The Return of the Laughing Clowns

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds invited the Laughing Clowns to reform to appear at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival they curated staged in Sydney on Cockatoo Island in January, 2009. It had been about twenty five years since their last performance. They were sublime. “I loved that band,” Nick said. All Tomorrow’s Parties looped back to the beginning of the punk rock era in Australia. Seeing the Boys Next Door and the Go Betweens and the Laughing Clowns on the same bill was remarkable in the early 1980s. But what these musicians are creating now is exponentially more remarkable. I remember the excitement of seeing Grinderman perform in Sydney in 2007. Much had been made in the press of Nick turning fifty. This side-band of his was a blast of rude energy acting as a Trojan Horse cloaking smart, provocative lyrics. The Grinderman song “Go Tell The Women” is a folk song for our era; our problems, our delusions, our mistakes are described but at the end we’re encouraged to “come on back to the fray”. When Michael Almereyda explained his motivation for filming an adaptation of Hamlet in 2000 he quoted Emily Dickinson’s response to Shakespeare’s writing: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head is being taken off I know this is poetry.” This electrifying sense is what I always feel at performances by any of Nick’s bands and the Laughing Clowns, then and now. I loved the Laughing Clowns on first sight twenty five years ago. The instrumental complexity was familiar to me, as a jazz fan who strayed into popular music, and Jeffrey Wegener has always provided for me the equivalent of the sharp liner notes that were printed on jazz record sleeves. But what Ed’s songs and musical arrangements introduced me to, that has deepened slowly over the years, is an appreciation of the heart-lifting qualities of soul music. The sexy groove of the brass arrangements is exhilarating but the Laughing Clowns have a vast dynamic and emotional range and what was most moving for me was the sweetness in their quieter moments. Saxophonist Wayne Shorter delivered me to the Laughing Clowns. And Duke Ellington delivered me to Wayne Shorter. I started listening to Duke Ellington’s music when I was a child and it guided me through life. He had a reverent curiosity and kept evolving and progressing, expanding the boundaries of his music and he brought into his orbit younger musicians who had the same inquisitiveness. I discovered Charles Mingus when he made The Money Jungle with Duke Ellington. I discovered John Coltrane through his duet with Duke Ellington on “In a Sentimental Way”, which remains one of the most elegant pieces of music I’ve ever heard. They make sound feel richly soft, as if it were cashmere or velvet. In his autobiography Duke Ellington called John Coltrane “a beautiful cat” and rhapsodized about how smooth their recording session had been. When Duke Ellington died in 1974 I was looking for another mentor. I read somewhere that John Coltrane had suggested Wayne Shorter as a replacement when he wanted to leave Miles Davis’s band. I was beginning to become interested in Buddhism and was intrigued by the Zen references in Bill Evans’s liner notes for Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue” and John Coltrane’s spiritual music. I discovered that Wayne Shorter was a practicing Buddhist. He has Duke Ellington’s expansive curiosity: “I need to find out more about other people’s cultures with the time I have left,” he told Ben Ratliff, music editor of the New York Times, in 2004. “Because when I’m writing something that sounds like my music – well, not my music. I don’t possess music – but when they say ‘Wayne Shorter’s playing those snake lines,’ I should take that willingness to do that, and extend it to the desire to find out more about what is not easy to follow, what is difficult to follow in someone else’s life.” Long before the pop world could accept the seriousness and strength of Joni Mitchell’s jazz impulses he played on her records. And last year he appeared on Herbie Hancock’s tribute to Joni Mitchell, River. Amongst new arrangements of her songs they played his composition, “Nefertiti”, made famous by Miles Davis, and Herbie Hancock played Duke Ellington’s “Solitude”. When I was a teenage journalist Wayne Shorter was the first person I conducted a long radio interview with. He was touring Australia with Weather Report. It was a great late line-up of the band with Joe Zawinul on piano, Peter Erskine on drums and the explosively soulful Jaco Pastorious on bass. It was thrilling to see a jazz band walk onto a concert hall stage lined to the rafters with stacks of speaker boxes. A heavy metal band might have emerged from the wings. Or Parliament might have walked onstage, plugged in their instruments, and stirred up some incendiary funk. Later the same night I saw Weather Report play an acoustic set at a small jazz club and what they played had a profound, painfully tender beauty. A couple of weeks ago Ben Ratliff was taking questions from New York Times readers. He was asked which of the musicians he’s interviewed he found the most opaque or confounding. “Would be Ornette Coleman and Wayne Shorter, who are ninjas of the opaque,” he replied. “But I think there’s a reason we like them opaque: around the fifth time you read what they have to say – about harmony or memory or life and death or what happens when we name things – you see that underneath the oracular statements are some strong and simple ideas and a lot of humour.” It’s with that spirit I approached the Laughing Clowns. There were long stretches where I saw them perform every week. They struck me as something highly original. In speaking with Jeffrey and Ed it became clear that there was little overlap between the jazz I was familiar with and what they listened to. I had practically no frame of reference for anything from popular music. It was obvious they were drawing from a wide range of inspirations but there was something about them that was entirely themselves. They inspired trust. I was less interested in trying to reduce them to something familiar than waiting for what was entirely new about them to become familiar on its own terms. The bizarre thing that Ed has to deal with is that one of the legends he’s constantly being compared to is himself. Timewise, the Saints independent single “(I’m) Stranded” is the big bang, an explosion of energy out of nowhere that brought the punk rock movement to life in among the Australian musicians I got to know. There was magic and danger in the combination of Ed’s guitar and Chris Bailey’s voice. Punk rock was a global phenomenon, a response to a time not an artistic movement, and it now seems inevitable, but the Saints were among the earliest. I was curious and grateful to see the Saints perform at All Tomorrow’s Parties. They hadn’t been a part of my world. It was probably Clinton Walker who played for me the records that Ed made with Chris Bailey, and I responded most to their third and last record together, Prehistoric Sounds: its brass arrangements and deep soul groove set the direction Ed would follow with the Laughing Clowns. Robert Forster wrote about the first time in thirty years that the Ed and Chris Bailey and original drummer Ivor Hay played together as the Saints, a year and a half ago in Brisbane:

“The set is a dream run through the band’s early catalogue. Helped by a brass section that trots on and off the stage, the songs visit two camps. There are the big, driving ballads from Prehistoric Sounds: “Chameleon”, “The Prisoner” and “All Times Through Paradise”. And there are the very best of the short, sharp tunes scattered across the first two records: “(I’m) Stranded”, “No Time”, “Know Your Product” and “This Perfect Day”. The total effect is unrelenting quality and depth of vision. This is no punk ram-a-lam but a full showing of the original breadth and beauty The Saints were able to put out in an era and in a town (London) which demanded that punk bands play by punk rules. The Saints’ wilful bucking of the trends then allows the music to storm now. There is wonder here, and the brass section, with its stabs and swing, is no ‘soul music’ affectation or quote, but welded into the rock form like few other bands have ever managed … And then there’s Ed Kuepper … It’s a master class in electric-guitar playing which has you realising that he’s one of the very few Australian guitar geniuses. Obvious comparisons are with Neil Young or Kurt Cobain, sonic adventurers who can take sheets of electric noise and get songs out of them, while also being able to solo a hurricane of notes that mean something to the song.”

I had no obvious comparisons for Ed’s guitar playing when I first saw the Laughing Clowns. The wonder of seeing the band now is that I have no comparisons at all. Although the Laughing Clowns have been dormant Ed and Jeffrey have been performing together for many years, recently as a duo touring Europe with the Bad Seeds. Experience and maturity suits them, they’re radiant and relaxed. I was reminded of something that Duke Ellington said to someone who remarked of his band: “They’re all so relaxed! How can they look so casual and play such moving music?” “They’re free, that’s why,” he replied. “A natural man is a free man. If they were tense they would only pour out noise. Because they’re relaxed, they play music. It comes from inside them. How could jazz be otherwise?” Jeffrey’s doing with his drumming has the power to knock you off your feet but there are many quieter moments that are spellbinding. There’s a lot going on, his style is complex, but there’s clarity. The usual metaphors we apply to drummers don’t seem to apply to him. He’s not a backbone or an anchor, there’s something more organic about his role in creating the sound, he’s more like a central nervous system. What I sense in Ed and Jeffrey are qualities I admired in both Duke Ellington and Wayne Shorter: they’re still points in a shifting universe. They’re agents of change but have great composure. Rock writers tend to interpret music as literal autobiography and musical style as an extension of personality, so their brains overheat trying to link the powerful electric force of Ed’s guitar with his calm demeanour. But viewing the music symbolically, as poetry rather than prose, that coolness is the whole point, energy contained and directed rather than an erratic force. There’s a dazzling drama to some of Laughing Clowns songs, the trapdoors and false endings within “Collapseboard”, for instance, but also an strange, steely composure, heard in “Eternally Yours”. The lineup that Nick and the Bad Seeds had selected for the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival presented history as the future. With Nick’s success in particular there’s been a growing interest in the creation myth of that time. All Tomorrow’s Parties showed that it was a continuum: the cumulative effect of so many different bands and people that created a whole world. Robert Forster’s song “Darlinghurst Nights” from the last Go Betweens album, recorded in 2005, looks back to the yearning at the heart of this time, that all of the big ideas and grand sonic experiments were trying to fill an emptiness. The rich, soul stirring experiences of life always seemed to be somewhere else. They’d have to be willed into existence through music.

“I’m gonna change my appearance every day I’m gonna write a movie and then I’m going to star in a play And then I’m going to go to Caracas ’cause you know I’m just going to have to get away…” “Darlinghurst Nights” The Go Betweens

The song reminds me of standing under the Coca Cola sign in Kings Cross looking at the traffic going up and down the ski-slope of William Street, feeling a little as if I were floating, and wondering just what was out there in the world. The song is an exquisite portrait of a group of people at a particular time. It fades out on a brass arrangement, hazy and magical that reminds me of the Laughing Clowns, who were part of the world of Robert’s song. When I bought that Go Betweens record and heard that song, I remembered that there was something enchanted about the Laughing Clowns and yearned to see them again. There were always silk-screened posters of old-fashioned white-faced clowns stuck up on the walls of boarded-up buildings around Darlinghurst as if they were summoning people to roll up for a circus. And there was always a sense of occasion in going to see them, no matter how dingy the club was. A set of multi-coloured lightbulbs was strung up across the front of the stage, and the band had a theme song. If I’d known anything about mythology at the time I might have been able to quantify that sense of magic. Maybe a circus is where we “face the irrational savage beast within” as Joseph Campbell suggested we need to do if we’re to live without fear. People putting their heads between the jaws of lions, doing death defying feats on high wires, and clowns, taking the role of their ancestors, the court jesters, being the only ones who could tell the truth about life and not lose their heads. There’s a vague sense, in the lyrics to the Laughing Clowns theme song, that this might be the case. It’s a hopeful song. After living in America for so many years I had a lot of Ed’s records to catch up with, and I’ve been gradually buying them through iTunes. The diversity and range of his music is awe-inspiring. There was the thrill of finding Chris Abrahams playing piano on “King of Vice”. I was a child when I first heard Duke Ellington’s music and loved it with a child’s intensity, listening for the piano because it was his instrument. As I grew into a more critical appreciation of music, piano continued to be special, and there’s no piano player more special than Chris Abrahams: lyrical, peaceful and quietly joyous. One of the many treasured experiences of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival for me was seeing Chris’s band the Necks for the first time. And on Ed’s Starstruck record the meditative Indian beats over a layer of electronic sounds locked into sounds I was mesmerised by in India. I’ve been buying the music directly onto my iPhone and the mobile version of iTunes provides even less information than the full program on a regular computer. Without a context I felt as if I was being distracted by exotic surfaces and not getting to the heart of the music. I’m on surer ground with the pop standards he’s recorded and I’ve concentrated on buying and listening to songs whose histories are known to me. Ed’s version of “Ring of Fire” is simply phenomenal. He’s taken a song that chronicles lightning striking in two people’s lives, that seems to suggest complete destruction, and in his arrangement moves forward in time to show that far from ruining their lives, this was a turning point that led to eventual happiness. Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” is part of his legend, the driving rhythm of the song was his musical signature. Wild, out-of-control Johnny Cash impulsively falls for June Carter, tearing his family to pieces. He has a wife and four young daughters. On the record his eldest daughter Rosanne wrote after her mother, Johnny Cash and June Carter died within eighteen months of each other, she has a song, “Burn Down This Town”, about him storming in and out of her life when she was a child. The song which describes Johnny Cash’s casket being carried in a black Cadillac is underpinned by the Doors song “Riders On The Storm”. Ed’s arrangement reflects what we know with a lifetime’s hindsight. That Johnny repaired his relationship with his daughters, that June Carter became a deeply loved stepmother, and that reaching out to her was the smartest most life-affirming thing he ever did. Ed captures the whole life of the song. He slows Johnny Cash’s beat, sweetens the song with Mariachi horns, and sings it in a conversational tone. He takes it out on soft, solemn marching drums. The reborn Laughing Clowns have limitless opportunities. It would be fascinating to hear them re-record their old repertoire as standards, reinvented and moved through time as Ed has done with standards on his solo records. On Cockatoo Island he said to the large, enthralled crowd: “We’re an arthouse ensemble and you’re asking us to turn it up?” But that’s the unique character of the Laughing Clowns. They have strong, dependable songs that can reel you in and hold you, at any volume, and skilled musicians who can, especially with the ease and intuitive understanding between Ed and Jeffrey, take those songs anywhere in performance. Unlike jazz bands who can fail to summon the magic between the musicians without an audience and the dynamic of a concert, the Laughing Clowns will be able to record new songs that are equally and differently alive in the studio. The first time around the lyrics suffered. The small clubs often had inadequate sound equipment and the vocals could be lost. And it was a time between formats, analogue was dying and digital wasn’t yet ascendant. I never taped the Laughing Clowns records and listened to them on my Sony Walkman. I’m discovering now that Ed’s songs unfurl when listened to on my iPhone and I now realize just how much I’ve missed. Jazz was my default musical setting and to me was something almost entirely instrumental. Most of the jazz I liked had titles I considered to be punchlines from songs I didn’t get, yet! Perhaps I’d subconsciously linked the Laughing Clowns to a form of jazz, composed by Charles Mingus, that made me feel seasick and unsettled as a child that I grew to find exquisitely, unconventionally cerebrally, beautiful and love to distraction. The titles of Laughing Clowns songs: “Mr Uddich Smuddich Goes To Town”, “Theme From Mad Flies, Mad Flies”, “Holy Joe”, “Ghlst Beat”, I found darkly, charmingly witty and pleasingly odd: more punchlines I didn’t get, yet! But there’s something else in Ed’s lyrics themselves, the quality of an interior monologue, that’s compelling and seems prescoiently invented for the way the Walkman made music part of our own interior monologues. He doesn’t seem to be telling a story but capturing a thought at a particular transformative moment: a single, unthinking gesture that changes the course of a relationship or a moment dramatic and deathly in the present that seems banal when thought back upon. Ed’s rearrangements and rerecordings of particular songs seem less about musical styles and sonic reinterpretations than memories, the way that perception changes with the passage of time, or considering something from another’s viewpoint. The angle of thought shifts and so does the way the song sounds. “How do we produce work that touches the heart?” Leonard Cohen asked rhetorically in an interview with the New York Times in 1992. “We don’t want to live a superficial life. We want to be serious with each other, with our friends, with our work. That doesn’t necessarily mean gloomy or grim, but seriousness has a kind of voluptuous aspect to it. It is something that we are deeply hungry for, to take ourselves seriously and to be able to enjoy the nourishment of seriousness, that gravity, that weight.”

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5 thoughts on “The Return of the Laughing Clowns

  1. This is a beautiful piece of writing and a great, great tribute to Australia’s greatest overlooked and undervalued band – written by a member of another of our great overlooked bands. Though, the Triffids were never quite as overlooked as the Laughing Clowns.

    The greatest gig I ever experienced was at the Paris Theatre in Sydney in November 1980 – the Birthday Party, the Laughing Clowns and the Go-Betweens. I got there hours early to make sure I did not miss out on a ticket, lurked around the stage door listening to the Birthday Party soundcheck, and then was amazed and disgusted when the place only half filled up with people. It was the Go-Betweens first ever gig in Sydney and they were almost paralysed with nerves. It was the Laughing Clowns last gig with Bob Farrell on sax and Ben Wallace-Crabbe on bass. They soared. They made the Birthday Party (who were also great) look tame and safe by comparison. I still have my instamatic photos of the night.

    Bob Farrell inspired me to learn the saxophone. I interviewed them for the Adelaide fanzine Roadrunner. I saw them play 15 or 16 times, the first being at the Civic Hotel in 1979. Through them I discovered Coltrane and a whole universe of great jazz.

    And this year they came back – thanks to Nick Cave. What a few weeks it has been! The Saints and Clowns with the Bad Seeds at ATP – followed shortly thereafter by the Triffids supporting Leonard Cohen in Bowral. All lived up their reputations in my memory. I had been at the Triffids last ever gig with Dave McComb in Canberra in August 1989 and have grieved their absence (and Dave’s death) for half a lifetime.

    Thank you Jill for everything – for keeping the flame burning and for playing and singing so beautifully in Bowral.

    1. thanks for the compliment. I want to point out though that I’m not from the Triffids. We have the same name but different spelling. I’d never seen the Triffids until the tribute show at the Sydney Festival last year, which I thought was glorious.

  2. Thank you for such a wonderful essay.
    This is music writing of the highest order & something which is sadly lacking in today’s mainstream press. The best music critic in this country has been Robert Forster in The Monthly from the first issue onwards. Worth a subscription alone.
    The Clowns at ATP Cockatoo Island was like a dream, their sound floating out over the harbour on a sunny afternoon unforgettable. Louise Elliot seemed to be blowing those yachts along all on her own.
    Your essay provides a delicious entree & heightened sense of occasion into next weekends shows by the Clowns.
    Thank you.

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