The Virgin Press - March 1981
The Birthday Party
By Suzzi Salamanca
The Virgin Press
March 1981 Vol 1. Issue 1
The dusk hour begins to highlight the eccentricity of Fitzroy St. as I walk toward the sanctimonious staircase of the 'Crystal Ballroom' (Melbourne rock venue for the trendy, the intellectual or the just plain silly). Several new wave/punk types queue up at the entrance; spiked heels, severe hairstyles and sceptical expressions intensify the romantically alien scenario.
Once inside the foyer, there is the usual assault of the senses as the menagerie of clientele file through in what could be termed as "human swarms". Tonight is a charity drive for the proprietor who is in financial trouble, and the bands are donating their time. My personal reason for attending this dubious affair, is to set up an interview with The Birthday Party who are playing for a mere 15 minutes, just for the fun of it! Nick Cave (obscure vocalist) tells me only four of them are playing, with guitarist Mick Harvey sitting in on drums for Phil Calvert. At the end of the night they inflict us with a few Stooges songs that they had never played before, giving further evidence of their unpredictable nature.
The Birthday Party, known to some as 'The Boys Next Door', are Australia's own enfants terrible, renowned for their unorthodox behavior, avante garde -music, ambiguous stage persona, and recurring plagiarism of 'The Pop Group.' Unwilling to compromise to the orders dictated to them by the music industry, the rock press and their own following, they have acquired a predilection for making you dislike them. They are indifferent to the hero worship and pretentions that result from doing what you're told, doing what is expected and being popular, good little boys. They have allowed themselves the freedom to develop their raw, unfledged musical ideas into provocative and forceful sounds that are one step away from innovation.
The boys have a reputation for being uncooperative and intimidating when backed into a corner by the press. I disregard this and discover instead that they are perplexed as to why they are getting all this attention now, and are a-little intimidated themselves.
When we arrive at the St. Kilda Esplanade Hotel Tracy Pew (diffuse bassist) and Rowland Howard (abbreviate guitarist) are sitting quietly with their friend Gary. Nick stumbles in last, pale and dishevelled with his hair puffed up like some neurotic cockatoo. The intensity of the evening sun blasts in from behind the catatonic dementia of this jerky marionette, rendering him a silhouette of sleepless nights, despondency, lunacy, dependent on the half-real life/half still-life world of the artiste and his abstracted realities. He laments over his fatigue and craves a Bloody Mary: we get him a beer. I notice that their attitude is defensive, but I think that's a matter of instinct. They are rather pleasantly cynical, if that makes any sense at all. Tracy is the epitome of the curious child, he fiddles and admires our miniature tape recorders as we try to get organised and settle down with a few beers. They are friendly enough and seem to enjoy making fun of us and each other, and sometimes their silent friend Gary, who I believe, is a soft, cuddly security blanket, or whatever. They have a penchant for being difficult and delight in making us nervous as we struggle through each incomplete response. Nick speaks in a barely audible voice, soft, worn out raspiness that fades into the clatter of glasses and cutlery as the pallid muzak drifts through our early evening, simulated conversations.
Now for a bit of their history in brief (very), the band's 'Door, Door' EP is an admirable effort, interesting but insufficient, and even though their current 12" LP is weird and wonderful, and a considerable improvement, it still lacks "consistency', a point they agree on unanimously. This is due to inadequate recording facilities and the sporadic intervals of time between the recording of the songs. Most of the material on the LP is previously released and was put out by their record label 'Missing Link' to recoup money from the band.
They have finished the new album and feel that it is definitely stronger than anything they've done before. At Armstrong's A.A.V. studio they were able to get an earthy, bassy sound that is missing in their previous efforts. Because it was recorded all at one time, each song tends to complement the other, and since there is such a powerful and consistent sound about the whole record, they are a lot happier with it.
Rowland and Nick write most of the songs and occasionally collaborate on them. About six of the songs on the new album were actually written in the studio: They would work from a basic idea and it would develop from there, leaving room for spontaneous writing and far more group involvement and effort.
Magazines like Juke and Ram herald the group as being the artistic centre of the Australian music scene, Rowland puffs thoughtfully on his cigarette and comments.
"We don't strive to be art-packed or anything, it's not a conscious attempt to be uncommercial, that's just the way it works out. We simply don't compromise!" Tracy reinforces their noncommercial stance by adding, "We've never been in it for the bucks. Can you buy me a drink?"
The trip to London was less than groundbreaking, it seems. They were disappointed with the lack of vibrancy they had expected. "The music scene seems to be very sick in London at the moment," said Nick, nursing his drink. Tracy agreed, dispelling the idea that it had a political basis. "I don't think it had anything to do with politics, because that sort of misery and tedium is what inspired punk rock. Which is economics, meaning no one's got enough money. It was just like that back in 1977 . . ." Rowland interjects saying that something of that sort could not be repeated over again, "It's the same sort of insurrection, they just don't know what to do now." The band agreed that the scene in Australia is equally as healthy, in ratio. They respect the music of The Laughing Clowns, The Go-Betweens, and the fab Marquees. It is obvious to me that these bands are representatives of the 'artistic viability versus record sales' syndrome. Nick concedes to this and expands the idea, mentioning that something happens to groups struggling on an underground level in Australia, " . . . they feel there is no way they are going to become successful and make lots of money so they don't attempt anything in that respect and in a lot of cases they come up with really original sorts of music." Rowland thinks that stems from the fact that bands here are isolated, "In England, groups that are interesting at all are picked up on by the press and don't get a chance to develop." Tracy goes on to accuse magazines like NME and Sounds of being desperate to sensationalise the lacklustre music scene in London. He unconsciously plays with a box of matches as he continues emphatically, ". . . 'cause there's so little about at the moment, they leap onto anything new that comes up and immediately bands like the Psychedelic Furs are being exalted as the best thing in the world, ever . . . when you go and see them it's a slight disappointment."
As a rule, Australian bands are not treated with much credibility in England, for example, whenever they mention The Birthday Party they always say something like, "This band is great, especially since they're Australian!" Nick mutters indignantly, "They say: 'How can this group be from Australia?' What a ridiculous concept.' " Tracy mimics, "Why haven't they got Dennis Lillee moustaches?", which is a comment apparently made by radio announcer John Peel. This seems to encapsulate most of the British appreciation of the sounds of modern music erupting here in colonial Australia.
Instead of going to London with lots of money and promotion, they went over quite unassumingly just to prove, themselves on their own merits. This is one area of the music industry that Nick hates. "They're still promoting these bands that are rehashes of American groups. Time and time again, the rock press in England hates them and says that this is all Australia has to offer." Nick suppresses a cough and shakes off a bit of whatever is troubling him, clearing his throat he almost whispers, "But we're not really concerned with this fight that young groups are supposed to have. We prefer to remain aloof from it as opposed to being really political about things." Coughing, he explains why, "I find that if you take up that fight that you become a part of it as much as anybody else." They feel that by ignoring the politics within the industry they can concentrate on their creative potentials, or as Nick says, "Get on with the job." Rowland thinks that setting an example is certainly more effective than whinging.
The band, in spite of the industry and the prejudice of the rock press, made a great impact on a lot of people in London. They were on the top of the alternative charts. News of this got out back home, and quite to their dismay, packed the venues full upon their return.
"We were a little embarrassed, we're the same group we were when we left. Just because London, in a sense, patted us on the back, and the papers said we were good, they come to see us in swarms, where they could have worked that out for themselves," Nick spoke with alarm.
Their peculiar style of music has been slow and tedious in its development, though in contrast to other bands with similar punk origins it has been comparatively speedy. In 1977 they were into thrashing away at their instruments and making the nascent songs as nasty and noisy as possible. Fortunately during this time they secured a devout following. As they began to evolve and claimed the title 'more interesting', their punk audience weren't quite sure how to react. Now it appears that they appreciated the fact that the band does change, and new songs are no longer greeted with utter silence..
"I really hate it, I think the media is really appalling over here, it's so ignorant," Nick confesses angrily as he thrusts his left leg hard against the floor. He does this whenever he feels inclined to make a point and grasp our attention. Rowland lights another cigarette and responds, "You mean when they call bands like Cold Chisel and Australian Crawl new wave?"
"They seem to be really unaware of what is actually going on", retorts Nick. He's spoken to various people who told him that the magazines had to run these commercial groups on the covers and promote them because the public knows them, and their music is accessible to the record buying masses. If they are going to sell papers then they can't run The Birthday Party on the cover, because they just won't sell! "It's really a vicious circle, if they continue to run groups like Cold Chisel then they're the only groups people will want to read about. It's up to them to take the initiative and take a gamble, and start to promote young groups."
Tracy sits up, pulls his chair closer to the table, his eyes glancing over the empty beer glasses and our overstuffed ashtray that begins to explode over the brim and onto the table, he pauses, then informs us, "Nobody is prepared to gamble or anything, all those sort of bands become significant in the public eye in the first place through payola, and record companies putting money into them and paying disc jockeys to play their records and to say here's a great little group from Dooragong or whatever, called Cold Chisel."
Nick doesn't see the band as an eternal proposition, but as something to pass the time and to avoid doing something proper, like finishing his education, (Form 5).
Tracy doesn't want to spend the rest of his life going to parties, hanging around bars or suffering through interviews.
Rowland doesn't have any other ambitions whatsoever, and doesn't like being asked questions he can't answer or being forced to drink.
They have always had such an incredibly positive attitude towards the group. No one member of The Birthday Party, at any given point of time, would ever consider the possibility of the band seeing out another year. Yet something continues to motivate them, and as long as that motivation remains, they'll probably go on. Rowland assures us, "But no, we don't have any other ambitions at the moment." They all admit to this being a lie, and that there are many personal ambitions and secrets that are put off by being in a group, and they prefer not to do anything about them. Nick stresses again, " . . . being in a group, is quite seriously, for me anyway, a good excuse not to go ahead and do something proper. It's really a pleasant way to occupy your time."