“Buried within these songs is a prolonged and obsessive quest to uncover the unconscious origins of desire, which should be written as pure loss” — Nicholas Rothwell, rock critic
“I’LL FUCK ANYTHING THAT MOVES” — Frank Booth
Here is what The Birthday Party was up to in 1982: They released Junkyard, generally acknowledged to be their best album; their bassist spent several months in jail on a drunk driving charge; they released their most famous single; their drummer got kicked out/replaced for allegedly fucking up the beat on a particularly chaotic song; they recorded an EP; they played a steady stream of live gigs; and finally, after five years of drug- and booze- and sex-fueled mayhem, they decided to relocate to a more sedate base of operations: West Berlin. Astonishingly, a year later they were kaput, played out, drugged out, fucked out.
I can’t find it now, but I once read a review of Junkyard by a woman who was listening to certain dude-defined rock touchstones for the first time and she had the most devastating critique anyone can level against serious art: that it was funny. Grown men making spooky noises, bellowing about death, tantruming in excelsis deo. I can see where she’s coming from. The band came out of Australia and hey, that general area has produced gibbering homicidal madness as comedy before. And baked in their DNA is that most mockable of classic rock bands, The Doors — a deep-voiced frontman spewing dark poetry with no irony, undisguised horniness and death worship, a band that did not play by traditional rock norms. Hamlet reconfigured as gun-toting religious horndog? Why not!
But while the Doors famously had no bass, The Birthday Party had the primordial sleaze of Tracy Pew. They had Roland S. Howard’s hot-needle guitar intertwining with Mick Harvey’s sheets of noise on the second axe. They had Phil Calvert’s drums (later taken over by Harvey), heavy on the floor tom that bypasses the feet and head and goes directly to the hips. And of course, they had Nick Cave — junkie poet, lewd madman, damned screamer, wild beast. At their best, the Doors had a weird alchemy led by Jim Morrison’s scuzzy Lizard King and The Birthday Party had a similar dynamic. They turned noise that could be laughable into an unstoppable urge, not just self-destructive but self-negating, reveling in all-consuming debasement.
The cover of Junkyard is an amped-up Big Daddy Roth cartoon, a lecherous demon in a hot rod peeling out, and it’s one of the most appropriate album covers ever printed. The songs it contains are about trash and fucking and car crashes and fucking and death and cheap sex and fucking dead people. White Zombie, a band I love dearly, often relied on a groovy metal aesthetic of “strip club music — IN HELL!”: think of the bass line and slide guitars (not to mention the orgasmic moans) of “More Human Than Human.” But if you went to an actual strip club in hell, where devils writhe on stage and the drinks cost even more than they do here, you’d hear something like the throbbing menace of “Hamlet (Pow Pow Pow)” or “Big-Jesus-Trash-Can’s” evangelist with a trunk full of bodies, or the slow burn of “She’s Hit” and its sociopathic opening: “There is woman-pie in here.”
Here’s the dirty secret of The Birthday Party — just as Roth was a phenomenal draftsman who used that skill to draw outlandishly awesome pictures, they were an extremely talented band that played their asses off. It takes skill to go so far out, to get so unhinged while still somehow having songs, let alone ones that rely on complicated rhythms (like the bass and drums for B-side “Blast Off!,” which sounds like it’s falling apart even as it thrusts forward) and even the occasional shifting time signature. And here’s the other dirty secret of Junkyard in particular — the band was rarely recorded properly, and Junkyard is annoyingly thin in places. All of the pieces are audible, but they don’t have enough meat on their bones for full impact.
The Bad Seed EP, recorded late in the year when the band was a four-piece, is a bit better in this regard, as the balance lets more bass into the mix. “Sonny’s Burning” toggles between high-stepping psychosis and utter frenzy, “Fears of Gun” somehow creates a beat behind the beat and “Deep In The Woods” anticipates the band foreshadowed by the EP’s title, a warped blues that forsakes repetition for unflinching detail into Cave’s obsessions:
The woods eats the woman
And dumps her honeyed body
In the mud.
Her dress floats down the well,
And it assumes the shape of a body of a little girl.
Yeah, I recognize that girl.
She stumbled in sometime last loneliness,
But I could not stand to touch her now,
My one and onliness.
You can hear the Cave who would a create an album full of murder ballads a decade later loud and clear. But what’s more interesting to me is how the Cave who would later give himself over to joyful ecstasy is here in these songs too. “There She Goes, My Beautiful World” is on fire with creation instead of destruction, but the fervor and total submission to the song is the same.
And so is the commitment. Rock music is a pose. With the possible exception of GG Allin, no one has purposefully died for rock and roll. Nick Cave is not actually murdering people and having sex with their corpses. But rock lives on the connection between reality and possibility, how it collapses the distance between you and the song, and how well a band can forge that connection. And what they create makes me feel ten feet tall, with fire shooting out of my eyes and brimstone from my mouth, a living vessel for the fictions they create. So what to make of how these songs revel in ugliness, often in male rapacity and violence, and how electrifying that feels? What connection is being made here? In one of their defining songs, Cage yells and screams about being king, but he’s king of the junkyard.
Sometimes rock music, especially with the bass- and tom-heavy rhythms Calvert and Harvey thumped out, gets described as primitive. There is cultural bias at play here, consigning those beats and feelings to earlier times and “other” cultures, and “primitive” suggests the low point in an evolution. I think “primal” is the better word for what this music and this band are up to. Primitive is percussion made by bashing rocks together, primal is the Bo Diddley beat. Primal is something that was there from the start, that can’t be reduced further. Love is primal, kindness too. But so are desire, domination, depravity — unsurprisingly, The Birthday Party have a great song about pirates. And while the songs are coming from the perspective of a bunch of dudes, especially in the lyrics, primal is something that’s in everyone. Dark noise-rock stalwart Thalia Zedek got her start in an all-female band in early 80s Boston, and here she is in 1993 on why she moved on: ““We played with The Birthday Party, and I started getting into more discordant, noisy stuff. It was one of the reasons Dangerous Birds broke up. It was too poppy, not violent enough. So I started playing with men….When it comes to music, when you’re playing, you’re not a man or woman anymore. There definitely is sexuality in music, but there’s not that gender thing.” Women can be pirates too. Anyone can.
“You’re like me.” That’s what the seemingly goody-two-shoes Jeffrey learns from Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, right? Ugly desire is not going away just because you put on a nice shirt. What makes the band so powerful is they not only recognize these primal feelings but perform them with unwavering intensity, knowing that they could sound like a joke to someone not on their wavelength but not caring. On the compilation Live 1981-1982, Cave is not without humor — his deadpan “I like your haircut as well,” is A+ stage banter — and he can acknowledge the occasional moment of camp. But camp doesn’t mean fake. Or as Cave introduces one track: “This is a dead song — AND IT’S TRUE! THIS IS TRUE!”
Live 1981-1982 is the most essential Birthday Party release, and one of the most essential rock albums period. Everything that didn’t quite hit on their studio records comes together here, in a cherry-picked selection of performances as opposed to a complete concert recording. (Fully half the album is from 1981, but many of those songs were officially released in 1982, so I’m fine with cheating slightly on YOTM). Despite being live and theoretically having worse sound than the studio, it sounds absolutely fantastic. The guitars saw away while the bass and drums, finally freed from the flatness of the albums, beat the listener into submission. The highlight is the goth classic “Release The Bats” — the single version is great, with a merciless drive forward. The live version slows things down a half beat and does something better than drive. It swings:
This is a song where a solid chunk of the lyrics are Nick Cave screaming “HORROR BAT! SEX VAMPIRE!” It is ridiculous in its particulars, unstoppable in its actuality. Cave will fuck anything that moves, even if bats are fluttering in its skirt, and the band will happily fuck away with him. It mirrors the other highlight of the album, a version of the Stooges’ “Fun House” that sounds like it was recorded by the band in a Dumpster that was kicked down a very steep hill. It is chaos (with Foetus’ Jim Thirlwell on saxophone!) that never stops being insane and never stops to think about how insane it is. There is hell to be unleashed:
“Fun House” opens with Cave announcing what’s coming, but truly begins with Pew blasting its riff. It sounds like he’s using an arm stolen off a corpse to beat the absolute shit out of his bass. Pew died before he reached 30, after a seizure brought on in part by all the drugs he took during his Birthday Party days. The cliche would be to describe him as the heart of the band and that would not be accurate — he was the filthy, thrusting loins of their songs, the lascivious base of their carnal power. Pew would rely on one or maybe two riffs a song, but would play them with an intensity that suggested he was restraining, or maybe controlling, a larger force that would engulf the insanity of the rest of the band. He’s a conduit, where the energy and the connection can flow both ways.
In “Junkyard,” Pew locks down the song’s fury with his riff, letting Cave rant, “I AM THE KING!” over and over and over again as the guitars and drums pull back and build again, but always in thrall to the bass. It is a sexual riff, sliding up and down the scale with a circular resolution that loops back around on the octave. In a performance capture on video in late 1982, Pew is at center stage, with Harvey and Howard spewing out noise to his sides, Calvert pounding out the uncompromising rhythm behind him, Cave drugged out of his mind, drinking and ripping a butt and growling about “garbage in honey’s sack again.” Pew is resplendent in a cowboy hat, ruffled shirt and leather pants. For most of the song he is slowly, sensually, fucking his bass. Until, as the noise builds and builds, the bass starts fucking him.