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Nick Cave’s sonic journey around the world: How surroundings shape his sound

As the brilliance of the 1960s and ’70s 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. Charged with somehow helming this head slide and the outlaw bandits behind him was the incomparable frontman Nick Cave. 

As it happens, The Birthday Party were a terminal act. They were, indeed, too weird to live, and while they may also have been too rare to die, the only thing saving them from the grave was the ghoul of their mangled legacy. With the complexion of Alaskan Vampires and a grand sound that seemed more akin to some escaped Bolshevistic Soviet movement than Byron Beach, it was hard to trace their musicological origins, at least in a sonic sense. However, in terms of their attitude, they exhibited the most singular Australian fascination of them all: the outlaw. 

Take a trip down under, and one of the first things you’ll notice, no matter where your plane eventually lands, is the lingering ghost of Ned Kelly. From bumper stickers to dodgy tattoos and novelty T-shirts, the bandit who blustered through a manic goose chase from Beveridge to Melbourne is a national obsession. Each member of The Birthday Party seemed to be some Kelly-spawn, some garbled reincarnation of the romantic individual who stands way beyond even the furthest reaches of the demimonde. Nick Cave was what some Australians might call chief Larrikin, a term of endearment for a mischievous, rowdy, uncultivated youth.

Thus, although The Birthday Party’s sound might seem like they could have been a band pulled from the pages of a comic book, their Mad Max sonic trappings were all a weird part of the culture they slithered out from, or as Nick Cave might say “no culture at all”. As youngsters, these Birthday Party bandits adhered to the popular Australian notion, at the time, that there was no inherent culture down under and you’d have to venture overseas to experience art. “Everyone wants to leave Australia,” Cave once said, “We’re raised to think that culturally everything happens elsewhere. Australia has no inherent culture amongst its white inhabitants… So, anyone having any interest in art or music or whatever left Australia.”

Thus, The Birthday Party ventured overseas, but the band had to die. They were fuelled by an outlaw spirit of crafting their own invented culture from the arse-end of nowhere, and that notion didn’t make much sense overseas. Away from the world of Ned Kelly fanatics where outlaws don’t exist, they were just weird guys. Their death, however, was never going to be a mere fizzling out, so they simply floored the throttle and ended up in a glorious tailspin to the grave.

And this brings us to the second rather more regrettable way that Australia influenced the sound of Cave and his coterie of crooked cronies. The band had a penchant for heroin that naturally saw them shunned as outcasts from music scenes overseas. 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 characteristics crystallised the ethos of the band, and it also ensured that the predestined tail-spinning demise would come about quickly. 

Rejected from London, they returned to the dustbowl ambivalence of home. It was here that a fateful phone would ring and bring about the next chapter. If Cave’s first outing had been a highspeed joyride, then The Bad Seeds’ journey that followed has been a jaunt that deals with eternities. 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.”

A young Nick Cave. (Credit: Alamy)

Just as David Bowie and Iggy Pop had done before them, Cave clearly thought that the best place for junkies to recover was the heroin capital of Europe, Berlin. Here, however, they would find themselves very welcome amid the underworld, and soon enough, they were at the top of Berlin’s artistic subterranean tree. So much so, in fact, that when Wim Wenders sought to portray the city in Wings of Desire, Cave and Co. were the group that he turned to. As Wenders explains: “Making a film in Berlin, for me, was almost synonymous with having [Nick Cave and Roland S Howard] appear in it because they were cutting edge, and they were grunge before anybody knew the word for it. That was where Berlin was.”

A few years prior to the film’s release in 1987, Nick Cave and his bandmates had moved to West Berlin, where they became acquaintances with future Bad Seed, Blixa Bargeld, and they began to cement their creative identity. What ensued was an artistic splurge to behold, but heroin addictions would still prove to play a role. In part, this was indicative of the broken yet brilliant artistic scene in Berlin at the time. At the heart of which was Cave and his cabal of outcast’s or, as Wenders puts it: “This bunch of Australians who had landed from a different planet in Berlin.”

Here amid the mixed-up milieu of a broken underworld still rippling from the blunt force of the war, Cave’s style began to change. They had found acceptance and with that came introspection. “Well, I guess we weren’t kicking people in the teeth anymore. I mean, it just became different. I wanted it to be more lyrically orientated,” Cave once said. “And getting Blixa Bargeld in the group made an incredible difference. He’s a complete kind of atmospheric guitarist and incredibly economical and it gave me room to breathe.”

What was born from the Berlin period was a more considered literary style of songwriting and a matching soundscape that mirrored the hedonistic heart of the decaying remnants of Weimar-era Berlin. In Wim Wenders’ film, he chooses to display Cave and Howard in some subterranean nightclub drenched in a crimson hue, as though it was plucked straight from the macabre imagination of Edgar Allan Poe. With this, he found a glass slipper aesthetic for their spooky sound.

Cave’s next major global haunt was in the unlikely location of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Tender Prey had been the album that came out shortly before the trip, and it continued to deal with austere subjects befitting of a fractured Berlin and an equally splintered man. As Cave would later remark: “[Tender Prey] was one long cry for help.”

While Tender Prey masterfully tackled the likes of capital punishment, divine damnation and darkened European philosophies of man, it was scarcely a work of artistic fiction. Blix Bargeld would state that there was “a lot of wasted time and a lot of illness,” and Mute Records manager, Daniel Miller also added: “The actual making of that record was a mess, a real fucking mess.”

The Good Son that followed could not have been more different. The contentment that came from a new start in Sao Paulo is rung out on a record that saw Cave at his most sanguine. For the first time, it would seem, Cave was able to bask in the boon of his munificent harvest, the rewards of his honest artistic toil and good health, under the salve of the golden southern sun. No song defines this windfall of circumstance quite like ‘The Ship Song’ where the feet-up on the porch reflection produces a sigh of pipe-and-slippers serenity.

The seasons would soon change once more, and eventually, Cave found himself in his new spiritual home of Brighton, UK. Family, stability and structure have seemingly induced a more wistful maturity to his work as he fetches wisps of wisdom and wonder from the floating ether and transposes them in song. Leonard Cohen, with his wandering ways and wisdom extolling might be a touchstone comparison for Cave, but rather than finding structure in sterile Brighton to be a shackle, as Cohen often did even when trying to settle in his later years, Cave has flourished.

And perhaps, this is because you can’t really tie a man like Cave down anyways, so he is free to follow his spiritual muses wherever they may bolt and lead him towards that fabled “shimmering space”. As he says while looking out over the moody Brighton seas and bleak, bruised skyline at the end of 20,000 Days on Earth: “In the end, I’m not interested in that which I fully understand. The words I have written over the years are just a veneer.” 

“There are truths that lie beneath the surface of the words… truths that rise up without warning, like the humps of a sea monster and then disappear. What performance and song is to me is finding a way to tempt the monster to the surface, to create a space where the creature can break through what is real and what is known to us. This shimmering space, where imagination and reality intersect… this is where all love and tears and joy exist. This is the place. This is where we live.”

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