In 1981, a group is filming a music video at a landfill near Melbourne. The concept is to depict a hellish scene. A cartoon skull with six arms appears on the screen. We catch a glimpse of a thin and youthful Nick Cave, described as a “chubby little bug,” dancing on a pole inside a circus tent. The track is titled “Nick the Stripper” and explores the theme of self-hatred.
The Birthday Party is behind him, swinging and stumbling. The band, formerly known as the Boys Next Door, has come back to their hometown after spending a year in London. They have transformed into a much darker and intimidating creature to record their debut album, Prayers on Fire. The “tune,” if it can be called that, is held together by a haunting three-note repetition from guitarist Rowland S Howard.
The scene shifts from inside the tent to the outdoors. The band has brought along friends and residents from a mental health facility, one of whom is standing on a gallows. Cave is dressed in a loincloth. A disturbing moment occurs with a goat.
A recently released film about the band, Mutiny in Heaven, extensively features this disturbing and eerie display of individuals for the entire four minutes of the clip. According to the director, Ian White, it would have been a missed opportunity to not include it in its complete form. White explains, “It’s an incredibly remarkable work and it perfectly captures the band during a crucial moment in their growth.”
Nick Cave, in his current form, is a far cry from the past. He now shares words of solace, insight, and sometimes amusement through his newsletter, the Red Hand Files. However, it all started with the Birthday Party, the main band of the post-punk movement centered around the renowned Crystal Ballroom in St Kilda during the early 80s.
During this period, White had the opportunity to experience the band at its most intense and frightening level. Even after four decades, those performances continue to have a profound effect on him. He recalls that there were only a few shows he had seen that had such a powerful impact. White attributes this to the sense of danger that seemed to surround the band, although he admits that he was more concerned for their well-being than his own.
The concern was warranted. Howard, who, alongside Cave, fought a prolonged struggle with heroin addiction, passed away at the age of 50 in 2009 due to liver cancer. He had recently finished his last album, Pop Crimes, with its cover featuring a haunting image of the dying artist. The bassist, Tracy Pew, did not reach the age of 30 as he passed away from head injuries caused by an epileptic seizure in 1986.
Mick Harvey, a guitarist who played with Howard in the Birthday Party, stayed with Cave as a multi-instrumentalist in the Bad Seeds for 25 years. People often ask him how he managed to keep his sanity during this time. His response is simple: he stayed sober. With a serious expression, Harvey says he simply played the hand he was given.
“When we were younger and not in school, we would just go with the flow,” he explains from his residence in Melbourne. “It’s widely recognized that many men do not mature and leave behind adolescent behavior until around the age of 25…and even that may be generous! The band had already disbanded before any of us reached 25.”
Phill Calvert, the drummer, has fond memories of his youth, although it may not have been the most extravagant journey. He recalls, “During our first year in England, we were struggling to make ends meet and constantly cold and hungry. It wasn’t enjoyable at all.” However, he acknowledges that this experience prepared the band for their future success. He adds, “If we hadn’t taken that leap, we probably would have stayed in Australia and eventually lost momentum.”
The Birthday Party was not intended to have a long lifespan. They released their final album, Junkyard, before Calvert was unexpectedly let go at the end of 1982. However, he holds no animosity towards the band. He recognizes that after his departure, another member had to take on the role of scapegoat, ultimately leading to the band’s demise.
The main focus of the documentary centers around interviews with Howard. At a certain point, he remembers watching footage of the Doors’ performance at the Hollywood Bowl, where police intervened to keep Jim Morrison away from the audience. “To me, that perfectly captures the essence of rock music – powerful enough to require a barrier between the band and the crowd.”
It was a challenge to capture Pew. The Birthday Party’s sound heavily relied on the bass player, whose unsteady basslines were a major influence on American noise-rock bands such as Sonic Youth, Big Black, and the Jesus Lizard. Not only was his musical contribution significant, but his appearance was also unique: a mustached, leather-clad cowboy wearing a string vest and a Stetson, resembling a member of a gothic village people.
Pew centred the paradox at the heart of the Birthday Party. “The band were enigmatic, because they were such an odd contradiction of different things – intelligent and literary, yet visceral and brutal,” White says. “Seeing them when they were bored or in a bad mood was as good as seeing them at the peak of their game.”
Unfortunately, Pew did not survive to share his story, leaving behind only scattered pieces. He is best known for his statement that rock music would only be remembered as the lowest point of culture. “The recordings we had of Tracy’s speech, whether he was fabricating a story or being honest or condescending towards the interviewer, were difficult to use in the proper context,” White explains.
The filmmaker primarily used historical records to create his movie. The goal was to immerse the audience in a bygone era. There are no interviews with people: Harvey jokingly apologizes to Henry Rollins, stating that he has been featured in too many music documentaries. There are short audio clips from Thurston Moore and Lydia Lunch.
When the content is of such high quality, external validation is unnecessary, according to White. Instead, viewers are able to fully experience the energetic live footage without excessive commentary. “There aren’t any catchy melodies, you just have to listen,” White explains. “Less talking, more music.”
Cave is currently touring in the United States. During his performances, he has included the song “Shivers” written by Howard, which he originally sang with the Boys Next Door. This is a song that he had previously avoided for many years. Harvey cannot help but make a snide remark towards his former bandmate. He expresses frustration with Cave’s sudden change of heart and comments, “It’s easy to make these generous gestures from a safe distance now. Where were you 14 years ago?”
After Harvey left the Bad Seeds, the two had a falling out but have since mostly made amends. According to Harvey, they have resolved their issues and put them behind them. He notes that while Cave has publicly apologized to him, he has not directly addressed it with him, which is typical of his personality.
He smiles. “He can speak to me, the jerk!”