Revisiting Nick Cave and The Birthday Party’s chaotic live shows in 1982
To most of the music world, Nick Cave is something of a demi-God. His 30-year ongoing project with The Bad Seeds has earned him that prestigious status. With haunting, evocative desperate tracks, wrapped in his other-worldly lyrics of woe and heartbreak, Cave has a gift for songwriting and storytelling that can only be paralleled by the likes of the late Leonard Cohen.
Now, a polished, ruminative, more grounded version of himself, Cave has as much to be thankful for as he does to lament. This hasn’t always been the case. There once was a time, 1982 to be exact, when Cave was tormented. His band The Birthday Party were amid drug dissolution. One symptom of an untethered yet exciting rage that burst the buckles of every performance and infected audiences everywhere that dared to stand before them. For the paled face, bruised armed anarchy of the band could never have foreseen the goth rock revolution that they were pioneering, or the cult following that would fall like disciples at their feet. If we dare peer back to that year, perhaps we can begin to understand how the tumultuous riot of The Birthday Party and their live performances would lead them to become one of the most important bands in the world—and the impact this would have on Nick Cave himself.
To diagnose the external, it’s crucial to first turn to the internal. A savage, limb-flailing Cave—despite the band releasing four remarkable albums in four years—the most recent Junkyard in ’82, still seemed afflicted. It’s a dangerous claim to parallel torment to genius, but it’s a claim that Cave, whether involuntarily or not, succumbs to. A review from Membranes discussing their performance at Manchester’s Hacienda utters that Cave is “…the most destroyed individual to stalk the stage since Blixa Bargeld”. The review concludes with: “The band are a one band war and the one of the best live bands I’ve ever seen.”
Here, whether destroyed is a reference to his heroin-fuelled hysteria or heartbreak, is almost irrelevant. The fact that The Birthday Party could barely hold themselves together, if anything, is what is craved by their audiences. A desire for the destructive, which as history can testify, has led some of the greats to the edge of death. More than 35 years later, their mysticism still has not been unpacked. To his fellow members, like Mick Harvey, the unpredictable magic of the group can still not be identified. In a 2014 interview, he stated: “The experience was like nothing else, it went beyond the sum of what was happening. It seemed to have an ability to become a weird cathartic event.”
How did Cave perceive the carnage he orchestrated? Surprisingly, for somebody so extroverted on stage, he happens to be reserved about events at that time. Perhaps to protect himself, perhaps to maintain the excitement that surrounded them. It was no secret that the band were heavily intoxicated. In a 2008 guardian interview, Harvey, who was tee-total at the time, claimed that “a couple of our people did overdose in the ’80s. Then Tracy [the bassist] developed epilepsy from a combination of heavy drinking and drug-taking.” Unfortunately, the aforementioned diagnosis resulted in Tracy Pew’s death from a seizure in 1986. Lydia Lunch, a notorious punk poet, who followed the band in the early ’80s, supported the band in late 1981. She developed a close relationship with Cave and claimed that he was “…so hyper-conscious and sensitive, which was beautiful. But, he was a heroin addict, so of course, he was fucking depressive.”
However, Cave is vocal about why the band traded London for Berlin in ’82. In his 2011 documentary Autolumiscient, Cave remembers: “There were absolutely retarded bands who were playing there at the time. It was really shoegazing bullshit.” Unlike their unanticipated disappointment of life in London, Berlin welcomed the group with open arms. In the same documentary, Cave says about Berlin: “It was frenetic, anarchic, and really creative.” Here, it seems that their hospitable reception and mass cult following would propel them into a long, successful career.
Wim Wenders, a German film director and one proud member of that cult following, is quoted as saying: “They were the biggest thing in Berlin at the time.” The crowds became bigger and the hair was spikier, the rockers from Melbourne had exceeded themselves on the European stage. So, why, merely a year later, did the band plummet to their death? While heroin may not be associated with stamina, it seems that it was not the definitive reason why the band split up. In fact, the justification differs depending on which band member is questioned. After recording their last two works, Mutiny EP and The Bad Seed EP, Cave sensed a rift developing between himself and guitarist Rowland S. Howard.
In a 1983 interview, he states that: “The sort of songs I was writing and the sort of songs Rowland was writing were completely at odds with each other.” Of course, this was not a notion shared amongst the group. Howard and Harvey believed that Cave’s new relationship with Einsturzende Neubaten’s Blixa Bargeld had frozen Howard out of the group. Collateral damage, that whether Cave is guilty or not of creating, he acknowledges was enough to make Harvey quit. Who could’ve predicted that the track ‘Mutiny in Heaven’ in which Bargeld is credited equally to Cave, would’ve foreshadowed the band’s demise even in the title.
Whilst that may be a press-friendly reason for their demise, Harvey has touched upon other, more difficult to digest arguments. He claimed that whilst recording ‘Jennifer’s Veil’ in Berlin, Cave would be nodding off from heroin use and struggle to complete takes. Whilst the drugs had become unmanageable, interestingly Harvey claims that the crowds had become unmanageable too. Because their reputation proceeded them before they even landed in Berlin, there was a weight of expectation on the shows to be exciting and wild. “By the end of ’82, we’d started to play slower and slower songs to offset that expectation. We didn’t want people to go nuts from the second we started playing.” The sheer chaos and sporadic animations that had made the band one of the best live acts in the world, had also acted as a fatal, self-inflicted blow. It seems that all of these reasons and perhaps darker secrets that Cave refuses to confess amalgamated into a cocktail to bitter to swallow. A year later, Cave formed The Bad Seeds.
Despite their premature demise, the legacy of The Birthday Party is untampered. They are remembered, by band members and their following, as one of the most authentic, riotous acts ever to grace music. For a former art student, perhaps also considered Cave’s first and greatest live installation. Best remembered in this compilation of shows titled ‘Pleasure Heads Must Burn’, the band transform into their demonic counterparts and deliver abrasive and essential performances. Cave sports a surprisingly non-black blazer, his prime pale complexion and an energy unbeknownst to the arts. The band’s most legendary songs such as ‘Hamlet (pow, pow, pow)’, ‘Dead Joe’ and’ Release the Bats’ are on show, shot in a wholly immersive, visceral style. Whilst Cave and Howard went on to have incredible solo commercial success, it was in the hazy fury of ’82 that they paved their path to greatness in the intricate song writing and their explosive live realisations.
What made The Birthday Party so important is that they weren’t rioting at monarchy or government, they were simply rioting. An undiagnosable angst, which separated them from the products of punk rock that came before. With no reference point, the inimitable vampires could not be imitated, not even by themselves. As Harvey touched upon, if not for the song writing disagreements or heroin dependency, the band could still be blowing our minds today. Nevertheless, the energy of the band lives on through Cave, in the harrowing and evocative lyrics and live shows of The Bad Seeds. A mature, collected regeneration of what The Birthday Party achieved in their short lifetime.