The Birthday Party - Biography
The Birthday Party (or, in their inception, The Boys Next Door) never experienced much commercial success, but with music like theirs there really was no way they could have. Often their songs were just cacophonous messes with no discernible rhythms, serving as vehicles for the twisted gothic tales of singer Nick Cave and songwriter/guitarist Rowland S. Howard. Other times, the songs crawled along at an unbearably slow pace while Howard's unsettling soundscapes overpowered the rhythm section. Either way, the star of the show was Cave's voice and the gloomy, blasphemous lyrics. Although they never had any hits, they were still a tremendous influence on some of the best bands to come out of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Bands such as the Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine and Dinosaur Jr. have all given credit to the Birthday Party for helping to shape their sounds. The group proved to be most seminal for Cave himself, as it provided him with a launching ground to begin a solo career that would earn him a rabid cult following.
At the Caulfield Grammar School in 1973, Nick Cave started a band with drummer Phil Calvert, guitarist Mick Harvey and a host of fellow students who played various instruments. They went through several band names, playing their brand of music inspired in part by Alice Cooper and The Sensational Alex Harvey Band. Graduating from Caulfield in 1975, the band carried on with bassist Tracey Pew and changed their name to The Boys Next Door. Punk broke in '76 and a couple of Australian bands like Radio Birdman and The Saints were beginning to cash in on the phenomenon. The middle class kids in The Boys Next Door moved to a run-down area of Melbourne that was home to junkies and prostitutes, fueling the seediness that was already a major part of the band's aesthetic.
They began to gain attention through their live shows which were loud, abrasive and riotous. An independent Australian imprint called Mushroom signed the band as their audience began to grow. After recording six fairly tame pop songs, the band were joined by Rowland S. Howard who added a much-needed edge. One of Howard's compositions, the stately ballad “Shivers,” was originally recorded with Howard on vocals for his previous band, The Young Charlatans. The song, rerecorded with Cave on vocals, became the band's signature track and was prominently played in the Australian film, Dogs in Space. Their first LP, Door, Door (1979 Mushroom), was a solid set, fusing new wave and punk, although it was a bit too poppy by the band's standards. The Hee Haw EP was also released in 1979 and reflected Cave and Howard’s newfound love of Pere Ubu and The Pop Group and signaled a dramatic shift in style. The band's sound was noticeably darker now, teeming with dissonant post-punk grooves and the howling, bellowing and often legitimately frightening voice of Cave, who had come into his own as a singer. The Boys Next Door took off for London near the beginning of 1980 in pursuit of a wider following.
Their next release, The Birthday Party (1980 Missing Link), came out at the end of the year. Like Hee Haw, it reflected the post-punk and no wave tastes of the band and was more conventional and even danceable than the harrowing music that would follow a change in the band’s name and a return to Melbourne.
After their ten month stay in London, the band wished to distance themselves from their peers and pursue a much more assertive, abrasive direction. Their new name, The Birthday Party, was inspired by a misremembered scene in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. It was just as purposely deceptive as the Boys Next Door, giving the impression of innocence when nothing could be further from the truth. The Birthday Party’s debut album, Prayers on Fire (Buddha), came out in 1981 to praise from critics in the UK and US alike.
While writing their follow-up, Pew was arrested for drunk driving and handed a jail sentence compounded by various other outstanding charges. Instead of hiring a formal replacement, the band brought in guest bassists like Magazine's Barry Adamson as well as Chris Walsh from The Reals and Rowland’s brother, Harry Howard. Junkyard (Buddha) arrived in 1982. The album also marked Rowland S. Howard’s diminished contributions and the growing importance of Mick Harvey as a songwriter. Calvert was fired after the album came out due to dissatisfying his fellow band members with his playing, so Harvey moved to the drum seat. Despite the inter-band turmoil, it was another critical success, containing possibly the best ever Birthday Party song, “Big-Jesus-Trash-Can.”
The band then moved to Germany where they began collaborating with experimental artists like Lydia Lunch (under the name Honeymoon in Red) and Einstürzende Neubauten, a band that featured future Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld. A live EP recorded with Lydia Lunch, Drunk on the Pope's Blood/The Agony is the Ecstasy (4AD), appeared in 1982. The final studio releases by The Birthday Party, 1983's Mutiny EP (Mute) and The Bad Seed EP (4AD), provided an appropriate end to the band's short career, and hinted at the style Cave would incorporate in his next project.
When Harvey left in the summer of 1983, the band carried on with new drummer Des Heffner. They eventually called it quits and played their final gig in Melbourne, Australia. Back in Berlin, Harvey contacted Tasmanian singer and longtime friend of the band, Simon Bonney. Joined by the Howard brothers, the four reformed a reconstituted version of Bonney’s old band, Crime + the City Solution. Cave continued to build a cult audience as a solo artist, assembling a backing band called The Bad Seeds with whom, 25 years later, he’s still recording and touring. He released his first album with The Bad Seeds, From Her to Eternity, in 1984. A raw live album by the Birthday Party, It's Still Living (Missing Link), came out in 1985. The Strange Fruit label released the band's Peel Sessions in 1987 and Peel Sessions II in 1988. Recently, all of the band's BBC sessions were released as John Peel Sessions (2001 Universal International).