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Memories of mayhem: 40 years of The Birthday Party’s ‘Junkyard’


As the stylus pulls off the gravel driveway of the LP’s outer rim and slips into the groove of the first track, it is sent flying like the racetrack rabbit as ‘Blast Off’ lives up to its Ronseal name and catapults the song into action with Nick Cave howling the point home. Like wandering into the most manic ‘local bar for local people’ in the world, the weird new fetid realm oozing off the record like a mirage doesn’t even offer up that shushed slow swivel of heads before it whacks you on the jaw.

This is a new sonic environment, and it is not one that cares to welcome you with a beguiling come hither. In 1982, that had many running away in search of safety far from this perturbing hellhole, and it had others joyously celebrating something that eviscerated the synthesised ways of the mainstream with an oeuvre all of its own. 

The album still has that pariah feel to it and surely always will. It’s not really a record that you listen to, it’s one that you go and visit. The crooked Mad Max world of swinging saloon doors, scything sickles and homemade brewing plantations are all conjured from the album even if they aren’t explicitly mentioned—perhaps this is just Nick Cave’s words in And the Ass Saw the Angel meddling with my interpretation, but Junkyard has always seemed more like a diorama in motion more so than a collection of songs.

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In fact, the glue of Tracy Pew’s bass which constantly makes micro-adjustments to cope with the frantic pace changes of the songs might be astounding, but it almost defies musicological analysis answering more to the creation of a rumbling rhythm that supports the imagery of the world that The Birthday Party exist in. The same can be said for Rowland S. Howard’s off-kilter guitar flourishes, which seem less like production choices and more like the creaking of rust shacks in the calm before a biblical storm. 

Much like Ziggy Stardust and his Spiders from Mars, The Birthday Party themselves seemed to be denizens of this dogeared, dirty old town. From the fitting lawlessness of the music to the manic wordplay that sometimes makes about as much sense as the loser of a drinking contest, everything is perfectly realised in its manic incoherence. 

However, that also means that sometimes the Junkyard is not a good place to be. The weather is too harsh for a Monday morning, and you’d struggle to find folks at the seaside who’d be willing to shun The Beach Boys and come and bask in the back of beyond with you. The album refuses to meet anything halfway, it is a fixed holding where broken people go for a thrill—it is not the place for singalongs, toe-tapping choruses or even mangled mosh pits, it is more like an audiobook with the chapters on shuffle where the sole purpose is to give you a break from the mainstream to journey into the feel of the Junkyard

At first, it’s violent, then it feels violating, but in the end it’s a vivacious adventure that could slick a sick quiff onto Moby and have an Amish kid smelling of diesel and tar within the first few seconds of its diatribe. Of course, this town was destined to be short-lived, engulfed in its own mutiny, but the brief chapter that got pressed onto record is as joyously odious a place to visit as you will ever find this side of Sunderland.

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