Thursday, December 22, 2011

Flash Metal Suicide - The Birthday Party

The Birthday Party
1982, Missing Link Records 
By Stu Gibson

'Fucking Rotten Business This.'

No shit, sunshine. The Birthday Party landed in London in 1979 after fleeing post-apocalypse Australia, their barren, desecrated homeland. The nightmarish visions they saw there were relayed to the folk of the totally unaware and unsuspecting UK and filtered down to OK, so part of that is from Mad Max but they ain't a jalopy ride jammed full o' junk away from those customised go-karts used to hare up and down the desert in those films, breathing radiation fumes and sicker than the sole survivor. They brought this menace of rumbling, earth-shattering cataclysms with their music too,  eventually finding a home in the burgeoning goth scene springing up like bats outta the belfry at the time. And also like every other 'goth' band of the time they vehemently denied ever been so, despite old Nick Cave's hair putting Robert Smith's barnet of a few years later to shame in the shade. Of course, just like Bauhaus were taking the piss out of all the goths that became goths precisely because of Bauhaus. Poor old Pete Murphy's still hung up about it (literally, it seems, check out the comedy interview in Uncut, June '05). Oh yes, did I forget to mention (did you not know?) that The Birthday Party were the irrepressible old devil's first band? Back when he was large of barnet and full of enough drugs to kill Keef'n' Iggy in one hit. They actually began life in a more sedate tho' still contradictory, manner under the moniker of The Boys Next Door. Now, I'm not gonna be all pseudo-knowledgable and sit here and say 'Yeah it wasn't as mental as The Birthday Party, maan', which, by all accounts (or the two I've read anyway) they weren't, as I've never heard this early incarnation and frankly my dear readers I couldn't care less. But I can take it as read that twas only after they arrived in London and starved in a scummy house somewhere that madness found them and festered on them for a good few years, forcing them out into venues the world over to screech, wail and generally try to rid their poor possessed souls and bodies of the infernal forces that had taken control of their skinny ribcaes. Such as heroin. And alcohol.

'Welcome To The Car Crash'
they trooped over to London in the bright, hopeful era of 1980 to fuck things up a little, our denizens of random destruction, fucked themselves up completely then hit a slight nail of luck and were able to start surviving and perform some vicious primal scream...not therapy, just plain primal screaming would do for them, they didn't care about ever recovering. They were a mess both physically and musically. And these apocalypse dudes would also inadvertently show Bauhaus for the art school pansies that they were. However, tho the invaders would never write anything as sublime as 'Dark Entries',  the native wusses would cower as their tedious noir 'Spy In The Cab' was taunted and then trounced by lolloping juggernauts like 'The Friend Catcher' (interestingly featuring a Suicide-ish riff that Spacemen 3 would base their entire 9-minute plus nightmare drone 'Suicide' around). A weird, no, hold on, the most bizarre alien swamp stew of bestialized blues, a few dying fragments of rockabilly after they've ransacked rockabilly HQ razing it to

their own version of Hell, ditto a few pieces of free jazz clinging to a mountain edge with pleading eyes having its fingers being lifted off one by one, it's last vision one of Nick's leering visage, Captain Beefheart, Pere Ubu ('New Picnic Time' era), The Stooges on some seriously bad acid to toss out an old cliche, possibly The Fall too who at times walk a similar line of willfully ruined rackets. As played by5 monstered Aussies in their own little worlds and not, seemingly, the same song at the same time (kinda like The Replacements instrument swapping but in a forreal bizarro jazzo 'Funhouse' mode - of which The Birthday Party deliver a shocking end of world version on the 'Live '81-'82' set, which is honestly seriously disturbing) with a relentless dynamism, an energy so restless that it suggests a serious hyperactive disorder all round...a cold, alienating, ugly arctic squall at once disorientating yet seductive. No wonder they got so recklessly into smack, they probably needed the extra drugs to straighten out and get on an even keel after subjecting themselves to what came out when they picked up an instrument.

On top of all this Cave screeched, brayed like a very pissed off mule and occasionally crooned but generally sounded like somebody was alternately crushing his voicebox as you would a paper bag before binning it, and shoving, or trying to, horrible instruments of torture up his back passage like a puppet of De Sade. Like Lemmy said about being used to the Rock'n'Roll lifestyle and colossal volume, that you get used to it in a way you'd get used to someone coming around and hitting you on the head at 7:30 every morning (tho' I, for one, aren't particularly sure about that one), you become accustomed to The Birthday Party, like you get lured into a great, or rather good (there's precious few great ones) horror film, enjoying the sensory battery to the extent where what you get off on is the sheer intensity, chaotic lunacy and violent excess. Akin to the old adage that you're irresistibly drawn to a car wreck and have an insatiable curiosity to seethe results. And then they invited us to this savage, and depraved disco diabolique! Their gigs were apparently pretty violent affairs.  I can imagine, Cave's insanity seen on Bad Seeds gigs is testament to what went on at Party gigs. Reading the 'Bad Seed' biog, apparently Cave wasn't averse to jumping into audiences to give someone a quick clip round the earhole. As can be heard on the 'Live '81-'82' album where Nick, presumably replying to some sarky heckler just utters 'Yes, I like your hair too sonny' with a tasty hit of malice.

'A gross gang of ghost types...'

I heard The Birthday Party for the first time, after reading about them, and hearing them mentioned in whispered asides, finally in 1992. When you're a youngster it seems to have been loads of mentions and they take on a romantic semi-mythical status. I only ever managed to get 'Big-Jesus-Trash-Can' on a free tape compiled by John Peel from his favourite Peel Sessions issued with Select magazine (for he, rather unsurprisngly, was quite taken with them). It tied in with it being around this time that 4AD, Mute or whoever the fuck it was, issued the 'Hits' album, that I always intended to get and never ever did. Phewww. I actually got a taped copy of it a few years back and I think I've played it about twice, and I might play it once while writing this. Maybe. Y'see, 'Big-Jesus-Trash-Can' is an awesome calamity, where all planets aligned and all The Birthday Party's kinda coalesced into something actuallyr esembling a song. Almost like listening to some old Rockabilly but after the radio's been chucked underwater, taste-tested by a Great White and systematically smashed against a wall by Jerry Lee Lewis, whatever slivers of a song remains...
Or perhaps it's just simply their most accessible song and I'm a big jessie who can't handle his noise.

Complete abandon yet, a sprightly Captain Beefheart riff, like insane laughing hyenas atop a thunderous, malevolent, angry bass and drum combo (the rhythm section usually at least sounded like they were playing the same song in the same room) while Nick rants about some semblance of a story featuring oil and Texas and, quite possibly, Elvis, ('Wears a suit of Gold (got greasy hair)'). I loved it and still do which is why I always so disappointed when I got around to more Birthday Party records. Not that they're crap. In fact, at times they can be great, for a few seconds or minutes anyway, they're just... I guess it's the same mentality of people who listen to Miles Davis' free jazz skronk noodling and enjoy it (or claim to, man). 'Bitches Brew' is utter bollocks, I don't care how clever iti s. before I get going...I picked up 'Live'81-'82' a few years ago too, and again realised that glad the party went on without me. I was a happy wallflower in this instance, for, whilst being quite agreeably insane and noisesome it's far too much hard to play very often. It's almost something akin to a good friend, that you hang out with every so often (maybe they live out of town), but when they have a few drinks they think it's a good idea to beat living crap out of you, before buying you a drink. But music that's played by a whole family of such people. As much as I love Big Black, JAMC and so on listening to The Birthday Party is more out of a to see if I've got more amenable to it or if it's still like a ghost in the closet to a child that you shut the door on asap. It is a case of 'it' and not 'them' as it's almost like the spawned a monster, scraping and screeling guitars howling like tortured animals. Or the birth of a hungry alien, or prehistoric reptile, or prehistorcalien reptileeven, crawing for mother.

Demented Are Go
So we come to 'Junkyard' - their second album proper, after 1981's 'Prayers On Fire'. Why 'Junkyard'? Two reasons - a/ cos it's got 'Big-Jesus-Trash-Can' on it,b/I don't have 'Prayers On Fire'. Actually, I didn't have 'Junkyard' till last weekend, when I burnt it off my girlfriend. But when I was young and poor it was the one I wanted. Good enough? Crashing straight in like a motorway pile-up with 'Blast Off', huge canyon collapsing basslines, tinny guitar scars Cave and co sound like they're etching sketches in sheet metal. A frantic, garbled, deranged funk freakout that they slopped out every so often (such as the earlier 'Zoo Music Girl'). It strikes me as a soundtrack to Mr. Cave's 1989 novel 'And The Ass Saw The Angel', perhaps due to the title being along similar lines, but also cos that makes about as much sense as, well, The Birthday Party in general.

No, really, because songs like 'Hamlet (Pow, Pow, Pow)' seem to be narratives, however distorted, cut-up and nonsensical they may be, of strange, perverse creatures in small towns you only thought existed in your nightmares.

Surging powerlines like a moray eel shooting out it's cave and back quick as a flash. Like Big Black without the tunes, I've always thought. I read in the 'Bad Seed' biog that by the time of 'Junkyard' heroin had such a grip that focus had been lost as well as the necessary energy levels required to churn out such high-intensity music, especially from the vertigo inducing feelings it causes anyway, just listening to it sat down, never mind rehearsing and writing it day in and day out. It's not a bad record, but doesn't stick in your head much, I guess cos while you're playing it it's simultaneously battering brain cells into oblivion and it's a pretty cold, unloveable, unfeeling, unemotional landscape they populated, leaving you feeling as though you've just listened to an aural lobotomy. But it has it's high points with 'She's Hit', a supinely spooky crawl I take to be documenting the aftermath of an overdose or murder, a sort of warped 'Fever' with Johnny Thunders woozy OD guitar scratches, wailing wall vocals creating a definite macabre theatre of the grotesque, cold as a corpse and 'Dead Joe', presaging Big Black's 'Jordan, Minnesota' or 'Bazooka Joe' by three years or so, muddy river corpses strewn in its wake...battering ram bass blasts from Tracy Pew, razor thin guitar cuts (that Big Black co-opted along the way too), slashing at you like the scenes of poor l'il ol' Jesus in 'The Passion Of The Christ', at times reminiscent of Bauhaus' 'Of Lillies And Remains' (perhaps they were both taking the piss out of each other for being the bigger goths) then at others mutilating classic Chuck Berry lines. The title track itself is a lumbering behemoth, a slow, cruel torture - 'hack hack hack hack hack this heavenly body' - like being used as a punchbag and enjoying it. Brutal. 'The Dim Locator' has a waltzy, sarcastic, taunting guitar line and is bounced along on a rockabilly swing rhythm to be another of their more accessible tunes. '6" Gold Blade' is an early example of Cave's murder ballad obsession ('I stuck a six-inch gold blade in the head of a girl...Oh baby, those skinny girls, they're so quick to murder') and 'Release The Bats' is a clear example of the earlier mentioned piss taking of Goths ('A hundred fluttering in your skirt...Her legs are chafed by sticky wings') and is another demonstration of their hairspray assaulting mutant flailing tribal funk as thought they were also taking a dig at young Adam Ant. Actually, probably more like taking a whip to him. Cave going into his best Iggy impressions ('Eeeurrghhh!') and chasing the song around like a circus master having a breakdown.

Weirdly, I've never recommended The Birthday Party to anybody I don't think, 'cept to sample some sheer mad creepiness, but their vicious nightmare vision is a nasty, sinister, sadistic pleasure. A musical soundtrack to a Bucking Bronco rodeo ride, indeed, one craaaaazzy fucking ride. Man. And the influence of their nightmarish post-apocalypse nuclear holocaust paranoia lives on as seen in bands like The Membranes and Gallon Drunk through to The 80's Matchbox B-Line Disaster and Manchester's own purveyors of slightly wonky bonkersbilly blues gunk JackieO today. And of course John Robb then of The Membranes would christen his gang of soul punk revolution Rockas GoldBlade. Tho' size is undetermined.


-Stu Gibson, who IS  quite fond of the other kind of birthday parties. With cake, you know.
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