Review
 
i94-BAR webzine, Sydney (AUS) December, 2005
 
LAUGHING CLOWNS - CRUEL BUT FAIR [album info]
3 CD Box Set, Hot/Didgeridoo Records, #1088
 

Stepping into the confessional, I can’t pretend to have been a booster of the Clowns back in the day. Holy Joe was the first thing I heard and it was so far removed from the expected (and from what I was listening to) that I probably would have been part of the crowd stampede towards the exit at Sydney’s Stagedoor Tavern, had I stumped up when the band made its local debut back in 1979. The material that came later seemed more accessible - and almost mainstream by the time Ed Kuepper covered four Clowns tunes on the Happy as Hell EP - but if I didn’t “get it” back then, solace can be taken in the fact that not many people did.

Sometimes time softens or changes perceptions and you open up to new things. Even being partly familiar with the contents, there’s an enormous amount to absorb on this three-disc set, which captures the entire recorded vinyl output of the Laughing Clowns and all re-mastered to good effect. (The “vinyl” qualifier is there because the odd track escaped into the light on an officially-sanctioned tape or two; the “Fast Forward” audio magazine springs to mind). The set isn’t in chronological order but has been re-tracked by Ed himself - probably not a detractor for diehards whose collection of Clowns black platters is undoubtedly larger than even the quantity of unsold Shannon Noll albums at JB Hi-Fi.

“Jazz punk” is what they used to label the Clowns and that’s probably a term of critical convenience more than anything. Yes, they had horns and non-rock time signatures - plus a killer drummer in Jeffrey Weggener (sic) who’d absorbed plenty of Elvin Jones and plays around the kit in similar fashion - but as the incisive liner notes outline, it’s not a tag with which the band was comfortable.

So what is it? The song structures defy easy categorisation because they were outside what was the accepted norm. Ed’s vocal is at times so deadpan as to make early period Damien Lovelock sound expressive, and his guitar work is occasionally very sharp and angular but just as often plays second fiddle to the driving one or two-piece horns section. There’s an underlying rock sensibility to many songs but just as many work on another level. Weggener’s drumming dynamism is arguably the single most vital element in setting this apart from almost anything else.

The startling thing is the way that so much of this material is a natural progression from the Saints songs on Prehistoric Sounds. I know that’s been said before but it doesn’t ring true until you hear the songs arranged, in this case, to complement each other. A goodly number were actually written by Kuepper when the Saints were a London-based going concern and it’s easy to see why they wouldn’t have fitted into that band’s oeuvre in 1978, as fast-evolving and adventurous as it was. Another surprise is the revelation (in the notes) that live versions of these songs rarely varied form their recorded cousins. For a band whose legend was partly based on claims of free-jazz experimentation, that's another in the eye for the critics who, in the main, struggled to keep up with what was going on.

Much of the band's output comes across as seirous stuff but that's partly a reflection of the intensity of playing and partly down to Ed's sometimes mournful vocals. That might be a barrier to entry for some but not so much for yours truly these days, with a shelf groaning with solo Ed albums. There are wry touches of humour - often self-penned and at the band leader's own expense - if you dig deep enough (Mr Ridiculous).

No use recounting each and every song. Mr Kuepper does that well enough in the liners and track-by-track. Suffice to say that you'd buy an argument in most enlightened places if you didn't consider Eternally Yours a stone classic from the era (even among non-Clowns fans), but try Collapse Board or Mr Uddich Smuddich Goes To Town for exercises in slow burn and stunning dynamics respectively if you need to grasp more of the picture of what this band was about. Your results may vary over the 47 tracks. It's demanding, and some of it leaves me confounded in the same way as the less accessible Captain Beefheart material, but that's part of the fascination in re-visiting it when the mood is right.

Jeffrey Weggener’s contribution to the liners bemoans the lack of credit given to the Laughing Clowns by authors writing the history of Australian music. That’s certainly true of the more middle-of-the-road tomes (Clinton Walker’s “Stranded” gave plenty of props to them but was written from a personal perspective). The question is: Did the band influence many others? For a minute, I was going to say 'probably not' until I remembered how many '80s bands incorporated brass. But that's a blatant over-simplification. Bottom line is that most Austrtalian bands of the time would have been afraid to try and go to some of the musical places that the Laughing Clowns went. This was an innovative band whose influence manifested itself in inspiring others to push their own envelopes rather than be carbon copies.

Of course it all ended in acrimony with personal personal demons pursuing one or more of the sidemen. Thankfully, most emerged intact. Ed, of course, has carved out a long and virtuous career, rich with innovation and re-inventation, and these days plays shows as a duo with Jeffrey Weggener.It's funny the way things come around in time. Lend an ear if you're adventurous and you might surprise yourself.

4 2/3 bottles (of five)

The Barman

 
 
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