The Birthday Party

A reckless whirl of mutant rockabilly, black-eyed swamp-blues, outlaw imagery and stomach-churning violence, The Birthday Party were one of the definitive post-punk groups, creative and destructive in equal measure. Originally called The Boys Next Door, the band formed at Caulfield Grammar School in Melbourne, Australia in the early '70s. The initial line-up was singer/lyricist Nick Cave, guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey, bassist/provocateur Tracy Pew and drummer Phill Calvert. They started out performing covers, but were soon galvanised into writing their own material by the nascent Aussie punk movement (notably The Saints and Radio Birdman). The Boys Next Door's development was accelerated by the addition of visionary guitarist Rowland S Howard in 1978. The following year saw the release of an album, Door Door, on local label Mushroom, but its creators felt the record failed to capture the power of their live show. The group had also grown tired of Melbourne, where they were banned from most venues and routinely hassled by the police.

By the start of the new decade The Boys Next Door had changed their name to The Birthday Party and moved to London. Living in poverty and squalor, they had to borrow equipment and only played ten UK shows in 1980. The second of these, at the Moonlight Club in West Hampstead, was attended by 4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell. Despite a shambolic set, Ivo saw them again the following month, and by the end of the summer The Birthday Party were signed to 4AD. Their first release for the label was The Friend Catcher 12", comprising three songs recorded back in Melbourne as The Boys Next Door.

Spending Christmas in Australia, the quintet entered the studio with engineer Tony Cohen to cut full-length, Prayers On Fire, a creepy carnival of tribal rhythms, wonky discordance and garbled surrealism, which 4AD issued in March 1981. Returning to London, the band embarked on their first UK tour, supporting then-labelmates Bauhaus. The next year in February 1982, Tracy was arrested in Melbourne for drunk driving and sent to prison for 10 weeks. Magazine bassist Barry Adamson and Rowland's brother Harry took turns filling in during his incarceration. Back in London, 4AD issued the live 12" Drunk On The Pope's Blood, a split release with New York no wave poet Lydia Lunch, which had been recorded at a joint show in London back in November.

Their second and last album was unleashed in July. Featuring guest contributions from bassist Adamson and songwriter Anita Lane, Junkyard was a grotesque masterpiece, its tragicomic tales of sex, death and brutality couched in flamboyant grooves and increasingly lurid arrangements. Unfortunately, the band was falling apart. In August 1982, Phill Calvert was fired (he joined the Psychedelic Furs) and Mick Harvey switched to drums. The reconfigured four-piece then moved to Berlin, where they fell in with industrial experimentalists Einstürzende Neubaten. Six months later came their final 4AD release, The Bad Seed, a four-track EP led off by the thunderous 'Sonny's Burning'. They then switched to the Mute label.

Mick quit in April 1983. He was replaced by Des Heffner of Marching Girls for the band's swansong, a tour of Australia and New Zealand which concluded in their birthplace Melbourne on June 9. The Birthday Party disbanded after completing the Mutiny! EP, which featured contributions from Neubaten guitarist Blixa Bargeld and was issued posthumously in November '83. Nick then formed Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds with Mick and Blixa, embarking on a 20 years (and counting) career which has seen him grow from a cult artist into one of the world's greatest songwriters. Rowland went on to play with Crime & The City Solution and These Immortal Souls.

Tracy returned to Melbourne to study, occasionally playing with the Bad Seeds and The Saints. He passed away on November 7, 1986. The cowboy-hatted, leather-trousered heart of the band, it was his picture which graced the sleeve of The Birthday Party retrospective Hits.
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