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Nick Cave:
The Birthday Party

The Birthday Party

Formed Melbourne, Australia, 1978; disbanded 1983

The Birthday Party were one of the most remarkable and challenging bands of the immediate post-punk era, and one of the most passionately followed. During their London years, at the onset of the '80s, there were fans who went to every Birthday Party gig, and hang the rest. And why not? On a good night, their chaotic, menacing songs sounded like no one else on earth.

The band began life in Melbourne as The Boys Next Door, with a line-up—preserved more or less intact throughout their career—of Nick Cave (vocals), Rowland Howard (guitar), Tracey Pew (bass), P M Calvert (drums) and Mick Harvey (everything). Their change of name—taking the title of a Harold Pinter play—was revealing of Cave’s literary and artistic interests, and also apt, in that the band’s music shared Pinter’s black humour, menace and grotesquerie.

The Birthday Party were as Gothic as bands came in the post-punk-era, although the humour that pervaded their records set them apart from more solemn contemporaries like their future label mates, Bauhaus.

The Birthday Party sound was really forged, however, with a pair of albums: Prayers On Fire (1981) and, especially, Junkyard (1982), which was recorded for independent label 4AD. This was uncompromising music, the tracks often sounding on the point of collapse, with the band seemingly playing multiple different songs while Cave ranted and raged about lost souls and the grotesques who infested his imagination.

'The black comedy of many of those songs—like “King Ink” and “Just You and Me”—led the music press to dub the band ‘cartoonish.’ But, pretentious though it may sound, they were really more tragicomic. Listen, for example, to “Hamlet Pow Pow Pow”—Shakespeare-meets-Jimmy-Cagney—as Cave, in the guise of Hamlet, screeches, ‘Wherefore art thou babyface?’ Some of their more extreme and violent imagery, though, was not for the faint­hearted, like “6” Gold Blade”: "I stuck a six inch gold blade in the head of a girl."

Given the nature of the band and its personalities, it was not surprising that tensions began to appear, particularly between Cave and Howard, over its future direction. Pew, imprisoned for drunk-driving, was replaced for a while by Bany Adamson (ex-Magazine), and Calvert was eased out (joining Psychedelic Furs) as the band shifted to the more congenial locale of Berlin, and its members devoted their energies to collaboration with Lydia Lunch and Einstürzende Neubauten.

The band’s fragmentation and divisions were starkly highlighted on their final EP, Mutiny! (1983). “Jennifer’s Veil”, featuring the Nick Cave crooning for the first time, was in effect his first Bad Seeds solo outing, while the demented “Mutiny in Heaven” served as The Birthday Party’s swan song, with Cave raving like a trooper over Blixa Bargeld’s guitar. It was a superb epitaph for an extraordinary band.

The Birthday Party’s permanent break-up was finalized by the death of Tracey Pew from a heroin overdose in 1986. Rowland Howard left to form These Immortal Souls and has since languished in relative obscurity, while Cave took Mick Harvey to help him in his long and brilliant solo career as Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds.


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