Will Success Spoil Hitler-Barassi?, Brett Buttfield, dB magazine, 16/8/95


In the months following the release of their 'Machiavelli and the Four Seasons' album, the unthinkable has happened to TISM. They've achieved commercial success, they've moved units. The single (He'll Never Be An) Ol' Man River careered gracelessly into the charts only to slide disgracefully out again. Evidently TISM have hit a nerve somewhere and, like Laurence Olivier ias the sadistic Nazi dentist in 'Marathon Man', they intend to continue tweaking that nerve until they get what they want. What exactly TISM want remains a mystery. Leaving us with the only available question, "Will success spoil TISM?"

"Personally I think it's wrecked the band, our top ten success," opines Hitler-Barassi. "We, of course, were only in the top ten for the briefest of times, couldn't have been longer than a fortnight. We're the Tony Modra of rock'n'roll, we've had our one brief moment of glory before we fall into a Warwick Capper-like pool of our own ego. There's nothing left but the bitter after-taste and some girl taking Tony Modra's dick out of her mouth crying "I always really loved Darren Jarman."

Well, I didn't come all this way to talk football, which is a shame as the failure of their favourite clubs appears more important to TISM than their own success. Somewhat presciently then, the band have filmed the video for their new single Greg! The Stop Sign!! on the oval at Moorabbin and in the St. Kilda club change rooms. Surely this amounts to the greatest curse put on a football club since Aboriginal elders pointed the bone at Collingwood last year.

"I think what [St Kilda] were expecting was a Tina Turneresque celebration of athleticism and manly endeavour, but what they got was a homoerotic abrogation of all that they stand for," explains Ron. "There was the director saying 'could you plesae go on the exercise bike and punch the punching bag' and stuff and then he was coming up to me and I was saying 'can we have a little more dry-ice in the air and really get the gays sucked into this clip'. But it won't matter much 'cause St Kilda won't exist for far longer, certainly after that clip, no way."

Ah yes, "Give up for Australia" and all that. The bleak celebratory nihilism spinning like a whirligig at the centre of TISM's cold little techno hearts. As they belt out such incentives as "May all our young Aussie swimmers be resigned to failure/ May our nation's state be always second-rate", surely it must have crossed their minds to go forth and boldly fail where others (Chisels, Hunnas et al) have failed before, to try to crack America?

"I'm not sure cracking the States is high on our list of priorities. Gee, success in Australia isn't high on our list of priorities. Imagine TISM in the States, imagine us going through Harlem wearing our big, white pointy head-gear. We'd last for about two and a half bars and then, with total justification, great, huge, black negroid men would rip us apart and fair enough too. We'd be necklaced quicker than you could say 'Winnie Mandela'."

So it goes beyond even the most tragic-heroic predestined, predetermined will to fail for TISM and into a completely self-abnegating acceptance of personal doom in the face of overwhelming odds and social mores. I am reminded of Jean Cocteau's address to the new day: "Each morning I tell myself, 'there is nothing you can do about it, submit." Or the poignant sleeve notes of 'Machiavelli and the Four Seasons'; "Well. There it is. We are all alone in the end, you know. If only you could help me. But you will never understand." I put it to Ron Hitler-Barassi: is it really inevitable that we accept complete sublimation of our own identities and accept lives of heartless, numbing boredom, merely in order to survive in this world? Ron agrees that it is, congratulates me on yet another preposterously over-analytical question, asks if I can make it rhyme and goes on to explain "I think inbuilt into the most violent, rebellious rock'n'roll loving of adolescents is an innate, primitive, rigorous, almost fascist conservatism. When you think about it, the kids who join gangs, they might as well join the police force. They both speak a certain lingo, they both have to wear certain clothes, they have to adopt certain attitudes. It's not this world that turns people into boring accountants and lawyers and people who are trying to sneak ten items through the eight items checkout at the supermarket. It's that deep in the heart of everyone is a mediocre suburban person. That's what Greg! The Stop Sign!! is about. When you grow up you find out who you really are and in the end it's not very attractive."

The badge behind the body-piercing, the travesty beyond the tattoos. It's hard for me to deny, especially as I recall eavesdropping on a gang of homeboys on the bus as they discussed financial planning and bandied about phrases like "You'll get double your money back in a year" and "It's a good, safe investment". Guess you have to have a bit of dosh to dress in Nike and Raiders gear. Still, isn't it all just a sadly sincere and desperate desire to belong? Isn't it a recognition of such that moves the listener to chills during Greg! The Stop Sign!!, that song of life viewed as a car crash? Unstoppable fate. As Guildenstern bemoans at the end of Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead": "There must have been a moment at the beginning where we could have said - no. But somehow we missed it."

"It's interesting that we've entered some people's consciousness because I don't think consciousness is a strong part of the TISM oevre," concedes Ron. "There is a deep Conradesque subtext, rather like in 'Heart of Darkness' where he's discussing the essential nature of Western Civilization, that's certainly there in Greg! The Stop Sign!!, but I think most people see it as Thomas the Tank Engine, Humphrey the Bear and Greg the Stop Sign. We look out on stage to that sea of upturned, male, sweating yob faces and we think of the Jungian concept of the collective unconscious and we think 'Yep, that's pretty proven here, there's a collectively unconscious aura in front of us right about now', but at least they've all paid individually fifteen bucks."

It's all so clear to me now. They are serious, in a snide, grim, blackly amusing way. While most bands sing of Love & Hope & Sex & Good Times, TISM appeal to the listeners from a world where reality is drab, defeated and relentless, where you have to slog it out and wait forever for the cheap entertainment you need to distract you.

"We have pissed on River Phoenix's dead corpse and I think that's because he's symbolic for us of all that we could never be. He was good-looking, he was talented, he was successful, he was rich, he was famous. Apart from anything else he got into the Viper Room. TISM would never be in the Viper Room mate. We'd be in the line outside and those bouncers would say to us, "Sorry, it's members night only", or "Sorry, you dressed inappropriately", or "Sorry, house full". Out staggers River and you just think "Oh, he obviously caught asthma from Jason Donovan", then he falls on the pavement with a needle in his arm and you think "Well, obviously he's a diabetic like all the boys from Ministry". And then he foams at the mouth and dies and you think, "This guy is a true artist, he's not faking it". TISM were looking at doing that and I've gotta say, deep in our hearts we were glad."

Possible future plans for this most unloveably beloved of bands include a remix album, provided they can get hold of the original tapes.

"I think what they've got now is audio dubs of 'The Nerds Revenge' [sic] and all those bad teenage movies over them," sighs Ron Hitler-Barassi resignedly. How appropriate.

TISM play at Liberty on Fri 18 and Sat 19: chances are they'll let anyone in.


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