Their terms were laid out clearly right from the first press release: “TISM are very prepared to exchange their ideals for as much money as you would care to offer.”
Nobody should’ve been surprised when, a few short years later, these supposed anarchists from outer Melbourne inked a major label deal for 1990’s Hot Dogma. Except maybe TISM themselves. Wasn’t the old line that they could never sell out for lack of buyers?
Mainstream commodification via Phonogram (a local subsidiary of Polygram; both long since absorbed by Universal Music) was merely the ultimate expression of TISM’s “nothing’s sacred” belief system. Shit, if seven unknown suburbanites could entirely self-fund a debut double LP, swear-word their way into the arse end of the national top 40, win an ARIA, and – the clincher – earn Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum’s endorsement on prime-time telly… well, who knew what might happen with the powder-lined nostrils and amphetamined muscle of a major?
That was the gamble some poor, long-forgotten Phonogram A&R man took, and lost. Hot Dogma flopped. No Rolling Stone review, no charts; some promotional efforts, but no hits. The label exec scarpered, TISM were fired, manager Gavan Purdy quit, and in months the band was down a guitarist, pondering possible breakup. When you sit at the craps table of rock with TISM, everybody loses.
Naturally, this clichéd behind-the-scenes turmoil went undisclosed. TISM’s only comment came two years later, via a communique that sent fax machines whirring back to life with the words “Hot Dogma is dog’s balls.”
But a convincing proportion of TISM fans persists, even now, to hold battered copies of that record aloft as the band’s finest hour. They’ll cite the singalong refrain of perennial live favourite “I’ll ‘Ave Ya”; the playful, inventive lyricism of “They Shoot Heroin, Don’t They?”; the pummelling, desperate, climactic “Life Kills.” Its fans rhapsodise Hot Dogma’s almost-a-concept-album qualities and thrill to the athletic nihilism of Ron Hitler-Barassi’s abundant diatribes, never once doubting that his “I’m dying” leitmotif does indeed float.
So who’s right – the fans or the band? Is lead singer Humphrey B Flaubert’s assertion that this sprawling 70-minute record “…would have made a great 4-track EP” correct? As its 30th anniversary slips by unnoticed by all but the most depressingly nostalgic listeners, should we, as its rambling liner notes suggest, “put the shattered pieces back together to analyse the true significance of Hot Dogma?”
Fuck no! Why bother? If music criticism is bullshit (and it is) then revisionist criticism is doubly so. The only reason reviewers apply deep academic analysis and critical theory to music is to justify their own sudden and completely contrived fondness for Enya.
Posturing of this kind is what TISM called out long before call-out culture. They weren’t iconoclasts, they just lambasted the artifice of integrity and artistic merit constructed by performers, perpetuated by the media and swallowed by fans.
It was hard enough in the nineties knowing whether to enjoy AC/DC ironically or not. Now algorithms harvest our very sensibilities, and we’re left more afraid than ever to be seen liking the wrong thing, or not liking the right thing, or conflating “good” and “bad” or liking (or not liking) the right things for the wrong reasons. We must hear “WAP” in the greater context of centuries of appalling systemic racism, sex-shaming, misogyny, and patriarchal policing of women, because otherwise there’s just the ugly, shameful boner conjured by the song’s libidinous video.
Hot Dogma was bad and remains bad inasmuch as it is the least TISM-like artefact in TISM’s exhausting catalogue. Phonogram-appointed producer Peter Blyton (fresh from sessions with Australia’s answer to Poison, 21 Guns) binned their cheap drum machines and naff keyboards in favour of “realistic” digital gear – fake brass, fake organ, fake strings, and fake “real” drums.
Blyton completely buried Jock Cheese’s absurdist guitar cacophony on “(I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And) Whittle Away My Furniture” and contributed to composition of several songs in a process Flaubert likened to “having Bon Jovi re-write your lyrics.”
The resulting record sounded out of date even before its October release. But worse than that, the cowardice that ultimately fuelled TISM had apparently backfired. Or, as Hitler-Barassi candidly recalled from the safety of yet another facile nom-de-plume, “It was as if the idea of TISM was somehow corroded.”
Instinctively the band sensed its folly might someday attract bogus favourable re-evaluation, and a pre-emptive strike was needed to discredit any future attempts. They bundled with Hot Dogma a sardonic essay written (by Footscray legend EJ Whitten) from a far-off vantage point at which the album itself is globally influential, though most of the band are long dead. Even in this imagined scenario, spiritual bandleader Les Miserables (whose “Pus of The Dead” vocals remain a highlight) dismisses the work as “Rot, basically.”
But TISM – the most contradictory, hypocritical band in rock history – embraced revisionist history the moment it suited them. They reissued Hot Dogma in 1995 with 40% fewer songs (dismissing the likes of “Whinge Rock” and “We Are The Champignons”) and entirely new artwork.
The original sleeve had been hand-painted in lieu of prohibitively expensive digital scanning, but technology soon cheapened enough that Wisconsin’s Killdozer used it for a similar “communist propaganda” cover concept. TISM’s earlier hand-painted effort was, by comparison, a poorly-executed imitation of actual Cultural Revolution art, but let’s resist the urge to call Hot Dogma ahead of its time.
Because reissues, too, are dog’s balls; at least from a completist’s perspective. The aforementioned 1995 boxset version omits period-correct live tunes “Too Cool For School, Too Stupid For Life” and “Opium Is the Religion of The Masses” in favour of (admittedly satisfying) pre-Blyton versions of “The TISM Finance Plan Offer” and “Put Your Dog To Sleep.” The 2009 digital-only reissue (subtitled “Prisoner Of Satiety”) offers frustratingly similar, yet inferior demos of those same songs, recorded in highly unauthorised fashion at La Trobe University.
These bonus tracks hint at the stripped-backed album Hot Dogma could have been, but not at the leap forward it should have been. Blyton’s influence cost TISM the chance to flagrantly brandish weedy plastic beats years before the alternative scene decided machines were cool. “We’ve always had the Casio, and the tackier the better,” Hitler-Barassi told Adelaide journalist Brett Buttfield. Hot Dogma contains only the briefest dab of acid-trance snare, but every subsequent TISM release would feature – to varying degree – layered drum loops, sequences and samples.
Hot Dog’s Balls, as we may as well call it, is bad. But its creation meant that TISM met Laurence Maddy, a young sound engineer who would go on to enable their techno habit to the point of overdose: Rolling Stone reviews; charts; TV; hits. If hindsight is 20/20, surely even the “cack-eyed” knobs in TISM can now see how vital their misstep was.
The fact is that despite an outwardly reductionist worldview – a duality of yobs and wankers – TISM were as considered, as nuanced, as subtle and as complex as any band ever was. A body of work as deep as theirs is bound to be flawed. But yobs and wankers aren’t mutually exclusive, and likewise, just because Hot Dogma is bad doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed.
Look, I’d love to wake up tomorrow to news of a new TISM release as much as the next fan, but it’s not going to happen. There’s just six albums, three EPs, several compilations, a boxset, b-sides, bonus discs, a rock opera, two live albums… actually there’s shitloads isn’t there?
But having called the turd a turd, we can at least eat Hot Dogma’s shit sandwich with a clear conscience. We needn’t make excuses for enjoying dog’s balls. Flaubert said it himself: “If something’s bad it’s bad; that’s a quality it had.”