Tracy Pew, the leather-clad cowpoke bassist of the Birthday Party, once said: "Rock music will be remembered as the anus of culture." A typically charming statement from one of rock's great id-men -- and an optimistic viewpoint if you think about it, full of can-do(o) spirit. If, in 100 years, rock of the late 20th century is truly seen as the "anus of culture" -- and not as its "rebel heart," or, more probable yet, as the economy's "youthful phallus" -- it will be because the Birthday Party have been remembered over Duran Duran, much in the way Iggy & the Stooges have begun to eclipse Paul McCartney & Wings. One, of course, always hopes. And until recently, hope was all we had. Then Thirsty Ear joined forces with Henry "Ragin' " Rollins' 2-13-61 Records and re-released the entire (and almost impossible to find) Birthday Party catalog on CD, including singles and B-sides. Gentle reader, for the sake of our children and our children's children, we must now act to ensure that Tracy Pew's rosy prediction indeed comes to -- er -- pass. Go out and spread the gospel to like-minded savages. And if you've never heard of the Birthday Party -- or, if you're mistakenly lumping them in with Bauhaus or other timid British post-punk gothsters -- you're not alone (and probably not Australian). Due to a variety of setbacks ranging from inexcusably myopic music journalists who pooh-poohed the group as "rockist" to the Birthday Party's astounding inability to get their shit together, the band never made much of a stink here in the United States. But they seem to have left a smeared, smelly mess just about everywhere else. (OK. I'll stop grunting out the number-two entendres.)
In the late '70s, the Boys Next Door (as the Birthday Party were then called) were a group of art school dropouts who dominated the tiny punk scene in Melbourne, Down Under. Fronted by a contentious and fashionably bleak Nick Cave on vocals and backed by a crew of conceptually gifted and surprisingly adept musicians -- Mick Harvey (everything), Rowland Howard (guitars), Tracy Pew (bass), and Phil Calvert (drums) -- they forged a sound situated somewhere between art-noise and punk that remains by and large an anomaly. (Excepting the early work of P.J. Harvey.) Their vision was like that of Rimbaud filtered through a humorous version of German expressionism: a celebratory drug-addled bog-wallow in the sinful, the violent, the mangled. And coming as they did from good middle-class stock, they brought both an ambition and an assurance to the art-is-life-is-decadence-is-art (wink-wink) project. Their hometown history is replete with stolen cars, fistfights, public lewdness, heroin addictions, and an Aussie-released EP titled Hee-Haw (Missing Link). A name change and a move to London in 1980 increased both their notoriety and the magnificence of their destruction. In a metropolis enamored with the Psychedelic Furs and Echo & the Bunnymen, the Birthday Party thrived as a hideous, shit-kicking succubus from the colonial swamp. Two LPs -- Prayers on Fire and Junkyard -- were released in a hail of good Christian protest, accompanied by onstage in-fighting, drug and alcohol disasters, incessant poverty, and a huge and abusive audience that, after being steadily provoked for two years, not surprisingly, began to demand greater and greater spectacle for their hard-earned quid. In 1982 the band fired drummer Calvert and escaped to Berlin. There they recorded two more EPs, The Bad Seed and Mutiny -- two final cacophonous spurts -- before proceedings slowed, spun out, went on the gothic nod. Various collaborations with Lydia Lunch, Jim "Foetus" Thirlwell, and industrialists EinstYrzende Neubauten ensued until the band dispersed completely into various solo/side projects -- Cave's Bad Seeds being the most successful (and now a parody of itself). The tragic epilogue: Pew, the eloquent macho-man bassist, died during an epileptic fit in 1986 when he slammed his head into a bathtub. Hardly the demise one would expect -- but then again, rock's history is full of anticlimax.
That the Birthday Party's ferocious career didn't last long past the four-year mark is no surprise. That their music has outlasted their shenanigans, especially in this day and age, is. In fact, listening to the latter three re-releases (Prayers on Fire, Junkyard, and Mutiny/The Bad Seed) one has to wonder if anything recorded since has even come close to reaching this level of harrowing guttural unease. On the dirgier end of the Birthday Party songbook, take the classic cut "King Ink" from Prayers on Fire. The song begins with Pew's grinding, repetitive bass line going in and out of sync with Calvert's thundering, primitive tom-toms. After lurching along through a couple of cycles, they're joined by Howard's trademark tinny guitar, which commences to jerk and screech and twang (spaghetti western-style) with its own rhythmic agenda. Then comes Cave's off-kilter horror-soundtrack piano, and the song is up on its legs: a machine wobbling before you, belts and cogs all spinning at slightly different speeds, steam hissing and lights blinking in and out of phase for various durations, doing some sort of abject bump and grind. You anticipate the vocals like you would a stripper. "King Ink strolls into town," Cave moans. A brief spastic clattering on the snare by Harvey, as if a coil somewhere deep in the machine has snapped; guitars twang and twist out of key, then fall away. You smile and Cave continues the burlesque, grumbling, "He sniffs around/ He kicks off his stink-boot/ Sand-and-soot-and-dust-and-dirt-and .../ He's much bigger than you think/ King Ink!"
Staggering on in this way -- building, getting louder, darker, more bestial -- "King Ink" creates its tension through dynamic interplay, snatches of melodies that never resolve, atonal clangs, and offbeat crashes -- all taking place above the heaving polyrhythmic surge. Soon Cave is squawking like a giant maniacal crow. "Wake up up up up up up up uuuup!" He screams for longer than seems humanly possible. Then he huffs "Express yourself!" over and over until the song starts to disintegrate -- the machine collapsing in a caterwaul of bleats and moans and yowls. And, rather suddenly, it's over. For five seconds or so there's a much-valued silence, before the next song ("A Dead Song") begins.
This is, of course, the general formula that lies behind a Birthday Party dirge. For a faster number -- say, the vicious "Big-Jesus-Trash-Can" on Junkyard -- just jam the throttle to full, add a spastic ride cymbal in an accountable time signature, and saxophone that honks like Ornette Coleman or a damaged goose, take cover, and release Mr. Cave from the holding pen. Halfway through you'll find yourself nursing a pleasurable needlelike ache in your temples. Your tongue has grown fur; sweat beads along your upper lip. The world repeatedly tilts in unhealthy angles; supper curdles in your gut. Happy now, you weave your way across the room toward the toilet.
Indeed, the Birthday Party accomplished what's remarkably rare in rock music. Through a furious and complicated -- and often humorous -- exploration of musical form, lyric, and image (as compared to, say, G.G. Allin's rather banal attempts to shock, or to Marilyn Manson's contrived theater of pain), they managed to confront, discomfit, revolt, bring on bouts of motion sickness and/or the runs. They forced the gurgling waste within us out. And in the process, they renewed our faith in the genre's ability to launch a moral critique of a world gone foul. Emesis, not thesis.
A final hallowed memory: I recall bringing home my first dubbed copy of Junkyard from college for summer break. I planned on spending a tedious two months familiarizing myself with some seriously twisted music that would also, of its own accord, keep my parents away -- much in the way garlic works with vampires, I hoped. That first night at dinner my mother reported to me that whatever racket I was listening to these days was literally making her sick. I grinned, at her and over at Pa munching corn. If I had known then what I do now, I would have invoked the ghost of a recently departed Pew and boldly stated, "What you have heard, Mother, is the anus of culture.