SOME CALL IT "JAZZ-PUNK"...
There are some bands for whom I can honestly claim I was first off the bat to cling on to, do some cheerleading for and to rally the masses around. In most cases that rallying was all for naught, but that's not the point. Perhaps not internationally, but at least domestically. I think I was the first person Down Under to put ink to paper and heap praise on the likes of Skullflower, the Grifters, Dawson, Cul de Sac, Supreme Dicks and others back in the day. More recently, I'd probably throw a band like Honey Ride Me A Goat in there. If there's someone else out there who did it all before me, then I tip my hat and admit defeat. And on the other hand, I can also lay claim to likely being the last guy off the boat to shower praise on the band known as the LAUGHING CLOWNS. They existed (before they reunited a couple of years back) from 1979-1984, and were, as I'm sure many of you know, born from the ashes of the original Saints, as Ed Kuepper split the group and was intent on focusing his jazz fixation into the context of rock 'n' roll. Expectations were high - heck, I'd rate the Saints' first two albums as the two finest Australian rock 'n' roll albums ever - and for many, his new band was simply a weird proposition many old fans couldn't get their heads around. The Laughing Clowns played and toured (and recorded) almost constantly throughout their lifespan, in a career trajectory that somewhat mirrors that of Black Flag: confound old fans, record lots of material in the meantime, develop a penchant for a certain brand of jazz-infused high-energy rock and split in acrimony, only to have your work reassessed in many years time by a new breed of fan. Well, perhaps that comparison is drawing a long bow, but regardless, their Cruel, But Fair 3CD (complete discography) set on the Hot label, which was released back in the mid '00s and only discovered by myself 3 months ago, is something which has scarcely left the stereo since.
Funnily enough, I did buy a secondhand Laughing Clowns LP about a dozen years ago: Throne Of Blood/Reign In Terror. It may sound like a death metal album to you, but it happens to be a compilation from 1981 which puts together a bunch of early EPs, and for whatever reason, it had zero impact on me. I figured I was "supposed" to like it, but did the mandatory spin from start to finish, shrugged my shoulders at what I gathered to be its tepid musical content, and filed it away for what I figured to be eternity. Fact is, Laughing Clowns are not an easy band to get your brain around, but once they click, the rewards are incredibly fruitful, and warranted of a lifetime of listening. For one, and let's be honest: Kuepper does not possess an incredible set of pipes. On first listen, he comes across like a tone-deaf Bryan Ferry with a bad case of the mumbles. At his best, he possesses a kind of Mark E. Smith laconic drawl. My purchasing of this set was urged on by a co-worker who brought his copy to work and proceeded to play it endlessly - almost on loop for a month - until the osmosis took effect. I began to borrow it, play it on a similar loop and then decided I should just make the investment myself.
After three months' appraisal, after having witnessed them play a few weeks back at the Forum Theatre supporting the Dirty Three, and as a man old enough to know better, I can state with a straight face that the Laughing Clowns now rate in my frustrated/ing brain as one of the all-time great Australian bands. Utterly unique, totally uncompromising and, at least within Australian music, unprecedented. On a surface level one could say they bore similarities to other bands of their time; there's hints of The Pop Group and The Fall, and the jazz angle, especially Kuepper's guitar, has a major James Ulmer "thing" going on, but the sum of its parts is something completely different. Kuepper had been listening to "out" jazz since the early '70s when he first discovered Pharoah Sanders, Coltrane and Archie Shepp via his Stooges/MC5 obsession. For a teenager to indulge in such musical quirks in no less than Brisbane, Australia at the dawn of the 1970s is no small feat. There are cultural outposts and then there is 1970s Queensland. I have friends of a similar age to Kuepper who hopped aboard the punk bandwagon in the late '70s, and they can attest to it. Some have stated to me that to be a "cool" teen at the time in Australia was to listen to the likes of Black Sabbath and Frank Zappa. The Stooges or the MC5 were like an alien lifeforce (unless you were friends with Rob Younger, Deniz Tek or Nick Cave and his cohorts). To then make the leap to American free jazz wasn't even on the map! That thirst for new sounds abounds in the music of the Laughing Clowns.
But anyway, the key to the Laughing Clowns' greatness is also drummer Jeffrey Wegener; he and Kuepper were the only mainstays throughout the band's lifespan. Wegener cut his teeth in seminal (but seldom heard) Melbourne punk band the Young Charlatans, who also featured Ollie Olsen and a pre-Boys Next Door/Birthday Party Rowland S. Howard (RIP). Usually hailed as one of the great percussionists of his day, his ceaseless invention behind the kit, and his ability to embellish songs with just the right kick or beat is legendary and wholly deserving of its tag. To my mind, he's more Gene Krupa or Buddy Rich than Sunny Murray - his drum rolls and patterns part of an older tradition and less free-form than he's usually given credit for - but it's that syncopation and sense of rhythm which never sees the band falling off the rails into self-indulgent jams.
There's 48 songs here, and not one I'd dismiss. Every song has a hook which eventually drags you in. "The Only One That Knows", a seven-and-a-half minute epic which runs from a horn-drenched opening to slow balladry to a Saints-esque punkish skree right on through to avant-jazz-damaged punk/jazz squawl a la Ornette/Ulmer/Prime Time is the one I'll stake bets on. The Laughing Clowns didn't sound like a "post-punk" band; their approach was too mature for that, too well-thought-out, but the urgency was absolutely there. Nothing they ever did was simply for pose. There's three CDs of genius which awaits, and if one person purchases it on the strength of this write-up, then at least I can honestly say I wasn't the last man to catch on.