When A Saint Chose His Laughing Clowns
“This is the band that I’ve called ‘the greatest live rock’n’roll band in the world ever, full stop,’” declared Everett True (or Jeremy Thackray to his mum) during his tenure at New Musical Express, from which he was famously sacked in 1988.
“This is the band that made me walk out of a Birthday Party gig, because I knew there wasn’t a hope in hell that Nick Cave’s group, even at the height of their awesome, spontaneous powers, could follow them.”
Ed Kuepper and new Clowns Vinyl
A pretty bold statement that I’m sure many AMMP readers might dispute, but then you have to wonder just who True was championing with such categorical assurance. As it happens, it was The Laughing Clowns, the band Ed Kuepper, singer, songwriter, guitarist and cofounder of The Saints, pulled together after The Saints imploded.
In May 2021 fans of The Laughing Clowns will have some new vinyl to look forward to with the release of Golden Days.
Have you ever wondered…
How Kuepper made the leap from the scuzzy “punk” stylings of The Saints to the spiky ersatz jazz inclinations of The Laughing Clowns? Would you believe listening to that eternal American crooner Tony Bennett? It’s all down to Bennett’s 1957 album, The Beat Of My Heart.
“I bought that on some cheap Music For Pleasure label when I first moved over to England with The Saints,” Kuepper told me in the late ‘90s.
“I guess being in London at the height of the punk era the first thing that I wanted to do was find my own musical space. I was buying all sorts of stuff just to see whether I liked it if I hadn’t heard it and it was a bit of a fluke find, that particular album, because I like Tony Bennett’s early ‘60s stuff, his more ballady things, but that album in particular, I hadn’t heard anything like it and I haven’t still.
“To some extent it’s certainly unique within his releases, the first thing that struck me at the time about it is there’s hardly anything on it except for vocals and drums and a little bit of horns here and there. It just seemed perfect – so I just kind of ripped it off blind! That’s not totally true but it was a massive influence.
“You can’t do this stuff and be overly sweet with it. I mean one, I don’t sing particularly sweetly and two, I liked I guess the kind of horn equivalent to harmonic distortion on a guitar or something but I guess it adds a reasonably unique kind of ambience.”
Golden Days After The Saints
The most important aspect of where Kuepper wanted to go with his post-Saints music however was away from the guitar. “It was kind of necessary because I sort of felt that even with The Saints I was starting to do that. I sort of felt that I could do the powerful guitar stuff fairly easily and I wanted to see if I could actually make things work without relying on that all the time. The guitar is still quite an important part of the Clowns. It’s just done in a different way. It’s less a focus. The focus was spread more around all of the instruments, but I must admit I was surprised at how much guitar there was in it in a way.”
Jeffrey Wegener, Dan and Ben Wallace-Crabbe, Bob Farrell
Reuniting with drummer Jeffrey Wegener, who’d been in an early Saints lineup, for The Laughing Clowns, Kuepper recruited brothers pianist Dan and bass player Ben Wallace-Crabbe, and tenor saxophonist Bob Farrell, who was actually an old school friend who’d opted for jazz over rock. The inclusion of sax inevitably saw them pigeonholed as jazz-punk, though the band was neither jazz nor punk. “The Clowns have always been more than just improvisation, and some of the stuff that comes across as improvisation is actually reasonably structured. But the great thing with the band is that if we decided to just throw something into it, everybody can kind of pick up on it immediately.”
The Red Flag Label Clowns
Kuepper disbanded the original Sydney-based Laughing Clowns in 1982, but took a new line-up to London the following year to try again, the Clowns having had a few records released in the UK through the Red Flag label. “The Clowns did a couple of tours and stayed for a while but that was around the time that my first son was born and it just became a little difficult to stay. We toured with The Birthday Party and with The Fall, which was an interesting experience though not a particularly great experience! They have a remarkably intolerant audience. With The Birthday Party the audiences were great.”
The Legacy 1979-1984
Over the five years 1979 through 1984 that Kuepper led The Laughing Clowns they released three studio albums, three live albums – two of them recorded in 2009 and 2010, during their brief reunion, the third coming from a 1982 performance – four EPs and four singles, while two compilations have been released, Golden Days – When Giants Walked the Earth in August 1995 and a 3CD set, Cruel but Fair; The Complete Clowns Recordings, in October 2005, both on Hot Records. Kuepper naturally the one constant, a dozen musicians passed through the band’s ranks, including pianists Chris Abrahams, best known these days for his work with avant-trio The Necks, and the inimitable Louis Tillett.
The May 2021 Release
On May 29th, 2021, Kuepper’s own Prince Melon Records will be reissuing the Laughing Clowns 1995 compilation, Golden Days – When Giants Walked the Earth, on CD and also as limited edition LPs in clear vinyl.
By Michael Smith, former Associate and Contributing editor at The Drum Media and The Music, freelance music journalist for RAM, Juke, On The Street, JAMM, Sonics and way more, freelance book reviewer for Overland, Island and Quadrant, author of What’s Been Did (And What’s Been Hid): A Narrative History of Australian Pop and Rock, two volumes completed to date, Volume I covering the artists and acts that emerged between 1955 and 1963, Volume II those between 1964 and 1969. Bass player with Mushroom signing Scandal 1976-78, and legendary instrumental surf guitar band The Atlantics 2006-12.