Sharp & flats

Nick Cave and the Birthday Party adored the sound of piercing feedback, physical exhaustion and collapse.

Published July 21, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The Birthday Party was consumed with the sound of collapse, of a performer's cathartic exhaustion, of an instrument driven far beyond its means. The Melbourne, Australia, five-piece, led by vocalist Nick Cave, applied that fascination to a parched form of desert jazz and drunken lounge music, an aggressively clumsy art-rock.

When the Birthday Party immigrated to London in 1980 it found punk rock dead, and the somber, icy tones dubbed post-punk zombifying the corpse of '77. The group's songs oozed into the crevice between prophylactic new wave and the bleak, sonic rigor mortis of Public Image Ltd., Wire and Joy Division. But if the music of the era was frigid, London audiences were even cooler to the Birthday Party.

In the years since the band imploded in 1983 it has become a legend in goth-punk circles, where Cave is the unwilling poster boy of tousled, black-hair, gothic-cowboy heroin chic. And if the sleaze-jazz and molested Western was too aggressively clumsy at the time, it now makes sense as an obvious predecessor to the dark, decoratively narrative torch songs of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (featuring former the Birthday Party multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey).

The 17 songs on "Live 81-82" were culled from three shows in London; Bremen, Germany; and Athens, Greece. "Junkyard," a song about urban decay marred with piercing feedback, opens the disc, exemplifying the band's love of the sound of malfunction. The high-pitched whine squeals above Tracy Pew's lumbering bass, Phill Calvert's mortar-fire snare cracks and the shrieking guitars of Roland S. Howard and Harvey. The feedback is just a tease, though. Paradoxically, the sound on the rest of the disc is actually fuller and more powerful than most of the Birthday Party's studio records. And, unlike "It's Still Living" (1985) and "Drunk on the Pope's Blood" (1982) -- the pair of chaotic and sloppy live albums issued against the band's wishes -- the performances captured here are nearly flawless in sound, particularly the heavy and propulsive "Bully Bones" and "(Sometimes) Pleasure Heads Must Burn."

Just as the Birthday Party's music favored disarray, Cave's lyrics and gruff vocals portrayed a fascination with characters and situations beyond repair. On the lunging crescendo of "King Ink" he sounds like he's gnawing on the microphone. Then, on "Six-Inch Gold Blade," with Pew's rumbling bass calmly strutting between Harvey and Howard's gouging guitars, he declares, "I stuck a 6-inch gold blade in the head of a girl." His voice suggests sexual thrill, not remorse.

"Live 81-82" closes with "Funhouse," the Birthday Party dismantling the rhythmic ruction of the Stooges classic. Harvey's sax bleats after Cave's frenzied screams, the both of them overloading the soundboard and turning the song into bristling, distorted mush. By the seven-minute song's end, the whole band succumbs to Cave's shrieking exuberance and everything falls apart, just as they'd intended.

By Dave Clifford

Dave Clifford is a freelance writer and music critic in New York.

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