Who knows what you might find when you let your iPod choose your songs for you!
The Birthday Party – It’s Still Living
Another iPod shuffle and another live album – the chances of this are not particularly high, so maybe my iPod is trying to tell me something, although what that may be remains unclear.
Recorded in St Kilda in 1982, It’s Still Living is a feral record, catching the Birthday Party in full flight. The Birthday Party live were always a massively different proposition to their records. Somehow, a lot of the wildness got smoothed over in the studio which, if you listen to Release the Bats or Zoo Music Girl is a hell of a claim to make! But live, the Birthday Party were a force to be reckoned with.
A genuinely thrilling live band, their shows were unpredictable affairs. With most bands you have a pretty good idea what you you're going to get at their shows, but with the Birthday Party you were never sure just what might happen. Nick Cave was known to berate the audience and even, on occasion, physically assault them. There was a legendary encounter at a gig where Cave hit an audience member on the head repeatedly with the bottom of his mike stand for the crime of looking up at him adoringly, until the blood ran down his face. In an echo of Groucho Marx, who famously said he would never belong to a club that would have someone like him as a member, Cave was a natural frontman who had longed to be in this position, but was always uncomfortable having adoring fans. Passive audiences riled Cave and he could respond angrily, either in word or in deed.
The Birthday Party also boasted one of the finest guitarist if this or any other age in Rowland S Howard. A slight but sardonic figure, Howard could coax storms of feedback out of his Fender Jaguar at will but still played with a very minimalist style. His guitar lines often consisted of a few notes, a few harmonics and the occasional chord. The perfect foil to Nick Cave both in sound, look and demeanour. Tracey Pew’s punchy bass and Mick Harvey’s controlled second guitar combining to make a fearsome, scary racket but still capable of tender moments. Drummer Phil Calvert was perhaps a square peg in a round hole in the Birthday Party and was soon to leave.
The album was not without its controversy, as it was released by the Birthday Party’s ex-manager without the band’s knowledge or sanction. Disowned by the band, a major complaint was the sound quality of the recording capturing as it does amps and mics crackling and shorting out. Personally I see this as only adding to the album, recording them as they were, unsanitised and raw, both qualities which suit the band rather than detracted from their live experience.
The tracklist is impressive, with the band caught between their Prayers on Fire and Junkyard albums. Nick Cave tears through the songs, with one of the most impressive screaming voices around - sample lyric "Express yourself, say something loudly, like erm...erm...erm.........aaaaaaaaaaarghhhh". It would be almost impossible to guess at his future direction and position as statesman and songwriter by listening to this, not because of any falling off of quality, but because his has been a career of extremes, and changes such as these are seldom seen in rock music (for want of a better phrase).
Still sounding as exciting and dangerous as it ever did, the Birthday Party’s legacy is all the better for including this extraordinary recording.
8901 Marmora Road, Glasgow, D04 89GR