When Melbourne’s TISM quietly exited stage-left after performing their final show at Earthcore festival in November 2004, Australian music lost its dangerous undercurrent. It was an understated valedictory to one of the country’s most enigmatic and exhilarating musical careers, but it was on-brand for the group to say goodbye before a crowd comprising hardly any of their diehard fanbase.
Fast-forward to the present day and TISM are back, ending years of rumours, innuendo, and side-projects to announce their inclusion on the Good Things lineup alongside Bring Me The Horizon, Deftones, and NOFX. As vocalist Ron Hitler-Barassi told Music Feeds in June, after almost two decades away, the group are now “beloved”. “And what’s the difference?” he questioned, “only the passing of time”.
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It wasn’t always this way, though. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, TISM upended the musical status quo with a previously-unseen combination of literacy, energy, and anarchy. The band’s songs crammed references to Victorian pop culture, AFL footballers, and long-dead literary figures into a single breath, while just about anything could happen during one of their routinely chaotic live shows.
Given the band’s imminent return to the stage, as well as a forthcoming compilation of singles, it’s time to take a walk down memory lane with ten tracks that capture the essence of what made TISM so singular.
1. ‘Defecate On My Face’, Great Truckin’ Songs Of The Renaissance (1986)
The track that started it all for TISM, ‘Defecate On My Face’ was an inaccessible piece of music – by all definitions – from the get-go. Issued as the band’s first single, it was released as a 7” vinyl in a 12” sleeve with all four sides of the record glued shut. Once fans hacked their way into the single, they were met with a melodic rumination on the alleged sexual relationship between Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun.
Despite the less-than-commercial subject matter, ‘Defecate On My Face’ was enough for TISM to get their foot in the door of the local music scene. A “country & western” version of ‘Defecate On My Face’ would later feature as a hidden track on the band’s debut EP, Form And Meaning Reach Ultimate Communion, before being re-recorded again for their 1988 album, Great Truckin’ Songs Of The Renaissance.
2. ‘Death Death Death’, B-Side to ‘Defecate On My Face’ (1986)
When TISM fans flipped over the group’s debut single, they were greeted by two vastly-different tracks. One, dubbed ‘The Art/Income Dialectic’, was a short, abrasive diatribe from vocalist Ron Hitler-Barassi, while the other was ‘Death Death Death’, a soon-to-be live favourite built around a grand total of 14 unique words.
Across three minutes of increasing intensity, TISM share lyrical pairings of unfortunate notions: bruises/cuts, giblets/guts, torture/rack, slaughter/attack, before underlining their punchline of sorts in the chorus, “Death death death, Amway, Amway, Amway”. Though the multi-level marketing company isn’t as popular now as it once was, the group had to redact the company’s name for legal reasons when printing lyrics in their sole publication, The TISM Guide To Little Aesthetics.
3. ’40 Years – Then Death’, Great Truckin’ Songs Of The Renaissance (1987)
TISM’s second single was somewhat more reflective than their earlier work. Gone were the outrageous lyrics and rock instrumentation, and in their place a nihilistic reflection on life and mortality. ‘40 Years – Then Death’ finds a sombre-sounding TISM discussing the fact that our collective lifecycles amount to what is basically “40 years of livin’, then death”.
The band’s penchant for creative packaging continued with ‘40 Years – Then Death’, which was released on a 12” record with no mention of the band’s name at all.
4. ‘The Back Upon Which Jezza Jumped’, B-Side to ’40 Years – Then Death’ (1987)
The B-side to ‘40 Years – Then Death’ is one of TISM’s finest moments. Originally appearing on the band’s 1985 demo tape, ‘The Back Upon Which Jezza Jumped’ shines a light on Graeme ‘Jerker’ Jenkin, the forgotten half of Alex ‘Jezza’ Jesaulenko’s iconic mark in the 1970 AFL Grand Final. It’s an esoteric composition from the start, and it only gets better from there.
Built around a slow-burning instrumental comprising atmospheric synths, tribal rhythms, deft saxophone, and blistering guitar, the question, “Is Jerker dead?”, echoes throughout as Ron Hitler-Barassi spits increasingly-furious invective, underlining the legacies of life’s also-rans. Never has sport been more visceral and powerful away from the field.
5. ‘I’ll ‘Ave Ya’, Hot Dogma (1990)
Released as part of a double A-side to promote the group’s second album, ‘I’ll ‘Ave Ya’ was the yin to the more serious yang of ‘I Don’t Want TISM I Want A Girlfriend’. Though 1990’s Hot Dogma occupies a divisive place in the heart of many fans, ‘I’ll ‘Ave Ya’ remains a highlight of an otherwise spotty album.
As brief as it is brilliant, the single looks towards the physical attributes needed for the average blue-collar suburbanite to declare, “I’ll ‘ave ya”.
TISM – ‘I’ll ‘Ave Ya’
6. ‘(He’ll Never Be An) Ol’ Man River’, Machiavelli And The Four Seasons (1995)
If there’s one TISM song that all Aussie music fans know, it’s this one. ‘(He’ll Never Be An) Ol’ Man River’ is a brutal takedown of celebrity worship, using the then-recent passing of River Phoenix as its focus.
Though the iconic opening line, “I’m on the drug that killed River Phoenix,” might live on in infamy (to the point where the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea reportedly challenged the band to a fistfight), the track’s deeper subject matter has often been overlooked.
7. ‘What Nationality Is Les Murray?’, Machiavelli And The Four Seasons (1995)
At the halfway point of 1995’s Machiavelli And The Four Seasons, TISM ask the question: what nationality is SBS soccer broadcaster Les Murray? Although it feels like an in-joke that got out of hand in the practice room, the song takes on a life of its own on record, bolstered by a thick bassline, slide guitar, samples of Murray himself, and Humphrey B. Flaubert’s impressive recitation of numerous country names.
Notably, though, he overlooks Hungary, the correct answer. But when TISM won the ARIA for Best Alternative Release, it was Murray himself who accepted the award. Taking to the stage, he addressed the crowd in his native Hungarian, telling the crowd: “When the revolution comes, the music industry will be the first to go.”
8. ‘I Might Be A Cunt, But I’m Not A Fucking Cunt’, www.tism.wanker.com (1998)
If ‘Defecate On My Face’ was once viewed as the peak of TISM’s controversy, the second single from 1998’s www.tism.wanker.com looked to rewrite the history books. Reworking a George Clooney line from From Dusk Till Dawn, the single is simple in its composition – stating where the line is, and noting that crossing it would cause the narrator to take the plunge from being a “cunt” to a “fucking cunt”.
Featuring a sample from The Singing Nun’s ‘Dominique’, the track’s success was overshadowed by its surrounding publicity. Not only did RSL President Bruce Ruxton denounce the song as dropping Australia’s collective standards into “the proverbial sewer”, but its accompanying music video (a parody of the infamous Mimi Macpherson sex tape) was deemed so explicit that it made it to air just once.
9. ‘Ya Gotta Love That’, Att: Shock Records Faulty Pressing Do Not Manufacture (1998)
Copies of www.tism.wanker.com were initially packaged with a bonus disc featuring a handful of album outtakes, diatribes, and low-quality recordings. The disc came to a close with the uncharacteristically sweet ‘Ya Gotta Love That’.
Built around smooth vocals and soft instrumentation, it’s a mellow number that focuses on life’s small victories, whether it be discovering cheap petrol, getting a seat on the wing of a plane, or being told “it’s only a lump”. It wraps up with a small bit of self-awareness from the group: “your band writes a slow track and some people like it / Ya gotta love that”.
10. ‘For Those About To Rock’, Single (2020)
When TISM ended their lengthy silence in 2020, it was with the release of ‘For Those About To Rock’, their long-delayed cover of the AC/DC song from 1981. It was originally recorded for an AC/DC covers album back in 1995, but the track was shelved, with snippets leaking out in the ensuing years.
It’s the group’s only recorded cover version to date and it felt like a fitting return for the iconic group. After all, only a band like TISM could make a comeback with an esoteric cover of a classic rock song. Maybe AC/DC had always planned to pair their single with poetry by Lord George Byron and audio from the Noble Park Youth Club in 1977. We’ll never know, but TISM’s return helped to actualise that alternate reality.