The Birthday Party is recognised as one of the most influential, creative and inspirational rock bands Australia has ever produced. Perhaps the band's most enduring legacy was the way in which it re-acquainted British post-punk audiences with noise, anger, intensity and sheer passion. The Birthday Party folded at a time when, having exhausted its distinctive sound, the band was beginning to widen its musical horizons.
The Birthday Party had its roots in new wave band The Boys Next Door. Nick Cave, Mick Harvey, Tracey Pew and Phill Calvert were attending Caulfield Grammar School in Melbourne's eastern suburbs when they formed the band in 1975. Initial inspiration came from British 1960s R&B/pop (Them, The Who) and 1970s glam rock (David Bowie, Roxy Music), plus a few American icons (Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, The Ramones). By 1978, The Boys Next Door were part of a thriving alternative new music scene centred on the Crystal Ballroom in the inner-city Melbourne suburb of St Kilda.
The Boys Next Door issued a single `These Boots Were Made for Walking'/`Boy Hero' (April 1978) and appeared on Suicide Records' Lethal Weapons compilation (with Teenage Radio Stars, Negatives, JAB, Wasted Daze, Survivors and X-Ray-Z). Rowland S. Howard (ex-Young Charlatans) joined in December 1978, bringing his distinctive guitar sound and songwriting abilities. Door Door (April 1979) on Mushroom Records was a transitional album and contained Howard's `Shivers', now recognised as an Australian classic. `Shivers' came out as a single backed with `Dive Position' (May 1979).
Later in the year, The Boys Next Door signed to manager Keith Glass's Missing Link label and put out the 12-inch EP Hee Haw (December). It was a sign of things to come. The band had moved into more abstract pastures, with the simple, shifting song arrangements offset by lots of jagged edges and Howard's patented, abrasive guitar noise. The influence of overseas bands like The Pop Group, Pere Ubu, The Fall and Gang of Four had also started to take hold. In February 1980 The Boys Next Door transformed into the more artfully malevolent The Birthday Party and left for the UK.
In London, the band found little affinity with the likes of The Human League, Joy Division or Echo and the Bunnymen, but soon made its presence felt on the English scene. Influential BBC DJ John Peel became an early and long-serving convert. 4AD issued `The Friend Catcher' EP in the UK, and Missing Link issued the bold and audacious, yet nimble and funky single `Mr Clarinet'/ `Happy Birthday' (July 1980). Missing Link also put out an album The Boys Next Door/The Birthday Party (November 1980) which was a mix of previously issued EP and singles tracks with a couple of un-issued cuts. It marked the band's move into more experimental, hitherto uncharted territory.
The Birthday Party returned to Australia in November 1980 to tour and record. It was during this time that the band cemented its reputation as a peerless live act, with its omnipresent influence settling over the Melbourne scene. The Tony Cohen-produced Prayers on Fire album (May 1981) and the slow, lurching single `Nick the Stripper'/`Blundertown' (June) were issued to universal acclaim. The records were a sign of the band irrevocably and unashamedly changing for the better, being more aggressive than anything they had ever recorded. The band's steady diet of Stooges, Pere Ubu, Captain Beefheart, Suicide and The Fall was reflected in the twisted sounds heard on tracks like `Zoo-Music Girl', `Nick the Stripper', `King Ink', `Dull Day' and `Figure of Fun'.
Back in London, the band issued the ground-breaking `Release the Bats'/`Blast Off' single (August 1981) which spent three weeks at the top of the British independent charts. Its brooding juxtaposition of sex/vampire/horror unwittingly tied the band in with the emergent Goth sub-culture. One of the band's legendary UK shows at London's The Venue in November 1981 produced the Drunk on the Pope's Blood live EP (issued February 1982). Subtitled `16 Minutes of Sheer Hell!', it formed one half of the shared album with New York siren Lydia Lunch's The Agony is the Ecstasy. Howard and Harvey went on to record the 12-inch EP `Some Velvet Morning'/`I Fell in Love with a Ghost' with Lunch. It came out credited to Rowland S. Howard and Lydia Lunch. Howard has featured on much of Lunch's subsequent recorded output, including the excellent 1991 album Shotgun Wedding.
Back in Australia in December 1981 to tour and record, Pew was imprisoned following his third drink driving charge. Barry Adamson (ex-Magazine), Harry Howard and Chris Walsh (from The Moodists) helped out on the new record and the ensuing UK tour. With bleak tracks like `6 Gold Blade', `She's Hit' and `Kiss Me Black', the pivotal Junkyard album (July 1982) surpassed the extreme sound of Prayers of Fire. It also sported a cover by American cartoonist Ed `Big Daddy' Roth (creator of Rat Fink). The recording session also produced the one-off single with members of The Go-Betweens `After the Fireworks'/`After, After the Fireworks' (credited to the Tuff Monks).
In August 1982, The Birthday Party shifted base to Berlin in order to escape the constant exposure and expectations of them in the UK. Calvert was dropped (moving on to Psychedelic Furs) and Harvey took over on drums. As an intense and tightly focused four-piece, the band recorded two extraordinary EPs, The Bad Seed and the posthumously released Mutiny! With tracks like `Sonny's Burning' and `Deep in the Woods', The Bad Seed (March 1983) remains the band's most fully realised and enduring recording.
The seeds for the band's break-up had been sown by early 1983. Rivalries within the group had intensified, and the prodigious consumption of drugs and alcohol by various members began to undermine any sense of unity. Matters came to a head when Harvey refused to undertake a tour of Australia at the end of May 1983. Des Hefner deputised, but the band played its final gig in Melbourne on 9 June 1983. Cave and Harvey went on to form Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Pew returned to Australia and enrolled in university. He died in 1986. Harvey and Howard collaborated on Crime and the City Solution with singer Simon Bonney. Howard split from that band in 1986 and formed his much-heralded `supergroup', These Immortal Souls, with whom he recorded two albums of dark, ominous, challenging rock music Get Lost (Don't Lie!) (1987) and I'm Never Gonna Die Again (1992). He returned to live in Australia in 1994.
There has been enough continued interest in The Birthday Party in the intervening years for Shock Records to reissue the band's material on CD. The Birthday Party box set from late 1994 contained Hee Haw, Prayers on Fire, Junkyard, Drunk on the Pope's Blood and It's Still Living, plus a 24-page booklet. In October 1996, Shock reissued Hee Haw, Prayers on Fire, Junkyard, The Bad Seed/Mutiny! and Hits as individual releases.
While the mainstay ex-Birthday Party members, Nick Cave, Rowland S. Howard and Mick Harvey, have continued to be highly visible on the world scene, former drummer Phill Calvert re-emerged in 1998 with his new band Sugarhips. The original line-up comprised Calvert, Ben Ling (guitar, vocals) and Andrew Picouleau (bass, vocals; ex-X-Ray-Z, Sacred Cowboys). Picouleau left early in the piece, to be replaced by Phil DeNitis. Sugarhips issued its debut CD EP, Extended Player, in May 1998 on Swerve Records.
In the meantime, Rowland S. Howard broke up his band These Immortal Souls, having played a last concert in Melbourne during July 1998. Howard also performed with US visitor Lydia Lunch on her Australian tour that month. By that stage he had started recording his debut, solo album, Teenage Snuff Film, with Mick Harvey on drums and Brian Hooper (ex-Beasts of Bourbon) on bass. The album appeared in August 1999 on the Reliant label.
June 1999 also saw the release of a new Birthday Party album, Live 1981-82, on the Shock label. Following on from Drunk on the Pope’s Blood and It’s Still Living, it was the first live album sanctioned by the band. The release sprang from an idea initiated by US hardcore godfather Henry Rollins, an avowed fan of the band. Comprising tracks like ‘Junkyard’, ‘Nick the Stripper’, ‘Zoo-Music Girl’, ‘Release the Bats’ and a cover of The Stooges’ cataclysmic ‘Funhouse’ recorded live at various locations (London, Athens and Bremen, Germany), the album highlighted a band at the peak of its confrontational powers.