THE BIRTHDAY PARTY... All Welcome
by Dave Lang (Sept 1999)I have an eery feeling that this article will possess the very same tone that a piece I wrote for PSF a few years ago on the Stooges had: that certain "why the hell has it taken me so long?" air to it. I think my frighteningly late-coming love for both the Birthday Party and the Stooges can be easily paralleled: if you happen to live in Melbourne, Australia, you can't avoid either band, and you can't avoid the horrible damage that both admittedly fantastic bands have done to the Australian music scene over the last 20 years. It was for that very reason that I avoided both artists for a longer period than I care to admit.
What am I talking about? Well, in regards to the Stooges, I'm sure you're aware of our nation's long-running obsession with the lads from Detroit, and the myriad of extraoridinarily lame bands that have hailed them as the much-dreaded "major influence" (and I'm NOT talking about Radio Birdman here), but do you know of the damage reeked by the polite, middle-class, private-school boys from the Birthday Party? Sure, in the US you had such 'Party fans as Scratch Acid, Laughing Hyenas and Sonic Youth - all fine bands in their hey-day (and that's long ago, I'm sorry to say) - but what of arse-end-of-the-scene Aussie ensembles like Harem Scarem, Blue Ruin and the Wreckery? Heard 'em? You don't want to. Hmmm... maybe I should pen an article one day entitled "When Great Bands Influence Talentless Blowhards"...
Many locals would disagree with me on nearly all counts here - violently so, in fact - but it's my pedestal and I'll state my case. Much like, say, Henry Rollins, Iggy Pop or John Lydon, I simply can't listen to Nick Cave's solo work. It doesn't just irk me, it conjures up nasty images of suicide, junk and pretentious idiots in bargain-bin op-shop suits parading around books of "personal poetry." Anyone hailing from Nick's homeground will know exactly what I'm talking about, the rest of you, take a guess. You could say that Nick is responsible for creating the blueprint for the Emaciated Urban Hipster Asshole in my neck of the woods, and for that he deserves a smack (no, not that smack!). You can take his wannabe Sinatra/Scott Walker/Gene Vincent/Bob Dylan/Leadbelly/Leonard Cohen songs of woe and throw 'em down the toilet, too, coz I'm not interested. Just as I'm not interested in hearing Hank Rollins talking of his bench-pressing exploits, or Iggy and his drug-binge with Slash or John Lydon and, well, I just don't want to hear that guy at ALL these days, I wanna hear 'em when they meant it (if ever they did), so gimme Damaged, gimme My War, gimme Funhouse, gimme Raw Power, gimme... Bollocks, and whilst we're at it, gimme Prayers on Fire or Junkyard. Yes, that's what I mean: the Birthday Party were a righteous BAND, and I'd like to discuss that band.
So, whilst I've been brainwashing myself with American '80's hardcore, noise, jazz, psych, post-punk and whatever other inane nonsense I've been listening to for the last 15 years, I only finally came around to the Birthday Party about 2 years ago, at the ripe old age of 25! What took me so long? I think it was partly accident and perhaps part premature senility.
You see, I used to work with this guy that was once a roadie for the Bad Seeds, and he'd be forever playing the old Birthday Party records during the day. "Aaargh!" I'd scream, "turn that horrible, pretentious, tuneless racket off and put something nice on, like Merzbow or something." "Fuck the Birthday Party," I thought, "who the hell wants to hear those stuck-up, has-been, rich-boy tosspots, even if they did like the Stooges, The Fall, Pere Ubu and The Pop Group?!" (Bands I'd then put on the stereo.) And so the lobotomising process began, day after day.
"Hmmm... can you play Junkyard again? Yeah, not a bad album really, might take it home and give it a listen. Actually, I might borrow Prayers on Fire and Mutiny, too. Yeah, better just give me the lot." I was hooked, and have been for a while now. Now I'm a fully-fledged member of the Birthday Party Appreciation Society. So fuckin' sue me.
OK, so the longwinded introduction is out of the way, I hope; now it's time to talk about the band in question. The Birthday Party were originally formed under the name Boys Next Door as a quartet when Nick Cave, Tracey Pew, Mick Harvey and Phil Calvert were in high school in the mid-'70's at Caulfield Grammar, a hoity-toity boys' private institution in the Eastern suburbs of Melbourne. Inspired by the glam schlock of early Roxy Music, Alice Cooper, T-Rex and David Bowie, they punked-up their sound a touch with the arrival of the Saints, Ramones, 'Pistols, etc. only to soon find themselves considered the Great White Hope of the local punk/new wave scene of ol' Melbourne Town. Misguidedly signing to the then semi-major/corporate (or should I simply say "unsympathetic"?) Mushroom label, they released the quasi-flawed Door, Door LP in '78. Or maybe I should say "tragically flawed," since the single "Shivers" is the only good song on it, methinks, the rest sounding way too power-pop/New Wave for my likings. One good thing came of it, though: the band learnt their lesson to play by their own rules and not to cower to music biz expectations. With the multi-talented Rowland S. Howard now in tow as second guitarist and song-writer, the band would soon find their feet, their sound and a new name.
Hence, the Birthday Party were born, then promptly proceeded to rock the goddamn hell out of the inner city squalor of Melbourne, got the boot from Mushroom for their efforts and slowly but surely changed their sound from a highly-refined art-pop to a primitive, tribal grunt. The first evidence of this is their Hee-Haw EP on Missing Link Records from '79 (at the time released under the Boys Next Door moniker, then compiled onto an American LP simply called Birthday Party, and now released again as the Birthday Party's Hee-Haw compilation CD of sorts... interesting?). Things were starting to sound real promising, almost like a combination of then-current Fall, Pere Ubu and Swell Maps, but with a snarl and a hint of more to offer, it also looked like they'd tossed off the burdening shackles of their debut disaster (which, financially and critically, ate shit). Finding Melbourne too restrictive for their high ambitions (which wouldn't be hard, given the open hostility the "biz" had to anything remotely innovative) the band split for London where it was believed they'd reach more sympathetic ears and at least attempt to live off their music.
Well, reach sympathetic ears they surely did, and in the process both found kindred spirits in the likes of The Fall, The Pop Group and the Cramps (all of whom, along with Pere Ubu and the Stooges, would have to be considered the biggest influences on the 'Party), and a sense of utter revulsion at the lilly-livered state of the English music scene. Confronted with the pansified synth-noodle of Human League, OMD and the New Romantic set, the band drew the line in the sand. From then on, until their departure to Berlin a few years later and their final split, they were the baddest, nastiest, most fucked-up band in England. And thanks the heavens for that.
4AD (a label whose roster/sound I cannot stomach, though I give them credit for their foresight in signing up the poor Aussies) quickly released a couple of killer 7"s culled from the Hee-Haw sessions, and the band once again headed Down Under for a brief tour and to record a new album, the immense, and indeed truly awesome, Prayers on Fire. Local boho bumpkins were shocked at what had become of their favourite band upon their return. The drugs, the squalid living conditions, the loathing, the contempt, the MUSIC. Gone were any traces of their pleaseantly-distracting past, only to be replaced by a goddamn fire-breathing monster of hellish rock'n'roll savagery (sound scarey?). By this stage their sound was an ungodly mix of Pop Group-ish angular funk, Beefheart/Pere Ubu-esque jerkiness, Cramps-y hellfire stomp and of course a heavy dose of Stooges-style, suicidal audience-baiting in their live set (one infamous gig even featured the band covering the entire Funhouse LP from start to finish). In other fucking words, a band to be reckoned with. For the uninitiated, I highly recommend starting with Prayers on Fire. From the opening tribal whomp of "Zoo Music Girl" to the slow lurch of "Nick the Stripper" to the low-end rumble of "A Dead Song" to the 'Ubu-ish jive of "Yard," this one gets my vote as one of the top 5 Australian LP's of all time (the other entrants being the Saints and AC/DC, of course).
The group headed back to the UK and hit the road throughout Europe, where inwhich they shocked, delighted, amused and revolted both audiences and venue-owners alike, resulting in various bans for the group and a reputation as one of the most ferocious live acts under the sun. Up to their eyeballs in various illegal substances, the band hightailed it at the end of '81 back to Richmond, Melbourne, to record the masterpiece epic, Junkyard. This is actually my fave disc of theirs, from the wild Ed Roth cover art to the trashy, frantic, bluesy racket contained within, this time complemented by a big, echo-y, reverb-laden production. In fact I'd even go out on a limb here and say that this is as close as an Australian band has ever gotten to replicating Funhouse's vibe: animalistic rock'n'roll burning with a sense of danger and despair, nearly at the end of its tether but never giving up. I won't give a track-by-track rundown, the whole thing kicks from start to finish. Like Funhouse or Damaged, it's perfectly paced, edited and sequenced, flowing like a well-penned novel that delivers the blow just when it's needed. Pretty much ignored upon release down under (the band were, at best, considered an amusing freakshow by most critics, and, at worst, a drug-addled pest best left to the Limeys), this is now rightly considered a classic and hugely influential album - years after the fact - as is often the case.
By this stage things were getting messy. Drugs, poverty and hostility from the UK press/public were destroying the band, so they decided to relocate to Berlin, a city they'd found welcoming upon touring there and one that was home to their good friends, those wacky tin-banging krauts, Einsturzende Neubauten. At this point, Phil Calvert had been unceremoniosly sacked, Mick Harvey moved to drums and they once again started recording. Somehow, prior to all these shambles, the band managed to make it to the US for a few dates on the East Coast. My knowledge is admittedly sketchy on this period of the band, but from what I've read, the tour was undoubtedly a bit of a disaster, with the band being too strung out or exhausted, or just too damn cranky with each other to perform well on the night. However, as Rowland S. Howard once pointed out, the beauty of the band - or any great band, for that matter - was that one night they'd tear the house down and the next night they'd be like sleepwalking zombies on stage. Just like Iggy would sometimes literally attack an audience and bait them to the point of hysteria, setting all-new standards in performance-art/real-life psychosis, then the next night merely walk out, throw up, collapse and get dragged off the stage, it's the sense of unpredictability that sets the real bands apart from the posers. The Birthday Party didn't "perform" every night because they were all about THE MOMENT, and that can't be rehearsed.
So, anyway, out of the recording sessions came the Bad Seed and Mutiny EP's, the latter only being released just posthumously when the band called it quits late '83 after Mick Harvey left the band. Though mellower than Junkyard, these are both still highly recommended, and indeed considered by 'Party-lovin' pals of mine as their best work, basically because of the more superior songwriting than the previous efforts; that is, there's still an intense power in the music, though the heavy country/blues influence (this is around the time the band discovered John Lee Hooker, Hank Williams, etc.) lends the songs a stronger, more melodic feel. Fact of the matter is, the Mutiny EP features my favourite song they ever played, the astounding "Jennifer's Veil," a beautiful, stumbling ballad made perfect by the loping drums, strumming guitars and creepy, atmospheric production. I can't quite fathom it, and the band may very well deny it, but there's just something so Australian about the song. I don't mean that in a flag-waving sense; I mean to say that it conjures up visions of the outback, of desert, of vast space so well that it can't be described, but it's the laziness and space within the song that does it. Now released as a CD containing both EP's, there's some other noteworthy tracks within, namely the bluesy lament of "Wild World" and the noisy, primal churn of both "Fears of Gun" and "Swampland", though for a band on the verge of either killing each other or themselves, this is a mighty impressive swansong when most bands would have given it up by that stage.
So that's the abbreviated version of the band, though it probably doesn't adequately explain why one should really listen to their music, or what it is about them that I find so appealing. I've thought about exactly that as I've been writing this, and I still can't come up with a single, conclusive argument. I think that one of the things I find so appealing about them is that they are so often misunderstood. Just as many confuse other favourite rock'n'rollers of mine, such as thinking the Stooges to be a dumb-ass garage rock band from the '60's, or Black Flag merely a violent hardcore punk band from the '80's, people don't realise there's so much more to their music, their influences, their attitudes, what they put up with to make their own music and what their aesthetic was as a group. I mean, people still mistake the Birthday Party as "gothic," and that their "contemporaries" in the UK scene were the likes of Bauhaus and Echo and the Bunnymen! If anything, their contemporaries were, as stated, the likes of The Fall and The Pop Group, as well as transatlantic brethren like Black Flag and early Swans. Like I've said, I originally misunderstood them; I blamed them for producing dozens of much lesser outfits, I resented them for constantly being hailed as being THE band that put Melbourne on the map, but most of all, without having ever heard much of their recorded work, I presumed they didn't ROCK, that their music wasn't worthy of consideration. Now I'm older and wiser and able to appreciate them on many different levels.
For one, I can apprecaite and chart their evolution as a group. As a band, they made their mistakes in public, yet they managed to learn from them, and if anything, improved as a musical unit throughout their lifespan. Their early, botched efforts seem less shameful when put in comparison with their later, stronger material; rather, they sound like a band in desperate search for its own identity. Secondly, now that I'm fully recovered from my long-term case of Cultural Cringe, I can honestly say that I respect and admire the truly Australian aspect of their music. Although sometimes mistaken as being British or even Anglophilic in nature, their rustic swagger is pure Australiana, especially in their later works where their original Fall/Pop Group obsessions gave way to a unique, demented blending of country and blues styles. Could I even possibly say that they make me PROUD without being lynched? That their music perfectly encapsulates the angst of being considered an outsider in your own home town? Too late, I've said it.
Now that everyone's grabbing their Pere Ubu box sets with pride, running frantically for reissues of free jazz obscurities, falling over themselves in praise for Yoko Ono's early efforts and drooling over long-forgotten Krautrock gatefold wonders, it's high time you pulled your finger out and investigated the sublime beauty of this incredible band and their wondrous slabs of shrieking, desperate noise. God knows it took ME long enough.
Though just to posthumously appease the petty scenesters who dare complain of my "one-sided argument" on this non-issue, I shall list some highly worthy Australian bands that also happen/ed to be influenced by the Birthday Party: Venom P. Stinger, Slub, Grong Grong, God, Fungus Brains, Lubricated Goat, King Snake Roost, Bloodloss, Feedtime, Up Syndrome, Powder Monkeys, etc. These bands took the raw grit and sheer lunacy that was the Birthday Party and used it to their advantage; whilst the hairdressers I mentioned under the "lame" category - who received much attention in their day as being part of the "post-Birthday Party scene" - took the most mincing aspects of Nick Cave's persona - doubled it - and extracted any possible balls from their music in the process. A similar, possibly identical, list could be made for great Australian bands also influenced by the Stooges. Comprende? Sleep better now?
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