76. THE BIRTHDAY PARTY – PRAYERS ON FIRE (1981)

Indie / Alternative, Post-Punk

 Amongst the faded denim and the tired looking mohicans, a new breed of pale-faced malcontent was transfiguring the clientele of the early-80’s UK student union. Their necks were craned, but they seemed taller, their hair stacked up in a wild black pile. The uniformity of their appearance was sealed by the mandatory Bauhaus t-shirt. These children of the night were early ‘goths’. Their newest darlings, The Birthday Party, had just arrived from the other side of the globe and with their pulverising sound were aiming to shake the earth off its very axis.

Australia did not have a particularly well-established rock scene before 1977, but in Sydney the touch paper had been lit by Radio Birdman, while Brisbane boasted a burgeoning punk scene led by The Saints. On the Southern coast, the family trees of Melbourne’s Young Charlatans and The Boys Next Door (who should have been sued under the terms of the Trades Description Act for their deceptively innocuous moniker) would soon become intertwined through the defection of guitarist Rowland S Howard from the former to the latter. Providence would reveal the polar aspects of her nature to the two bands. The Young Charlatans’ 15 minutes of fame had fizzled out, their brief brush with immortality over. By contrast, for the Boys Next Door, their time had most surely arrived.

Howard was a highly original guitarist (equal parts Will Sergeant, John Waddington and Zoot Horn Rollo) with a penchant for dark, deathly blues music and a singular ear for howling feedback (he strove to make his guitar “sound like bee stings”). His influence was integral in reshaping the direction the band would take. The song he brought with him, ‘Shivers’, gave new impetus to this group of disaffected former public schoolboys (consisting of singer/lyricist Nick Cave, bassist Tracey Pew, guitarist/keyboard player Mick Harvey and drummer Phil Calvert), whose punishing gig schedule harnessed for them a reputation for notoriety in their homeland. They released an album (‘Door Door’) which they later disowned, but the lure of finding a wider audience for their music proved irresistible and the band soon packed their bags and moved to London in 1980. They renamed themselves The Birthday Party and, perhaps brutalised (or at least alienated) by their experience of living in virtual squalor in London, were possessed of a seemingly insatiable urge to inject a nightmarish violence and sense of the macabre into their live repertoire, their chaotic performances always on the verge of imploding.

Having resolved never again to use a record producer following ‘Door Door’, the band began work themselves on ‘Prayers On Fire’. Once again however, they would be less than happy with the results, and it is an album which is consistently overlooked in favour of its follow up ‘Junkyard’, which, while certainly more representative of the classic Birthday Party sound, lacks I fear, it’s predecessor’s unfettered explosion of ideas. Here, on ‘Prayers On Fire’ is a band seeking an authentic voice of their own. Sometimes the journey, the adventure undertaken in getting to the destination is far more thrilling than the destination itself.

We can hear the evolution of their sound unfolding on the album. Virtually the entire second side side prefigures the creeping cobwebbed claustrophobia of Junkyard – with the exception of ‘Dull Day’, which rather bizarrely, reminds me of Madness (?) – there is a sepulchral bone-crushing intensity with little variety in tempo. The first side by contrast displays the full range of their armoury.

It’s opening track, ‘Zoo Music Girl’, sounds as if the starting gun to the village idiots’ 100 metres dash has gone off prematurely – to the participants, the lanes on the track are there not to maintain order, but to hurdle, vault or if at all possible, ignore completely. Pew pulses his bass into paroxysms, while each demented line Cave expels (“My body is a monster driven insane/My heart is a fish toasted by flames…”), collapses on top of the preceding one. Perhaps a little embarrassed by some of the lyrical extremities (“Oh God! Please let me die beneath her fists”), Cave later disowned this as well, but with its mariachi trumpet blaring as if the carnival has arrived in the middle of a riot, it is a fitting calling card to the album.

Listeners can sometimes confuse the person impersonating a character in a song for the person singing it. With Nick Cave this could be a dangerous business. Consider for instance the charmingly entitled ‘Nick The Stripper’ (“Nick The Stripper/A-hideous to the eye/Well he’s a fat little insect/A fat little insect…he’s in his birthday suit…”) His fascination with the grotesque and with creeping invertebrates is further explored on ‘King Ink’ (“King Ink feels like a bug/Swimming in a soup-bowl”) which is a musical prelude to ‘Junkyard’ and (apparently) the song from the album with which Cave was most pleased.

‘Cry’ is like the Bunnymen on bad acid, while listening to ‘Capers’ has me visualising a hallucinogenic-fuelled Frankenstein swaying from side to side down the wide staircase of a haunted mansion, the chandeliers chiming together above, echoing their sound through its labyrinthian chambers. Howard takes over vocal lead on ‘Ho Ho’ which consequently sounds uncharacteristically restrained. It’s a subtly atmospheric piece and one can imagine why he sought more creative influence within the band. If it provides momentary respite, then the unholy carnage returns on ‘Figure Of Fun’ where frenetic guitars fizz, yelp and squeal producing as much panic as might result from a rattlesnake being dropped onto of a cartload of chimpanzees. Howard sounds like he’s deriving a sadistic delight in contriving a unique method of torture for each guitar string. There is brilliant bleak humour here of course, amidst the epileptic rhythms. (“I am a figure of fun/Obsessive, dead-pan and moribund/And I’m impressed by everyone/But I impress no-one/It’s irritating/I am a figure of fun”)

The final track ‘Just You & Me’ encapsulates the surreal dementia of Cave’s writing – as a youthful devotee it created much mirth in our household as we struggled to imagine what the subject of the song could be (“First: I tried to kill it with a hammer/Thought that I could lose the head/Sure! We’ve eaten off the silver/When even food was against us...”) We detected the darkest humour, though we may not have properly understood it.

Those other goths always seemed such a humourless bunch. Along with The Banshees they may have unwittingly spawned the whole God-forsaken subculture, but The Birthday Party had drawn their inspiration as much from the classical rock’n’roll lineage of The Stooges, The New York Dolls and Captain Beefheart as from the horror movies and gothic literature over which their ravenous disciples obsessed. Of their contemporaries, there were some genuine kindred spirits: the scratchy energy of The Pop Group, the trash aesthetic of The Gun Club and The Cramps and The Fall’s grimy rockabilly. But not Bauhaus. By contrast to The Birthday Party, Bauhaus are as significant as a bubble on the surface of the ocean.

Following ‘Prayers On Fire’, Cave poked fun at the admiring Munster hordes, recording the sardonic ‘Release The Bats’. Paradoxically, it became the goth anthem and the band’s most celebrated moment. But The Birthday Party’s days were numbered. Pew was in prison following a string of drunk driving offences. Howard and Cave had become estranged creatively – pulling the band in different directions. The classic clash of egos played out, and within the year, after a brief resurgence in Berlin, they would call it a day. The birth of The Bad Seeds would follow quickly. Cave would emerge stronger than ever from the wreckage. With The Birthday Party he had pushed himself to the edge of insanity. In their wilful recklessness, they created an unholy pandemonium laced with the blackest humour, but were never afraid to poke fun at themselves as well as others. There were few if any like them and we could certainly do with a bit of their snarl and bite today. (JJ)

 

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49. CAT POWER – YOU ARE FREE (2003)

Greatest Records, Indie / Alternative, Rock Music

CatPower-07On an airless afternoon during the height of a clammy Glasgow summer, I first heard her voice. A sluggish drawl, as though vainly battling sleep. In 1999, everyone in Missing Records was listening to Cat Power’s ‘Moon Pix’. I left Missing that summer and forgot all about Chan Marshall and that voice, returning faithfully to my tired LP collection with its familiar sleeves, smells and sounds – like putting on a pair of tattered, but very comfortable old slippers. Only gradually did I rediscover my zest for newer sounds. Four years later, a recommendation from an old colleague during a brief rendezvous in Glasgow’s finest music emporium, Monorail, led me to a (re)discovery. And to one of the very best albums of the new millennium thus far.

In 2003, Chan Marshall was in trouble. One can sense a sombre desolation and sadness on her 5th LP ‘You Are Free’. In her interviews at the time, Chan spoke of her exhaustion with touring and travelling, the conspicuous lack of routine/stability in her life, the meddlesome politics of record companies and the irksome complexities of the nature of studio recording. In the haphazardness of her day to day existence, she perceived the need for a kind of liberation of the soul. They were not the best of times. Live performances were edgy, dysfunctional, often chaotic. She was drinking more, perhaps abusing other drugs. Her latest relationship was nearing its end. A mournful atmosphere pervades the recording, a sense of physical and spiritual dislocation. Some say an artist in emotional turmoil is primed to produce their most soulful art, and in this case, that maxim sings true.

The fourteen songs on ‘You Are Free’ were culled from around forty or so, which Chan had written during a frenetic year of travelling and touring, and were selected carefully for the album with the assistance of engineer Adam Kasper. The songs, at once deceptively simple, uncoil to reveal great depth. Anything superfluous is eschewed. There is no grand gesture, no unnecessary embellishment, no affectation. There is barely a chorus to be heard, and the tempo rarely changes, yet the subtle minimalism of the arrangements provides real depth to the songs.

The opener, ‘I Don’t Blame You’, conversely the last song written for the album, is one of four brilliant piano-led tracks, and contains a reservoir of empathy for the song’s subject. Marshall only very reluctantly revealed the protagonist to be Kurt Cobain, but in truth, that was merely confirming what everyone had long suspected. [‘Last time I saw you/You were on stage/Your hair was wild/Your eyes were bright/And you were in a rage/You were swinging your guitar around/Cuz they wanted to hear that sound/But you didn’t want to play/And I don’t blame you’] Here, the song’s strength lies in its avoidance of any stylistic homage. Rather, Chan’s voice, all raggedy velvet, sounds wise with lifetimes, and over a stark block piano riff she conveys the familiar story with great subtlety in a fitting tribute which reveals a deeper sentiment at the heart of one of the album’s key themes.

The lyrics to ‘Free’ and the album’s title itself could be construed as a rallying call to the listener: [‘Don’t be in love with the autograph/Just be in love when you scream that song’]. The message could be ‘break those fetters’; ‘be who you want to be’, but one suspects it is there to serve as a reminder to the author that she alone holds the power to regain control of her own life?

Amongst the other piano led tracks is ‘Names’, a despairingly tragic account of the abused lives of five of Chan’s childhood acquaintances, and the mysterious closer ‘Evolution’, featuring guest vocal by Eddie Vedder, where a hauntingly cryptic reverie drifts out gorgeously to the album’s close.

At times, there is an Antipodean countryish feel to the album, mirroring the muddied rootsiness of The Triffids circa’ In the Pines’ / ‘Born Sandy Devotional’ or the crawling black death of ‘From Her To Eternity’ era Nick Cave. This is hardly surprising; the aforementioned ‘Moon Pix’ had been recorded in Melbourne with The Dirty Three, and on this outing, Warren Ellis (Bad Seeds) is among the guest musicians. Ellis has a starring role on one of the album’s real highlights ‘Good Woman’, where he manages to conjure an authentically Appalachian violin sound, making this, despite its traditional C&W lyrical content (they could have been written for Tammy Wynette) less Nashville and more Kentucky fried. The childlike backing vocals (credited to ‘Maggie & Emma’) add an eerie quality and the whole arrangement works sublimely.

Elsewhere, over a basic acoustic strum David Campbell’s exquisite string arrangement on ‘Werewolf’ including superb cello accompaniment, lends it a gravitas befitting something from Nico’s’ Chelsea Girl’ or ‘The Clarke Sisters’ by The Go Betweens, and acts as a musical bridge between the sparser solo songs and the more conventional band outings. Starker still is the desperately bleak ‘Baby Doll’, which may be an intimate portrayal of a self-destructive friend, or a confessional autobiographical snapshot?  [‘Baby/Black, black, black is all you see/Don’t you want to be free?/Baby/Red, red fire is what you breathe/Don’t you want to be clean/Honey, the shape you’re in /Is worth every dime you spent/Baby Doll/Turn out the lights/Set yourself on fire/Say good night’] Whatever the case, those little noises scraping along in the background certainly add to the discomfort. And on ‘Keep On Running’, Marshall’s take on ‘John Lee Hooker’s Crawling Black Spider’ there is even less room to breathe freely.

‘Shaking Paper’s little rippling rivulets of feedback groan along queasily, while ‘Speak For Me’ and the single, ‘He War’, are the most conventional rock tracks (drums courtesy Dave Grohl) – both appear to concern Chan’s unravelling relationship. On ‘He War’ she laments [‘I never meant to be the needle that broke your back/You were here, you were here, and you were here/Don’t Look Back’] with an impassioned vocal performance which is palpably soulful and technically dexterous, alongside an infectiously catchy ‘Hey hey hey’ chorus. Marshall was reportedly unhappy with the version recorded for the album, claiming it lacked the raw-ness of the original ‘live band’ recordings.

What it does not lack is soul, and that can be said for everything else on ‘You Are Free’. If I feel uncomfortable labelling American country music ‘white soul music’ (the worst country is often something else altogether) I do so merely to illustrate a point – which is that soul / soulfulness is not confined to any particular musical genre. Chan was already a soul artist long before ‘The Greatest’, most amply illustrated here on ‘You Are Free’. On ‘The Greatest’, she embarked on a soul project that was at times more style than substance. While it is a good album, there was really no need, for Chan’s soul credentials were already well established. ‘You Are Free’ was truly a soul album, it’s rawness and honesty straight from the heart, and conclusive proof that at times, less can certainly mean a whole lot more. (JJ)