Monday, January 26, 2009

Laughing Clowns - Secret Legends

Ten wildly subjective reasons why they could be your favourite band.

1) Possessions (from Law of Nature LP, 1984): In the vein of their sort-of-hit "Sometimes", something approaching a soul stomper given the Clowns treatment. A pretty good little song given a touch of greatness via a piano part contributed by Chris Abrahams. His heavily percussive one-note figure in the outro is a fascinating early snapshot of the style he currently deploys to such devastating effect in The Necks.

2) Peter Milton Walsh (bass player on Law of Nature): When he joined the Clowns, Walsh had already released music as bandleader of The Apartments and Out of Nowhere (an intriguing post-Clowns exploration whose lone single featured Jeffrey Wegener on drums). So why is this notable? Walsh went on to release four LPs with a resurrected Apartments, exquisitely crafted meditations on the transience of glamour and the poignancy of ordinary lives that mark him out as one of the very finest classical songwriters this country has ever produced. Great tunes, too. With depressing inevitability, this means that his body of work has been even more unfathomably overlooked & undervalued than Ed Kuepper's. No mean feat. Anyway, for me this is the equivalent of having Dylan play bass in the Beatles - and it's some pretty great bass-playing, too.

3) Collapse Board (from Laughing Clowns 3 EP, 1980): A live staple, Kuepper recently referred to this as "the most depressing song ever written", and he has a point. A half-speed dirge with lyrics about a condemned man's last hours, it goes on forever and has a number of false endings to trick the unwary listener into thinking that the surging misery has relented. Towards the end, Kuepper compresses the chorus ("then you are standing on the collapse board again") into "board again" - it sounds a lot like "bored again", as though he is taunting any audience members who might be finding this trip a little difficult to endure. Not just an excercise in audience alienation, it is also an incredibly powerful piece of music that features some of the band's most impressive ensemble playing.

4) Jeffrey Wegener: The post-punk Gene Krupa? Perhaps you mightn't have thought that sounded a particularly good idea, but watching him play will quickly convince you otherwise. Actually, there's more to Wegener's style than any glib "jazz virtuosity-meets-punk energy" formulation. He is a genuine original, and uniquely expressive behind a kit. Onstage he displays a perfect mix of aggression and intelligence - watching him in full flight is simply incredible. There aren't too many bands where your gaze will be glued to the drummer, only affording an occasional glance at the singer/guitarist. In the olden days they used to set him up down the front of the stage, a practice I hope they resurrect at some point in the near future. It's a funny observation, but I'm not sure there's ever been another band where the drummer made such an irreplaceable contribution to the sound. Back playing again after a long absence from the scene, every chance to hear him perform is a gift.

5) Lucky Days (from Laughing Clowns 1979 ep): This is one of my favourites - the awesome grinding guitar intro builds to a skronky sax peak before the song veers off somewhere else entirely, all in the first 40 seconds. A Clowns song is often four songs, but not in a nasty prog way - these are masterpieces of compressed narrative and dynamic agility, brilliantly-constructed puzzles that are constantly subverting the listener's expectations about the kind of song they're hearing. It's all held together with a unique mix of audacious structures and inspired musicianship (with a dash of bloody-mindedness). After 4 years with their 3Cd collected works, I am still discovering new ways to listen to the songs - every so often a new one "clicks" and I love the band even more.

(While I think this process of "discovering" the songs is partly a question of the listener's commitment and readiness to appreciate unorthodox structures, perhaps it is also worth recalling that many of these songs were built for live performance - and while the often lo-fi recording does bring an appealing sense of murk and gloom, it might sometimes obscure some of their more propulsive and energetic qualities. "Come One, Come All" is a song that suddenly makes perfect sense after recently seeing a spirited live version).

6) Bob Farrell: The original Clowns sax player, responsible for some of the most thrillingly evil moments on their early records. Supported their recent GOMA show with a enjoyably bewildering set of meandering poetry and expansively simple piano (with a bit of sax in the middle).

7) New Bully In The Town (from Ghosts of an Ideal Wife LP, 1985): 3:53 of extraordinary, high-energy blues. Maybe the most straightforward Clowns track of all from their final and most uncomplicatedly rocking album. It still ventures nowhere near cliche, thanks in particular to a stunning, elegiac piano motif from Louis Tillett (another super-high quality Clowns sideman) and Wegener's tirelessly skittering drums, a masterclass in sustained excitement. Kudos too to Kuepper's droll, literate take on blues braggadocio. Is this the only Clowns song without horns? Made a triumphant return at the GOMA show with Louise Elliot playing flute - still extraordinary.

8) An air of mystery: I dunno, for a long time you really had to want to like this band. Just as there are poor fools out there who think the Sex Pistols were a better group than Public Image Limited, the Clowns' origins in the aftermath of the Saints split has unfavourably influenced their reception by the public at large - I've met a fair few people who saw them back in the day and regarded them as some kind of abomination, a fact that I find both frustrating and kind of cool. Maybe because of this ill-feeling, much of the back catalogue spent a long time out of print - and even when rereleased it hasn't enjoyed excellent distribution. In terms of secondary materials, there are a handful of live recordings, some photographs and that's pretty much it. The histories that do mention the Clowns have alluded to drug-fueled personality clashes and there were certainly a number of line-up changes, but the details are pretty hazy - and I kind of like it that way.

When the book comes out I'll read it, but in this era of obsessive documentation there is also something special about the spaces where your imagination is allowed free reign; I also enjoy the way that the lack of a "cult of personality" means that the music is allowed to be the most important thing, the properly enduring legacy.

Perhaps these are the final days of the Clowns' spectral existence, with the great reception for their reformation suggesting history might be ready to provide them with their rightful accolades. That's a good thing too. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds did something fantastic in getting the Clowns back together and providing such a magnificent stage for their return - the second-best thing about their comeback has been seeing and hearing about new converts to this remarkable group.

9) Louise Elliot's playing on Eternally Yours (1984 single): A song that continues to bewitch 25 years after it first appeared - I currently have 10 versions of this song on my iPod and they are all worth listening to. There are probably a dozen more floating about on both official releases and bootlegs - Died Pretty did a version, Nick Cave was rumoured to have recorded it for Kicking Against The Pricks, and if there was any justice then it would be a oft-covered standard and we'd all be sick of it.

Anyway, this is the one. Ed Kuepper did something pretty remarkable, and managed to rearrange rock music's three basic chords in an interesting new way, creating a hazy circular drone with a guitar that sounds like it is shearing off steel shards of melody. Jeff Wegener provides atypically metronomic drumming, and Peter Walsh sets up a nice relaxed half-groove that's on just the indie side of funky. Then Louise Elliot seals the deal and makes her defining contribution to the band. Possibly the instantly recognisable horn figure at the beginning was originally devised by Kuepper? In any case, the peaks reached in the concluding solo all belong to Elliot, and it's not really worth trying to write about but is most certainly worth hearing yet again.

It's a lyrically slippery song, consisting of fragments of dialogue that manage to generate feeling while resisting interpretation. It must all mean something to Kuepper - the song's title was also used for the second Saints LP, and he has constantly revisited the song in his post-Clowns career (the best is probably Today Wonder's gentle acoustic reflection). The hypnotic simplicity of the chord structure allied to the private mystery of the lyrics is an enduring combination - although Kuepper's subsequent versions of the song are always compelling, they always feel like they are somehow exploriging the absence of Elliot's transcendent saxophone.

10. They are playing together again: I have seen Laughing Clowns play 3 times in the last 10 days. GET FUCKED. Not only that, but they've met & surpassed my high expectations. I could quibble about wonky sound and not-quite-right venues, but the five people making this noise are making it with passion and commitment that shames many bands a third their age. There is an extra joy to be had from the fact that they've been playing to good-sized crowds and receiving rapturous receptions - they must feel absolutely vindicated that the inspired music of their youth has withstood the decades of indifference and neglect. These guys ploughed a tough furrow in unfriendly times, and they deserve to have that work acknowledged.

There are more shows on the way, and talk of new material. The latter is cause for cautious optimism - Kuepper's most recent album (also featuring Wegener) is his best for a fair while, and their live work together since 2005 has been frequently stunning. However it goes, this has already been much more than a run-of-the-mill reunion. All things are possible in the future; for now it is still enough to savour these remarkable songs blasted out live by the only people who could ever perform them. These are golden days and giants walk the earth once again.


Bob, Brisbane, Australia said...

A fantastic piece of writing RLM.
I'm gonna link to you in my links and hope you write a lot more.How did you get to see the clowns 3 times that was all the gigs wasn't
it, thats an excellent effort.
ciao bob

RLM said...

Thanks for the kind words Bob - and the link. I've been thinking about this band a lot recently and it was very enjoyable to write some of it down. re the possibly excessive 3 gigs: I had a ticket for ATP Sydney and had decided to get to Brisbane on the cheap to see their headlining show - figured these might well have been my only chances ever to see these guys live, so I thought why not get in before civilisation collapses. Then I got incredibly lucky and scored a dirt cheap ticket to the second day of Sydney's ATP - must've done something right. Now that these Basement shows have been announced I feel we have been a bit spoiled in Sydney - hopefully they'll be visiting Brisbane again in May. Thanks again.

Roger said...

Like Bob said - fantastic, a great description of the mysterious hold this music has had on some of us for decades. It was and remains an enigma. Even after I was finally blessed with the chance to see them in the flesh at ATP Sydney day 2. I'll look forward to more of your blogging - Roger

RLM said...

Cheers Roger - enigma is an excellent word for it - I often think of certain Clowns songs as puzzles that need solving, although perhaps it's just that my ears aren't smart enough to "get it" without a bit of extra work.

John said...

Bobs blog led me to this wonderful piece of writing RLM. I would give my right leg to have written something like this. Congratulations. John.

RLM said...

Thanks John, appreciate it.

山頂2号 said...

takes me back to their heydays.
spent a many nights at the trades completely wiped out by the clowns. yep, i got (collapse) bored, again.
when what you see is what you get, indeed.

remember having dinner with wegner in briz before i left oz for good, he was talking about the reunion (that's right, it was at the time of the saints reunion). he was wondering who should play the base, i recall. who ended up playing the base?

anyhow, i got my records out tonight and played them loud.

Donat said...

I saw the Clowns 3 times in 10 days also. It's just one of things, isn't it? I'm glad that you're one of the precious few people who took notice of the Block's set at GOMA. It was one of the most amazing shows I had ever seen in my years. Dylan playing bass in the Beatles indeed.