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”.
It wasn’t always this way, though. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, TISM upended the musical status quo thanks to 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 pure essence of what made TISM so enigmatic and essential.
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’ would manage to become enough for TISM to get their foot in the door of the local music scene. One of their most popular tracks to date, it would later feature on their debut EP, Form And Meaning Reach Ultimate Communion, just months later as a hidden ‘country & western’ version, before appearing on their 1988 album, Great Truckin’ Songs Of The Renaissance, in a similarly re-recorded fashion.
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 an abrasive and short 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 notably 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)
Having already shown fans just what they were capable of, the band’s second single was somewhat more reflective than their earlier work. Gone were the prominent outrageous lyrics and rock instrumentation, and in its place stood a nihilistic reflection on life and mortality.
The result was a track that still combined a then-uncharacteristically sombre TISM discussing the fact that our collective lifecycles amount to what is basically “40 years of livin’, then death”. Its rather contrasting appearance also continued over to the physical representation of the single as well. While ‘Defecate On My Face’ might have been an exercise in creative packaging, ‘40 Years – Then Death’ went in the opposite direction, 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)
Over on the flipside of ‘40 Years – Then Death’, fans were treated to one of TISM’s finest moments. Originally appearing on the band’s 1985 demo tape, ‘The Back Upon Which Jezza Jumped’ was a strange beast in the group’s oeuvre, but a monumental one nonetheless. Shining a light on Graeme ‘Jerker’ Jenkin (the forgotten half of Alex 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 repeated question of “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”. Another firm favourite for fans of TISM, its popularity has endured, which is relatively impressive considering that despite its release as a single, it was only available on CD and cassette versions of the original album.
TISM – ‘I’ll ‘Ave Ya’
6. ‘(He’ll Never Be An) ‘Ol Man River’, Machiavelli And The Four Seasons (1995)
If Aussie music fans were to only know one solitary TISM song, it would be this one. A classic example of TISM’s modus operandi of combining aggressive music with lyrics that are as sharp as ever and typically cutting towards pop culture, ‘(He’ll Never Be An) ‘Ol Man River’ was a brutal takedown of celebrity worship, using the then-recent passing of River Phoenix as its focus.
Though the iconic opening line of “I’m on the drug that killed River Phoenix” might live 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 in favour of its catchy nature. In a slightly ironic twist, it just goes to show that TISM were on the right track all along.
7. ‘What Nationality Is Les Murray?’, Machiavelli And The Four Seasons (1995)
Nestled in the halfway point of 1995’s Machiavelli And The Four Seasons, ‘What Nationality is Les Murray?’ saw TISM simply ask the titular question of the SBS soccer broadcaster. Feeling like an in-joke that soon got out of hand in the practice room, it 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 as the correct answer. But when TISM managed to win 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, simply 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 simply see the narrator take the plunge from simply being a ‘cunt’, to becoming the titular ‘fucking cunt’.
Complemented by a sample from The Singing Nun’s ‘Dominique’, the track’s success was however overshadowed by its surrounding publicity. Not only did then-RSL President Bruce Ruxton denounce the song as dropping Australia’s collective standards into “the proverbial sewer”, but its accompanying music video (itself 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)
When TISM’s www.tism.wanker.com was issued in June of 1998, initial copies were packaged with a bonus disc featuring a handful of album outtakes, diatribes, and low-quality recordings. As the disc came to a close, it was the uncharacteristically sweet ‘Ya Gotta Love That’ that closed out the group’s ‘90s output.
Built around smooth vocals and soft-ambient instrumentation, it’s a mellow number which 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, too: “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 AC/DC’s 1981 song of the same name. Having originally been recorded for an unreleased AC/DC cover album back in 1995, the track was shelved, with snippets being leaked out in the world in the ensuing years.
Notably serving as the group’s only recorded cover version, it felt like a rather fitting return for the iconic Australian group. After all, only a band like TISM could make a comeback with an esoteric cover of a classic rock song like this. 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 ostensible dream.