Sounds - August 8, 1981
The Birthday Party - Screamers With Streamers
The kid never knew what hit him. One moment he had been casually leaning on the stage at Cambridge's Corn Exchange, pulling on a Marlboro and smirking to his friends as he slyly ignored the antics of support band The Birthday Party. . the next, WHAM! his cigarette (and his smile) disappeared in a whirlwind of unbridled aggressive absurdity as vocalist Nick Cove leapt into the audience to confront the kid in the Bauhaus t-shirt.
Nostrils flaring, wild eyes glaring beneath an unmanageable mop of haystack hair, Cave pushes his own face right into the kid's and bellows "Express thyself, SAY SOMETHING LOUDLY!" before emitting a scream that plays havoc with the decibel meter light. The kid's bemused maybe even shaken - but shows no sign of reacting at all. Like a kitten tired of playing with a dead mouse, Cave discards the kid and sets off on a skipping wardance through the crowd, crooning "Oh yer! Oh yer! Oh what a wonderful life". The song is 'King Ink' and the moment is at the one time comic, sad and awe-inspiring.
The Birthday Party's current lp, 'Prayers On Fire' is a stunning, stirring collection of distorted scenarios where black moods are tempered by black humour.
I didn't always think so - on first hearing (while I was washing my dishes one day), I found it a vile slap-dash concoction ill-disciplined, tuneless ravings. . .. and proudly informed the band of this when introduced to them at one of their gigs.
We argued at length and Nick vehemently asserted that "In my opinion, anyone who doesn't like our record is an idiot". Thus the prospect of spending three days on tour with The Birthday Party struck me as repulsively fascinating.
Tracy Pew is a bold brash braggart of a bass player, with tattoos on his arms and obscenities on his lips.
He delights in incorporating (and exaggerating) all the 'typical' Australian traits into his extrovert character, blustering about as a highly chauvinistic, mule-headed, pig-ignorant, foul-mouthed oaf (Aft Garnett meets Barry Mackenzie) who is nevertheless irresistably likeable - and not at all in an 'all lads together' manner, either.
Nick leans across the back seat of the band's hired estate car as we speed away from Leeds, and confides to me that Tracy was "quite brilliant at school - never studied but passed al his exams" and since then renounced all activities even vaguely resembling anything intellectual, serious or responsible.
The man himself belches ferociously and returns to my initial rash condemnation of their lp - "How could you do the dishes with our record on?" he asks incredulously.
I explain that I listen to a lot of records (especially new releases) while doing household chores - it's like a test, if the music bursts through such everyday mundaneness, it must be spirited and special. Label-mate Colin Newman is great when doing the dishes, I tell them!
"I don't like music like that anyway" retorts Tracy dismissively.
"But sometimes you hear something on the radio . . . like I remember hearing James Brown's 'It's A Man's Man's World' in the car once, and I damn nearly ran it off the road!"
He belches again as he finishes off another can of lager, and incurs the wrath of emaciated guitarist Rowland Howard, who has an excruciating headache and is vainly trying to find relief in sleep.
With drummer Phil pushing the car to its limit, we arrive at Reading Top Rank in good time, only to find that the PA hasn't turned up - apparently someone slashed the truck tyres outside Leeds Tiffanys.
And so to the pub with Nick and Tracy, who are only too happy to conform to any Australian stereotyping by drinking large amounts of beer.
The much quieter trio of Phil Calvert, Mick Harvey (guitar and piano) and the recovered Rowland meanwhile wait patiently in the cavernous Top Rank.
"You shouldn't judge the band by those two" warns Rowland in a whisper.
"It's a pity you don't have more time to really get to know us."
Isn't three days on the road enough?
"Well, being on tour is hardly typical we're a lot different when we're not on the road."
His voice is barely audible yet carries enormous authority and determination, his eyes burn black like coal and he maintains a singleminded composure that makes him appear icily aloof.
Suddenly panic sets in as the PA is wheeled in belatedly and set up in record time . . . The Birthday Party are due on stage in ten minutes, but neither Tracy nor Nick are anywhere to be seen.
They are - of course still in the pub.
"It's okay" Phil reassures me later, "People always expect us to be really serious and doomy, end they got really surprised sometimes when Nick's having a drink and falling about on stage . . . they expect us to be all gothic doom, all brought about by Joy Division and other such groups, but instead we're all laughing and a bit silly and Nick throws himself about ridiculously and it's all very funny."
Are you fun people?
"Oh yeah! We wanted to have balloons and streamers at some of our gigs in Australia - especially for the last one before we. came over, that was a big farewell party - but we couldn't organise it."
"I think we are a lot of fun, but I don't think you've really seen us at our best yet."
"We were very quiet in the car yesterday for some reason, we were probably just conscious of the presence of a journalists, just somebody who Is outside of our own little family that doesn't usually get involved in various word games we play."
You really see The Birthday Party at their best when they are on stage. They grind through the savage, whooping rhythms of authentic tribal celebration, compared to Adam Wow Wow's effete formalised, formulated precision substitute. Sex music.
Nick Cave is a truly remarkable figure up there - the most animal, charismatic, sexual performer since Ian Curtis, the spirit of the late Jim Morrison unfettered.
Magnetic, pathetic, majestic, dynamic.
The BP performance is a wearying, provocative, draining experience. like being involved in a violent, exhaustive yet exhilarating - argument for an hour.
No mere passive entertainment, the BP show is wonderfully, urgently demanding.
Cave's throaty growl turns somersaults through the language, garbled, fabled, stable, well-able - hit it! Phil engages his drums in jungle talk (an Aboriginal influence?) while Mick looks on, detached yet absolutely vitally integral to BP big NOISE!
Tracy swaggers obscenely, thrusting his bass provactively, sexually, as Rowland, eyes exuding iceberg rays, staring fixedly, digs into the stage with a vicious, stabbing booted foot, ripping heavenly squeals from the neck of his guitar, Embrace the psychotic laughter!
Nick Cave nurses his first pint of the day and prepares to bare his soul for the sake of yet another rock'n'roll interview. Though his placid off-stage demeanour is friendly and genuine enough, I constantly expect him to launch into a manic tirade at any moment . . . just as one might expect John Cleese to be forever on the brink of trotting out one of his famous "silly walks".
When you go on stage, do you feel a different person?
"Ah - these sort of questions! No, I don't feel like a different person at all - obviously I exaggerate the feelings that I have, but there is something which does change me, and that's what I am on stage and my job is to communicate, and without exception, I always feel that I'm not communicating properly and that it's not working out."
"So I get frustrated, and it builds up. All my energy comes from the frustration of not being able to communicate properly, that's why every night this comes across as something very comical - and in a way its meant to be, everything becomes exaggerated in a sledgehammer fashion . . . I attack people, pick them up by the collar and scream 'you are wicked, you will burn in hell', because I don't feel I'm getting across to them."
It almost seems like a schoolmaster screaming at lazy, stupid pupils!
"I actually do feel like that at times - I feel that my position is absolutely absurd, that I'm up on stage, singing these lyrics that nobody can really understand - I mean, nobody can hear, let alone understand them if they could - and the audience are all standing around in a big squashy pack, all looking up at me. . . it's just absurd."
What are you trying to communicate?
"My main purpose is just that I think what I'm writing about is really good and I'd really like people to appreciate it and understand it, but I don't think they will. It's an egotistical thing, because I think what I do is really good and I just went people to know about it."
Do you see yourselves acting as catalysts?
"In Australia, where our impact is far greater than England, there are a lot of groups which have definite tendencies towards our sort of music, but that's not what we went at all. We're not trying to got people to duplicate us, that's putting their energy to a wasted use."
"I would hope we've affected people - I think our records are probably more successful, because you can listen to them more easily and (long pause) ... it's just on stage, I don't think I'm doing that much good at all."
"I think my performance treads a very thin line between what is comic just straight-forward slapstick comedy - and what is the rock'n'roll fingersnapping front-man kind of thing."
"Some gigs we do, it's just a kind of dirty rock'n'roll, they get really violent and there's no humour and everyone's really angry ... but other times they're just really funny, everyone laughs people laugh at me and I just tend to parody myself, crack jokes and sing in stupid voices."
What sort of humour do you like?
"There's a great play called 'Humulus The Mute' written by these two French authors, and it's about a dumb boy who is granted a wish that he can say one word every year - and he falls in love with a girl he sees riding a bicycle.
"At the end of the play, he saves up his words for years not saying anything at all, then blurts out 'I love you, will you marry me?' and the punch-line is that she's deaf which I find quite funny."
You mentioned your shows degenerating into shop stick comedy do you particularly enjoy slap stick?
"No, I don't actually. I don't want to be like that on stage, I just find myself pushing it too far. The other day at a gig, there were two young girls laughing at me for the whole set, but obviously not understanding any of the reasons I was meaning to be funny, but just kind of laughing at me because they thought I was a big idiot."
"And song by song, they began to obsess me, until the entire concert ended up being dedicated to them . . . I was just singing right up to their faces, twisting my body in stupid ways, and the whole thing was becoming a complete farce - and that's what I mean by parodying myself, just becoming more and more ridiculous."
Do you ever feel like giving up?
"I always feel like giving up! I've felt like giving up for the last two years, but just kept going on - I'm probably too lazy to give up."
"For the last two years, I've always thought 'this is the last record we'll make', but I think we'll know when to quit."
"I'm still enjoying it, though it's incredibly demanding, the entire thing."
The demands and rigours of The Birthday Party are made easier by the fact that all five of the band have been friends for ages - "We all go back so far" says Phil.
"Having known each other for such a long time that we tolerate so much from one another."
In a transit van to Cambridge, The Birthday Party live up to their name, a celebratory rabble of drunken fun and ridicule. Tracy begins singing dubious folk songs, then - opening yet another can of lager which sprays off over his cowboy hat - announces "I wish I had a Jew's harp now - I'd throw it out of the window. I hate those things!"
OKAY! OKAY! My head swims with wild memories of bizarre song lyrics, as Nick's girlfriend Anita first curses me then teasingly blows me a kiss. She wrote the crazy, dazzling words to 'A Dead Song', much beloved by John Peel, and she's got red hair.
"Her lyrics lie around our room on pieces of paper accumulating coffee rings until they become grubby and get thrown away" Nick mentions. "Ah, but 'A Dead Song' - that has been immortalised'' he laughs.
Will The Birthday Party be immortalised?
"Well, I don't think of our music as revolutionary - I think Iggy Pop was when he started, but not now - but I'm happy to be in The Birthday Party, I think they're a really great group."
"I do think of doing other things, but I don't think we've quite squeezed the sponge yet of this group, though it'll happen sometime."
Speak not of endings yet, as new beginnings dawn continuously, miraculously. Your compulsory purchase this week is a certain single called 'Release The Bats', a primal scream of anguish and joy, your cathartic passport to an emotional precipice.
Don't be caught unaware, for I once recall someone cockily turning his back on the demonic, devastating power of the Birthday Party. The kid never knew what hit him.
- Johnny Waller