“Ooh, Aahh, Glenn McGrath” – Notes On The Birth of Uncool: How TISM Gatecrashed Melbourne Music

There’s never been a popular teenager yet who’s done rat’s with their life. It’s the fucking dorks that give it a real go. Glenn McGrath got 5 for 50 that day.The Parable Of Glenn McGrath’s Haircut, This Is Serious, Mum.

What follows is the email I sent to Digital Cuttlefish, around midnight, when I couldn’t get to sleep due to the time difference while staying in a hotel in Melbourne:

Linley has a tattoo. A tattoo about TISM.

I don’t have any tattoos, but I still don’t think I’d be brave enough to both get one and also show the band the tattoo that is about the band. If that makes any sense.

Linley is also brave enough to have previously spoken to TISM backstage at one of their gigs, while I took about thirty minutes to formulate a question and ask it during a lecture by one of the former frontmen of the band (occasionally others in the band would sing, but this was Humphrey B. Flaubert/Damian Cowell – who is now unmasked and doing his own work in his other bands) and I now regret that I didn’t get to speak to them earlier in my life, because their story is fascinating.

Let’s start at the beginning:

What is TISM?

They were a big influence on what I thought about music in my teenage years, with their very unique sound compared to the 80s and 90s bands that all my friends listened to (think “the soundtrack of Ghost“).

The lecture I attended was by one of the main singers Humphrey B. Flaubert/Damian Cowell (now unmasked and doing his own work in several bands).

I knew it’d be a fantastic presentation and I wasn’t disappointed – TISM are genuinely hard-working and talented musicians,  who produced something different in an time where only styles of pre-internet era music was present in music during the Melbourne 1980s – which according to Damien Cowell, could be best summed up as:


When you’re the kind of band who starts up indoor soccer teams (not that indoor soccer teams are cool over here) with names like “Entropy is an unforgiving force”, then you can expect to be the kind of band who does NOT fit into either one of those categories.

I also learned (afterwards) about a band called “Can” – and how influential they were on the music scene at the time (particularly with the “Wankers”) and how happy Cowell was that the listening audience had no idea who they were. Not that TISM particularly cared about the feelings of the people who worshiped “Can”, because TISM were quite happy to be very rude to a lot of artists of the era, sometimes leading to litigious issues and their book (which I still have a copy of somewhere) being heavily censored with Chinagraph pencil blacking out entire passages.

More Of a Concept Than a Band? “Get fucked. We were a band. We had no planned campaign.”

TISM decided to find their own way of doing an interesting rock-and-roll show, rather than the overtly-serious “by the rule book” bands (“even ‘rebels’ within music had to be ‘rebels within the rule book expectations of what makes rebels’, which means they weren’t even rebels in any sense at all”).

Why should bands stop between songs and explain the songs, like every other band did? To them that meant you had a shit song where it wasn’t bloody obvious what it was about.

And who gives a damn if a song is “about your ex-boyfriend”? Why not sing about something intellectually stimulating that reflected your learning and understanding of the world and had some punch to it?

  • So, instead they held up signs during the songs with the title of the next song.
  • And they wore masks. And costumes that disguised them completely. All the time. Upon hearing a bunch of guys praising their work while at the beach, they couldn’t simply turn around and say “that was me!” – because no one knew them. That also meant they could see the opening act without costumes on, because no one knew that they were in the crowd along with the audience.
  • And then they’d stand on the stage after a gig finished – and just drink beer while staring at the confused audience.
  • Or start the gig from the back of the hall instead of on the stage.
  • Or have two completely masked bands, both the same, both playing TISM songs and no indication as to which one was the real band.
  • Or do a music video where a dozen other Melbourne bands pretended to be performing the song that was playing – and the real band only appeared at the very end as the music stopped.

Or when music in the 1990s did this:

Wankers merged with Yobs = GRUNGE

Then turned to dance music – using electronica, samples and drum machines. Why? Because it wasn’t goddamned grunge, in a new music era that they found more pretentious than ever …

…And this is coming from a band who would only give interviews doing things like using a tape-recorder that played John and Yoko quotes…

…or would only answer questions through a megaphone using Satre passages…

…or got thrown off a NZ breakfast show by saying “Do you think Simone de Beauvoir had to change Satre’s pants when he pissed himself?” as the hipster TISM-shirt wearing hosts stared at them aghast…

…or insisted that they’d only answer questions if the journalist beat them at table-tennis – and then got a national champion at table tennis to wear a TISM costume to turn up to the interview, leaving the journalist without a single quote.

TISM were surprised how much the media hated and ignored them, because they thought at least they were more interesting than other bands who did dull things like talk about what their music meant. They even had Rolling Stone only review the opening act rather than their show.

It’s during the 90s that they did music that I’m more fond of, although some of their earlier stuff I enjoy too. Compare their Saturday Night Palsy to Thunderbirds Are Coming Out and you’ll hear their 80s/90s eras of music in comparison.

The question I asked was about how they clearly didn’t have a connection with the Australian music scene – but did they connect with the Australian comedy scene, which was booming during that time? Apparently no – they didn’t really associate with them either, although they admired the likes of Tony Martin. That intrigued me, as it was mostly due to my fondness for Melbourne comedy that I first got to hear about TISM. For me, Tim Minchin is definitely a flow-on from the likes of TISM, the same way the Doug Anthony All Stars were contemporaries.

I’ll post a link to the recording of the talk when it is out, but you can hear other talks on that iTunes link too – Damien Cowell has a beautiful, poetic flowing tone when presenting and since he (and many other of the band members of TISM, in fact, which was revealed years later the band ended – they always did tour around school holiday times!) is a high school teacher – I think that he must have been an excellent lecturer then too.

In fact, I noticed a comment on one of the YouTube videos of a TISM performance recently about Cowell’s costumed performance:

That was my Year 10 Media teacher. I’m not surprised.

Big thanks to Linley for hanging out with me during the lecture, TISM and all the fellow TISM fans I met – and to the Melbourne Free University for the lecture.

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