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Nick Cave

+ {Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds} + {Grinderman}

Born Nicholas Edward Cave, 22nd September 1957 in Warracknabeal, Victoria, Australia, Nick is one of the few talents of the post-punk generation who’ve transcended the genre rather than stagnating it; he is very possibly the most vital singer-songwriter working right now, and about the only real candidate talented enough to follow in the late footsteps of his own heroes JOHNNY CASH and NINA SIMONE. Over the course of a wildly impressive career, CAVE’s sense of dark drama and poetic justice have served him well as a moonlighting film composer, while his seething charisma and formidable presence have occasionally lent themselves to acting parts.
From the streets of Melbourne, Nick served his post-punk apprenticeship with two of the leading outfits, The BOYS NEXT DOOR, and their challenging aftermath, The BIRTHDAY PARTY. The former group had been on the go since 1973, performing as a covers band at school discos (the private Caulfield Grammar School in Melbourne, to be exact) and comprised Nick on vocals, Mick Harvey on guitar, Tracy Pew on bass and Phil Calvert on drums; they were joined in the fall of ’78 by second guitarist/songwriter Rowland S. Howard. Two albums later, the quintet relocated to London in 1980 and duly became The BIRTHDAY PARTY, a gothic-blues creation that suited the demented demon that was NICK CAVE. Cult 45s for Ivo’s 4 a.d. Records, `Mr. Clarinet’, `The Friend Catcher’ and `Release The Bats’ followed in quick succession, while two LPs (including the awe-inspiring `Prayers On Fire’ and 1982’s slightly disappointing `Junkyard’) hit the spot for indie-cum-alt-rock acolytes. A transitional and tumultuous year in ’83 led to splits within the ranks (they’d also moved to Berlin), culminating the inevitable implosion by the year end. Blixa Bargeld (of EINSTURZENDE NEUBAUTEN) performed with, and guested on a few BP songs, before he took up with Messrs CAVE and Harvey in splinter group NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS; bassist Barry Adamson (ex-MAGAZINE) and drummer Hugo Race would be make up the brooding and tense quintet; Anita Lane on synths would be added soon afterwards.
Retained by Mute Records (home to The BIRTHDAY PARTY in the final days), their debut long player FROM HER TO ETERNITY (1984) {*7} introduced CAVE’s preoccupation with the ELVIS myth on a cover of Mac Davis’ `In The Ghetto’. Dramatic and harrowing to its very last drop of the menacing title track, other songs to shine out were the eerie `Saint Huck’, `Cabin Fever!’ and a heart-rending re-tread of LEONARD COHEN’s `Avalanche’.
The Elvis obsession was indulged in greater depth on sophomore set, THE FIRSTBORN IS DEAD (1985) {*8}. The spit and thrash of The BIRTHDAY PARTY had now been replaced with a skeletal, funereal musical backing to accompany CAVE’s ominous crooning; Harvey and Adamson took turns on drums as Hugo had dropped out (as did Anita). Part hellfire preacher, part damned sinner, Nick’s tales of murder most foul and general debauchery were almost always set in a context (real or implied) of Old Testament morality. Yep, this crazy cat had that old-time religion, songs such as `Tupelo’, `Blind Lemon Jefferson’, `Train Long-Suffering’ and a growling cover of DYLAN’s `Wanted Man’, steeped in the shadowy blues of the Mississippi Delta and the lure of his namesake, Old Nick himself.
Enlisting full-time drummer Thomas Wydler (Pew, Howard and Race featured as guests), KICKING AGAINST THE PRICKS (1986) {*6}, was an album full of covers, the likes of LEADBELLY’s `Black Betty’, ROY ORBISON’s `Running Scared’ and JIMMY WEBB’s `By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ falling under CAVE’s dark spell like lambs to the slaughter. For music buffs among you the others were:- `Muddy Water’ (JOHNNY RIVERS), `I’m Gonna Kill That Woman’ (JOHN LEE HOOKER), `Sleeping Annaleah’ (MICKEY NEWBURY), `Long Black Veil’ (Danny Dill), `Hey Joe’ (Billy Roberts), `The Singer’ (JOHNNY CASH), `All Tomorrow’s Parties’ (THE VELVET UNDERGROUND), `The Hammer Song’ (ALEX HARVEY), `Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart’ (a GENE PITNEY hit), `Jesus Met The Woman At The Well’ (trad) and `The Carnival Is Over’ (The SEEKERS).
The singer (and his band) came into his own on YOUR FUNERAL… MY TRIAL {*7} later that year, the atmosphere and drama on such contrasting songs such as `The Carny’ (all 8 glorious minutes of it!), `Stranger Than Kindness’ and TIM ROSE’s `Long Time Man’ you could cut with knife – or a blunt razorblade going by the skewed carnival sounds of a stabbing Hammond on the former; worth checking out are also `Sad Waters’ and `Jack’s Shadow’.
Rich in dark, dense imagery, the compelling narratives of crime and punishment were further developed on TENDER PREY (1988) {*7}. For this impressive set, Cave retained Harvey, Bargeld and Wydler (ADAMSON opted for a solo career), enlisting extras by way of Roland Wolf (keyboards/bass) and former GUN CLUB/CRAMPS axeman Kid Congo Powers to boost their searching sounds. Kicking off with the chilling self-portrait of a man awaiting death by execution, `The Mercy Seat’, the record had Nick’s usual quirks and indulgences, one of them `Deanna’ recalling mid-60s garage rock. Brooding blues tracks such as `Up Jumped The Devil’, the un-sweetened `Sugar Sugar Sugar’ and `City Of Refuge’ were noted highlights, while, for followers of CAVE’s literary work one could enjoy excerpts from his recently published novel, And The Ass Saw The Angel.
Not for the faint hearted, with Nick making his major acting/screenplay debut, his first full soundtrack score for John Hillcoat’s prison movie GHOSTS …OF THE CIVIL DEAD (1989) {*5} – from the compositional triumvirate of CAVE, Bargeld and Harvey – was basically a string of violent, blood splattered spoken-word narratives and grisly revelations tenuously held together by bellows-like industrial reverb, bleak, high-pitched whistle and horror film strings. The running time may be only just over half an hour but if one’s not in the mood, it can – forgive the pun – feel like a life sentence. Elsewhere the chill is palpable and constant, seeping through the speakers. The predictably disembodied female vocals might have been of the happy psycho variety more usually heard prior to a gleeful, B-movie killing spree, but CAVE and Co’s triumph was in creating the kind of unrelentingly portentous yet relatively subtle musical climate in which the graphic vignettes are able to take on the full, horrific weight of their implications.
Largely acoustic, THE GOOD SON (1990) {*7} saw Nick and his Bad Seeds – with the exception of Wolf – return in moodily intense style, grandiose string arrangements complementing the crooner’s sombre intonations. Taking the mantle of the biblical Prodigal Son as his thread, he almost loses his gruff TOM WAITS-like growl for that of an all-rounded balladeer via SCOTT WALKER a la JACQUES BREL. Prime examples in this reflective record, `The Weeping Song’, romantic ballads `The Ship Song’, `Lucy’ and a re-vamp of `The Hammer Song’.
In 1991, CAVE and Co briefly resumed their partnership with Wenders, contributing a song to the director’s futuristic road movie, Until The End Of The World, while the Australian – as eclectic an actor as a songwriter, and proving that he didn’t take himself too seriously –
subsequently popped up unexpectedly as a sage, bleach-blonde old rocker proffering advice to a naive Brad Pitt in Tom DiCillo’s drolly stylized fantasy, Johnny Suede.
With Kid Congo now being pulled in other directions, his replacement was found two-fold in Conway Savage (keyboards) and ex-TRIFFIDS man Martyn P. Casey (bass). The resultant David Briggs-produced HENRY’S DREAM (1992) {*7} – his/their first Top 30 set – was somewhat more menacing with the chilling `Jack The Ripper’ in stark contrast to lovelorn ballad, `Straight To You’; CAVE applying his vocal intensity with impressive results. His Old Testament vocation in delivering a “Good Son’s” message to his brethren came in no short measure through `Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry’ and `Loom Of The Land’. One had to take a large intake of breath (and possibly a few drams) when heard NICK CAVE and his Celtic-rock buddy SHANE MacGOWAN take a minor placing in the charts for their non-album novelty, karaoke-crash of `What A Wonderful World’. Subsequent concert piece, LIVE SEEDS (1993) {*6}, mixed up the band’s best-known numbers and added a reading of former NINA SIMONE nugget, `Plain Gold Ring’.
Further musings on the nature of love pervaded through LET LOVE IN (1994) {*9}, CAVE and Co exceeding previous efforts by just about hitting Top 10 status. Opening with back-to-back jewels, `Do You Love Me?’ and the demure `Nobody’s Baby Now’, the Bad Seed boss was also dangerously demented on brooding blues beaut `Lover man’ and the nocturnal nightmare of `Red Right Hand’, the latter a clanking, cellar-like track, with vaguely misanthropic, solidly snarled lyrics; as if an IGGY POP type song was needed here, Nick the paint-stripper was in exuberant mood again on the screeching `Jangling Jack’; The FALL-like `Thirsty Dog’ was yet another highlight.
The apocalyptic antipode was back on familiar blood-stained ground with Top 10 set, MURDER BALLADS (1996) {*7}. Against a minimal musical backdrop, CAVE recounted mostly traditional tales of a lyrical savagery that made his earlier work read like nursery rhymes, the opening Johnny Milton cut `Song For Joy’, a harrowing tale of a father watching a serial killer murder his family. As well as a duet with Polly/PJ HARVEY on Top 40 entry `Henry Lee’, the record saw an unlikely, but interesting pop-hit pairing with pixie princess KYLIE MINOGUE on `Where The Wild Roses Grow’. Misogyny in full-throttle (no pun intended!), `Crow Jane’ and `Lovely Creature’ propelled the man’s literate dexterity. The album’s penultimate piece was 14-minute trilogy, `O’Malley’s Bar’, while the set was rounded off by a take of DYLAN’s `Death Is Not The End’.
In tandem with Harvey and Bargeld (once again), CAVE scored fan Hillcoat’s torrid, Papua New Guinea-set thriller, TO HAVE AND TO HOLD (1996) {*6}. In stark contrast to “Ghosts…”, this was a fully-fledged orchestral score, as accomplished and nuanced as any Hollywood product and more deeply felt. It was also as mournful and meditative as anything in the CAVE canon, a precedent perhaps, for the man’s follow-up quasi-religious masterpiece. The main theme and the majority of the cues mourn disconsolately, adrift on Harvey-arranged seas of aching, baying cellos and weeping violins, with only the child-like clamour of a native choir to connect them with the possibility of redemption and rebirth. As well as incorporating avant-garde and found sound fragments into the orchestrations, they also tempered the cumulatively oppressive mood by alternating the classical pieces with percolating, sub-aquatic experiments like `Luther’ and `Noah’s Funeral’.
In comparison, THE BOATMAN’S CALL (1997) {*9} was almost evangelical, an opus that seemed to find Nick the preacher as at peace with himself and the world as he’s ever been. That’s not to say this was a happy record, far from it, as CAVE reflected on the redemptive power of love, and the pain of love lost. Two new Bad Seeds had been found by way of percussionist Jim Sclavunos and pianist/violinist Warren Ellis, the latter from Australian act The DIRTY THREE. Showcased by the gloriously gloomy `Into My Arms’, the sombre-soaked and almost horizontal `People Ain’t No Good’, `(Are You) The One That I’ve Been Waiting For?’ and `West Country Girl’ recall the best of LOU REED in his “Berlin” period or an early LEONARD COHEN. Mooted by many critics as CAVE’s best work to date, it was certainly his most accessible and possessed an atmosphere of meditative grace that set it apart from much of his previous output. In a music world of MTV mediocrity, CAVE’s dark, defiantly individual stance was somehow comforting, though you wouldn’t necessarily want to meet the man down a dark alley late at night. Later in 1997, CAVE was rumoured to be working on a blues covers album with TIM ROSE, while he was also set to star alongside Ewan Bremner in the film, Rhinoceros Hunting In Budapest. A second volume of King Ink hit the book shops in March ’98, although more publicity was generated via the release of a long-overdue NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS “Best Of” compilation.
With NO MORE SHALL WE PART (2001) {*7}, CAVE confirmed his position as one of popular music’s truly great, visionary singer-songwriters; of course, this could not be achieved without his backing Bad Seeds. Although it lacked the peaceful, redemptive power of his previous album, the record’s hollow-eyed laments achieved a dignified grace which most writers can only dream about. Nor was the man’s almost biblical narrative intensity confined to first-person pleas and ruminations; with the likes of `God Is In The House’, Nick painted perhaps one of the most vivid portraits of small town America yet committed to disc. Ditto for minor hits `As I Sat Sadly By Her Side’ and `Fifteen Feet Of Pure White Snow’. Perhaps one of the most revelatory CAVE moments of recent years came with a South Bank Show retrospective; the sequence with the late NINA SIMONE – featuring an uncharacteristically star-struck looking Nick – was a poignant highlight.
While some critics pointed to a fall in standards with NOCTURAMA (2003) {*6}, CAVE had merely decided to diversify his approach and stir things up a bit, both musically and on the production front. Thus the limpid balladry of `Still In Love and `Rock Of Gibraltar’ had their seething, polar opposites in the anarchic (if hilarious) `Dead Man In My Bed’ and the epic `Babe, I’m On Fire’, perhaps more accurately reflecting both Nick’s career trajectory and his artistic impulse.
Never ever one to rest on his lapel-suave laurels, he was back in 2004 with ABATTOIR BLUES / THE LYRE OF ORPHEUS {*8}, a gospel-charged double set that felled his critics in mid-sentence (and charted higher – No.11 – than any studio set since the infamous “Murder Ballads”). Were it not for that fact that it was conceived as two distinct volumes, it might’ve been tempting to view it as CAVE’s “Exile On Main St.”, although that in turn might suggest a last stand before a long, drawn-out retreat. On the evidence of Abattoir’s blitzkrieg roots-rock, retreat was the last thing on his mind. With the Bad Seeds firing on all cylinders (former guest James Johnston now fully on board in place of Bargeld) and the London Community Gospel Choir as a rear-guard in rude voice, the record pointed the way to a more classicist sound – condensed in the thundering single, `There She Goes, My Beautiful World’ – without any backwards pedalling, and with no concession to the modern world save for undimmed irony: “I woke up this morning with a Frappuccino in my hand”, he laments dryly on the title track. The Lyre Of Orpheus was the “quiet” disc, opening with The Good Son-esque, myth-trampling waltz of its title track, employing some INCREDIBLE STRING BAND-esque, gossiping flutes on `Breathless’ (perhaps the most accessible song CAVE has ever written) and closing with gospel-gothic epic, `O Children’. As a belated postscript to the recording, a concert double-CD/DVD set, THE ABATTOIR BLUES TOUR (2007) {*6} was testament to Nick’s prowess as a live entity.
From the sublime to the big screen, CAVE’s next project was THE PROPOSITION (2006) {*6}, another John Hillcoat film for which he both co-wrote the script and composed the soundtrack, a largely instrumental series of flinty, apocalyptic blues scored in collaboration with Bad Seed multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis. His first in a line of cinematic collaborations, it marked a significant departure for CAVE, his first score to break up the decades-old triumvirate of Blixa Bargeld, Mick Harvey and his big dark self. Gone then, are the weeping symphonies that filled his/their aforementioned 1996 piece. The congenital melancholy remains, but it’s a sadness as harsh and glacial as a night in Death Valley. The partnership with director Hillcoat (who’d been sitting on the idea of an Aussie western since 1979) likewise remained, but Ellis was his musical collaborator this time around, extending their sometime live/studio partnership. In a largely instrumental, dialogue-less score, Warren’s violin is the principal voice, chafing and sawing, droning and buzzing like an angry hornet; breaching the stony ground between the dour solemnity of English folk balladry and the ecstatic misgiving of Iranian spike fiddle master Kayhan Kalhor. In anticipation of what’s not to come, the soundtrack leads in with `Happy Land’ of all things, that traditional spiritual beloved of dog-eared school violin primers. But the land Warren and Nick inhabit sounds far from happy, a place where the rhythm of life isn’t such a powerful thing, at least not as powerful as the inevitability of death and betrayal.
It’d been less than two years since CAVE and Ellis had delivered their first film score collaboration; many didn’t expect another so soon. THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (2007) {*6} was basically the virtuoso violin work of Ellis, although CAVE does display a mean and brooding piano; the absence of his deep vocals becomes apparent after a while. Opening with the lilting `Rather Lovely Thing’, the music slips between ENNIO MORRICONE’s romantic/outlaw western, Made In Heaven, and the soundtrack work of The HORSE FLIES. Ditto track 3, `Song For Jesse’, a flighty cue on a mission to hit the heartstrings courtesy of its tingling vibes and keys. By the time `Moving On’ plucks its way solemnly and easily via one’s earlobes, Ellis is in full control, while one is goaded into thinking CAVE will produce a vocal or two. It’s not to be. The mood switches somewhat when the quirky `Cowgirl’ and/or `Carnival’ get into full flow, the violins here interacting with simple guitar strums, a combination of alt-country that The HANDSOME FAMILY could only dream of touching – the Devil had indeed sold some of his best tunes to Messrs CAVE and Ellis.
Squeezed somewhat precariously between the two soundtracks, the eponymous/pseudonymous (Nick and The Bad Seeds: Ellis, Casey and Sclavunos) GRINDERMAN (2007) {*8} project was unleashed. A depth charge of volatile and visceral post-punk, broke free from the ballad-driven Bad Seeds to that of full-blown punk – well, almost. From the opening bursts of `Get It On’, `No Pussy Blues’ and `Electric Alice’, the unhinged exhumation of The BIRTHDAY PARTY was all-but complete.
2010’s chart-worthy follow-up GRINDERMAN 2 {*8} was equally reckless and rambunctious, a white-noise attempt to recreate a STOOGES or a SUICIDE in a swampy/scuzzy-styled fashion. This time around one was almost overwhelmed by the sandstorm-swing of `Worm Tamer’, `Heathen Child’ and `Palaces Of Montezuma’, along with opener `Mickey Mouse And The Goodbye Man’, all released as extra collectable 12” versions.
If one thought that NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS had disappeared from sight, they’d be wrong. Reaching Top 5 in Britain, DIG!!! LAZARUS DIG!!! (2008) {*8} re-ignited old characters such as Nick’s alter-ego, Larry, while choice words come via his snarling and shambolic swagger on the likes of the title track, the anthemic garage-glam `Today’s Lesson’ and the eerie `Night Of The Lotus Eaters’.
Hillcoat celluloid commissions came thick and fast for CAVE and Ellis through THE ROAD (2010) {*6} and LAWLESS (2012) {*5}, the former a post-apocalyptic movie, the latter a period-costume crime drama that welded the score-smiths’ chilling soundscapes with a violent pattern in line with their previous excursions into the genre. For “The Road”, Ellis once again provides ominous violin and CAVE on lo-fi pulse-driven piano, as tracks such as `Home’, `The Mother’ and `The Family’, etc., are swept away by the chamber-like beats – much like PIANO MAGIC’s 2001’s classic OST, `Son De Mar’.
Performing as The Bootleggers alongside MARK LANEGAN, bluegrass great RALPH STANLEY and country cousin EMMYLOU HARRIS (WILLIE NELSON was also in tow for end piece, `Midnight Run’), the score contrasts between uptempo cues and sombre spirituals. CAVE and Ellis virtually take a back seat while their guests get to grips with a couple of takes of `Fire And Brimstone’, `Fire In The Blood’, LOU REED’s `White Light/White Heat’ and CAPTAIN BEEFHEART’s `Sure ‘Nuff Yes I Do’.
His cinematic Stetson removed from his head for a Bad Seeds comeback PUSH THE SKY AWAY (2013) {*7}, CAVE and trusty sidekicks Warren Ellis and Thomas Wydler produced another for his broody fanbase to salivate or mull over; Harvey was again not part of the band (his position taken by acoustic guitarist George Vjestica). Lyrically elegiac, profound and cathartic, Nick’s observations of urban life and its lost people deliver an eerie edge, and tracks `Water’s Edge’, `Jubilee Street’, `We Real Cool’ and the set’s longest piece at nearly 8 minutes, `Higgs Boson Blues’, bound bittersweet blues and menacing melodies together in one fell swoop. Several of the same songs duly re-appeared on the group’s concert set, LIVE FROM KCRW (2013) {*7}; Barry Adamson had stepped in for an ill Wydler.
Taking a well-earned rest while his most devil-ish songs graced the reels of BBC-TV’s “razor-sharp” drama, Peaky Blinders, Nick duly took a backseat to let directors/co-writers Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard work on the faux-autobiographical documentary, entitled 20,000 Days On Earth (2014). Further widescreen exploits were untaken on the CAVE man’s umpteenth soundtrack collaboration with ELLIS on 2015’s LOIN DES HOMMES {*6} (aka “Far From Men”). A million miles from the singer’s alt-rock day-job, Nick fragments and minimalizes soundscapes to give them drama to marry in with director David Oelhoffen’s vision and Viggo Mortensen’s intense acting. Although it would be a stretch to single out any particular passage, one could recommend the album should be played in the dark, preferably after watching the film.
Consistantly cerebral and experimentally ethereal and eerie, NICK CAVE (& THE BAD SEEDS: Ellis, Casey, Sclavunos, Vjestica, a returning Wydler et al) came across understandably grief-stricken and mournful, due to the fact that when recording SKELETON TREE (2016) {*8}, Nick’s teenage son Arthur had died the previous July after accidentally falling from a cliff. Minimalist and sparse under its “black album” sleeve and musically devoid of anything upbeat, one can almost taste the singer’s tears as he exorcized his demons through `Magneto’ – complete with pitch-dark chamber cellos. As a harrowing and honest CAVE questioned God, or the creator, with opener `Jesus Alone’ (in which he painfully prayed for some solution to the world’s woes), there was little let-up for his bleeding-heart within `Girl In Amber’. Sculptured heavenly voices caressing his delicate and anguished vox, there was some solace in the heads-up `Rings Of Saturn’, whilst the near UK chart-topping (US Top 30) set concluded with `Distant Sky’ (featuring a lilting lullaby with Else Torp) and an austere title track.
On the back of joint film soundtracks with Ellis: “Hell Or High Water” (2016), “Mars” (2016), `War Machine” (2017), “Wind River” (2017) and “Kings” (2018), NICK CAVE AND THE BAD SEEDS – without Savage who sadly died in 2017 – ventured back into the Top 20 with the aptly-titled stream-only set, GHOSTEEN (2019) {*8}. The record was unanimously acclaimed as a contender for album of the year a la Metacritic, but one couldn’t help think the reviews were rather premeditated in consideration of the great man’s recent pain and loss. Sadly, one had to take the record at face value and at times Nick’s grief for son Arthur becomes almost unbearable. If one can picture the moribund video of JOY DIVISION’s `Atmosphere’; times it by ten; and interject visions of CAVE still grieving, then `Spinning Song’ and the celestial `Bright Horses’ would pull at one’s heartstrings. Its eight funereal dirges on disc one (`Galleon Ship’ the highlight), faded out to only three tracks on disc two, where Nick the singer subsided to meditative and cathartic epic pieces, `Ghosteen’ and `Hollywood’, sandwiched either side of conventional ode, `Fireflies’.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/BG-GRD/LCS / rev-up MCS Mar2013-Sep2016

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