Wild World: reflections on Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, part 1

First, some housekeeping notes. My apologies to all who subscribed in September only to find that my output dropped off sharply in the
past fortnight. Few things breeds disinterest faster in the world of blogging than uneven output, so I’ll commit myself to weekly updates from this point on. You may get extra posts here and there, but I figure a regular day each week may reduce frustration amongst you loyal few.

Second, to those of you who only seem to find my blog via the googled phrase ‘robotic cloaca’: you disturb me.

Now, onto the proper stuff.

It’s a cliché, I know, to say that a musician provides a soundtrack to your life. But in my case, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds come very close indeed to such a soundtrack. There are bands I have loved more, bands I’ve listened to for longer, but Cave and his ever-changing cohort have managed to mark moments in my life like no other.

I did not come to him chronologically and, in a pre-MP3 world, experienced the music album by album, without any context beyond that which I provided or figured out for myself. So, I’m here to help you. Cave’s music isn’t particularly approachable, and the sheer size of his back-catalogue can intimidate those trying to find an entry point. Some of his songs are absolutely spellbinding, some of it less so – his career spans decades after all, so there are going to be both gems and clunkers in there. Over upcoming weeks, I’ll be providing a primer for newer listeners as well as giving some context into what I enjoy about his work. I should add that none of this was Wikipedia-d (is that a word now? The spell-check doesn’t seem to pick it up…); this means any inaccuracies are mine alone, and that I’ll slap anyone who says ‘citation needed’.

To start the story proper, we need to go back before the Bad Seeds.

Cave made his start in the burgeoning post-punk scene of Melbourne, Australia. His first band, the Boys Next Door, emerged from the ruins of an earlier high-school band. Their one and only album, the oddly titled Door, Door (1979) is patchy but – and I say this with some difficulty, as it sounds like I am descending into lazy phraseology quite early – does show promise of things to come. This is, if for nothing else, thanks to the album’s standout song, ‘Shivers’. Shivers was not penned by Cave at all, but rather by the band’s eminently gifted guitarist, Rowland Howard. It in the intervening years, it’s become a staple for Aussie bands, produced and reproduced in increasingly commercial versions. I think that many Australians would recognise the song, but few would know who originally wrote it.

The Boys Next Door’s ambitions were bigger than Melbourne, however, and in 1979 there was only one place to go for antipodean punks. So, off to London it was, with a change of name and a hardened attitude.  The Birthday Party, as they were now known, attacked the London underground scene with, by all reports, a hypnotic intensity.

The Birthday Party may have been many things, but they weren’t long-lasting. The band lasted for only four years before drugs, alcohol, conflicting musical visions and Cave’s increasingly autocratic role in the group all conspired to bring the group down. It was a prolific time though, with a raft of albums, EPs and singles released in a relatively short space of time.

The music of The Birthday Party is confused and angry – perhaps not much different, in that sense, from any other band of twentysomethings in that post-punk era (or indeed, any other era). There is also a roughness and a dirtiness to their sound, no doubt inherited from their new surroundings in an unwelcoming new country. Lastly, there is a fierce and almost violent lyricism; Cave collected phrases, accents and obscure verbiage from his readings, and used them as weapons.

I came to the Party late, after my views on Cave’s music were already quite well-formed. As such, it’s quite difficult to appreciate them on their own terms, as opposed to some chrysalis stage for what came next. The best introduction I can provide for newer listeners is, undoubtedly, Hits. First released in 1992, this compilation takes the best bits of The Birthday Party’s output and crams those four, ferocious years into twenty tracks. The band’s progress in that time is easily tracked; from the rawness of early releases like ‘The Friend Catcher’ and the faux-goth ‘Release The Bats’, through to the more lyrical and Southern Gothic mood of ‘Jennifer’s Veil’ and ‘Deep in the Woods’.

If The Birthday Party had continued on, or if Nick Cave (or indeed, any other member of the band) hadn’t achieved later fame, would we care about them? Probably not greatly, no. They would be cultishly remembered by a handful for having some powerful songs, an occasionally terrifying stage presence and a sound that betrayed the competing musical interests of the band’s members – so, not too dissimiliar to how they are remembered now. At their worst they tended toward the juvenile and masturbatory, while at their best the Birthday Party demonstrated a fine, dark swagger that belied their experience and set them apart from anything resembling a peer.

A striking element of their sound and appearance is their lack of consistency or attempt to create a certain style. At this distant remove, it’s easy to say that the band’s internal conflicts provided it with a degree of strength that other bands of the same era may have lacked. Certainly, The Birthday Party possessed passion, and showmanship, and lyricism – all fine traits, and ones to be admired in any band. By any length of the imagination, they were both a product of their time yet so very out of place in the increasingly vapid musical landscape that was the early ’80s – although, then again, I can’t think of a time that they would have comfortably sat within. While Cure fans were bouncing along to ‘Lovecats’ and Michael Jackson was putting together Thriller, Nick Cave was singing of biblical Falls from Grace that merged and melded with tales of heroin abuse. And I don’t think he’d have had it any other way.

Without reaching for Google, what happened to the members of the band? One-time drummer Phill Calvert disappeared for all intents and purposes, while the intimidating bass player Tracy Pew died shortly afterward in a tragic accident. Multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey, the backbone of the Birthday Party, moved with Cave and continued in his role as steadfast lieutenant for long years in the Bad Seeds. Rowland Howard, meanwhile, creator of the haunting ‘Shivers’, moved between several bands throughout the 8os and 90s, culminating in a series of solo projects. He eventually achieved critical acclaim on his own terms, but never approached the exposure of the Birthday Party’s more famous spinoff, the Bad Seeds. Howard died a short while ago, and whilst I never delved into his work to the same extent as Cave’s, I keenly felt his loss. He was a gifted songwriter and musician, and I think the world is poorer for him not being in it.

Next week: Blues, Berlin and the beginning of the Bad Seeds.

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