Artist: The Birthday Party
Label: Missing Link
Producer: Tony Cohen, The Birthday Party
Cover art: Jenny, Poly & Evan
WEARING NOTHING BUT a loincloth, and with the word ‘HELL’ painted on his chest, a skinny geek twirls around a stripper pole in a circus tent before emerging into a burning Melbourne trash heap, where he cavorts with his bandmates, several psychiatric patients, and a goat. Those only familiar with Nick Cave as Australia’s answer to Leonard Cohen might be shocked to see this video for “Nick The Stripper”, which perfectly captures the carnivalesque hysteria of The Birthday Party’s Prayers on Fire.
Cave’s vocal is flamboyant and guttural on “Nick the Stripper”, and throughout the album he splits the difference between troglodyte and lunatic: moaning, grunting, barking, clearing his throat and howling from the depths of his guts. On the opening track, he sounds like he’s having a heated conversation with himself, barely able to contain his lust for his “Zoo Music Girl”, while on “Capers”, Cave could almost be parodying his later career as a crooner, sounding as if he’s pulling his chin into his neck to force a comical faux baritone. But while it’s all too easy to focus on Cave’s expressive mania, each member of The Birthday Party contributes an equally eccentric performance. Rowland S. Howard’s spidery leads hunt down Tracy Pew’s voluptuous basslines as they shimmy and shake, while Phill Calvert bashes at his kit as if to squash the creepy crawlies skittering across his drum heads. Meanwhile, multinstrumentalist Mick Harvey tries to hold the whole show together, doubling on guitar but also embelleshing the songs with snare drum, organ and piano.
The presence of this light orchestration, which also includes clarinet and a brass section, creates the sense that we’re experiencing some deranged variety show. “Capers” is a skew-whiff waltz, like the sort of thing Tom Waits was recording at the time, and much of the material on Prayers of Fire lurches and lilts with a debauched sense of cabaret. Mariachi horns pepper “Zoo-Music Girl” with absurd fanfare, and trumpet, saxophone and trombone* lend a sleazy squawk to “Nick the Stripper”. Yet there’s a crazy edge to these adornments – the loony clarinet line of “A Dead Song”, for instance, drills a maddening circular figure into your brain – and there’s a sense that everything might fall apart at any second, as each member seems to be playing from a different songbook. “Figure of Fun” takes this lunacy to extremes, as if the band were playing in a tornado as splinters of feedback and stabs of organ fly by like scraps of detritus through the song’s calamitous churn.
Even as many of the album’s compositions teeter on the brink of total collapse, not everything here is a dodgem-car ride of chaos. “Cry” is a spiky post-punk pop song, while the piano-led “Dull Day” is almost stately, adding further to the cabaret atmosphere by recalling the woozy grandeur of Kurt Weill. Elsewhere, the pace slows to a murderous crawl for “King Ink”, its bass stalking like a serial killer while spaghetti western guitars twang and scratch at the edges of the psyche, and “Ho-Ho” and “Yard” are subdued dirges that sway with intoxicated malevolence. With its lonely saxophone squawking over Pew’s slinky double bass, “Yard” sounds about as desolate and depressing as music can get. And yet Cave pleadingly asks, ‘how many chickens can we count?’ in a tortured croon, and there is much absurd humour to be found on the album.
Populated with insects and fish and teeth and ink and sand and soot and dust and dirt and things being hit with hammers, the lyrics paint murky pictures that lurk in the consciousness like fever dreams, eschewing narrative for Dadaist wordplay and Surrealist visions. Cave is not the only wordsmith here, and some of the best lyrical contributions are made by band members and acquaintances. Anita Lane’s “A Dead Song” begins with the passionate entreaty that ‘this is true’ before a rambling and unfocused torrent of words, punctuated by Cave imploring: ‘O.K. O.K’, as if harangued into submission. Like something from Lautréamont’s profane pen, Howard’s “Ho-Ho” is either about farting or smoking (maybe both). Best of all might be Genevieve McGuckin’s “Capers”, which tangles itself up in an intricate knot of nonsense, words like ‘gloomloom,’ ‘clocklock’ and ‘diehood’ among its playful neologisms.
From the expressionistic lyrics to Howard’s action-splatter guitar and Calvert’s jungle drums, there’s a knowing primitivism to Prayers on Fire that taps into a tradition stretching through Iggy Pop, the Velvet Underground and Elvis all the way back to Gauguin, Picasso, and Matisse: one of resisting the strictures of civilisation and sanity to get at something purer and more instinctual. But even as The Birthday Party’s literate sensibilities give way to the pursuit of animalistic debasement and obscene comedy, their songs are still sophisticated in their snarled Beefheartian complexity, and Prayers on Fire is as smart as it is savage.
* The brass on “Nick the Stripper” was played by Melbourne jazz-rock band Equal Local.
- “Zoo-Music Girl” – 2:36
- “Cry” – 2:39
- “Capers” – 2:38
- “Nick the Stripper” – 3:47
- “Ho-Ho” – 3:04
- “Figure of Fun” – 2:46
- “King Ink” – 4:38
- “A Dead Song” – 2:12
- “Yard” – 5:02
- “Dull Day” – 2:59
- “Just You and Me” – 2:00
Listen on Spotify
Also check out…
- The Birthday Party – Hee-Haw (1988) compilation of The Boys Next Door’s Hee-Haw EP (1979) and The Birthday Party album (1980)
- The Birthday Party – Junkyard (1983)
- The Birthday Party – Mutiny/The Bad Seed (1983) compilation of The Bad Seed EP (1982) and the Mutiny! EP (1983)
- The Birthday Party – Live 1981–82 (1999)