NME - July 31, 1982

The Birthday Party
Obsessive, Deadpan, Moribund, Seasick...

Amrik Rai scraps with the party line



THE BIRTHDAY PARTY are losing their drummer, changing their sound and escaping to Berlin.

The man whose candle is about to be doused, Phill Calvert, explains the situation.

"It was a mutual decision between the band and myself. The Birthday Party has been taken as far as it possibly could and the band are leaving for Berlin next month to pursue a very different form of music. I'm leaving because I think.. they think that my style and my approach to things would probably be more of a hindrance than anything else."

When the Birthday Party play at London's Venue next Thursday (August 5), it will be their last performance as such. But why are they suddenly so disillusioned with it all... especially with the latest album ('Junkyard') having been released only a couple of weeks ago?

"I think that, to, a certain degree," Phill answers, "all of us have lost faith in the freshness and vitality that was such an important part of The Birthday Party. It's high time for a change."


'MR CLARINET', is resting now, peaceful in the knackers' yard, the 'Junkyard' where the Birthday Party's initial scorching vitality has been condemned to spin away its last deadly grooves. Where "Prayers On Fire' was provocative and evocative, "Junkyard' seems destined to be nothing more than the Party's graveyard.

But let me introduce you to these people.

Nick Cave would have you believe he is a madman on stage, pounding his fists inside your head and preaching the Party's gospel. In Manchester's Hacienda Club dressing room, he prefers to enact another persona: here he's a Peter O'Toole, slow and calculated, and searching painfully for words to express, in as diplomatic a manner as possible, the unflinching monomania that courses through his heaven-sent countenance. OBSESSIVE.

Tracy Pew stings with the bass but looks like a stocky stetson'd cowboy. He's kinda casual, but I can dig a dry laconic humour like his any day of the week. This cat's DEADPAN.

Mick Harvey plays drums occasionally, guitar more frequently and sax in between. We didn't get on too well. I don't like moaners - and he moaned about everything, including the weather. He's the MORIBUND one.

Rowland S. Howard frets about the lead guitar in between slagging off the Hacienda's clientele. He thinks he's cooler than they come with his wasted youth look: I know what you're thinking, greener than he thinks. SEASICK etc.


ONCE THE Birthday Party were The Boys Next Door from Australia.

Tracy: "We made a name for ourselves in Melbourne as really nothing more than a cult band. That means that everyone knows who you are, everyone talks about you but no one actually buys any records."

Is it possible to ascertain any parallels or similarities between The Birthday Party and The Boys Next Door? How far beyond that sort of cult status do you think you are now?

Nick: "I don't imagine we're greatly beyond that. A cult band here obviously demands a great deal more attention than in Melbourne, but we're not that far removed status-wise."

Tracy: "We felt obliged to move out of Melbourne because, although there are some good bands in Australia, the music scene Is very reactionary and retarded."

In what ways, if any, do you feel that The Birthday Party have adapted to the British sounds and styles?

Nick: "If to adapt Is to take a completely negative approach towards the scene and the styles of music in Britain, then we've adapted to them. That's basically what we did. We certainly didn't try to assimilate with the British way of things.

COMING AS they did, at a time of post-punk uncertainty and pre-funk drabness, The Birthday Party sent their mock horrorshow careering effortlessly into the indie hierarchy. Their major asset was the innate ability to confuse both press and public alike and thus ensure acclaim.

Now, two years later, The Birthday Party confuse no one and their once reckless momentum is coming gradually to a grinding halt.

By your own actions you've forced a situation where there's a definite split between people who believe The Birthday Party to be some kind of faith healers and those that, if asked, would only say, Why don't you split up and give us all a break?

Tracy: "Which side of those two are you on?"

I'd rather not say. Why is The Birthday Party such a love/hate affair?

Nick: "I would hope that it was because our music is strong enough and our attitudes are extreme enough to be able to provoke anyone at any time.

At the same time, it is true to say that The Birthday Party are not as controversial, nor do they want to be, as they were a year ago."

Exactly. In 1982 The Birthday Party is not so far removed even from someone like Black Sabbath. It's all just routine. I saw you live a couple of months ago and you still seemed to be exploiting the stage in a desperately over-the-top and showman-like fashion without realising how ritualistic it had all become.

I've seen that act so many times now, too many times to be provoked or outraged in any way. Take The Cramps for example, so often I wonder if The Birthday Party aren't just another version from a different graveyard.

Nick: "Well, if that's the way you feel about The Birthday Party, then I don't know why you're doing this interview. If you consider us to be nothing more than a version of The Cramps, it's just a poor reflection on your own self."

Tracy: "The Cramps fall into a category with the likes of Alice Cooper rather than us. They both set out to provoke the audiences whereas it's the audience that provokes us."

Rowland: "The essence of bands like that is in their theatricality, in their sense of showmanship. Richard Cook pinpointed the difference quite accurately in his review of 'Junkyard' (July 10, 1982). He explained that what we do is how we live... and that is a very important dividing line."

Nick: "The Birthday Party is essentially different in that not every time you come and see us you we guaranteed 100 per cent thrills and spills and total excitement. There are times when we play very quiet sets. And that's not what it would be like with Alice Cooper or The Cramps, because they have an almost totally rehearsed stage act."

And of course, The Birthday Party are just so spontaneous.

Rowland: "We're not necessarily being spontaneous ... we're being ourselves. I think I ought to add maaan onto that."

Mick: "The parallels some people draw are just incredibly facile. Like when we first started out everyone was muttering Captain Beefheart, which couldn't be further from the truth."


FROM 'PRAYERS On Fire', to 'Junkyard' the lyrical side of The Birthday Party has progressed through tortuous punning to obscure arty sloganeering. 'Express thyself, say something loudly!" is the Party manifesto and the current Cave rave rant is MURDER: "Junkyard' is a bloody expositon of energetic nihilism. Just take a took at this little medley: "Hatchets sweetly swinging/American heads roll in Texas/those skinny girls they're so quick to murder" and "Get stiff in your crypt."

Cave's violent verbal capers mince recklessly in and out of the world of subsconsciousness and occasionally drag out, an odd looking psycho, lunatic or teenage werewolf.

I asked them about the gallery of grotesques that The Birthday Party have etched out: Dead Joe, Nick the Stripper, Hamlet and King Ink.

Nick: "The Birthday Party's songs all basically deal with very real images. Any depressing bent the words may have taken is because our music is based on what we consider to be personal truths, and recently my attitudes towards life and other things have definitely gotten a lot more pessimistic."

Rowland: "Nick's lyrical style is very narrative and that's how the characters in the songs assume such an identity. He's often telling a very straightforward story. As far as I can see those images amount to an overwhelming obsession with sex and violence."

Nick: "There is a good deal of sex and violence in my songs but there's nothing abstract about those feelings. They're very real."

I'd disagree with that because in your songs that violence is not real. It's more like a cartoon horrorshow that relegates ? or even worse elevates ? the violence and sex to a pathetic level... almost like a fantastic version of Tom and Jerry.
Tracy: "That's the nicest thing you've said to us all night. I can see what you mean and I, for one, will be happy to take it as a compliment."

Nick: "I do have a habit of writing very violent lyrics but at the same time I understand the need to add a certain amount of humour to them. And I must admit that?the combination does tend to give Birthday Party music a rather perverse edge."

Do you suppose any of that humour, that you take such pains to instil, actually shows through the noise! It's like bedlam out there.

Nick: "If you consider it to be bedlam, then that's your interpretation of it."

Tracy: "Do you mean by 'bedlam' that you don't like it?"

No. I'm quite fond of music that's hard to swallow.

Nick: "I don't find our music hard to swallow. I find it most palatable."

Tracy: "You should do, it's shoved down your throat enough."

WHO ARE your favourite authors?

Nick: "It's in the consumer guide.

Everyone makes that up anyway.

Nick: "My favourite author at the moment is the Marquis de Sade.

To what extent would you say The Birthday Party was influenced by literature and films?

Nick: "I don't think the imagery I use in my songs has aN that much to do with literature and films. We're really not inspired by those things. You're on the wrong track there."

But there is a definite tradition that The Birthday Party, if not adhere to, at best relate to in some fashion. A tradition of Hammer horror films or whatever.

Rowland: "There is a tradition amongst British new wave bands to steal ideas from films and books, but I shouldn't include The Birthday Party in that category, if I were you."

Nick: "Those bands obviously feel that because they play music they can transpose directly from films and books, and that they have some unspoken right to get away with it. The whole thing is repulsive."

Haven't The Birthday Party ever done anything like that?

Nick: "Well, we may have in the past."

But it wasn't so repulsive then, of course.

Nick: "We certainly wouldn't do it anymore."

You said earlier that you hated playing live in Britain.

Nick: "But the tape recorder wasn't on then."


Nick: "I love playing live in Britain."


Nick: "The reason The Birthday Party is going to go through such a drastic change is that we consider what we have done to be so total and complete that there's no way it can be added to. The Birthday Party has gone deeper than any of us thought possible, but if we were to put out another record in the same style would only be watering down and lessening the effectiveness of what we've done before."

Nick: "I'm confident enough to know that we're perfectly capable of breaking away from our present trappings and doing something even more exciting."

Why have you seen fit to lose Phill and no one else?

Nick: "It has a lot to do with the kind of turnabout in the approach we have to the rhythms in our music. And while I think Phill is excellent as a drummer of one particular style, which is what we were beforehand, we do want to get away from the heavier side of The Birthday Party."

So what is the new stuff gong to sound like?

Nick: "The sort of record that appeals to me at the moment. The sort of record I would like to make is one that is incredibly tense, slow, very slow, very moody and very soulful and extremely depressing..' with very little humour and very little air in it."

Is the obsession progressing from murder to suicide?

Nick: "As I said before my particular attitudes towards things have taken a heavier, more depressing bent. The music I make Is obviously a reflection of the way I'm faring in life. At the moment I feel a lot more pessimistic about everything than I have done for a couple of years."

An you still going to use the basic Birthday Party instrumentation?

Nick: "No. I'd like to get awa y from the two guitars, bass and drums that we've been using. Mick is quite capable of playing drums, sax, drums and anything else we might use. We going to be an exciting exploration of avenues we've never ever been anywhere near before."

Nick: "The reason that we want to make such a change is also to make It clear to people that a lot of the things we've said in the past have had more substance to them than people have sought to find or admit. There's more to The Birthday Party than for people like you to come out with comments like we're just rehashing The Cramps."

Nick: "We've become too boxed-in by people like you. C'mon admit it - some of the things you've said have been pretty choice. Anyway we're leaving for Berlin because the atmosphere over there is an extremely creative one. We need to got away from London. There's absolutely no creative crossover here at all in terms of literature and films and painting. You're in a group and that's it."

Do you think it is a post-punk dilemma that the music scene has become very insular and self?centred?

Nick: "Absolutely. Everyone's too concerned with getting their particular combo as popular as possible."

Mick: "You define your style and you don't venture outside that style, ever. If we stayed in Britain, we'd be just as bad as any of those groups. We'd just got more and more popular, sell more records and make more money… we're just not as predicatable as people like you think. The Birthday Party are not content to do what is expected."

Hands clasped in prayer I ask whether The Birthday Party will ever return to Britain.

Nick: "Hopefully no, but probably yes."

How do you see 'Junkyard' as a testimony to The Birthday Party's achievements?

Nick: "I think it's the strongest statement we were capable of making at the time and of that particular style of music. The Birthday Party went as deep as you could go and then beyond."

There's not really much you can say to that. Is there?