Rowland S. Howard - 1959-2009

Posted by Eric Brightwell, December 30, 2009 12:47pm | Post a Comment

Rowland S. Howard
was one of his generation’s greatest, most inventive and influential guitarists, as well as one of Australia’s towering but under recognized songwriting talents. Howard was most famous for his noisy, atmospheric, slash-and-burn style, mainly heard during his tenure with The Birthday Party. After their split, Howard continued to support and collaborate with a number of other musicians before finally embarking on a solo career.
Rowland was born October 24th, 1959. The slight, bat-eared youth was always drawn toward the fine arts and his early interests included drawing, reading and listening to The Monkees. In the early ‘70s he began playing guitar, as his musical interests shifted toward Syd Barrett, Roxy Music, David Bowie and prog rock. Eventually he became aware of and enamored with American bands like The Velvet Underground, The New York Dolls and The Stooges. In 1974, after dabbling with the saxophone, Howard and his school chum Simon Mclean formed their first band, the amazingly-named Tootho and the Ring of Confidence. In 1977, the two joined Graeme Pitt and Rob Wellington in the short-lived punk band, The Obsessions.

That same year, Howard joined the first band that would truly showcase his precocious songwriting genius, The Young Charlatans. Joined by Janine Hall, John McKinnon, Jef Wegener and Ian “Ollie” Olsen, the band played a mere thirteen shows but recorded a couple of demos, including the sixteen-year-old Howard’s composition, “Shivers,” later included on the compilation, Fast Forward 004 (1981). Olsen, however, didn’t want to share the songwriting role and by May of 1978, the band was no more. Wegener played with The Last Words before joining Laughing Clowns. Hall later played in The Saints and Weddings, Parties, Anything. Olsen formed Whirlywirld and later Max Q, with INXS’s Michael Hutchence.

Howard next joined Boys Next Door. At that point, the Nick Cave-led band had been kicking around Melbourne for three years making a fairly dull, undistinguished brand of new wave. They’d already recorded several songs for their debut, Door, Door before Howard became a member. His arrival seemingly invigorated the rest of the band, as evinced by the vast difference in quality between that album’s two sides. Boys Next Door released the Hee Haw EP and The Birthday Party before changing their name to The Birthday Party and finding a larger audience. Under the new name the band released Prayers on Fire in 1981, a widely praised album that showcased both Cave’s and Howard’s songwriting in roughly equal measure; the latter’s marked by a direct and disarming gallows humor and preference for clever twists of phrase. By the time of The Birthday Party’s second album, 1982’s Junkyard, Birthday Party's Mick Harvey was also contributing considerably to the songwriting, nudging in the process Howard’s contributions to the sidelines.

That same year, The Birthday Party’s Howard, Cave, Harvey, Genevieve McGuckin and Tracy Pew joined Lydia Lunch and Murray Mitchell to record Honeymoon in Red (1987-Widowspeak). Another underground supergroup collaboration came about that year when Harvey, Howard and Cave joined The Go-BetweensGrant McLennan, Linday Morrison and Robert Forster as The Tuff Monks, who released just one single, “After the Fireworks” (1982-Au Go Go).

In 1983, after releasing the Mutiny and The Bad Seed EPs, The Birthday Party split and Howard next showed up on Fad Gadget’s Gag album, recorded that November. The following year, Mick Harvey convinced Simon Bonney to revive his band, Crime + the City Solution, who, after forming in Sydney in 1977, had ceased to be active since 1979. In Berlin, Bonney was joined by Harvey, the Howard brothers and Kevin “Epic Soundtracks” Godfrey. 1985’s The Dangling Man EP and Just South of Heaven and the following year's The Kentucky Click/Adventure EP  were further excellent showcases for Howard’s inventive guitar work but he was nonetheless sacked by Bonney, who claimed that his voice and Howard’s guitar occupied the same space. Howard took his brother Harry Howard and Epic Soundtracks with him.

The departing members of Crime + the City Solution were joined by former Birthday Party collaborator (and Howard’s girlfriend) Genevieve McGuckin in his next band, These Immortal Souls, which returned Howard's unique, nasal and tune-shy singing to center stage after many years in the shadows of spotlight hogs. After a couple of collaborations with Nikki Sudden (Nikki Sudden and the Jacobites, Kiss You Kidnapped Charabanc and Jeremy Gluck With Nikki Sudden & Rowland S. Howard’s I Knew Buffalo Bill), These Immortal Souls released “Marry Me (Lie Lie)” on September 7, 1987. On December 1, 1987 Get Lost (Don’t Lie!) (1987-Mute) followed, which they promoted with European and American tours.

In 1988 Howard again collaborated with Gluck and Sudden on the Burning Skulls Rise album (1988) before These Immortal Souls returned to Australia for a short tour. In 1991, the Howard brothers and Lunch again collaborated for Shotgun Wedding (1991-Triple X Entertainment). They promoted the release live with future bad seed Jim Scalvunos on drums. Howard also played a one off gig in London in a band called Tender Justice and collaborated with Einstürzende Neubauten on their “Thirsty Animal” single. In September of the following year, Howard joined a partially reformed Birthday Party (with Martyn P. Casey filling in for the late Pew) at London's Town and Country Club.
The following month, These Immortal Souls returned with “King of Kalifornia,” which preceded the December release of I’m Never Gonna Die Again (1992-Mute). After Epic Soundtracks left to embark on a solo career, drummer Chris Hughes filled in on the ensuing tour. Howard’s next recorded contributions were on 1994’s Nick Cave album Let Love In and Lydia Lunch’s Live in Siberia. In the meantime, he continued working with the latter on new Shotgun Wedding material.  After These Immortal Souls’ rendition of “You Can’t Unring a Bell” on the Tom Waits tribute, Step Right Up – The Songs of Tom Waits (1995-Manifesto), they continued without Soundtracks (who died in 1997) until July 23rd 1998, when (with Lunch as support) they played their final show at the Greyhound Hotel in St. Kilda.

Howard finally released an excellent solo album in 1999, Teenage Snuff Film (Reliant Records), featuring support from Beasts of Bourbon’s Brian Hooper on drums and organ, Mick Harvey and Genevieve McGuckin. That year Howard also produced The Dirty Three-like Hungry Ghost’s eponymous album, Hungry Ghosts (2000-Reliant Records). In 2000, he joined his brother on guitar in The Pink Stainless Tail. Two years later, Howard appeared with Hugo Race, Robin Casinader and Aimee Nash as an all-vampire band in the Aaliyah film, Queen of the Damned.
In the 2000s, Howard’s recording and performing output slowed. After the French label Stagger Records released a 2-CD tribute to Howard, A Tribute to Rowland S. Howard (2006-Stagger Records), featuring Mick Harvey, The Drones, Loene Carmen and Warren Ellis, Nikki Sudden and many others; the guitarist joined Magic Dirt and Beasts of Bourbon for a tour of Australia’s east coast.

In 2009, Howard, along with The Primitive Calculators, Ollie Olsen, Phillip Brophy and many other figures of the Australian underground appeared in We’re Livin’ on Dog Food, a documentary/tribute to Melbourne’s music scene of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s. That same year Howard produced HTRK’s Marry Me Tonight (2009-Blast First Petite) before releasing his second solo album, October’s Pop Crimes (2009-Liberation). It was even more acclaimed than its predecessor and is tipped as a contender for the upcoming Australian Music Prize. Around that time of the album’s release, Howard announced that he’d contracted liver disease and was waiting for an organ transfer. That month he played his final show at St Kilda's Prince Bandroom, visibly struggling to get through the show, coughing up blood throughout. Nonetheless, he was picked by The Yeah Yeah Yeahs to join them for a planned live performance but his declining health necessitated his cancellation. Rowland S. Howard died December 30th, 2009 at the Austin Hospital. He was 50. 

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.

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Rowland S. Howard (3), The Birthday Party (2), Australia (13), Crime + The City Solution (2), Australian Music (2), These Immortal Souls (2), Nick Cave (29)