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Music / The Birthday Party

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A group of nice, churchgoing lads.
L to R: Rowland S. Howard, Mick Harvey, Nick Cave, Phill Calvert, and Tracy Pew.

"Hands up: who wants to die?!"
The first line of "Sonny's Burning"

The Birthday Party was an Australian Post-Punk band, active from 1978 to 1983, and is best known for being Nick Cave's first band. In addition to Cave on vocals (he didn't sing so much as howl like a madman), the band included the jagged, shrieking guitars of Rowland S. Howard and Mick Harvey, the sleazy basslines of Tracy Pew, and the crisp, tribal drumming of Phill Calvert.

Originally a somewhat bland punk band named The Boys Next Door, their music style became dark, noisy, and theatrical with their second album The Birthday Party, to which they formally changed their name. Two highly influential but commercially unsuccessful albums followed (Prayers on Fire and Junkyard) as well as two EPs (Mutiny and The Bad Seed) before the band split. Cave and Harvey went on to form a new band, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, with one-time guest musician Blixa Bargeld, while Howard started a solo career.

Pew died in 1986 from a brain hemorrhage. Howard died in 2009 from liver cancer.

Not to be confused with the play by Harold Pinter. Some accounts claim the band was named after the play, but there's not really a consensus.

Studio Discography:

  • Door, Door - (1979) - The Boys Next Door.
  • Hee Haw - (1979, EP) - The Boys Next Door. Later combined with The Birthday Party in the Hee Haw! compilation.
  • The Birthday Party - (1980) - Originally credited to The Boys Next Door, re-released as The Birthday Party.
  • Prayers on Fire - (1981)
  • Junkyard - (1982)
  • The Bad Seed - (1983, EP) - Later combined with Mutiny in the Mutiny/The Bad Seed EP compilation.
  • Mutiny - (1983, EP) - See above.

This band provides examples of:

  • Ambiguous Gender: "Dead Joe:"
    Can't tell the girls from the boys anymore
  • Australian Music: A staple of the Australian Punk scene early on, though they emigrated to London when they changed their name.
  • Careful with That Axe: Nick liked to shriek and howl in nearly every song, and he opens "Mutiny in Heaven" with a single ghostly scream.
  • Companion Cube: "Mr. Clarinet," if the title character is taken as a literal clarinet.
    Marry meeeeeeee!
  • Country Matters: "Mutiny in Heaven," used towards a priest that the narrator confesses to.
  • Cover Version: Multiple of The Stooges: "Loose" is covered on their live EP Drunk on the Pope's Blood and "Fun House" on the Live 1981-82 album. They also performed whole sets of Stooges covers.
  • Darker and Edgier: Every record was heavier, freakier, and more challenging than the last, culminating in Junkyard sounding like a Hardcore Punk/Death Metal mix on "Dead Joe." Excludes the Mutiny / The Bad Seed EPs which mellowed out to a sound closer to what The Bad Seeds would do.
  • Downer Beginning: "Shivers".
    I've been contemplating suicide
  • Drugs Are Bad: "Mutiny in Heaven" details a drug addict's collapse.
    If this is heaven, then I'm bailing out
  • Fan Disservice: The titular character from "Nick the Stripper."
    He's a fat little insect
  • Fight Clubbing: The band's aggressive music and confrontational personae, and the general punk culture of the era, led to some notorious outbreaks of violence at their gigs, including band member on band member, band member on audience, and audience on audience.
  • Goth Rock: The band were lumped in with the genre, but they did not fit the style and eschewed the label. However, their music was influential to Goth Rock's Garage Rock-rooted cousin Deathrock, and they're popular among Goths regardless. Having one of the other seminal vampire songs, "Release the Bats," helped.
  • Hemo Erotic: "Release the Bats."
    My baby is alright...
    She says 'horror vampire bat bite...
    How I wish those bats would bite'
  • Intentionally Awkward Title: The live EP Drunk on the Pope's Blood.
  • Intercourse with You: "Zoo-Music Girl:"
    If there's one thing I desire in this world
    That's to make love to my
    Zoo-Music Girl
  • Large Ham: Nick Cave, who sang like a raving lunatic.
  • Looks Like Cesare: Nick Cave and Rowland S. Howard with their wild, dark hair.
  • Murder Ballad:
    • "Hamlet (Pow, Pow, Pow)."
      Wherefore art thou baby-face, wherefore art thou?
      Pow, pow, pow, pow, pow, pow...
    • "Deep in the Woods" is the first of many Cave songs explicitly sung from the perspective of a Serial Killer.
  • New Sound Album:
    • After the more straightforward Punk/New Wave sound of Door, Door, the Hee-Haw EP and The Birthday Party built up the madness, darkness and noise that would become the band's signature.
    • The Mutiny and The Bad Seed EPs de-emphasized the noise and vocal mania, sounding closer to Nick Cave's later work with The Bad Seeds.
  • Noise Rock: Their music made heavy use of clattering percussion, walls of feedback, and unhinged vocals, constantly sounding on the brink of collapse.
  • Creator Backlash: The band's debut Door, Door, which within 3 years of its recording would be described by Cave as "complete wank"
    • Presumably even more so in the case of the five songs originally recorded with the intention of making up the second side of the album, which were scrapped in favour of new material (recorded after Rowland S.Howard joined) and have never (save for a demo version of "Sex Crimes", released on a 2005 compilation) been made publicly available.
  • Playing Cyrano: "Mr. Clarinet:"
    Would you tell her for me
    Oh Mr. Clarinet, my confidante
    That I love her, love her, love her, love her
    I love her but I can't
  • Post-Punk: Grew out of the Australian Punk scene into something much darker, more theatrical, and violent.
  • Production Foreshadowing: "Swampland" would later be adapted into Nick Cave's novel: And the Ass Saw the Angel.
  • Saying Sound Effects Out Loud: "Hamlet (Pow, Pow, Pow)," with the "Pow" being gunshots.
  • Self-Deprecation: "Nick the Stripper" and "King Ink" are songs written by Cave as this during a period of Writer's Block, describing himself variously as "A fat little insect" and "King Ink feels like a bug and he hates his rotten shell."
  • Self-Titled Album: The Birthday Party is an inversion, originally being credited to The Boys Next Door. The band changed their name to The Birthday Party, and the album was re-released with the credit changed.
  • ShoutOut.To Shakespeare: "Hamlet (Pow, Pow, Pow)" is one of the strangest ones ever. The lyric also alludes to another of the Bard's plays: "WHEREFORE ART THOU, BABYFACE?!"
  • Signature Headgear: Tracy Pew always wore a cowboy hat.
  • Singer Namedrop: "Nick the Stripper" is this to Cave, written as one of two self-deprecating songs alongside "King Ink" during a bout of writer's block.
  • The Something Song: "A Dead Song."
  • Spelling Song: The intro of "Hamlet (Pow, Pow, Pow)" ("H! A! M! L! E! T! YEAAHHH!") combines this with Careful with That Axe.
  • Springtime for Hitler: The band were surprised at the indie success of "Release the Bats," which they wrote as an over the top joke.
  • Step Up to the Microphone: Rowland S. Howard sings lead on "The Red Clock" and "Ho-Ho". Cave regrets not having Howard sing more of his own compositions, particularly "Shivers".
  • Titled After the Song: The original title of "Happy Birthday" was "The Birthday Party". Though they changed the song title, they thought it would be a good new name for the band.
  • Vampires Are Sex Gods: "Release the Bats" reads like weird vampire porn:
    My baby is a cool machine
    She moves to the pulse of her generator
    Says damn that sex supreme
    She says damn that horror bat
    Sex vampire, cool machine
  • Word Salad Lyrics: Almost every song, to varying degrees. Particular examples:
    • "Release the Bats," which degenerates into throwing as many gross words alongside "bat" and "vampire" as possible.
  • Word Salad Title: "Big-Jesus-Trash-Can."