After the Saints broke up in 1978 (and before Chris Bailey started the group up again) guitarist/songwriter Ed Kuepper returned to Sydney to form a band with a couple of early Saints alumni. The resulting quintet, dubbed the Laughing Clowns, included sax and electric piano and was topped off with Kuepper’s odd voice: he’s a slightly lower-pitched, nasal and nastier Robert Smith, limited in range, but a commanding presence.
The Clowns’ strange but remarkably bracing debut EP features piano that both meshes its timbral resonance with Kuepper’s guitar chording and co-states the melodies with the sax, as well as — at one point — providing an unnervingly calm anchor while the drums run wild. The romantic and musical clichés of supper-club/movie jazz go berserk in an astonishingly eloquent yet intense statement of disillusionment and frustration.
Oddly enough, the manic energy and tunefulness seemed to dissipate, over the course of two additional EPs, in favor of despair, ennui, cynicism (or just sarcasm?) and decidedly less lustrous music, in both text and texture. The addition of a trumpeter on 3 does provide a spark, only to be neutralized by satirically discordant riffing. By this point, the moments of musical anarchy seem less passionate than perverse.
On Mr. Uddich Schmuddich Goes to Town, a shift in the lineup brought in a new saxman and bassist (playing acoustic stand-up) and dropped the pianist. The tracks are more succinct, and the overall impression is that of consolidation and retrenchment.
The Red Flame Laughing Clowns is a compilation that includes both Prince Melon EPs plus three tracks from the album.
By Laughter Around the Table, the Clowns’ sound had coalesced into something resembling the Cure gone avant-jazz. The sax playing states melody lines and provides some credible solos, but the overall effect, with one exception, is too willfully abrasive and reaches beyond its musical grasp, especially the drumming.
The arrangements on Law of Nature continue to step on Kuepper’s melodies — they’re never harmonically brought out to their fullest. Also, the occasional awkwardness or disjointedness of his bitter lyrics is unintentionally emphasized by this kind of non-production, a frustrating undercutting of Kuepper’s compositional efforts.
By the time they cut History of Rock n’ Roll Volume One, though, all the gears meshed. The Clowns turn out music perversely unillustrative of the title, but with its own dark force and rich, occasionally abrasive textures: swaggering, punching horns, sedate, melodic piano, scratchy, tinny guitar and sliding, stretching acoustic bass, all underpinned by frenetic but authoritative drums. Bravo!
Unfortunately, that apotheosis didn’t last. Ghosts is more controlled than Law of Nature, clarity-wise as well as compositionally, but as before it’s awkward; the lapses of the drums and sax seem unnecessarily (if unintentionally) overemphasized. The songs seem to be making gestures in the direction of more “normal” structure and style without any commitment to that (or any other) direction.
Gone solo, Kuepper grasped some key elements of the later Clowns sound (notably the use of horns to voice songs’ signature riffs) but otherwise opted to skin it back to much more conventional and accessible folk-rock on Electrical Storm. Rooms of the Magnificent took this to another level, displaying much musical variety, even within the same number: “Show Pony” is a quiet, folkish tune which adds horns, which gives way to “Suzie Q”-ish riffing that becomes a coda nearly as long as the song, as guitars and piano flail away like the end of “Layla” gone angry. “Also Sprach the King of Euro-Disco” mates a faintly “Zarathustroid” chord sequence, a James Bondish guitar lick, cool female backing voices, and a killer horn riff.
All of this supports lyrics which twist clichés, making them sardonic (or flat-out bizarre) via voice-tone, juxtaposition or both. The album should have gotten him more attention in America, and it did: Capitol picked up Everybody’s Got To, although nothing came of it, commercially speaking. Too bad — it’s a further refinement of the distinctively blended arrangements of the previous two albums: intelligent, infectious rock’n’roll that, without being at all avant, sounds like nobody else. (Not a Soul Around takes its title track from Everybody’s Got To, adding two from Rooms and the title track of Electric Storm.)
With his career going absolutely nowhere, Kuepper dropped everyone in his band except drummer Mark Dawson, became Today Wonder and cut an acoustic folk LP that includes “If I Were a Carpenter.” Has he lost it? Well, no. “Carpenter” ain’t so hot, but most of the rest (including treatments of two other chestnuts, “I’d Rather Be the Devil” and “Hey Gyp”) is. It’s impressive to hear how full acoustic guitars, drums, a cardboard box and a little echo can sound; Kuepper’s voice (in a slightly lower register here) is even better than before. Inspirational love song opening: “I’ve designs on you that come from dirty books.”