearly always pretty eye-grabbing, we felt this 1998 music video for “Whatareya?” shows the band at their silly, pop-culture-slagging best.

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