This intensely challenging and influential Australian band put everything it had into making inhospitable and unyielding records and wound up as the yardstick by which countless bands have since been judged. With partial comparisons possible to such noisy free-formists as the Fall, Pere Ubu and Public Image Ltd., the Birthday Party’s unique sensibility sprang from singer Nick Cave (who wrote most of the lyrics) and guitarist Rowland S. Howard, who took care of a good chunk of the songwriting.
Before relocating to London from Melbourne, the Birthday Party released several Australian-only records, the first two under their original name, the Boys Next Door. Door Door and the five-song Hee Haw are surprisingly normal-sounding aggressive rock with traditional song structures and musical values. Cave’s vocals invest the album with an ominous undercurrent, but the overall ambience hardly suggests the insanity that lay ahead.
That began to take form on their next release, The Birthday Party (the label credits the band under both monikers). Whatever their name, though, serious derangement was setting in fast. Cave’s vocals and Howard’s newly developed wall of feedback make Door Door sound positively inhibited; each track here is deeply unsettling. The LP’s opening kick, “Mr Clarinet,” presents an ultra-distorted organ sitting atop a stiff goose-step beat. The second side is even more crazed: “The Friend Catcher” (relentless and hypnotic) and “Happy Birthday” both contain some of the most frenzied guitar work ever captured on vinyl.
After moving to the UK, the Birthday Party recorded and released their first international LP, Prayers on Fire, a raging beast filled with agonized howling, braying Cave vocals flung against a backdrop of violently attacked guitars and no-wave horn noise. Drums and bass alone toe the line of established patterns; everything else ignores the song at hand and goes flat out in competition with Cave’s literate invective.
The live Drunk on the Pope’s Blood followed, half of a disc that also contains a side of live Lydia Lunch (who later formed the Immaculate Consumptives with Cave, and worked with Howard and others in the axis). Recorded in London at the end of 1981, the disc is honestly described on the jacket as “16 minutes of sheer hell!” Drawing two of its four songs from Prayers on Fire, Cave and Co. growl and shriek through the slow pieces with stunning gruesomeness — incomprehensibility aside, no one else has ever suffered with a more effective sonic display than what’s in these grooves. Junkyard has less energy to the sound, but still manages to lift blood pressure with such assaults as “Dead Joe,” “Big-Jesus-Trash-Can” and “6” Gold Blade.”
Three BP EPs (plus a reissue of the Boys Next Door’s Hee Haw) were released in 1983, the same year the band broke up. The first was The Bad Seed, four concise cuts of incredible visceral impact. From the slow psycho-blues of “Deep in the Woods” to the frenzied blur of “Sonny’s Burning,” it leaves the listener helpless and enthralled. The Birthday Party EP compiles five tracks from singles: the A-side (“The Friend Catcher”) of the band’s 1980 UK debut plus 1981’s “Release the Bats” b/w “Blast Off” and “Mr Clarinet” b/w “Happy Birthday.” Finally, the posthumous Mutiny! was released at the correct time: it wouldn’t have been easy to follow. Like The Bad Seed, it mixes two furious numbers with a pair of funereal dirges. “Jennifers Veil,” a harrowing lament, is perhaps the band’s finest song ever — neither John Cale nor Alfred Hitchcock was ever this scary.
Released in Australia two years later, It’s Still Living (recorded in Melbourne in 1982) offers spirited performances of material from Prayers on Fire and Junkyard and, although decried by the band, is recommended for fans. The first Peel Sessions EP dates from April 1981; the second from December of the same year; the LP joins ’em up. Tracks include “Release the Bats,” “Pleasure Heads Must Burn” and “Rowland Around in That Stuff.”
A Collection… (also known as The Best and the Rarest) takes its tracks from Junkyard, Hee Haw, Prayers on Fire and some singles, adding a few alternate versions and other rarities. The American CD is somewhat different.
Having already issued CDs of Prayers on Fire (with two bonus tracks from an Australian 45) and Junkyard, 4AD brought the rest of the band’s post-Door Door studio catalogue into the laser age with two 1989 reissues. One disc contains Mutiny! and The Bad Seed, adding two vintage outtakes previously issued on an Australian 45. Hee Haw pairs that EP’s five songs with The Birthday Party EP, adding “The Friend Catcher”‘s two B-sides and three more songs to create an expanded version of the Birthday Party album.
Prior to packing it in for other projects, bits and pieces were recorded for what was supposed to have been a Birthday Party/Lydia Lunch album. Shelved and subsequently tinkered with by Lunch and Clint Ruin, Honeymoon in Red finally saw the light of day in 1987 on Lunch’s label. (Slow tempos and sparse arrangements suggest that Lunch dominated the proceedings and/or had plenty of input come mixing time.) Howard and bassist Tracy Pew (an epileptic who died in 1986) are credited, but Cave and guitarist/keyboardist/drummer Harvey appear under pseudonyms (Cave is Lunch’s “dead twin” on “Done Dun” and “a drunk cowboy junkie” on “Dead in the Head”). The tracks all employ different personnel permutations, with guests — including Thurston Moore, Ruin and Genevieve McGuckin (These Immortal Souls) — adding to the morbid racket. The lyrics are real storybook/fairytale fodder (it rains blood, people cry blood, etc.), but the music is eminently suitable for such visions. The best cut is McGuckin’s “Three Kings,” on which Howard and Moore combine for some of the most haunting guitar noise ever recorded five years apart.