The Living End: The Birthday Party’s last records, The Bad Seed & Mutiny!

 

THE BAD SEED EP

Released: 28 February 1983
Label: 4AD
Produced by: The Birthday Party
Recorded at: Hansa Studios, Berlin
Personnel: Nick Cave (vocals), Tracy Pew (bass), Roland S Howard (guitar), Mick Harvey (drums)

 

MUTINY! EP

Released: November 1983
Label: Mute
Produced by: The Birthday Party
Recorded at: Hansa Studios, Berlin and
Personnel: Nick Cave (vocals), Tracy Pew (bass), Roland S Howard (guitar), Mick Harvey (drums and guitar), Blixa Bargeld (guitar)


Gnawing ever onward through his obsessions, Nick Cave’s career has had something of the ceaseless forward motion of a termite. As he goes, bands gather around and then moult away, like exoskeletons used up as the fresh ones form, new skins for the same old ceremony. Some of his best records have resulted when things are new. But some come from moment before stagnation, when all involved sense it’s coming to an end.

So it was with the demise of The Birthday Party, as immortalised on their glorious last two EPs. (Initially released either end of 1983, the pair were subsequently combined as a single CD in 1989, along with two unreleased tracks from the Mutiny sessions.) Concise, brilliant contradictions wrapped in obnoxious cartoon swastikas, they sum up everything about the group, its Beckett-Beefheart-Iggy-Itchy-Scratchy riot, yet clearly signal the wider, widescreen road ahead. They are ferociously terminal, but burningly alive.

The Bad Seed EP (today, the title, appropriated from Saint Matthew by way of William March’s fantastic American pop gothic novel, can’t fail to seem a declaration of things to come), came at a point when The Birthday Party had ripped everything up and tossed it in the air.

In the Autumn of 1982, in a loathing, exhausted replay of their initial move from Melbourne to the UK, the group determined to quit London, its cloying music scene, and their own reputation, and move to West Berlin, attracted by the freer, end-of-the-world ambiance they’d detected in the divided city during a chaotic summer tour, and the kinship they sensed with bands there including, significantly, Blixa Bargeld’s Einstürzende Neubauten.

Leaving London, they also left behind Phill Calvert, the drummer who had been with Cave and Mick Harvey since before The Boys Next Door, unceremoniously ejected after long-simmering frustrations came to a head. With Cave increasingly interested in writing rather than songwriting, Rowland S Howard sidelined as Cave-Harvey compositions came to dominate, and drug habits escalating, that the group was on the edge of a split was inescapable. As they gathered in the Hansa studio that October, The Birthday Party were depleted, disillusioned and adrift. Approaching burn out, however, they caught fire.

Heralded by Cave’s hysterical, despairing, moronic goad/ battle cry, “Hands up who wants to die!”, the opening “Sonny’s Burning” finds The Birthday Party stripped down and revitalised. Blunt, but densely packed, Cave’s lyrics commence the anti-martyr, life-as-lynching viewpoint that would dominate his writing across the mid-1980s, but still factor in the brute Roy Lichtenstein-style popisms that littered the Junkyard album: the repeated “Flame On!” is a grotesquely brilliant lift from Marvel comics’ Human Torch; the stuttering “it can get so c-c-c-cold in here,” a sneering nod to The Who.

“Sonny’s Burning” is one of the last Birthday Party songs credited to the full group, and they pin you to the wall with it. Switching to drums, Harvey nails it together with a brittle, no frills drive. His move behind the drumkit frees up huge, claustrophobic spaces for Rowland’s guitar to rage in thick-thin feedback, and go wandering in evil, spiked, spindly spirals, suggesting a chase from some deviant 60s spy movie parody while Tracy Pew’s bass rolls in a menacing rockabilly prowl.

Pew digs deeper for “Wild World,” an exhausted, ominously sensual coital croon that gestures baldly ahead toward the spooked, wrecked sound of From Her To Eternity. A horrendous character portrait, “Fears Of Gun” builds from a scratchy post-punk funk bass figure into a relentless, metallic staccato drive, less a song than a psychotically lonely psychological state. Traipsing out among the hungry worms and nodding trees, “Deep In The Woods,” brings it to an end the other side of murder.

Following a punishing US tour, The Birthday Party reconvened in Hansa in April 1983 to record Mutiny! They were barely talking. Cave was increasingly consumed by writing and other distractions. Rowland was casting around for another band; his seductive “Say A Spell,” suggesting the theme from an alternative-universe Bond movie, was the last flicker of the creative spark he’d once had with Cave. Harvey had already decided he was leaving.

Blixa Bargeld was recruited to oversee proceedings, but the sessions fell apart, leaving the band having to patch the recordings together in London four months later. Two songs, “Pleasure Avalanche” and “The Six Strings That Drew Blood” were never quite completed; yet, when they appeared on the 1989 CD reissue, the abandoned “Six Strings” proved more poisonously potent than the version The Bad Seeds later cut.

With Cave’s writing stretching further into narrative on “Jennifer’s Veil,” another captivating vigilante mob dirge strung with meticulous maritime metaphors, and the astonishing “Swampland” – essentially, his And The Ass Saw The Angel novel condensed into one 3 minute 30 second howl – the roots of The Bad Seeds clearly poke through the dirt. Most tellingly, Bargeld stepped in to provide “Mutiny In Heaven”’s soul-scraping guitar when Harvey and Cave deemed Howard’s contributions not up to scratch.

But this is unmistakably The Birthday Party. Their entire history coalesces and explodes on “Mutiny In Heaven.” A hilarious, horrifying, grandiose yet deadeningly clear-eyed junkie vision that mixes a tiny personal hell  with the cosmic hallucinatory visions of Milton’s Paradise Lost, it took Cave endless rewriting to get the song down. It bursts at you with the unhinged force of something that had to come out: one of those great, desperate songs where it sounds like a band cramming everything in, because they know they won’t get a chance to do any more after this. It was sequenced as the second song but, really, here is where The Birthday Party stops. Zenith or nadir, after this there was just nowhere left to go: “I’m bailing out!”