9 Oct 2017

Time to discover... The Birthday Party

If we're friends, or if you're a reader of this blog, or a good person with a good heart and an eye for a lyric, I'll assume that you're a fan of Nick Cave. The bard of the underworld, the Aussie wordsmith is certainly up there as one of the great lyricists, if not the greatest. No one can spin a narrative like Cave, no one can put together an eschewed bittersweet love song like the man, and very few people can channel animalistic depravity via the medium of the English language quite like he can.

At the moment, I'm in my usual state of being in a massive Nick Cave phase, but as opposed to the usual Bad Seeds binge what is catching my imagination is the work of his first proper band, The Birthday Party. Whilst they're far from an unearthed treasure, their music is a fair bit less accessible than the Bad Seeds' and whilst this means their music is of no less merit inherently, it can be heard for people who've discovered Nick Cave and fallen in love to bridge the gap. I know it certainly took me some time. So here, as unpatronising as can be, I'll talk you through a handful of essential Birthday Party releases.

Where do we start? Right here; The Birthday Party are an Australian entity which existed from 1978 to 1983; at their peak, they were the narcotic coalition of Nick Cave, wirey axe-man Rowland S. Howard (whom I wrote a lengthy piece on, the focal point being the film noire world of his two solo albums, which you can read here), rhythm guitarist Mick Harvey, drummer Phill Calvert, and their bassist, the moustache-bearing cowboy hat-wearing Tracy Pew, who may well be music's most intimidating man.

Their swampy sound was a druggy, furious catharsis, a demented release of so much energy that the band could not have existed more than a handful of years. Lyrics were grizzly, gristly, and showcased a deranged kind of sexuality, and were delivered in such a vicious manner that even Cave's live intensity now (or anytime over the last 30 years) is unrecognisably mellowed out from his Birthday Party peak. The rhythm section was brutal; Pew and Calvert created a sound that was more of a force of nature than a thunderstorm, and Howard guitars screamed in pain and wailed in agony atop it.

In short, this is not music for the every day, and for someone to find it not their cup of tea is fair enough. But for those in search of rock music being pushed to its absolute limit, for a cocktail of sleaze, blood, disease and narcotics, halt at the Birthday Party, for you need not venture further.

The first song I should listen to?
Zoo Music Girl, the opening track to Prayers On Fire (their second best album) is where this journey into the underworld must begin. The rumbling drums greet you immediately atop a sizzling Howard guitar lick, the sonic equivalent of a blood vessel being slashed open by a rusty Stanley knife by a howling b-rate horror film doctor. with a rumbling bassline pummelling its way into your mind in a way so visceral, so powerful, that listening to this song can be likened more to demonic possession than it can to listening to a regular long player. Cave's lyrics are delivered like the last thoughts of a dying man, trying to get as many things off his chest in the 2:48 he has left. His lyrics are carnal, animalistic, and capture a moment of sheer sexual insanity;

My body is a monster driven insane
My heart is a fish toasted by flames
(I kiss the hem of her skirt)
My life is a box full of dirt
We spend our life in a box full of dirt
I murder her dress 'til it hurts
If there is one thing I desire in the world, that's to make love to my zoo-music girl

If this song doesn't push your buttons, if it doesn't leave you yearning for more, then read no further. This is not your territory. Reading further wastes both of our time.

Which album do I go for?
It's no hot take, but the essential album is Junkyard. Not just the essential album von der Birthday Party, but the album which is humanity's most essential contribution to art. Maybe ever. Maybe since Bacon's Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. Maybe since HP Lovecraft's Call of Cthulhu. What I'm trying to say is that this is a disc of music that is really, really good.

As I've alluded to before, The Birthday Party's music is the point at which the sexy and destructive meet. Sadistic sound portraits in black and white, Junkyard is the most testament to this of all their material. The screeching drones of She's Hit are darkly seductive underneath Cave's vocal releases, whilst the pounding you receive listening to Tracy Pew's bassline thunderclaps on Dead Joe as the song speeds up more and more as it reaches its filthy, filthy climax.

Every note on this album is essential, it's a rabid beast of an untameable rock 'n' roll rekkid. It froths at the mouth, and has this kind of darkness that Nick Cave can do so much better than anyone else.

What do I do after this?
I'm not going to go on any longer. All the tangents would be gone off on. I am a boy working to cut down on his tangents. But Prayers On Fire is another crucial record, and the Mutiny/Bad Seed double EP is yet another essential record. As well as that, check out the Drunk On The Pope's Blood split LP with Lydia Lunch. Post Birthday Party, Nick Cave became Nick Cave. Rowland S. Howard formed Crime and the City Solution, and These Immortal Souls (both great, check out Marry Me (Lie Lie)) before making some amazing albums solo and with longterm girlfriend Lydia Lunch, whilst Mick Harvey was a longtime Bad Seeds collaborator. In short, listen to the albums I mentioned, then listen to more. Thank you, and good night.

(Words: Cal Cashin)