Mutiny in Heaven: the Birthday Party from hell

In 1981, at a garbage dump on the outskirts of Melbourne, a band is making a video. The idea is to recreate a vision of hell. A cartoon death’s head with six limbs flashes on the screen. We see a young and scrawny Nick Cave – “a fat little insect” – pole-dancing in the middle of a circus tent. The song is an ode to self-loathing called Nick The Stripper.

Behind him, the Birthday Party swings and stumbles. After a year in London, the band once dubbed the Boys Next Door have returned to their home town a very different and much more menacing beast, ready to cut their first full album, Prayers On Fire. The tune, if you can call it that, hangs on a ghostly three-note refrain by the guitarist Rowland S Howard.

The action moves outside the tent. Along with friends, the band has bussed in residents of a mental health facility; one of them stands atop a gallows. Cave is wearing a loincloth. There’s a disturbing scene involving a goat.

A new documentary on the band, Mutiny In Heaven, lingers over this grotesque carnival of souls for the clip’s full four minutes. The film’s director, Ian White, says it would have been a shame not to use it in its entirety. “It’s such an extraordinary piece of work, and it captures the band at such a pivotal time in their evolution,” he says.

It’s half a world and two generations removed from the Nick Cave of today, who dispenses weekly words of comfort, wisdom and occasional humour via his newsletter the Red Hand Files. But the Birthday Party – the point band of the post-punk scene that coalesced around the famed Crystal Ballroom in St Kilda at the turn of the 80s – was where it all began.

White had witnessed the band at its frightening apex during this time. “Even 40 years after the fact, those gigs still resonate with me,” he says. “They’d probably be only a handful of gigs I’ve seen which had that sort of impact.” Part of it, he says, was the palpable sense of danger that surrounded the band, though White said he feared more for their safety than his own.

The fear was justified. Howard, who along with Cave battled a decades-long heroin addiction, succumbed to liver cancer at the age of 50 in 2009. He had just completed his final album, Pop Crimes, its cover a harrowing portrait of the dying man. The bass player, Tracy Pew, didn’t make 30: he died of head injuries sustained during an epileptic seizure in 1986.

Mick Harvey – Howard’s fellow guitarist in the Birthday Party, who continued to work alongside Cave as a multi-instrumentalist in the Bad Seeds for another 25 years – is often asked how he stayed sane during this period. The obvious answer is he stayed sober; the poker-faced Harvey says he was just playing the cards he was dealt.

“It’s just what we were doing when we were kids, out of school, winging it,” he says from his home in Melbourne. “It’s quite well established now that a lot of men don’t really grow up and out of teenage behaviour until they’re really about 25 … and 25 is perhaps generous! The band had broken up before any of us were 25.”

Drummer Phill Calvert also mostly remembers a youthful, if not exactly grand adventure. “We were living on next to nothing and freezing and starving that first year in England, it was no fun at all,” he says. “But it set us up for what was to come and, if we didn’t do that, we would have just stayed in Australia and probably just fizzled out.”

Not that the Birthday Party were built to last. They made just one more album, Junkyard, after which Calvert was abruptly sacked, in late 1982. He bears no grudges. “It wasn’t long after I was gone that somebody else had to be found as the whipping boy, and of course that was Rowland, and then that was the end of the band.”

Much of the documentary hinges on interviews with Howard; at one point, he recalls seeing footage of the Doors performing at the Hollywood Bowl, where police separated Jim Morrison from the crowd. “For me, that really encapsulated what rock music should be – scary enough to have a line of police between the band and the [audience].”

Capturing Pew was more difficult. The bass player was central to the Birthday Party’s sound – his lurching lines influenced a generation of US noise-rock groups, from Sonic Youth to Big Black and the Jesus Lizard – and his look evolved into something distinct: a moustachioed, leather-trousered cowboy in a string vest and a Stetson, like a village person in a goth gang.

Pew embodied the paradox at the heart of the Birthday Party. “The band were enigmatic, because they were such an odd contradiction of different things – intelligent and literary, yet visceral and brutal,” White says. “Seeing them when they were bored or in a bad mood was as good as seeing them at the peak of their game.”

But Pew didn’t live to tell the tale, and only fragments remained. His most famous quote was that rock music, to the extent it would be remembered at all, would be as the anus of culture. “The audio we had of Tracy talking, whether he was spinning a yarn or telling the truth or talking down to the interviewer, was really hard to use in context,” White says.

The director relied almost entirely on archival sources to make his film. The idea – and the effect – was to drop the viewer into a world that no longer exists. There are no talking heads: “Sorry, Henry,” Harvey chuckles, referring to Rollins, whom he says is “just in too many rock documentaries”. There are brief audio snippets from Thurston Moore and Lydia Lunch.

“Well, when the material is that good, you don’t need someone else telling you that it’s good,” White reasons. Instead, explosive live footage is allowed to play out, with minimal commentary getting in the way. “There are no pop hooks, you need to hear it,” White says. “Less talk, more music.”

Cave is currently on tour in the US. He has taken to playing Shivers, the Howard-penned song he first sung for the Boys Next Door, which he had for decades disavowed. And Harvey can’t resist a dig at his old bandmate. “It’s all very well, these magnanimous gestures from a safe distance now,” he splutters. “Where were you fucking 14 years ago?”

The pair fell out after Harvey’s departure from the Bad Seeds, but have (mostly) reconciled. “We put all that stuff to bed,” Harvey says. “He sort of apologised to me, in public places, in his public way. But he’s never really said anything to me directly. That’s his manner, you know.”

He grins. “He can say something to me, the fucker!”

First published in the Guardian, 26 October 2023

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