NEO-REALISM & THE ZEITGEIST: Laughing Clowns' last tour preview, from the Age, 1984
It’s an old adage that worthwhile art only arises out of conflict. Friction, after all, is what generates the sparks that light the fire. It may not be so bad, then, in rock ‘n’ roll terms, that the members of a group dislike one another. The Who, for instance, was notorious for backstage punch-ups, and look at its achievements.
The Australian group Laughing Clowns may not be so open about it, but it too is driven by an undercurrent of hostility. And there can be no doubt it is one of the most important Australian groups of the early ‘80s.
After nearly five years, Laughing Clowns has arrived at an effective mode of operation. Always a vehicle for songwriter Ed Kuepper, Laughing Clowns is now less a fixed group and more a name Kuepper can apply to variable line-ups under his leadership.
The current edition of Laughing Clowns is the same one that toured Australia last year — comprising, as well as Kuepper (vocals/guitar), stalwart master-drummer Jeffrey Wegener, saxophonist Louise Elliot and bassist Peter Milton Walsh. I asked Kuepper how he felt about the group.
“Never been happier. I mean, we’ve always been a cheery, easy-going bunch,” he smirked superciliously. Jeffrey Wegener sitting opposite, fidgeted, not uncomfortably, but as if to emphasize his indifference. Laughing Clowns seems to survive on a staple diet of sarcasm and innuendo. Thrive, even.
With a new single, ‘Eternally Yours’, and a new album, Law of Nature, just released, the Clowns will appear, as part of a national tour, at Melbourne University on Sunday night (with hot Sydney band the Celibate Rifles and the premiere of Ollie Olsen’s new Skin and Bones Orchestra) and at the Crystal Ballroom on Monday night.
Law of Nature marks something of a return to form for Laughing Clowns, and certainly a return to a more straightforward approach. “I think in some ways maybe there’s been too much emphasis on the way we’ve changed,” Wegener said. “To me, Ed’s songwriting has developed, but I don’t know if we’ve changed that much . . .”
“Still churning out the same old rubbish, Kuepper added, as if to goad his critics.
Mr Uddich-Schmuddich Goes to Town, Laughing Clowns’ last album in 1982, was a confused affair — the songs were excellent, but they were marred by cluttered arrangements and frequently indulgent passages of improvisation. It was, however, the Clowns’ most successful album to date, and propelled the group to England. Its initial appearances there were poor, though, and Kuepper broke up the group. But before that it cut the Everything That Flies EP, which, while it may have been more frugal, was unfortunately sluggish.
Kuepper then assembled a new Laughing Clowns to tour Australia last year. Its sound was pared-down and more pointed, a rockier Laughing Clowns than any line-up since their very earliest days, which Kuepper describes as deliberate. Law Of Nature, recorded at the ABC Studios in Sydney after the tour, captures the group well. Yet while Kuepper’s songs remain involving, it is his flat singing that drags this album down, specially since the instrumentation is otherwise scintillating. Asked for his opinion of the album, all Kuepper could offer was: “It’s good. It sounds better. They’re good songs.”
After finishing the album, Laughing Clowns headed for Europe, where they played in Austria, Holland, Germany and Czechoslovakia.
“We played brilliantly, and it went really well,” Wegener commented cynically.
“We’ve probably got a lot more potential in Europe [than England]. It’s generally not as depressed,” Kuepper said.
But, as Peter Allen puts it, Laughing Clowns would “still call Australia home.” The band is now being promoted by Sydney independent Hot Records, while its own Prince Melon label seems to have gone into retirement.
“I think the interest that’s been generated should sustain and continue,” Wegener proffered. “There’s enough progression there to keep people entertained.”
On this tour, the Clowns set will be basically the same as last year. “That’s necessary because this album’s got to be promoted,” Wegener explained, “and people do appreciate a live set that includes some material they know. We’ve often had a problem in the past when an entire repertoire has been relatively new.”
Kuepper: “It will just be more planned, like the last time, I guess. And that seems to work with this line-up of the band anyway, slightly tighter.”
And after the tour, what does the future hold?
Kuepper: “Well, y’know, the band’s always been in a state of flux; that’s really the way it’s always worked. People tend to get a bit hysterical when there’s a line-up change, and yet that’s been the norm. Yeah, we’ll see how things go at the end of the tour . . . After every tour we’ve always had a break. I need time to write, and the other people in the band do other things.”
All the indicators are, however, that Laughing Clowns will dissolve finally after this tour, so if you don’t see it now you may never get another chance. At least, not until Ed Kuepper finds a new backing band.