NME - March 1982
Primal Pain At The Psychos' Party:
THE BIRTHDAY PARTY - The Venue, London - March 5, 1982
WHEN The Birthday Party last desecrated this tabernacle of modern nightlife, a generally sloppy show produced the intemperate engorgement of Drunk On The Pope's Blood, so their return here after a two-month tour of Australia was to be anticipated with some trepidation.
Add to this the fact that bassist Tracy Pew is back home doing time on a labour farm, and that his temporary replacement — the great Barry Adamson — had only been through one rehearsal, and things weren't altogether looking bright.
But any fears that may have existed within the capacity audience were promptly allayed by a volley of intense and hectic songs which reduced most of the spectators to speechlessness. Adamson, moreover, was clearly in complete control.
Let us make certain things clear from the start: a proper Birthday Party concert is a sacrilegious entertainment about entertainment, embarrassing only those who expect some purity of intention on a stage. In the guilty world of modern pop, they appal by reveling in the pain of artifice – the desperate drive of will to emotion through exhibition. To witness them is to be swamped by a genuinely ritualistic theatre of lustration, a farrago of sound so visceral and primal it can only produce gestures of exhaustion and despair. Some terrible void at the heart of human energy has been reached here – in its very exorcism.
As Nicholas Rothwell wrote, "buried within these songs is a prolonged and obsessive quest to uncover the unconscious origins of desire, which should be written as pure loss." Those who would not see such conscious madness practised on their live persons can only flinch in atavistic piety.
On Friday night, the group revisited their surreal junkyard of forms and images with a higher intoxication than ever. They may choose to be "buried neck high in British snow", but the songs they bring back from the antipodes boil the coldest native hearts. That forlorn and shimmering ballad 'She's Hit', already aired on several occasions before their Christmas departure, has taken on added starkness and splendour, perfectly brought out on this occasion by Adamson's langorous, acoustic-sounding bass.
Unheard before were 'Dead Joe' and 'Hamlet', two brutal mythopoeic parables shorn even of the group's usual semi-jazz structures: here rhythm is compressed to a disconcerting on-beat stiffness and vocals to a mere guttural rambling. The effect is compulsive. Some of the earlier numbers still prove troublesome, for there's no doubt that more than one of the group's arrangements outstrip their current musical capabilities. 'Zoo-Music Girl', for example, has grown too shambolic for its own good, putting too much stress on drummer Phil Calvert to hold together a rhythm that is already lost.
Chaos, however, is one of the Birthday Party's specialties. With the stage in its normal state of disarray, bouncers and stage hands scrambling about madly in pursuit of overturned microphones and tripped wires, Nick Cave was at this most gloriously irresponsible. So perfect a parody is he of the rock 'n' roll egomaniac that he possesses an almost intimidating innocence. Performing as a kind of Shakespearean fool, a grotesque medieval clown, he plays up to his audience and negates it in the process. He is, in turn, each of the abominable characters that flaunt their obscenities in his lyrics – once Nick The Stripper, now Dead Joe and a modern-day Hamlet-as-psychopath. Cave will always be in his birthday suit, for he is the convulsive, prostituted body of exhibitionism itself. Even his stigmata of sorcery and sacrilege are less an identifying theme than a comic emblem of degeneracy. Love him while you may.
This group is an explosion of sensuality and laughter at the desensitized mediocrity of our lives. They are our new Rolling Stones, but holding back their profiles in shadow, in the penumbra of myth. In them jazz races with punk and rock 'n' roll slips on funk, a collision of forms whose domain is just suspended in the timeless zone of excess – bodily exhumation and spiritual disease. Here Jerry Lee Lewis meets The Modern Dance, and sex meets death.
The Birthday Party could not be billed with more fitting equals than The Fall, as they are in a fortnight, and it is equally fitting that Mark E. Smith should feel more in common with these aliens than he does with any British groups. Who is really experimenting as acutely and as angrily as the Birthday Party? Who else is using words so stridently as a musical medium of rhetoric? They are the religious conflagration of melos itself.
- Barney Hoskyns