Jonathan Ganley | | 8 min read
Friday May 3 2013 marks 30 years to the day since Nick Cave and The Birthday Party played their first New Zealand show at Mainstreet nightclub on Auckland’s Queen St. Photographer Jonathan Ganley provides the images and the story from the audience, while Simon Grigg of Propeller Records and tour promoter Doug Hood give some background and recollections of this legendary but shambolic performance, and the subsequent chaotic North Island tour.
May 3 1983: We are standing in front of the stage at Mainstreet, a run-down nightclub near the top of Queen St. The venue has seen many incarnations, and has certainly seen better days. Fortunately for Auckland youth wanting to hear good music, the management lets an under-age crowd inside without any hassle at the door. Tonight we're here to see the highly anticipated, first New Zealand appearance by The Birthday Party. It must be close to midnight already but Nick Cave and the band are keeping us waiting.
Simon Grigg: “Propeller Records came to The Birthday Party in an angular way. I’d issued the single True Love /‘First in Line by Marching Girls in August 1980. Although I’d licensed the single directly from the band I’d had to deal first with their Australian label, Au-Go-Go for tapes and artwork, and through them the Melbourne based distributor Missing Link. Keith Glass of Missing Link enquired if I'd be keen to release other acts he had on his roster.
"Sure, but I heard little more for a while until a bunch of records arrived, including early records by The Birthday Party. Would I like to release the band in New Zealand, with a single with a unique B-side? Yep. In mid-1981 Propeller issued the Prayers On Fire’album and a 45 of Nick The Stripperwith the then unavailable Blundertown’on the flip. The 4AD label bought 10,000. It was Propeller’s biggest single but sold only 102 in New Zealand.
"As part of the deal I flew to Australia (Mushroom paid for it) and spent a week hanging out in the studio with The Birthday Party, which didn’t make me like them particularly as people, and went to an incredible show at the Bombay Rock where the band played to a home crowd. I went back to New Zealand, released another album by the band (Junkyard) and raved about the show …”
Although I had paid some attention to The Birthday Party’s first two LPs, it was their Bad Seed EP that had really turned my head a few months earlier. Four powerful tracks that sounded best late at night, played very loud through the big Radio B speakers on the balconies outside the Auckland University upper common room. Although I liked their music, I knew The Birthday Party best from their photographs in the inky English music magazines. The photographers Bleddyn Butcher and Kevin Cummins really defined The Birthday Party’s outlaw image. The Clash looked like gunslingers too, but The Clash were all handsome. Nick Cave looked menacing and seedy all at once, like a deranged huckster selling bottles of chlorodyne in a wild-west town.
The night had started well. We made it to Mainstreet and saw some of a solo performance by the late Kevin Hawkins (once of Shoes This High), and then a set by the Marching Girls. I had a good position in front of the stage, and I knew from experience when taking photos at a show, grab your spot and don’t move.
The wait for the main act, however, was interminable.
I think most people were past caring when finally there was some activity onstage. The unmistakable figure of Nick Cave appeared first.
He was clutching a glass, and looked very unhappy to be there. I took it all in: the scowl, the nest of black hair, suit jacket with the sleeves pushed up, black jeans, pointy boots, and a bad attitude. Rowland S. Howard, pale skinny arms emerging from a check shirt with the sleeves hacked off, picked up a battered white Fender Jaguar.
He had a cigarette clamped between his lips that seemed to stay alight throughout the performance. In contrast, across the stage, the bass player Tracy Pew (above) looked mean as, like he didn’t take any shit from anyone. He was wearing his trademark Stetson, a white shirt and leather pants, and was probably the only man in the room with a moustache.
Almost invisible in the gloom was the drummer, Des Hefner of the Marching Girls. Mick Harvey had recently quit the band, forcing the band to quickly enlist a drummer for the tour.
Doug Hood: "From my point of view, I didn’t spend that much time with the band. I spent most of the time making the show happen. This was the second international thing that I did, with Ken West (later of Big Day Out) … I was so busy that I found out about most of the chaos around the tour later. I was working for Livesound then, booking the Windsor Castle, hiring out PAs, doing sound. On the tour, that’s what I was doing. I was the local promoter for Ken, driving the truck, doing the production management … so fucking busy … and when The Birthday Party arrived here they spent a day at Mainstreet, with Des Hefner, learning the songs. I was there for all of that, and that was absolute chaos …”
Showtime. Nick Cave looked out at the crowd and spoke. “You can turn off the disco. The rock stars have arrived.”
The brief, loud, and ramshackle performance that followed would have been barely memorable if this had been a lesser band, or one without the image of wasted nihilism and a reputation for confrontation and debauchery that the Birthday Party possessed in 1983.
The set lasted barely half an hour, and they played seven songs, the four songs off the Bad Seed EP, Jennifer’s Veil and two more from Junkyard. Nick rolled across the stage, stood up, bent over double, and screamed into the mike.
Every time he crossed over to stage left I had my camera right in his face. It was interesting to see the clips of Cave’s 2013 Coachella performance with Grinderman, because so many elements of his performance were already evident in 1983 - the way he preaches from on high, reaches out to touch the crowd before pulling back, lashes his hair back, and prowls the stage like a carny on a bender.
Simon Grigg: "By the time they came to New Zealand though things had changed. We were listed as co-promoter but they had moved labels to Mute, and they were in utter disarray as a band. Their Auckland show was a fiasco and yet still a kind of triumph as we’d come so close to getting them to New Zealand several times before without any luck. So much was expected of the Birthday Party and yet they only played for 40 minutes. However, it was still The Birthday Party and Wellington apparently got quite a show, Des (Hefner) being rehearsed by then. Afterwards, of course, they imploded terminally. We were lucky to get them at all.”
Simon was lucky, having seen them at their best in Melbourne in 1981. I wanted them to be great, but as Fears of Gun collapsed I knew it wasn’t going to get any better. As we filed out I was pissed off at the anti-climax, waiting for hours in exchange for half an hour of chaotic, bad-tempered howl. Now, it seems like the only way they could have done it. The band was on the verge of breaking up and wanted to go home. Meanwhile, the audience is there to see a crazed and fucked-up spectacle. So, make them wait for it.
Doug Hood: "I’ll tell you a good story but I’ll start at the end. We got to Wellington, having done all the shows – the first one in Auckland, the second in Palmerston North, the last one in Wellington.
"As far as I know Ken West had rented two station wagons for the band and himself. I’m at the airport with Ken and he says, 'Oh, here’s the keys to the cars. One is parked out the front on the Hertz stand, and the other one is on the Desert Rd.'
"This was the first time I’d heard this, just as they were leaving to fly back to Australia! He did say 'Don’t worry about it. It’s on the band’s credit card'.
"So I went up to the Hertz place and said 'Well, I’m returning these cars, sort of. There’s one outside and one on the Desert Rd.' It was literally left on the Desert Rd.
"The band had got up, it was a travel day after the Auckland show, and they just got on the booze. Instantly drunk. Driven as far as the Desert Rd, then they all got out to have a look at the scenery and the mountains. Ken decided, as he was driving one car, and of course he was sober, to put them all in his car. 'We’ll leave this one here'."
Now 30 years have passed, and Nick Cave’s stature as a solo artist has grown enormously since The Birthday Party disbanded in June 1983.
The new Bad Seeds album Push The Sky Away hit the top of both the Australian and New Zealand album charts earlier this year. Cave and the Bad Seeds played the Auckland Town Hall in 1992 and at the St James in 2005, and Grinderman played an apocalyptic, green-lit set in a torrential downpour at the 2011 Big Day Out. This was fitting for Cave's theatrics but with ominous crackling through the PA before they took the stage I was concerned it would be his final performance.
Tracy Pew only lived a short time after The Birthday Party imploded, dying in late 1986. Rowland S. Howard had a longer career but died in December 2009. He was the subject of an excellent biographical film, Autoluminescent, in 2011.
Now in 2013, The Birthday Party EPs Bad Seed and Mutiny! are about to be re-released on vinyl. Perhaps a new young audience are already playing Wild World and Jennifer’s Veil really loud, and finding something compelling in that strange twisted version of the blues.
Meanwhile, I note with amazement the continuing popularity of The Birthday Party images on Tumblr, especially of Nick Cave in full flight, and of the fragile and ethereal Rowland S. Howard.
It seems that these old cults will never die.
Setlist: The Birthday Party, Mainstreet, May 3 1983
(thanks to Inner City Sound: )
Deep In The Woods
Fears Of Gun
Hamlet (Pow Pow Pow)
There are some live and backstage photographs from the Massey University show by Bruce Maunsell here.
Jonathan Ganley is an Auckland photographer whose work has covered many subjects, notably however New Zealand musicians. Some of those portraits appeared previously at Other Voices Other Rooms here, and a gallery of his work is available at his website pointthatthing.com All his photos are copyrighted, do not use without permission.
Other Voices Other Rooms is an opportunity for Elsewhere readers to contribute their ideas, passions, interests and opinions about whatever takes their fancy. Elsewhere welcomes travel stories, think pieces, essays about readers' research or hobbies etc etc. Nail it in 1000 words or fewer and contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
See here for previous contributors' work. It is wide-ranging.