For a few years now, we’ve all heard the tired phrase that we’re all “living in unprecedented times”. Of course, while we’ve come to learn that the unexpected should be commonplace, none of us thought that 2022 would bring with it the return of Melbourne’s masked mysterios, TISM.
Having launched a reissue campaign in 2020, the enigmatic septet announced their live reformation in June 2022, revealing they’d be taking to the stage at the Good Things festival – their first live shows since November 2004. Of course, diehard fans knew to be on guard. After all, it was common practice for TISM to preface their return to the stage with some secret warmup gigs, usually under assumed names such as Late For Breakfast, The Frank Vitkovic Jazz Quartet, Impossible Poonces, or Smacka My Bitch Up Fitzgibbon.
Those in the know were lucky enough to welcome the group back to their modern-era existence when they appeared at The Croxton Bandroom on 13th November under the name Open Mic Tryouts. By all accounts, it was the culmination of almost two years of waiting; a group who has refused to let age weary them, eager to show that they still maintain that satirical bite, musical punch, and youthful energy that accompanied their formation 40 years ago.
Last week, history managed to repeat itself, with TISM returning to St Kilda’s Prince Bandroom under the guise Banjo Paterson-Lakes on 19th November. Originally planned as a secret set alongside Regurgitator and Worker & Parasite, COVID saw the gig transform into something else entirely, though no less intense. As vocalist Humphrey B. Flaubert’s musical rumination on the apparent death of Herb Alpert filled the room, the group walked onto the dark stage, alerting those in attendance that the next hour would be one of unbridled energy.
Leaning almost entirely on their pre-’00s material, the set featured all of the hallmarks of a TISM set: Flaubert’s soaring vocals, Ron Hitler-Barassi’s ferocious delivery, the bold bass of Jock Cheese, the slick keys of Eugene De La Hot Croix Bun, and the dizzying dance moves of Jon St. Peenis and Les Miserables, alongside nascent guitarist Vladimir Lenin-McCartney. Paired with modern diatribes and an impressively-fervent fanbase in attendance, the show was what all in attendance had waited years for, and a gig that would undeniably be a life-affirming event for many.
However, some potentially left the gig feeling a tad dispirited (if such a feeling was indeed possible). Despite being held at a venue without a crowd barrier, the division between crowd and band felt rather apparent; almost as if the highly-interactive nature of the previous week had been a fluke and this was something of a comedown. Of course, even TISM’s worst show is streets ahead of any band’s best, and almost everyone was eager to (hopefully) repeat the feat the following week.
Indeed, rumours again swirled in regards to a third and (potentially) final warm-up show, and in the days leading up to 26th November, fans quietly bought up tickets to Psych Out! – a cryptically-titled event at 170 Russell spearheaded by TISM’s own reissue campaign manager David Roy Williams. There, amongst the likes of Bellhop, Neon Goblin, Seedy Jeezus, and the all-star Gin Palace, Rex Oedipus & Jack ‘Elephant’ Titus joined the bill. Those in the know undoubtedly knew, and once again, it was on for young and old.
As local psychedelic three-piece Neon Goblin took their leave, excitement reached fever pitch before the lights again lowered and history began to repeat. This time, there was no denying TISM’s intensity. As the band filled the stage, Hitler-Barassi dove into the crowd to belt out the spoken-word ‘The Art/Income Dialectic’. Making his way deep into the crowd (faithful roadie in tow), he was half-unmasked by the end of the cut, an exercise that would be completed by the time he reached the barrier during the following favourite, ‘I Drive A Truck’.
For newcomers, it was an exercise in pure musical insanity, while for diehards, it was pure, uncut TISM, and a band still performing at their peak. Sure, Hitler-Barassi hadn’t been stripped naked by the eager crowd (who’s to say it won’t happen at Good Things?), but as a standby mask again covered his visage, it was abundantly clear the band were in the midst of the best show of their comeback to date.
As the likes of 'Whatareya?' was paired with 'Thunderbirds Are Coming Out', and ‘What Nationality Is Les Murray?' with 'I'm Interested In Apathy', it became impossible to ignore a band still at the top of their game. While Miserables also ventured to the barrier to slum it with the writing mass fans, a sweat-soaked Hitler-Barassi found himself shirtless, barely able to contain his exhaustion as he, Miserables, and St. Peenis did the dishes with ‘signed’ paper plates. A kaleidoscopic visual experience alongside an already immersive musical one, it felt as though TISM couldn’t improve upon this if they tried. How wrong we were.
Finishing up their set with a run of hits and fan favourites ('Greg! The Stop Sign!!', 'Martin Scorsese Is Really Quite A Jovial Fellow', 'Death Death Death', '(He'll Never Be An) Ol' Man River', and 'Defecate On My Face'), it felt like business as usual for the band, but for fans, it was truly life-affirming. A musical education mixed with a near-mythical live show, it felt almost impossible to believe such an event was indeed taking place before us.
But in true fashion, a brief diatribe on the topic of old school TISM faded into the customary crowd chant of “TISM are wankers”. And with that, they were gone, ostensibly having wrapped up the warm-up leg of their comeback ahead of the Good Things festival.
Many concerns might have been raised by fans about whether TISM still have it, 18 years since their last show, and whether their comeback would be worth the time of the band and their eager audience. But if these shows – and especially their 170 Russell gig – have shown us, TISM aren’t just back, they’re better than ever.
CREDIT: iPhone fan footage from Lachlan Bell
Words by Tyler Jenke
Photography by CarbieWarbie