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The Birthday Party

+ {The Boys Next Door}

“Welcome to the car smash” that was The BIRTHDAY PARTY – as depicted by the maniacal lyrics in their freakishly wonderful `Dead Joe’ nugget. Of course, this group (originally as The BOYS NEXT DOOR) was the stamping ground for Australian “dead-pan” singer/songwriter/author/director NICK CAVE – a real “Bad Seed” if ever there was one.
Formed as the aforementioned BND in Caulfield, Melbourne, late in ‘77 by Cave, Mick Harvey (guitar), Tracy Pew (bass) and Phil Calvert (drums), the indie group’s musical account got underway in ’78 by way of an off-kilter re-tread of LEE HAZLEWOOD’s `These Boots Were Made For Walking’.
To boost Cave’s quirky new wave/pop-fuelled pieces (the group was unfairly described in some quarters as Australia’s answer to The BOOMTOWN RATS), a fifth member was added in guitarist/songsmith Rowland S. Howard, just as a second bout of studio time was booked by Mushroom Records. Almost immediately, the newbie was laying down tracks such as `After A Fashion’ and `I Mistake Myself’) for the second side of the group’s debut LP, DOOR, DOOR (1979) {*7}; the attendant 45 `Shivers’ (banned for its “contemplating suicide” lyrics) the pick of the bunch, and indeed, the set itself. Cave’s `Dive Position’ (the latter’s B-side!) was a precursor to BIRTHDAY PARTY fare, weirdly anthemic and verging on gothic with a filmy-like twist. Of the non-Howard-attributed first side, only `The Nightwatchman’, The RUTS-like `Somebody’s Watching Me’ and the pogo-punk short-take `Roman Roman’, stood out.
EPs were something of a standard fare for indie bands at the time, and `Hee-Haw’ (released at the turn of the 80s) was BND’s next stab in the dark. Maniacal and menacing by comparison to their previous compositions, tracks such as `A Catholic Skin’, `The Red Clock’ and `The Hair Shirt’ were struck from a different cricket bat. The latter was also featured on BND’s sophomore LP, THE BIRTHDAY PARTY (1980) {*8}, released confusingly enough after the group had moved to London and had morphed their new Harold Pinter-procured moniker from the title of the aforesaid set; it was subsequently catalogued under their brand-new name. Charged with a ferocity and a new-found razor-edge brutality, the record highlighted Cave in Iggy-meets-Beefheart form on three recent 45s, the all-classic `Mr. Clarinet’, `Happy Birthday’ and `The Friend Catcher’ (lyrics “Hee-Haw” stem from the latter); incidentally, their banshee-cry rendition of GENE VINCENT’s `Catman’ was a nice touch. Having already been snapped up by Ivo on fresh Brit-indie label 4 a.d. (Radio One DJ John Peel had given their work prominent night-time airplay), The BIRTHDAY PARTY were ready to explode on to the burgeoning alt-rock scene – a celebration, albeit one with more than its fair share of deep, black humour.
First album proper, PRAYERS ON FIRE (1981) {*9}, featured such enduringly sharp material as the opener `Zoo Music Girl’; with added brass, two-and-a-half minutes of gothic-jazz genius. The PERE UBU-esque `Cry’ contrasted bombastically with the cabaret-carousel of `Capers’, the GrufFalo Cave giving TOM WAITS a run for his money on the latter. Track four on a run immortal beauts, `Nick The Stripper’ cooled the pace down a notch as Nick the growler approached the bare-chested (et al) proportions of a certain STOOGES leader. `Ho Ho’, `King Ink’, `A Dead Song’ and the stabbing `Dull Day’, kept the Devil from all the best tunes, while the morbid nightmare nuance of `Just You And Me’ closed up Nick’s little shop of horrors.
Not included on the set, yet another class 45 `Release The Bats’ (very “Out Demons Out”) was delivered as an addendum to their power-driven shows. The BIRTHDAY PARTY live were even more unhinged than on vinyl, their demented stage show setting them apart from the masses of up and coming goth-rock acts around at the time. Unleashed as a memento of these angst-ridden times, the mini-set DRUNK ON THE POPE’S BLOOD (1982) {*5} was a side-long shared affair that was twinned with American mistress of soft-porn new wave LYDIA LUNCH’s “The Agony Is The Ecstacy”. Of the bleak BP pieces (`Pleasure Heads’, `King Ink’ and `Zoo-Music Girl’ already main studio staples), their version of The STOOGES’ `Loose’ was choice.
Later that year, Tracy was jailed for drunk driving, a revolving cast of Barry Adamson (ex-MAGAZINE), Chris Walsh and Harry Howard deputising for him on tour. While the bassist was behind bars, Nick, Mick and Rowland teamed up as The Tuff Monks with fellow Australians, The GO-BETWEENS for a one-off 45, `After The Fireworks’.
A further album, JUNKYARD (1982) {*6} assured The BIRTHDAY PARTY’s position as cult favourites among those who favoured black as a fashion statement; it also squeezed into the UK Top 75 listings. Rambunctious and almost blood-stained in demonic cabaret, Cave and Co crawled their way through lyrical exorcisms via the deathly `She’s Hit’, the bluesy and blasphemous `Big-Jesus-Trash-Can’ and the Shakespeare-to-Romeo piece `Hamlet (Pow, Pow, Pow)’. While the aforementioned `Dead Joe’ was buried under the raucous rubble of many of the songs here, Cave’s closing title track possessed a devil all of its own.
As a side-line to his BP duties, Rowland S. Howard hooked up with the aforementioned LYDIA LUNCH for a cover of LEE HAZLEWOOD & NANCY SINATRA’s `Some Velvet Morning’, while The BIRTHDAY PARTY (Harvey now on drums) were trimmed to a quartet for `The Bad Seed’ EP; Calvert would team up with The PSYCHEDELIC FURS. Released in early ‘83, the set included the incendiary `Sonny’s Burning’, arguably their wildest and most chaotic track.
The group’s end came that autumn as drummer Jeffrey Wegener (ex-LAUGHING CLOWNS) and guitarist Blixa Bargeld (of EINSTURZENDE NEUBAUTEN) respectively filled in for the absent Harvey and Rowland on tour. Having moved to Berlin to escape the pressures of critical adulation, the ‘Party was finally over after the appropriately-titled `Mutiny’ EP. Issued on Mute Records, songs such as `Jennifer’s Veil’, `Swampland’ and the Beefheart-ish `Mutiny In Heaven’ closed another great chapter in Australia’s musical legacy. Tracy Pew joined The SAINTS (he was to die late ‘86 of epileptic fit aged 28); Rowland formed CRIME & THE CITY SOLUTION (he died of liver cancer on 30th December 2009); buddies Mick Harvey and NICK CAVE (who’d relocated to London) formed The Bad Seeds.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Aug2012

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