For a lot of the music-loving public, the first time they heard of TISM was in June of 1995, when a controversial CD single appeared on shelves. The cover featured a grey headstone with the birth and death dates of actor River Phoenix, who had died just two years earlier.
At the top of the cover were the words ‘(He’ll Never Be An) Ol’ Man River’, while the name TISM was written below.
While plenty may have been shocked at what seemed like an almost cruel mockery of the actor’s passing, countless others would have recognised this as just another chapter in the life of Melbourne’s TISM, who had released their third full-length album – Machiavelli And The Four Seasons – only one month prior.
Check out TISM’s ‘(He’ll Never Be An) Ol’ Man River’:
By this point, TISM (formally known as This Is Serious Mum) were well-known amongst participants of the Aussie music scene, with their live shows and recordings being considered vital by anyone who had the privilege of experiencing them.
Above it all though, TISM were… odd. First, there was the aesthetic aspect. The group’s members were known to disguise themselves while in public, using both over the top costumes and pop culture-referencing pseudonyms.
Frequently – and most famously – using balaclavas as their trademark look, this desire to hide their faces saw them utilising all manner of outfits, whether it was newspaper Ku Klux Klan outfits (à la the Residents, whose influence was instantly recognisable), suits which saw them mimic obese businessmen, or headdresses which featured the names of members of the Beatles.
Check out TISM on Hey Hey It’s Saturday:
Then, there was the music. Rising to fame within the pub-rock scene, TISM’s music appealed to their core demographic thanks to their often-underrated musicianship, memorable choruses, and enticingly-controversial subject matter. However, there was an almost paradoxical sense of literacy to their music as well.
After all, this was a band who would frequently play music to rowdy, beer-soaked crowds eager for no-frills pub-rock, and would deliver songs which referenced – to use 1986’s ‘Mistah Eliot – He Wanker’ as an example – T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Joseph Conrad, and the modernist poetic movement.
To put it simply, it wasn’t exactly the sort of subject matter you’d expect to hear pumping out of a speaker stack at Richmond’s Corner Hotel in the ’80s.
Check out TISM’s ‘Mistah Eliot – He Wanker’:
Then there was their public image and infamous antics. While the group were known to antagonise the press during interviews (famously going along with a Rolling Stone reporter’s request for an interview by dressing him in a wetsuit and responding with pre-recorded songs), their live shows extended this outlandish behaviour, with gigs featuring TISM impersonators, an onstage wedding, and countless mystified attendees.
Meanwhile, their studio releases were just as intriguing, jarring, or lawsuit-inducing. Of course, there was their infamous debut single (a 7-inch record in a 12-inch sleeve with all sides glued shut), their Great Truckin’ Songs of the Renaissance debut album (one record featuring songs, the other featuring live diatribes, interview snippets, and other odds and ends), and their Australia the Lucky Cunt EP (whose satirical artwork was deemed so inflammatory by Ken Done that copies were ripped from the shelves before being reissued as Censored Due to Legal Advice).
So the question remains then, how did this group, whose relationship with the public was as erratic as possible, and who had no right to be as successful as they were, craft one of the most enigmatic and iconic Australian albums of the ’90s?
Check out TISM’s ‘Greg!! The Stop Sign!!’:
Following the release of TISM’s second album – the ever-divisive Hot Dogma – in 1990, things were looking a little rough for the group. Having been dropped by their record due to mounting debt and increasingly-excessive requests, fans of the band had to wait until 1992 for new music, with the Tony Cohen-produced The Beasts Of Suburban mini-album preceding 1993’s Australia the Lucky Cunt EP.
While these releases showcased TISM’s efforts during their “mid-period” and showed a somewhat sleeker example of their rock-based compositions, things were beginning to take shape in a somewhat different manner behind the scenes.
According to the liner notes of Machiavelli And The Four Seasons, early recordings for the record had been made as far back as December of 1992, before the group refocused their efforts 13 months later. A computer virus (“acting on behalf of good taste everywhere”) soon reduced these sessions to nil, and by August of 1994, the group had taken their new compositions to the live stage.
Testing out these new tracks under pseudonyms such as Late For Breakfast, and the memorable Frank Vitkovic Jazz Quartet, TISM’s live performances gave fans a taster of the record that would be named Machiavelli And The Four Seasons (another pseudonym used for their secret shows), and eventually released on May 1st, 1995.
To the surprise of almost everyone, the record entered the ARIA charts close to a month after its release, eventually peaking at #8 on June 11th. Somehow, TISM had gone mainstream without ever trying to.
Before long, the run of singles began. Lead single ‘(He’ll Never Be An) Ol’ Man River’ was arguably the most popular and notable, with its initial artwork featuring the titular River Phoenix’s headstone soon being replaced by a more palatable image of pills.
The Beach Boys-influenced ‘Greg! The Stop Sign!!’ followed, with its influence lasting far longer than the TAC ad campaign that inspired it, while the often-overlooked ‘Garbage’ followed in 1996. A promotional version of ‘All Homeboys Are Dickheads’ found its way into the public that same year, though its lack of wider release hampered any chance of success.
The album itself though was far beyond what many fans of TISM had been expecting up to this point. Much the same way that Regurgitator would subvert expectations with Unit just a few years later, TISM’s latest effort saw the group ditching their traditional rock sound, and instead utilising synthesisers and electronic instruments in abundance.
Although the music may have been deemed as somewhat inaccessible to a TISM traditionalist, even the record’s packaging seemed to serve as an attempt to deflect any potential success it might have brought with it.
The TISM name was absent from the album’s front cover, and featured only the record’s title, and a repurposed image of forgotten American group the Hollywood Argyles. Their clean-cut image and the record’s title evoked images of acts such as Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, with even the record’s track-listing furthering this theme, containing nothing but tracks titled ‘I Love You Baby’, or some variation thereof.
In fact, to help get the record over the line, stickers had to be affixed to the front to remind potential customers that “this is actually a TISM release”, a move which likely contradicted the band’s apparent attempt to ensure the record went undiscovered by anyone seeking it.
Once folks got the album home though, it was a different story. It was classic TISM from the get-go, with the opening lines (“I’m on the drug that killed River Phoenix“) instantly reminding fans (and infuriating Phoenix’s friends, the Red Hot Chili Peppers) that despite the group’s new fascination with electronic instrumentation, it was still the same band they had always known and loved.
As the record continued, the biting social commentary and satire was in abundance. ‘Garbage’ pointed out a fascination of newer artists recycling classic rock, while ‘Lose Your Delusion II’ described the apparent abandonment of traditional news journalism in favour of infotainment.
Meanwhile, tracks like ‘Jung Talent Time’ (which had appeared in remixed form months before the album itself) pointed out celebrities (including the likes of TISM, Fairlie Arrow, and a bright pair of newcomers called Bros) who had overstayed their 15 minutes of fame, while ‘Give Up For Australia’ mixed Norman May’s commentary at the Moscow Olympics with The Birthday Party’s ‘Sonny’s Burning’ to create a scathing attack on Australia’s mediocrity on the world stage.
Of course, while pop culture-referencing lyrics and tongue-in-cheek lyrics are usually the headline when it comes to TISM’s works, their musical prowess is often criminally-overlooked. While late guitarist James Paull (Tokin’ Blackman) was a master of the six-string, so too was bassist Jack Holt (Jock Cheese), whose impressive work can be seen in the opening of ‘Aussiemandias’.
However, one of the group’s most impressive tracks was ultimately left off the album. While promotional copies included a track called ‘Russia’, the commercially-released version excluded this version, reportedly due to legal advice stemming from the inclusion of lyrics from The Beatles’ ‘Back In The U.S.S.R.’.
While it would later be shared online in its original form, and released on iTunes under the name ‘The Last Soviet Star’ with the offending lyrics removed, the track arguably sees TISM at their lyrical and musical best. Whether it’s the rhythmic bassline that flows through the whole track or the dreamy guitarwork that would work perfectly as an instrumental, it’s TISM at their musical finest.
Then, there’s the lyrics. Disregard the impressive ability to seamlessly weave in references to Kazakhstanskaya or Serpukhov, but lines such as “In Kheta, past the Arctic line, I’m an anachronism/I was a good idea at the time, just like communism” are delivered with such casualness that they almost completely fly under the radar.
It’s rare for one of the band’s most impressive efforts to be left on the cutting room floor, and makes you wonder what else might have been left behind along the way.
Check out TISM’s ‘Russia’:
Ultimately, Machiavelli And The Four Seasons ended up being one of TISM’s most successful releases. By 1996, the record had sold enough copies to go Gold, prompting a reissue of the record with a bonus disc of B-sides and spoken-word diatribes.
Later, their performance at the Collingwood Town Hall again saw the album reissued once again, this time packaged with a live disc titled Machines Against The Rage. In keeping with the original album’s theme, all track titles were labelled as some variation of ‘The Shit Thing’.
By the time the ARIA Awards came around, TISM were again up for recognition. Though they’d won their first ARIA in 1989, and had been nominated again in 1993, the success of the record saw the group nominated for Best Independent Release in 1995, and again in 1996 for the same award thanks to ‘Greg! The Stop Sign!!’.
The group ended up winning the former award, ultimately sending SBS sports broadcaster Les Murray (the namesake of their track ‘What Nationality is Les Murray?’) to collect the spoils on their behalf.
At the ceremony, Murray gave an acceptance speech in his native Hungarian which drew a mixture of surprise and applause from those in attendance. In true TISM fashion though, the speech was a jab at those in attendance, with Murray plainly stating “when the revolution happens, the music industry will be the first to go”.
Check out Les Murray accepting TISM’s ARIA Award:
In 2014, TISM’s Damian Cowell (Humphrey B. Flaubert) gave a retrospective lecture on TISM’s history and how they unexpectedly managed to break into the Melbourne music scene. During this event, Cowell recognised the group’s success, but as is almost expected by this point, downplayed their legacy somewhat, labelling them “a trivial footnote in Melbourne popular culture”.
Throughout their history, TISM were never a band who had grand plans of what the future would hold. In fact, while Cowell notes that the the group was “product of its time and place in that we were completely out of time and out of place”, TISM’s ultimate goal was never to wreak havoc on the Australian music scene with their music, disguises, or behaviour.
Rather, their actions were based upon whatever they felt was characteristically appropriate for each situation they found themselves in. When River Phoenix died, the group never planned to write a hit single based around his death, rather, they simply wrote a song that mocked celebrity worship. Its success was welcome, no doubt, but unexpected all the same.
Check out TISM at the ARIA Awards:
Once the mainstream hype that surrounded TISM slowly faded away, the band’s core supporters and newfound fans maintained their fondness of the group and their subsequent releases. Though 2001’s De Rigueurmortis would reach #24 on the ARIA chart, the group would never again reach the top ten or boast an album with a hit single.
But the damage was done. The group’s legacy was guaranteed, and even now – almost 16 years on from their silent split – TISM are regarded as legends by their fans, and mystifying by their critics.
Their influence still shines today though. While acts such as The Bennies have cited TISM as a major influence, Cowell can occasionally be seen fronting Damian Cowell’s Disco Machine, and bassist Jack Holt can be found fronting his newly-formed outfit, The Collaborators.
Outside of this though, the group continue to make headlines from time to time. While a Victorian MP floated the idea of a TISM freeway in 2019, this year saw the group’s music finally hit Spotify, with a live album – their first official release in 15 years – hitting streaming services last month.
As TISM themselves said in ‘Lose Your Delusion’, “Oh, how time does unnerve us“. While no one at the time could have expected Machiavelli And The Four Seasons to become the surprising hit it was, and the defining moment in the career of band to whom success seemed inappropriate, there’s no denying the fact that 25 years on, TISM’s third album remains the classic release its creators never thought it would be.