THE BIRTHDAY PARTY: LIVE 1981-82 (1999; 1981-1982)
1) Junkyard; 2) A Dead Song; 3) The Dim Locator; 4) Zoo-Music Girl; 5) Nick The Stripper; 6) Blast Off!; 7) Release The Bats; 8) Bully Bones; 9) King Ink; 10) (Sometimes) Pleasure Heads Must Burn; 11) Big-Jesus-Trash-Can; 12) Dead Joe; 13) The Friend Catcher; 14) 6" Gold Blade; 15) Hamlet; 16) She's Hit; 17) Funhouse.
Although The Birthday Party pretty much built up their reputation through live performance, they never released a live album while the band was still active — possibly because they felt no need, what with the studio records already letting off as much steam as any live performance could accumulate. The first «semi-official» Birthday Party live LP only came out about two years after the split — It's Still Living, capturing an Australian show from 1982, was released by their former manager without anybody's consent, and is usually chastised for vastly inferior sound quality and other problems.
It took almost two more decades before an archival Birthday Party live release finally appeared that could sort of serve as a proper «benchmark» for evaluating and enjoying the band's sound. Here, everything was improved — courtesy of the respectable 4AD label, the performances are well-recorded and nicely cleaned up, and the setlists offer a fine retrospective of the Party's career, focusing primarily on Prayers On Fire and Junkyard, unquestionably their two finest offerings, but also featuring some rarities and oddities. Most of the material was culled from two shows in London and Bremen; a historically important bonus piece is the recording of ʽFunhouseʼ by their spiritual forefathers, The Stooges, in Athens from September 1982, although, unfortunately, it is also the one track that suffers the most from near-bootleg sound quality.
I should emphatically stress, though, that The Birthday Party live do not get much wilder than The Birthday Party in the studio — frankly speaking, it would be hard to imagine how they could get much wilder than that, unless it meant dragging out random audience members on stage and cutting their hearts out in black voodoo rituals (and even then, you'd have to get this on DVD to genuinely enjoy the proceedings). But on the other hand, The Birthday Party live do not get any less wild than The Birthday Party in the studio — if this was really typical of their live sound, it means they could work themselves to exhaustion every night, and still come back for more. From the first track and right down to the last one, each single member of the band is playing at the top of his powers, and Nick's devil roar never sags, not even for a second.
From an audiophile point of view, these recordings could actually be preferable to some of the original takes — in the studio, the band went for too much echo and lo-fi, whereas here all the instruments are completely out front: the vicious lead guitar parts on ʽDim Locatorʼ, for instance, shoot at point blank range into your ears here, whereas on the original version they sounded rather remote. You may like or dislike it, but it does make the listening experience significantly different — a rare case of an underground band's archival live release sounding «cleaner» than what they did in the studio, and one that may offer additional insight into the art of Mick Harvey's and Rowland Howard's guitar playing. Or compare Tracy Pew's bass on the original ʽShe's Hitʼ and the almost ʽDazed And Confusedʼ-style thick doom sounds on this version — it's like he's tugging at these strings from inside your own head. On the other hand, that studio echo did account for some extra eeriness, so that it is impossible to objectively prefer one over the other.
The final performance of ʽFunhouseʼ, adding guest player Jim Thirlwell on saxophone, would be a more than perfect conclusion here if the sound quality were reasonable, but even as such it is still a noisy sensation — every time the guitar, the sax, and the singer lock forces in a hysterical outburst, on the illusionary verge of totally losing control, we have Bedlam incarnate, though it is interesting to go back and listen, for comparative purposes, to Iggy doing this stuff on the original Funhouse. The Stooges were summoning the flames of Hell — the Birthday Party sound much more like your local madhouse band, celebrating the joys of clinical insanity rather than demonic possession. It may simply have something to do with Nick's «mooing» voice not having as much guttural power as Iggy, but you could also say this about Ron Asheton vs. Rowland Howland (the former makes his instrument sound like a spray hose of hellflames, the latter prefers to evoke the atmosphere of a serious nervous breakdown), so yeah, similar intentions, different spirits.
Finally, we are offered occasional glimpses of Nick Cave's tender side — through bits of stage banter like "thank you, I love your haircut as well", casually, but respectfully cast off towards somebody in the audience right before launching into a fiery version of ʽZoo-Music Girlʼ. As few as they are, they are important — seventy minutes of this unending assault and battery might make you feel that we are dealing with a bunch of psychopaths beyond salvation (an alternate version of GG Allin and friends), so even a single nicely spoken sentence of sanity, dropped in casually like that, can be reassuring, and further confirming the obvious thumbs up and the obvious recommendation to pick this up and never let it go.