A Manhattan Melodrama starring The Birthday Party
by Barney Hoskyn s
It’s a chill, exposed night in New York City. The East Coast has only just recovered from a week of torrential rains, and winds sweeping up the island’s avenue from Battery Park to Harlem threaten more.
But the show must go on, and at a swanky rock disco in Union Square it’s only just beginning. Strutting their stuff to English imports like Duran Duran’s ‘Planet Earth’ and Way of the West’s ‘Don’t Say That’s Just For White Boys’ are second division preppies and neatly-pressed executives from New Jersey. They are trying to get their dates drunk.
The night is flowing by pretty amorphously when suddenly, at one o’clock, the lights on the Underground’s floor scatter back to their source and the sound dies. Everyone looks round, seeking the cause of this unwelcome interruption. Instantly their faces drop in disbelief, for onto the stage are climbing five... five... but words just give way to alarmed grimaces. Let’s just say five very undesirable aliens.
One, festooned in split-crotch gold lamé drainpipes, his bruised, labial features twitching through black flames of hair, appears to be the singer. Another, busy strapping on a bass guitar like a giant dildo, sports a fishnet vest, a Stetson, and the sort of moustache you might cultivate if you were shaping up to hustle some meat on gay Christopher Street. Perhaps most disturbing of all, a kind of gangling, psychotic hillbilly, squeezed into a ridiculous suit out of some garment district garbage can, is fastening on a guitar like he was about to run through a rehearsal for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Hyperboles aside, it’s not quite what the management was expecting. Hell, they haven’t even played a note and already half the crowd is filing out. A single drumbeat portends ill, and next moment all the worst premonitions are justified. Cranking out of the guitar amps comes this murderous death-rattle, like the gaze of Medusa freezing in their steps the few foolhardy adventurers who dare to look. The bass, lurching obscenely into the foray, scrapes and shunts in subterranean seizures. St. Vitus’ Dance here we come!
Finally, his body doubling up in unholy convulsions, the macilent wreck of a singer starts to spit and fume: "AMERICAN HEADS WILL ROLL IN TEXAS!! AMERICAN HEADS WILL ROLL!!!" Hmmmm... like, what is this? Some of the observers turn away in nervous laughter, others comb their scattered brains to remember where Pigbag – polite, groovy little Pigbag – are playing. The rest suck on straws and pray it’s over soon. "I mean, shit, the Sex Pistols were one thing... "
When the song ends, however, an ugly pause ensues. Something’s wrong with the guitar. Suddenly, there’s this ashen-faced nut behind the keyboard shouting into his mic, very slowly, again and again and again: "WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU BASTARDS? WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU?" It’s a party-trick which fails to amuse the management. After the second song, ‘Zoo-Music Girl’, someone’s climbing on the stage and telling the band their time is up. Scarcely acknowledging him, they thunder into one last, most outrageous exhibition of carnal mayhem and then disappear.
This little scenario is roughly what the Australian group The Birthday Party call "a really great gig". I mean, how degenerate can you get?
WHEN YA WALK OUT HERE
WHEN YA WALK OUT
I GOTTA FILL UP THAT SPACE
OR FILL UP THAT NO-SPACE
(The Birthday Party, ‘Cry’)
"There is no empty space in nature which we do not believe that, at one time or another, the human mind can fill."
– Antonin Artaud, ‘On The Alfred Jarry Theatre’
IN THIS APOLLONIAN climate of cold design and concealed despair, The Birthday Party take the concept of stage performance about as far as you are likely to see it go. Live, the songs of singer Nick Cave and guitarist Rowland Howard are driven to an emotional edge where pain and pleasure fuse – in cathartic madness for the performer and dithyrambic joy for the audience. Their concerts are feasts of energy, chaotic spectacles which break the surface of art and carry sound and lyric to ultimate violence. If Captain Beefheart or Pere Ubu seem too quirkily surreal, The Birthday Party in performance burst through the constrictions of intellect to a "raw power," that original sin which Iggy Stooge so rightly perceived as "laughing at you and me... "
"A man who believes is peculiar. BUT SINCE SOME ARE BORN PLAYACTORS... "
The Birthday Party do not suffer from delusions of grandeur.
"I mean, fuck it," says Nick Cave, "what we’re trying to do is the biggest musical cliché in the world. It’s just that some people forget the cliché. Can you imagine Echo And The Bunnymen trying to let themselves go?"
He sprawls across the bar, trying to find his drink.
"I think it’s really important to rely on clichés – like Suicide did. Not that it sounds like a cliché. As a matter of fact I think ‘King Ink’ is one of the best songs ever written. That song can become so intense it puts me on another planet, though I don’t think the recorded version is at all good."
"Prayers On Fire stinks, quite honestly," announces Tracy Pew, the group’s super-macho bassist. "The engineer slept through the entire session for a start. But then even 'Release the Bats' isn't as good as it could be."
"It's just too conventional at the moment," resumes Cave. "The record, as a cultural event, is a very limited concept. With the cover and everything, it can be much more than just the music."
The Birthday Party come to shake us out of our inhibitions. They militate against the sedative boundaries of Pop.
Cave: "There’s a real need for an intelligent but aggressive group in London. All the treasured groups are just so softcore. At one time there was a real upsurge of new young groups and incredible records like ‘She is Beyond Good And Evil’... you know, The Pop Group before they sacrificed the music for that soapbox, toilet-roll politics. The groups that came out of The Pop Group have got back to primitive funk, which is good... I saw Rip Rig and Panic at Action Space and there was a real directness and irreverence, as opposed to Pigbag, who are just happy to be convincingly funky."
What about their own bacchanalian night at Action Space?
Pew: "The last two gigs in London have been the best yet. Before that the audiences were like a little bunch of eggs with faces. They lost control when they were told to, like Pavlovian dogs taking a leak."
Cave: "Compared to the gigs in Australia, especially in Sydney, they’re nothing. You remember when that girl was slicing me up with a key, Tracy? In Australia, you really feel you’re turning decent people into monsters. But look, we’re not setting ourselves up as some kind of demonic force, it’s just that things are generally more successful when they become blind and unconscious, when you feel anything could happen."
Pew: "In England that doesn’t happen very often, because you media people have turned kids into robots, little UB40s... "
So what’s kept you from the threshold of madness?
Cave: " Funhouse, the two Suicide albums (also the new live cassette)... Slates by The Fall. The Fall are a great group. Slates is one of the best things I’ve ever heard. It has a violence and humour which if offputting to sheep."
Is a popular music culture an important thing?
Cave: "When the history of rock music is written – which, since it’s practically dead, will be soon – it’ll just be remembered as a sordid interruption of normality."
Pew: "Rock will be remembered as the anus of culture. Not Del Shannon but Iggy Pop."
Cave: "The last two years in London will be swept under the rug. This I can tell you: THE LONG FRINGES WILL NOT BE REMEMBERED. The point is that the creative process is not some fucking craft. WE’RE A LIVING MUSICAL CLICHÉ."
"Who would care to contribute to a culture that cannot be satisfied no matter how much it devours, and at whose contact the most vigorous and wholesome nourishment is changed into ‘history and criticism’?"
"I just don’t wanna go, out in the streets... these people give me the creeps... "
(The Bush Tetras)
NEW YORK SUFFERS terribly from its reputation and consequent sense of duty. It has convinced its spoilt children in their chic little headbands and PX offcuts that the entire point of their lives lies in snorting excessive amounts of cocaine, staying up till 8 in the morning imbibing nauseous, overpriced cocktails, and taking non-stop taxis from one club to the next. All, of course, in the name of Fun and Style. But it doesn’t feel like fun, it feels like a routine.
That The Birthday Party have been the most exciting live act in London for some six months cannot seriously be doubted by anyone who’s seen them. In New York this excitement was seen simply as transgression — in the case of the band's Ritz show, incitement of the audience to a "PiL-style riot."
According to Cave, however, the Ritz was "a really boring, conservative gig." True, at several junctures he climbed into the pit of zombies below him, but it was quite obvious that to provoke a riot he’d have had to set fire to them. Three quarters of the way through the set, the lights came up, the disco came on, and The Birthday Party were quietly and efficiently shoved off the stage.
This sort of treatment, which might have left anyone else permanently embittered, only seemed to strengthen the group’s immediate taste for America.
"If our natural path is disaster," groaned Mick Harvey stoically, "then so be it."
Drunk on culture schlock, roaming the streets and sleeping with TV eyes on, the "boys from down under" (as they were so tastefully described in the city’s music listings) swallowed the pill and survived the comedown.
"What would you rather be in," demands Rowland Howard, "Dolly Parton’s backing band or – an English new wave group?"
The others hear the answer within the question: it doesn’t brook reply. "Yep!" bawls Tracy Pew, carefully adjusting the angle of a new Stetson and ignoring the question, "the gig at the Underground was one of my all-time favourite gigs".
"I don’t live this life for me, in Orstralia Land so free... "
"Oh Yer! Oh Yer! What A Wonderful Life, Fats Domino On The Radio..."
AT THE ROOT of Australia’s open rock revolt, its avowed overthrow of Western chic and transatlantic pussyfooting lies a) the experience of pure boredom down under, and b) one all-important testament: Funhouse by the Stooges. Long deleted in this country, practically unheard of by Britain’s post-punk youth – kids who will swear by crap like Lust For Life and New Values – this apocalypse of Middle America, with its unrepeatable anthems ‘Down In The Street’, ‘Loose' (of which The Birthday Party do a version). ‘TV Eye', and ‘1970’ (from which Radio Birdman took their name), is very simply one of the greatest rock‘n’roll records ever made. The Saints knew this when they recorded two of the other "greatest rock'n'roll records ever made", (I'm) Stranded and Eternally Yours. And lead Birdman Deniz Tek, who was born in Detroit and brought the word of Ig to his predestined true believers, the forgotten street rebels of Australia, knew it before anyone.
Despite the extraordinary contempt and derision Birdman have since suffered, it was the group’s first tour of Australia which set off the few real triggers of discontent that awaited such a call to arms. The Birthday party, whatever they may say to the contrary, bear the memory of seeing Birdman for the first time as powerfully as anyone. As a rather average five-piece combo called The Boys Next Door, all of whom, excepting Rowland Howard, had been playing together since third form in high school, their conception of music was radically changed by the experience.
Within a year they had effectively established themselves at the center of Melbourne’s "alternative" music scene.
"It took us about three years," says Cave, "to get a group of about 50 people together and for them to convince another 300 or so that it was all worthwhile."
"Yeah," snarls Pew, "all those fuckwits who used to throw glasses at us..."
"Actually," whispers Rowland Howard in another time and place, "we were regarded as a bit of a bloody joke."
1979: one strangely pop-punk LP as The Boys Next Door, called Door, Door. Great cover, great lyrics, but songs and sounds like any Anglo-American powerpop band. A spite marriage of the Ramones and XTC.
Cave: "We went through a year in Australia of playing the most disgusting kind of shit. Like Door, Door."
Pew: "We became a bunch of snivelling little poofs."
Cave: "I used to wear frilly shirts and pigtails before any of this English shit. We committed the unpardonable error of playing to the thinkers rather than the drinkers."
Between Door, Door on Mushroom Records and The Birthday Party on Missing Link there is a gulf as wide as that between, say, The Knack's 'My Sharona' and Beefheart's 'When Big Joan Sets Up'. So what happened?
Howard stares into his drink for an answer. "I guess this is hard to believe, but it was really just a case of natural progression."
Like there's a "natural progression" from the state of a person's mind before he drops acid to the trip itself. Tell us another.
"It's the honest truth," he protests. "Things just got a little... wilder, that's all."
That's obvious. The Birthday Party, recorded back home and released at the beginning of 1980, is unobtainable in this country at present but features the singles 'Mr. Clarinet/Happy Birthday' (just re-released on 4AD) and 'The Friend Catcher', two of last year's most invigorating and disturbing single releases, plus the extraordinary 'Hair Shirt’ and a manic version of Gene Vincent’s 'Cat Man’." If you see it, you know what to do.
It’s on this album that perennial influences such as the Stooges and Beefheart and more recent ones like Pere Ubu and the Pop Group begin to coalesce in Cave’s and Howard’s songwriting. The result is unique and unmissable.
By this time, the group had been so inspired by the weird sounds imported from possible goldmines abroad they decided it was time to leave. Their sights naturally settled on England.
Both find this idea hilarious. I venture to ask how they feel about England after having lived in London for nearly two years. Cave clears his throat with an evil grin.
"Coming to London has been one of the most disillusioning experiences of my life, partly for a lot of obvious reasons, like everything closing down at eleven o’clock, but more important, because when we came here we thought here at least people were doing more than standing around twanging their guitars. I was really shocked. When we arrived, we saw this package show at the Lyceum, with Echo And The Bunnymen, A Certain Ratio, Teardrop Explodes and so forth and... well, I’ve never been able to take English music seriously since. It was horrible."
THE BIRTHDAY PARTY arrived in England just as the last, perhaps most intense vestiges of punk energy were burning themselves out. When the Pop Group split, the whole thing – the anger, the revolt, the sensuality – went into a coma. Perhaps most unfortunate, the influence of brilliant groups like Joy Division and brilliant individuals like Daniel Miller was partly responsible. They inadvertently changed countless bands and musicians who were incapable of absorbing and using that influence to any effect. The Birthday Party, in a dismay, had to watch this almost inevitable breakdown unfold.
By 1979, a new but fatally unclear concept of "Pop" had taken hold of the nation’s alternative music scene. Today this meta-pop has become the actual state of pop, an ideal for some, a living death for others.
Certainly there’s no reason why inoffensive music as produced by electronic groups like Depeche Mode and Soft Cell shouldn’t co-exist with an aggressive alternative to chart music. But what the Spandau hype has done is to brainwash people into formulating a nouveau-glam capitalist ethic which, to put it bluntly, stinks. The music, cushioned in a kind of feebly opulent production, is the pure expression of this ethic, an ethic of adaptation to an environment that ensconces one in plasticine beauty and soft, smooth luxury – the environment of nightclubs, fashion shows, and videos.
Of course there will, and must always be, fluctuations in the state of musical angst. It’s not something that can be topped up when depleted. But why does England have this hangup about real musical violence – that is, a music that is neither Saxon nor the UK Subs, that has soul and dirt and physical desire?
In the end, one can only conclude that it has something to do with the stranglehold the music press has on youth’s cool minority. After all, look what happens to a band when it refuses to co-operate. Look what happened to the Saints when, like a circus animal refusing to play dead, they wouldn’t play "punk".
Fortunately for The Birthday Party, they’ve taken the heritage of the Saints into another dimension, and won the kind of critical approval whose terms simply don’t apply to the likes of Spandau Ballet. 'Release The Bats’, a "voodoo rockabilly" anthem which knocks the Cramps into the shadows of complete insignificance, saw three weeks at the top of the alternative singles chart. Prayers On Fire has been in the indie LP charts ever since its release. And attendance at London gigs has been growing all the time.
After the year of "Pop", 1980 – a miserable year spent trying to fit in with the new nonchalance – The Birthday Party realised the only solution was... TO ATTACK.
"MY BODY IS A MONSTER DRIVEN INSANE, MY HEART IS A FISH TOASTED BY FLAMES."
A CONCERT BY the Birthday Party – Nicholas Cave (vocals), Rowland Howard (guitar), Mick Harvey (guitar, keyboards), Tracy Pew (bass) and Phil Calvert (drums) – can break and dissolve the semantic frame which supports this language. In it you can forget for maybe an hour all the other names and categories that flood forward in the name of Pop to imprison your emotions.
Have we not all secretly yearned, since the deaths of those beings whose bodies, while they could not contain their own desires, diffracted and melted ours in the passing heat of their majesty – the bodies and voices of Hendrix, Joplin, Curtis – for that pure incandescence of being wherein we might at last yield up the barricades of knowledge?
What we must lose now is this insidious, corrosive knowingness, this need to collect and contain. We must use our brains that have been stopped and plugged with random information, and once again must our limbs carve in air the patterns of their desire – not the calibrated measures and slick syncopation of jazz-funk but a carnal music of total release. WE MUST MAKE OF JOY ONCE MORE A CRIME AGAINST THE STATE!
Is it possible for the tirelessly rational system which is "popular" music ever to GO BACK ON ITS WORDS? Or has this music become so cogniscant and inter-referential that all desire for escape and release has been extinguished? Will we never be "lost in music"?
These questions must be asked. For if music is no more than cultural reference-point, THEN IT IS NOTHING.
From the spirit of this tragedy must come the birth of a new music – a music whose warning signals have already been received: ‘Transmission ‘, Radio Birdman’s ‘194’, the Saints’ ‘Night In Venice’, and The Birthday Party's ‘King Ink.
Of course we may continue to display ironical love for such advanced cultural artefacts as Prince, the B-52’s, Michael Jackson, Disco, The Rolling Stones (the playing on ‘Start Me Up’ is among the year’s great performances), or even such kitsch diamonds of MOR dance production as Dollar’s ‘Hand Held In Black And White’.
Naturally we shall not forget the Drifters, Astral Weeks, Etta James, Phil Spector, ‘Liar Liar’ by the Castaways, ‘Jeepster’, and all real SOUL music... nor shall we allow history to bury the names of Alex Chilton and Arthur Lee...
In fact, we shall try to remember as much great music as it is possible to do.
But what we will banish from memory is the whole heap of trash that is held in power by fools and phonies: REO Speedwagon, Bruce Springsteen, Lionel Ritchie, Fleetwood Mac, Paul McCartney, Debbie Harry and, worse still for the sycophantic love bestowed on them, Spandau Ballet, A Certain Ratio, Linx, August Darnell, The Teardrop Explodes...
"Oh wretched ephemeral race, children of chance and misery, why do you compel me to tell you what it would be most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is... "
I cannot finish the quotation. You must excuse this torrid rhetoric – angry, confused and above all, perhaps, misplaced – as the only possible substitute for the bitter silence of my tears. As this last sentence commences, a voice breaks in all the pain of its suppressed longing...
Sung in the words of ‘A Dead Song’:
HIT IT! WITH WORDS LIKE
THOU SHALL NOT