18 Jul 2017

Pop Crimes: Revisiting The Film Noir World Of Rowland S. Howard

"Rowland was Australia's most unique, gifted and uncompromising guitarist. He was also a good friend. He will be missed by many." - Nick Cave

The Birthday Party set the world alight between their formation at the end of the seventies and the mid-eighties. Here we had a band that had the raw, depraved toxicity of The Cramps, combined with the lethal onstage energetic output of The Stooges and the oblique gloom of Joy Division, but a band that did this without compromising their literary prowess. The Birthday Party's focal point was the central duo of one Nick Cave, singer, screecher, squawker, and Rowland S. Howard, a guitarist whose fractured, splintered playing was delivered with such venomous vigour that he was able to share the onstage limelight with Cave, something that miscellaneous Bad Seeds could not quite match up to (whether they tried to or not). 

Cave's post-Birthday Party trajectory has been mapped and followed by anyone possessing a brain; indeed, he has morphed from a debauched frontman with a penchant for good lyrics to quite possibly the greatest songwriter of them all. But I'm not here to talk about Nick Cave; for the solo work of Rowland S. Howard is something which needs a light shed on it. He spent his lifetime in the shadows of his Birthday Party racket, becoming a secretive and insular figure, releasing music only on occasion. But as a Venetian would tell a Brummie that's made a comment on Birmingham's volume of canals; it's quality, not quantity that is the defining factor.

There are essays to be written about The Birthday Party's pervading influence, and the projects that filled Howard's time in the eighties and early nineties - These Immortal Souls, his collaborative albums with Lydia Lunch, and The Crime and City Solution - could fill up several articles. With a highly prolific, creative individual such as Rowland it can be difficult to focus on just one aspect of an illustrious career, so it's for that reason I'll turn my focus to the only two albums released under his own name; 1999's Teenage Snuff Film, and 2009's Pop Crimes, which came out two months before his untimely death, aged 50. 

In a famous interview (below), Rowland S. Howard talks about the song Shivers. A cult hit that was released by the Boys Next Door, Cave and Howard's pre-Birthday Party band, you can see why this simplistic teenage snuff ballad has endured; no one can deny that "I've been contemplating suicide/but it doesn't really suit my style" is just one of those lyrics, and the rest of the song is tender, beautiful, and dramatic. But the interview sees Howard say he doesn't feel like its his song anymore, and that he'd rather people talked about something he'd "done in the past 15 years"... One listen to Shivers, and maybe you'd think: "why? It's one of the best things I've ever heard?!", but one listen to Teenage Snuff Film, and you'll never look back again.

The first of two albums released under his own name, 1999's Teenage Snuff Film is a sultry, sexy pop noir record that dabbles in the maudlin and morose. His subject matter is often that of a disfunctional relationship, but the poetry which Howard utters, and the soundscapes unto which he births it is so stark and beautiful that he almost transcends anything else of this sort. It's this album from which The Horrors pry the lyrics to Who Can Say (although Howard's song, She Cried is simply a reworking of a classic pop song), and it's this album which Against Me!'s Laura Jane Grace describes as her favourite of all time.

Rowland S. Howard's Teenage Snuff Film begins... "You're bad for me, like cigarettes", his gothic croon wilts; "but I haven't sucked enough of you yet". Dead Radio opens the album perfectly, its understated strut is married with forlorn Murder Ballads strings, whilst the lyrics of uncertainty are delivered with this amazing vocal quaver, the voice (and accompanying music) befitting only of a man that's travelled through some dark spheres to be delivering thishere song to you. 

What is striking throughout Teenage Snuff Film is the space opened up by his minimal, guitar playing. Breakdown (and Then...) combines these minimal echoing spag-western twangs with some splintered, bluesy spiralling scratches to create something so instantly opiating that you're left lying on your back staring into the distance before Howard even remarks "here comes a breakdown again," and the track erupts into another barbed dimension.  These echoing twangs are present again on Silver Chain, but they meet this gloaming organ part to create something so tonally stark and instantly evocative. Even though these qualities are cranked up to infinity by the time the song reaches the climax to which this is all building, it enters at a point of high emotional stimulus and doesn't stop escalating right until it ends. 

The dissonance of the strings on Exit Everything, and Howard's snarl in tow, capture this feeling of nihilism, this reckless abandon and maybe even utter helplessness, whilst the strings on the aforementioned Exit Everything that deliver it to it's amazing conclusion are absolutely dazzling and keep up such an intensity that there's no time to pause for a breath. The instrumentation on this album is what makes it a cut above the rest. The catharsis of feedback that greets the electrifying Sleep Alone is breathtaking, his playing shakes you to the very core with his deformed mutant of the blues whilst he calls out "my love, I'll show you nothing/I'm a misanthropic man". This is what makes Teenage Snuff Film more than simply a great singer-songwriter album, it transforms incredible songwriting into just one focal point on a true masterpiece of a pop noire album.

We cannot stop talking about Teenage Snuff Film without mentioning its other highlights, namely his scintillating cover of White Wedding by 80s pop rock goofball Billy Idol, or his song Autoluminescent. White Wedding has this standoffish strut to it, it sounds confrontational and seductive and more impassioned than the original (which I'll admit now, is still very good). His penchant to take songs lacking in this insatiable coolness and cut them up, mutate them, stitch them back together in a Frankensteinian manner is something which festers through his career - but more on that later.

Autoluminescent is another track in which he creates this huge reflective space with echoing chords - sonically it maybe sounds like the most forlorn on the album, a feat as it is a very dark record. But its lyrics showcase almost a triumph, the triumph of someone that has been through the darkness ("gave myself away, slipped down the spiral stairs"), but now feels on top of the world; his constant references to the cosmic imagery of transcendence seemingly referring to the catharsis of getting through such a darkness. Whilst maybe one could argue that this is a temporary euphoria granted by heroin use, the Velvet Underground references ("I am white heat, I am white hot") maybe testament to this, maybe it's easiest to see this song as one that sees Howard ready to put that past him and metaphorically "soar into outer space".

Fast forward ten years and...

Rowland S. Howard is coming to the end of his life. It is 2009, and he's had to hurry to complete Pop Crimes, so it is finished before he is sadly claimed by liver cancer, all the more tragic, all the more heartbreaking and all the more soul destroying to learn about, as it comes two years after he finally shook off a decades-long addiction to heroin. Taking less than a month to come up with, though, Pop Crimes does not sound rushed. In fact, Pop Crimes sounds like a fucking masterpiece. A last triumph, a final work of one of the all time greats before his time on this Earth is up. 

Pop Crimes is an album rife with poetry, rife with eerie, beautiful and narcotic atmospheres, and above all is rife with Rowland S. Howard's own distinct style. A truly incredible, moving record, it's difficult to know where to start... 

The third song on this album is a cover of Life's What You Make It, by Talk Talk, revisiting what I said earlier. Howard's malignant sense of humour often meant that he took joy in turning pop songs into brooding, dark numbers... Life's What You Make It has this sultry guitar lick, and a rhythm guitar that plods with discipline along like a soldier marching through sand dunes. Howard repeats the title line, over and over, his voice bleak and gloomy, leaving very little room for optimism.

But don't be fooled by this; the context of the album, and the brooding Talk Talk cover might give lie that this is a self indulgent, depressing opus, one that revels in its own misery like a pig rolling around in its own filth. But Pop Crimes is an album that takes on, and masters, a spectrum of different moods. Let's take the title track; it's a seven minute exploitation of this jagged, jagged bass riff, in which Howard's voice let's out a snarl of extreme animalistic proportions. 

The first song on this album is called I Know A Girl Called Jonny, a lethargic, hypnagogic pop song that sees Howard's sultry croon harmonise with the coarse voice of Jonnine Standish. This is the best song on the album. This is why I'm going to call my firstborn Jonny, assuming it's a daughter. the same echoing chords that haunt Teenage Snuff Film coat this song, with it's percussion more pronounced and its organ more life affirming, it's a track aided by some amazing production. "She's my narcotic lollipop", Howard mutters, as Standish murmurs "I put my fingers in his mouth", this tale of tempestuous, tumultuous love hopefully one that will love on forever. 

There is lust aplenty here, and there is regular outbursts of malignalint frustration, but it is true that the forlorn reflection. Shut Me Down ends with his broken cries of "I miss you so much, I miss you so much", whilst the rocking Wayward Man sees his self doubt echoed atop brooding, gutsy guitar licks (and a genuinely sexy guitar solo). "I'm the fly in the ointment, your major disappointment," he reflects, self doubt rife.

"I'm the Joan of Arc of teenage love," is a favourite lyric of Pop Crimes' first song, and it encapsulates the timelessness of not only that record, but his solo career. Pop Crimes was recorded by a fifty year old at the end of his life, and Teenage Snuff Film by a 40 year old man plagued by directionlessness and self doubt. Yet Howard even amongst self reflection, he sounds so young and alive, so much like a young man with his life ahead of him. The music and production reflects this, too; Pop Crimes, although recorded in a single 2009 month sounds like it has emerged from the eighties, the tropes of the production and the vocal recording backing this up; Howard's pop noir masterpieces sound completely eternal. 

In fact, a 1999 NME review remarked that Howard was working a sound that "hadn't been fashionable since 1982". Whilst to a publication obviously more enamoured by the pristine, exciting modernism of Queens of the Stone Age (their album of that year), that might be a bad thing, to those retrospectively hearing the pulp poetry of Howard, his lack of concern with sounding modern and his disregard for fashionability makes his music hold up all the better. 

The Birthday Party remain one of the most influential bands of the post-punk era, but it's the pervading seductiveness of Rowland S. Howard's solo work that keeps me hung up. Some say these albums allowed him to step out of Nick Cave's shadow for good. I say that in the Birthday Party, Howard's skeletal figure, eternally present cigarette, and guitar wielded as weapon cast it's own shadow from the off, and that these records here make the man a transcendental figure for all time.

Spotify links: hear Teenage Snuff Film, and Pop Crimes (seriously, do it)

(Words: Cal Cashin)