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Friday, March 7, 2014

Birthday Party: Hee Haw

THE BIRTHDAY PARTY: HEE HAW (1979-1980; 1988)

1) Mr. Clarinet; 2) Happy Birthday; 3) Hats On Wrong; 4) Guilt Parade; 5) The Friend Catcher; 6) Waving My Arms; 7) Catman; 8) Riddle House; 9) A Catholic Skin; 10) The Red Clock; 11) Faint Heart; 12) Death By Drowning; 13) The Hair Shirts.

Technical note first. The CD edition of Hee Haw, released long after the ashes of The Birthday Party had been scattered by the wind, actually consists of (a) The Birthday Party — the band's LP debut from 1980; and (b) Hee Haw, an EP from late 1979 which they still released under the earlier name of The Boys Next Door. Prior to that, The Boys Next Door had an even earlier LP release, appropriately titled Door, Door, but since it was poorly recorded, released on a com­plete­ly unknown minor Australian label, and Nick Cave has subsequently pretty much disowned it as a childish first attempt, we will let it pass by here. Special mention must be made of an early epoch, scattered bits of which are still preserved in Australian TV archives, when Nick Cave used to dress up for public appearances and seemed to take his primary cue from Paul Weller.

But forget about it, anyway. The real career of The Birthday Party starts with the move to Lon­don, by which time the five Australian boys (not all of them next door) had gotten their act together and not only knew exactly what they wanted to do, but also knew exactly how to get it done. The Birthday Party played its own version of «art-punk», a fairly unique brand of music that com­bined elements of garage rock, hardcore punk, avantgarde jazz, goth, electronica — anything goes, really, as long as the production style is hot, sweaty, and jungly, the lead singer sounds like a madhouse client imagining himself to be Tarzan, and the two major players (Rowland S. Ho­ward on guitar and Mick Harvey on just about anything) make as much noise as possible.

«Oh no», you'd say, «not another early Eighties' band of crazy noisemakers!» But throw on ʽMr. Clarinetʼ, and from the very outset you will find that this amounts to much more than crazy noise­making. The Birthday Party were not slackers — they learned not only how to play those instru­ments, but also how to combine them in complex, innovative ways without it all falling apart. Harvey's heavily distorted organ (substituting for an actual clarinet, I guess) plays sort of a psy­chedelic fugue, against which Nick Cave is howling and bellowing like a prime patient that's been subjected to way too many re-runs of Alban Berg operas. The abstract absurdity of the results separates them from the punks, but neither is this poppy enough to put them in the same house with Siouxsie & The Banshees, nor is it solemn-demonic enough to warrant a comparison with Joy Division. First track = first head-scratching enigma.

Things become a lot clearer when they get to ʽHappy Birthdayʼ, arguably the quintessential track of the album (and the one that is connected to the band's crucial name change — from the direct, but boring Boys Next Door to the symbolic Birthday Party). If ʽMr. Clarinetʼ left any doubts, ʽHappy Birthdayʼ dissipates them — this is Modern Madhouse Music at its modern maddest. In the deep past, the Stooges used to conjure this spirit, but the Stooges, being good kids of the Six­ties, accessed their psychic innards on the express train of sexual tension: Iggy channelled his aggression into physical lust, whereas The Birthday Party direct their youthful adrenaline into the brain areas responsible for maniac depression, schizophrenia, and other mental disorders. Of course, there is a social basis for these disorders — it ain't much fun to play mad unless you can convincingly prove that it is your society who drove you to this brink. In the first case, you're just playing mad; in the second case, who knows? You might be producing A-R-T.

ʽHappy Birthdayʼ, with its spooky tale of a «wonderful dog chair... that could count right up to ten» (I wish I had one!), is the perfect example — tricky, off-putting time signature; knife-edged, ribbon-cutting bluesy/funky guitar riffage; and the perfect send-up of the happy «birthday cho­rus» where you get to hear Nick Cave woof-woof-woofing, consciously and passionately «rui­ning» an actually catchy vocal pop melody. In doing so, The Birthday Party created just the per­fect birthday song to crash, bust, and burn any birthday party that you'd wish to avoid, but can't, seeing as how it was cruelly sprung on you by circumstances beyond your control. And as far as I can tell, nobody knows anything about the woofing dog chair. Still one of those mysteries.

If the songs do get more «tight» and «collected», they start sounding too dangerously close to their competition — a case in point is ʽWaving My Armsʼ, which anybody could easily mistake for a lost Bauhaus outtake, what with the dark gothic bassline, the echoey jangling guitar, and the repetitive, but thoroughly disciplined chorus. None of which means it is bad — on the contrary, it is the album's most easily memorable song, rallying the band to action like a deranged set of the Four Horsemen's cousins: the line "and we won't get to sleep for fifty thousand years" will pro­bably keep ringing in your ears longer than anything else off the album (with the possible excep­tion of "woof woof woof woof woof").

Speaking of the Stooges comparison and the alleged «asexuality» of the songs, ʽCatmanʼ, if you just look at the lyrics, should, of course, count as an example to the contrary — "catman's coming, looking for a girl, better hide your sister, man" — but even if Nick's yelps and yowls are clearly influenced by Iggy, he still sounds like a man in a straitjacket, chained to the battery, his major problem never descending anywhere below his head; and Rowland Howard's guitar is still re­veling in droning, atonality, and complicated patterns that are way too intellectually controlled and experimental to be counted as «penis-driven». It might be best to simply ignore the lyrics (many of which, at this point, seem crude and underworked anyway) and just bang your head against the wall instead. If you get to do this on time, you get to experience the complete bliss package of The Birthday Party.

In conclusion, the only flaw of this package is a comparative one — in retrospect, it now looks like a masterful rehearsal before the genuine thunderstorm of Prayers On Fire — and it should by no means lessen the sincerity of the thumbs up. Nor is the average quality of the original Hee Haw EP, appended here as a bonus, any less impressive: early «jazz-goth» pieces like ʽThe Red Clockʼ and ʽFaint Heartʼ have their share of inventiveness and spookiness, too. No wonder the boys would blow all competition off the stage back in the early Melbourne days — even those who consider their early efforts too silly and immature will have to respect the level of playing and internal coordination.

Check "Hee-Haw" (CD) on Amazon

1 comment:

  1. Fun, and unexpected, fact: Catman is actually a Gene Vincent (!) cover, which already sounded impressively Birthday Party-like in its original incarnation.