We went from a raw garage band through experimentalism back to raw blues almost. It was kind of like that, we just ended up doing raw, violent experimental music.
Mick Harvey, Stranded, 1996
Formed: 1978 (as The Boys Next Door), Melbourne, Australia
Featured album: Prayers on Fire (1981)
IF HELL WERE a circus, and that circus had a strip club, The Birthday Party would be its house band. One of the most blasphemous and licentious groups to emerge from the post-punk movement, their career was an all-too short and brutish plummet from grace, filled with drugs, debauchery and some of the most violently original music to come out of Australia both then or since.
Like all the best sinners, The Birthday Party started out as choir boys – literally. Founding members Nick Cave (vocals), Mick Harvey (guitar) and Phill Calvert (drums) all attended Caulfield Grammar School in the early seventies, where they sang in the choir. Seduced by the demon lure of rock ‘n’ roll, they formed a garage band that performed glam covers at parties and school functions. The group continued after their final school year, recruiting friend Tracy Pew on bass and naming themselves The Boys Next Door.
The Boys Next Door wrote and played raw, punky originals such as “Sex Crimes” and “Masturbation Generation” before developing into a shinier and more streamlined new-wave pop band. This new direction was exemplified on their first full-length album, Door, Door. Produced by Tony Cohen, who would form a long working relationship with the group, the album was released on Mushroom Records in 1979. With guitar-strangling dandy Rowland S. Howard now providing a song-writing foil for Cave, Door, Door contained the Oz-rock classic “Shivers” alongside off-kilter tunes like “The Voice” and “Dive Position”, their herky-jerky rhythms revealing the band’s arty side. This sound grew more twisted on the Hee-Haw EP released later that year, its rawer and more rhythmic songs betraying the influence of Pere Ubu and The Pop Group. Mushroom owner and Oz-rock mogul Michael Gudinski wasn’t interested in such non-commercial fare and dropped the group, but the EP was picked up by Melbourne indie Missing Link.
The band moved to London in 1980, where the struggle to eke out an existence and find gigs sharpened their focus. Rough Trade released the distorted-organ oom-pah of the “Mr Clarinet” single, while 4AD picked up “The Friend Catcher”, featuring Howard’s wall of corrosive, shimmering guitar noise and Cave’s mad donkey bray. Both songs ended up on The Birthday Party album released that same year, credited to both The Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party. By the time the latter name was embraced – and fuelled by cider, heroin, and lord knows what else – the band had completed its metamorphosis into something wilder and much more dangerous. Their next album, Prayers on Fire, recorded in Melbourne and released in 1981, removed any lingering trace of respectability.
Now based in London, the band’s look had become as strange as their sound. Cave styled his greasy black hair to look like he’d been struck by lightning, Pew grew a moustache and took to wearing a mesh singlet and cowboy hat, while Howard looked like he’d skulked out of the angular shadows of some silent, German Expressionist horror movie. Their striking appearance only added to their by-now formidable live reputation. A split EP with New York no-wave queen Lydia Lunch*, Drunk on the Pope’s Blood/The Agony Is the Ecstacy [sic] arrived on 4AD that year, the first side capturing The Birthday Party’s fierce live dynamic. Gothabilly piss-take “Release the Bats”, produced by Nick Launay and backed with “Blast Off!”, was released as single in 1981, followed by the album Junkyard in 1982.
With a cover by hot-rod artist and Rat Fink creator Big Daddy Roth, Junkyard signalled a more cartoonish and confrontational Birthday Party obsessed with trash culture, Americana and Shakespeare. Recorded in both Melbourne and London and considered by most to be the band’s best album, Junkyard was pure, abrasive mayhem with a dash of The Cramps’ bug-eyed psychobilly, channelled into the murder-blues of “She’s Hit”, the pounding hate-rock of “Dead Joe”, and the sludgy dirge of the title track. Pew, who had missed the sessions due to a stay in prison, was replaced by Magazine’s Barry Adamson and others. After the album was completed, and sensing that the creative well was running dry, the band ejected Calvert for being unable to come up with the sort of unconventional drum beats that their chaotic music required. But such measures only delayed the inevitable.
By the end of 1982, The Birthday Party had relocated to Berlin and recorded The Bad Seed EP at Hansa Studios, with Harvey now on drums. The EP’s sparse blues-based songs marked a turn toward the more narrative-based lyrics Cave would explore in the Bad Seeds. The band toured the United States after its release, a trip that would have a catalysing effect on the post-hardcore noise-rock movement, bands like the Butthole Surfers, Killdozer and The Jesus Lizard all owing The Birthday Party a stylistic debt. A final EP, Mutiny, was half recorded in Berlin and then finished in London. By now, Cave and Howard were completely at odds, refusing to write songs together, while Harvey had quit but came back for long enough to finish the recording and a final London tour. Meanwhile, the band had befriended industrial group Einstürzende Neubauten in Berlin, and that band’s front-man Blixa Bargeld played guitar on “Mutiny in Heaven”, possibly their most insane and nightmarish vision. Also included was the howling, throbbing “Swampland”, which further developed the Southern Gothic themes of Junkyard and sewed the lyrical seeds for Cave’s debut novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel. It would be the last song the band ever wrote together.
Nick Cave wasted no time putting together what would become Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds with Harvey, Bargeld and Adamson, and has become a respected songwriter, novelist and scriptwriter, exploring the nature of faith and violence with a touch more nuance and sensitivity than he did with The Birthday Party. Harvey and Howard played in Crime & the City Solution, while Howard would eventually form his own band, These Immortal Souls, their debut single a version of “Marry Me (Lie! Lie!)” first recorded by The Birthday Party for their fourth Peel Session. Pew’s own immortal soul departed this existence in 1986, the bassist dying of injuries sustained during an epileptic seizure, while Howard died of liver cancer in 2009 after an influential solo career. His life, including time spent in The Birthday Party, was covered in the documentary Autoluminescent in 2011, which recognised his status as one of Australia’s greatest songwriters and guitarists.
Whereas The Boys Next Door had come across as affected and more than a little pretentious, like private school boys playing at being naughty – which is exactly what they were – The Birthday Party was something else entirely. The rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle is a cliché seldom lived up to in the music created by its adherents, but The Birthday Party were one of the rare exceptions. They might have existed on the precipice of oblivion for only a few short years, an unstable mixture of elements that just happened to implode before it could blow up. But The Birthday Party have left behind a legacy of music that embodies the sleaze, chaos and atavistic spirit of rock ‘n’ roll like no other.
* Lunch also collaborated with The Birthday Party and Genevieve McGuckin on the Honeymoon in Red project in 1982, which eventually saw release in 1987 with further contributions from Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and J.G. Thirlwell (a.k.a. Foetus, a.k.a. Clint Ruin). Thirlwell also played saxophone with The Birthday Party on a cover of The Stooges’ “Funhouse”, available on Live 1981-82 (1999).
“Nick the Stripper” video from Prayers on Fire (1987)
Nick Cave and Rowland S. Howard interview (sound only) (1980)
“Dead Joe” live, Hacienda Club (1982)