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The Age, Melbourne, 7 Oct 2005
Who's Laughing Now?
by Michael Dwyer

Michael Dwyer regrets walking out of a Laughing Clowns gig, but frontman Ed Kuepper understands.

IT'S 1913 in Paris. I'm at the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. As the rest of the uncomprehending audience howls bloody outrage, I leap to my feet and shout "Bravo! Magnifique!"

In another dream, I'm at the Newport Folk Festival in '65, nodding approval at Bob Dylan's new electric direction. Then I'm at the Manchester Trade Hall in '66, physically taking issue with the daft pleb crying "Judas!".

So it's kind of painful to recall that night at the Sydney Trade Union Club 25 years ago when I walked out on the Laughing Clowns.
Ed Kuepper's previous band, the Saints, was revered as Australia's own punk flagship, but this new band was just weird. Some said they were "jazz-punk", which was obviously horrifying.

Jeff and Ed

"It never struck me at the time as being as weird as some people were saying," Kuepper reflects today.

"That was never the intention. Weird for the sake of it is do-able. In fact, it's too easy. Melody was always the thing I was aiming for. To me, a lot of it seemed to be pretty accessible."

The appraisal is largely supported by Cruel, But Fair, a new triple-CD retrospective of the Laughing Clowns' complete recordings.
Yes, Jeffrey Wegener's virtuoso drumming can be hysterically hyperactive. Arrangements are brash and angular. Kuepper's voice and scrabbly guitar are untamed, and the overdriven saxophone of Bob Farrell (replaced later by Louise Elliot) is often a fair hike from easy listening.

But, pointedly unlike most of their early '80s contemporaries, the Laughing Clowns' sound and energy remains so unique as to be almost untouched by time.

"I didn't want to be a contemporary band in the sense that the underground of the time was largely synth-electronic," Kuepper says.

"It ranged from experimental to pop, but there was a certain sound and approach a lot of people were using that was considered the valid underground. I didn't want to be part of that."

Kuepper's prolific recording career has been distinguished, to say the least, by a wilful drive to stake his own territory. Both the Clowns and his incarnation of the Saints were characterised by an almost self-sabotaging lack of compromise.

Both broke barriers, polarised critics and ended in acrimony. The easy path has always seemed an anathema to Kuepper.
"I guess music had to meet some criteria for me," he reflects. "When I started playing in bands, I didn't want to be part of the Brisbane band scene because everyone was sitting around learning Deep Purple covers and that struck me as tedious, totally out of the spirit of why I liked music.

"I suppose everything I've wanted to do myself has had to work in a way that I can identify as having some sort of reason to exist."

In his Cruel, But Fair cover notes, Kuepper recalls one of the first Laughing Clowns shows in '79.

"I wouldn't say we had a walk-out halfway through the show," he writes, "it was more like a stampede. It was anarchy. A riot. Things were being thrown at us."

Like Stravinsky and Dylan before him, one wonders how he held onto his resolve. A less focused musician might be tempted to think, "F--k, they hate us, we must be terrible."

"No, I just thought 'F--k, they hate us, what a bunch of morons'," Kuepper laughs.

"It made things hard for a while, to get work. Initially we'd had a reasonable amount of interest because of my Saints connection. But it kept us going, really. It got us more focused on getting a record done."

Cruel, But Fair follows last year's three-disc set of Saints recordings from Kuepper's tenure of '76 to '78. Next up is a similar retrospective of his solo work, This is the Magic Mile. But relax, he's not preparing for eternity yet, he says: "It helps to clear the decks for some new activity."

Cruel, But Fair is out on Hot Records.

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