As the brilliance of the sixties and seventies finally began to wane into synth saturated sedation, The Birthday Party came slithering out of the Australian outback in a benevolent maelstrom of adrenalised chaos. They were as perfunctory an incendiary attack on the mainstream as a Molotov cocktail hurled at the riot police. Amid this melee was Mick Harvey desperately trying to finagle the unruly band of cultural outlaws into some sort of order.
“Managing The Birthday Party?” Mick Harvey humorously muses, “What is it they say about training cats?” Nick Cave’s first vehicle to stardom was a vehicle that was always headed towards a beautiful, flaming wreckage. Mick Harvey was the multi-instrumentalist tasked with harnessing the force of that head-slide without resulting in a write-off while also crafting the sound of the band. A truly impossible task that proved to be just that.
“The Birthday Party was pretty out of control a lot of the time, but I kind of embraced a lot of those aspects. I kind of realised that was what made it exciting if you had the right kind of mix of particular things.” That humble “embracing” in of itself is a herculean feat by Harvey. As many will agree, being around drunk people when you’re sober is a rare circle of hell. Being in close quarters with a smorgasbord of hedonistic madmen high on a variety of substances while sober takes this to another level entirely, especially when you yourself are reliant upon them for success in one form or another.
As Mick Harvey states, The Birthday Party were simply too niche to establish enough of a following in Australia in that era to support a living, thus they moved to London in 1980, where they were greeted as junkie pariahs that only The Fall and The Pop Group were bold enough to mingle with. “We were very isolated in London,” Nick Cave tells ZDF, “We were friends with The Fall, and we were friends with The Pop Group, and these were great English bands and particularly at that time they were the saviours of the music scene because there was so much shit that was happening at that time. Terrible, boring kind of stuff. And Mark Smith’s lyric writing was just incredible, so they had a huge impact, but we weren’t involved in a scene we just knew them.”
This musical isolation was a result of the band’s penchant for heroin. Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War and proximity to Asia meant the drug was more common back in Melbourne, but in London, it had a marginalising effect. “People stayed away from us,” Nick Cave explains, “Record companies stayed away from us […] Plus we had these really violent shows.” This cocktail of mainstream defiling characteristic crystalised the ethos of the band. They sported marginalisation as an emboldened stance. Naturally, this moseying up to madness only made things worse for Harvey.
“In terms of managing the band that was an issue,” Harvey told QMusic, “It meant that I had to not really go there. If I wanted to go a party I had to take a step back from doing that, I suppose not even consciously. It just would’ve happened.”
The impending car crash finally loomed on the horizon for the band when a fateful poster was produced declaring The Birthday Party: “The most violent band in the world.” Now, they were holding the Molotov cocktail against the mainstream and then couldn’t let go of it. The result was an explosion of violence at their gigs, which a sober Harvey had to try to wrestle a lid on. Gigs were besieged by thugs and neo-Nazi who took the poster at face value and the profound artistry of The Birthday Party was sullied beneath a slew of stompings and riots. As Nick Cave said of the time, “We had started to reject the initial in your face aggressive concept of The Birthday Party because we just had all these people coming along who were just there to fight.” The band’s visceral edge had turned in on themselves and despite Harvey’s best efforts to cool the tensions, they were hoisted by their own petard.
It was around this time that Mick Harvey jokes that he had to join the hedonism, however modestly, just as an escape from the hellfire of the imploding band. “I didn’t really start drinking until a bit later,” Harvey joked regarding the initial debauched decadence that the band were known for, “Probably because I was depressed from having put up with all that stuff. I was stone-cold sober through a lot of The Birthday,” he concludes with a haunted look on his face, “So, it was interesting observing a lot of that stuff, for sure.”
While the horrors that Harvey faced as the sober head of a staggering assegai into unknown territory in every which way must have had some perturbing effects, it did not stop his passion for creating music. This ceaseless passion that shone through the dark end of The Birthday Party was essential in illuminating the crooked path ahead in the transition towards The Bad Seeds in the fallout of the mutiny. As Nick Cave explained, “Mick Harvey rang me one day and said, ‘I think The Birthday Party should split up’ and that was it for me as far as music went. I went back to Melbourne. Then I met Mick again and he said, ‘well don’t you think we should start another band?’ So, he was very important in keeping that aspect of things alive.”