In the late-'70s, The Birthday Party were the band for a looming apocalypse. Whilst the world danced to disco, these post-punk reprobates from Melbourne played menacing, violent music flirting with death, disaster, and danger. Their frontman, Nick Cave, turned shows into hysterical, performance-art pantomimes of youth-in-revolt; though, instead of smashing the system, he took his cues from Iggy Pop: preferring, often, to smash himself.
The band's music was chaotic and often atonal, taking cues from Suicide, Captain Beefheart, The Velvet Underground, and The Stooges; filled with dread-inducing organ stabs, gut-punching bass, scrawls of nails-on-chalkboard guitar, and percussion smashed with glee. And Cave strode the stage, turning his voice from torture-victim screams to Gothed-out baritone to fire-and-brimstone preacher; every syllable dragged from deep within, sounding bile-soaked and visceral.
Spoken in Tongues
The band's second album, Prayers on Fire, was the first to remotely capture the qualities of their infamous live-shows on record. Recorded back in Melbourne after the band had relocated to London in 1980, the evocatively-produced set dared dress key cuts in blaring brass; giving a sense of perverted-cabaret to their mordant racket, turning Cave from nihilist, self-destructive savant to theatrical, flamboyant showman.
"Nick the Stripper" borrows the bombast of The Saints, its horns piling on in a song that seeks to endless mock its subject ("Hideous to the eye!/He's a fat little insect!"). "Zoo Music Girl" throws blaring trumpets that sound like ironic Morricone overtures into a cacophonous, conflicting racket; the LP's opening cut culminating with Cave caroling "Oh, God!/Please let me die beneath her fists!" Yard using takes the horns' hot breath and turns it into a dying gasp; the savage, five-minute séance walking a knife-edge of terror and tension, Cave's strangulated wails so indecipherable it sounds as if he's speaking in tongues
By daring to flash such brassy highlights, The Birthday Party essentially emerged from the shadows; even if their music remained draped in much discordant pallor, sounding essentially subterranean as it crawled through murk and mire, and dug in gutters in search of poetry. Cave was, back then, nowhere near the author he turned out to be, but, what his words lacked in text they more than made up for in delivery. Here, he makes every wail inflict like a wound, and sells the band's every note with both gravity and panache.
Record Label: 4AD
Release Date: April 6, 1981