first round game
(9) the birthday party, “release the bats”
(8) modern english, “black houses”
AND WILL PLAY ON IN THE SECOND ROUND
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchvladness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on March 9.
jamison crabtree on “black houses”
There’s something between memory and emotion that doesn’t have a name. Not quite a feeling. Not quite an association.
If the something was a body, the song would be its spine. But a body needs more than a spine.
The time you put the song on a mix cd for a boy you liked blends into the time when you put the same song on a different mix cd, for a different boy, hoping for a better response. The time you roller skated to it at age eight, at forty-four, at seventy-two. In elevators and coffee shops. Commercials and movies. The song during snow; the song in summer.
All the feelings, associations, and thoughts connected to a song also grow into each other. A memory lashes itself to a feeling, which ties itself to a melody. This continues for as long as you do. And every time you revisit a song, the something-body grows. And even at its smallest, the something-body they form is an erratic, uncontrollable, and ultimately gorgeous one.
Although I hadn’t heard Modern English’s album Mesh & Lace while I was still wearing black dresses, poorly-applied eyeliner, nail polish with names like “Gun Metal” and “Wicked,” and ninety-nine cent lipstick, the album completely evokes the sense of promise I felt at the time. Not just the feeling, but the people, events, places, and experiences I associated with it. The something-body.
I listen to ‘Black Houses” and I’m walking up the steps to a thrift store on the second floor of someone’s house. The creek of the stairs echoes and I walk more slowly to hear each step. The smells of old paint, leather, and must mix together in an uncomfortably pleasant way. I feel scared to go someplace new but I’m excited that I’m finally doing something new. Finally, time doesn’t seem stagnant.
I’m sneaking through the gate of Hollywood Cemetery. The girl I’m with tells me to run out of the light. We run down a wet, grassy hill into the dark. When security passes in their truck, I don’t run. As a guard shines their light around the tombstones, I squat in the open. To hide, I pull my trench coat over my head thinking that the stiller I am, the safer I’ll be. The light hits me, and it feels like mist. And when it falls off me, the feeling remains.
I’m driving the twenty minute stretch from my parents’ house to a morgue-turned-diner. It’s winter, but I lower the windows, turn the heater to max, and disturb the birds as I chant “undead” along with the tape-player.
Most of my associations with “Black Houses” come from small moments and feelings— narratively uneventful but momentous in what they meant to me and to the way I saw myself. In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t been so focused on myself. If I had less of an ego, I would’ve found this album two decades ago.
But a super-handsome, tall artist that I wanted to be like dismissed them. At the time, I realized that if I listened to the band and liked them, I’d end up embarrassing myself. He had strong opinions and more knowledge about music. If I said I liked it, I wouldn’t be able to explain why and I’d risk looking young in front of the artist. And if I didn’t like them, then he was right. It seemed pointless to try.
Two years later, the same artist was arrested for shoplifting from Tower Records. A few nights after the arrest, he went back to the store, poured gasoline under the door, and tried to set it on fire. Then, predictably, he was arrested again.
Maybe he should’ve listened to “Black Houses.” Not because it would’ve stopped him from committing arson— just because I think he would’ve liked it.
I’ll admit that in a way, he was right: the song is not technically good. When Modern English released Mesh & Lace, they were still learning their instruments. They hired an engineer to help them record the album. Their vocalist hadn’t yet realized that he could do anything besides shout his way through a song.
The song’s forty-five second intro sounds exactly the same way I’d imagine a self-aware monster truck engine would rev as it suddenly and seriously began to reflect on its life. The lyrics open by ambiguously criticizing the elements of suburban life. And their criticisms held weight at the time, but after thirty-seven years, the mowed-yards and washed-cars of the song have become clichés. As a culture, we’ve grown to accept that a pretty house doesn’t always make for a pretty home.
But the lyrics, the structure: the song includes the elements of song writing, but it puts them in whatever order feels right. Modern English didn’t include lyrics in their liner notes and I suspect it’s because the sound of the delivery matters more than the meaning of the lyrics.
The lyrics rely on gerund-laden rhymes and an overabundance of repetition. Qualities I’d definitely hate in a poem and ones that I’d usually hate in a song. But the performance transforms easy rhymes like “my mind exploding / a distant rumbling / my body aching / my eyes are burning” into something that would pass for incantatory. As Robbie Grey chants “read all the pamphlets” (which, according to RapGenius, is actually “read all about it”), the phrase shifts from declarative, to desperate, to demanding.
When the artist-arsonist told me not that the band wasn’t worth listening to, he only mentioned their surprise US commercial success—“I Melt With You.” For someone like me, who defined themselves through the negation of things they hated rather than through a sincere engagement with the world, popularity was a dirty word.
But he was wrong. I was wrong. In every interview I’ve read, the band comes off as a humble group of musicians who don’t have any pretensions. They like to make music and to perform it for anyone who’d want to listen.
“Black Houses” is a true song: a little, ephemeral shrine to the possibilities of form. Harmony Korine’s stance on stories echoes my thoughts on this song: “I love stories, I hate plots…I see stories just as I see life: Just existing.” The elements of songwriting are all here, but not in the ways the radio had taught me to listen for them.
This is a song that evokes. A song that swells and swoons. For me, it’s magical. And with mood for its musculature and memory for its skeleton, the something-body dances along.
in hysterics: david turkel on “release the bats”
I. “Release the Bats”
I was twelve the first time I ever consciously listened to Bob Dylan’s music. My best friend Rusty and I had gotten our hands on a copy of The Rolling Stone Record Guide and were gob smacked by the multiple runs of four- and five-star reviewed albums that littered his lengthy entry, some clusters as long as a typical band’s whole catalogue. We started our investigation at the top of one of these—the advent of his infamous “electric phase”—and dropped the needle on the a-side of our newly purchased copy of 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home. Then we laid back on top of the twin mattresses which occupied my room in Long Valley, New Jersey, prepared to be wowed. It was impossible to imagine what would emanate from those speakers that could take us further than Jimi Hendrix or Led Zepplin had thus far, but we were certain this was going to be it—true rock goddom. What we got instead, in jangles and honks, and the warbling hillbilly word salad which rode them, was a fit of some of the most hysterical laughter I can ever remember suffering, and it was a kind of suffering: our bodies ached, we could barely breathe; I vividly recall how challenging it was just to stand and reset the needle.
A couple of years later, a Stevie Ray Vaughn interview sent me to the record store to buy two albums of music from the nineteen thirties: Django Reinhardt and Robert Johnson. The Django was, and remains, jaw-dropping. I’d say that nothing could have prepared me for it, but truthfully something must have, as I instantly recognized it as virtuosic and essential. But the Robert Johnson was an altogether different thing—like Dylan, he had me rolling, clutching my guts. I can listen to him now and call his music soulful and haunting (or whatever), the way a connoisseur learns to qualify a sip of wine, but on that, the occasion of my first sip, all I knew was that I was drunk. Nothing I’d called blues to that point prepared me for his Delta-style guitar playing, and nowhere in me was there a space yet for the sound of that falsetto—the nakedest voice I’d ever heard. The place to hold these things was going to have to be freshly built, and I was beginning to realize that the sensation attendant to that process was, at least for me, nothing short of hysterical—breathless, full-bodied, almost a seizure.
I can tell you the road we were on and the name of the person driving the car I was in the back seat of when Eric Dolphy delivered his mighty gazelle punch to my sixteen-year-old brain. I felt like a character from Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights tryptic had suddenly come to life in the seat beside me and was trying to convert me to a new religion. And I can name the mile-marker we were crossing in Troy, Michigan, when the group of us almost came to our fiery conclusions in those first neuron-fritzing seconds after Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica was injected into the cassette player of Curt’s crayon orange Mustang. If a rattlesnake had been discovered on the floorboards of that car, we probably would have steered to safety with as much composure.
The first time we heard The Birthday Party was no different. Or, rather, it was entirely different. It was unlike anything we had ever heard before and we reacted the only way we could. Hysterically. We emptied a room in Jason’s mother’s house of all its breakables, turned off all the lights and re-cued Junkyard. Then we just started swinging furiously in that tight, dark space, until one of us screamed “STOP!!!” and the lights were turned back on to reveal who it was and how badly they’d been injured. This became a game we played as often as we could stand to, delighting in that first shock of illumination, most satisfied when blood was drawn.
And, in this, we were hardly unique. Famously, plugs were pulled on The Birthday Party’s first three shows in New York City during their American debut, by club owners convinced the group was trying to incite riots. It’s estimated they played less than twenty-five total minutes that week in September 1981, but it was more than enough for the fiercely uncompromising Lydia Lunch to be convinced she’d found her soulmates, and NME to alert audiences worldwide to the filthy five’s unparalleled fury (“cranking out of their guitar amps this murderous rattle, like the gaze of Medusa....”)
On European tours, where the Aussies were lauded as “Europe’s most violent band,” they learned to avoid extended engagements (or even, in some cases, to return to the same towns twice) as their shock factor served to hold the uninitiated in a sort of thrall, but repeat performances risked being interpreted as a dare by the most combustive in the crowds, for whom their music was nothing short of a license to tear shit apart. This was never their goal. Not really. On the heels of those first panic-inducing NYC gigs, writer Barney Hoskyns offered: “After the year of ‘Pop’, 1980—a miserable year spent trying to fit in with the new nonchalance – The Birthday Party realized the only solution was...TO ATTACK.” It’s a pithy, but misleading statement, as it suggests The Birthday Party were bent on attacking their audience, when in fact it was this “nonchalance” they held so contemptuously in their crosshairs. “Intensity,” said guitarist Rowland S. Howard, “is not necessarily violence. The way we presented ourselves to the audience was a direct challenge...to do something, to respond with some kind of intensity instead of just standing there and clapping politely and saying, ‘Oh yes, that was very nice.’”
Tapes of their performances support this more nuanced view. One doesn’t see in The Birthday Party a gang of thugs looking to do combat with the crowd, so much as one feels in their presence the unmistakable sensation of having stumbled into a bad part of town, the sort of place where anything might happen. Mustached hustler Tracy Pew rolls on the floor, his Stetsoned head inside the bass drum, luridly humping the air like he’s trying to fuck the whole world with his bass guitar. The skeletal Howard, beneath an ever-present halo of smoke, stalks the shadowy outer edges of the stage, deftly wielding a guitar that has been described as everything from a razor to a fleet of Stukas. Frontman Nick Cave, the Imp of the Perverse, yowls and contorts beneath the stoic gaze of multi-instrumentalist, Mick Harvey—the hard carny who’s brought his freak to town. All the while Phil Calvert’s drums crack, like shotgun shells exploding inside a burning police car.
It’s aggressive music to be sure, but rather than hostile, I would argue the music of The Birthday Party is oddly welcoming. It presents an invitation: to recast yourself in its image, become the thing that scares you. “I try to excite people and confuse their normal way of thinking, if they react aggressively to that, so be it,” said Cave in an interview in ‘82, adding: “I think the audience has as much right to perform as the band.”
Our impromptu cage matches were in their own small way testament to this. All we knew was that a different response was demanded of us by this music. It pressed us to connect with something primordial, preverbal—to “release the bats” as it were, the ones that lived inside, in hidden, unexplored spaces suddenly illuminated by the shiny, dark object (the black star) of their sound.
By that time, I’d seen “goth” superstars The Cure in concert (my first date, Flock of Seagulls opened...) and it would never have occurred to me to compare The Birthday Party to them, nor to any other band in the genre, though the label clings to them more stubbornly than a shibari knot. Live, The Cure seemed most intent on sounding like their records, as if what we were after was the communal experience of listening to a cassette tape while watching the shadow puppet of Robert Smith’s hair bop around on the scrim, like a lonely porcupine looking for a mate. Truthfully, it would be easier to compare their “performance” to a Bob Ross video, for the comfortable ease with which it demonstrated the reproduction of a familiar reality, than to the ego-shattering spontaneity The Birthday Party both embodied and inspired. This is because the essence of goth as a musical genre is, at heart, composure—not an energy or emotional state at all, so much as the codification of these.
Goth is distant and distancing; The Birthday Party, immediate and visceral. Goth is lush and bloodless, like a Versace ad; The Birthday Party is music’s equivalent of a prison shiv. Goth aspires to the majestic—its hollow, delicate vocals and spindly, reed-thin guitars hover over a reverb-drenched dissonance, like some nocturnal bird of prey swooping above a chaotic landscape. There’s pain and misery down below, to be sure, fires dot the horizon, but goth floats; it is inured; its private shame and pain, it seems to say, has pushed the world into the margins. The Birthday Party, by contrast, are boots-on-the-ground hooligans, smashing windows, heaving Molotov cocktails, and if you listen close you’ll hear another sound, one which more than any other separates theirs from anything in the genre knows as goth: laughter. The Birthday Party heave with it; goth holds its breath.
For me, The Birthday Party can be placed on one list, and one list only: that of incomparable things. It’s as antithetical to see them counted among a cohort of aesthetically- linked bands, as it is unimaginable to consider arguing for their preeminent position there. Were I clever enough, I’d construct a metaphor comparing lists to mirrors and The Birthday Party to vampires for their inability to be captured by them. Certainly, nothing sounded like The Birthday Party beforehand, and those few worthy imitators since—Green River, The Chrome Cranks, The Jesus Lizard—(all equally “un-goth”) are probably more aptly compared to Australian swamp-rockers, The Scientists—they, at least, were a band. The Birthday Party, I contend, were no such thing. The Birthday Party were a monster.
Which is all to say that, while I don’t consider The Birthday Party goth in the slightest, I do think they’re vlad as hell.
II. “In the Air Tonight”
According to Wikipedia...
...at some point rock-and-roll died (who the fuck knows, maybe even when goofy songsmith Don McLean said it did...) and then Iggy Pop, this demented voodoo priest, cast a spell of darkest magic calling forth the corpse from out its grave, and there came The Birthday Party, stinking and oozing, caked in a coffin’s worth of native soil, crashing their dark ship into England’s rocky coast.
“I just sang,” said Genesis drummer, Phil Collins, “I opened my mouth and they came out.”
The words, he means, not The Birthday Party, the words to his song, “In the Air Tonight,” recorded, the year of their landing, in the “Stone Room” of London’s Townhouse Studios. It would become the advance single of his first solo effort, Face Value, released February 1981, and hold a position on the UK singles charts for over thirty-one weeks, and I can’t help but cue it now, as I imagine a midnight in Spring of that year, as five dark figures cut between the shadows of the White City to converge on that very same Stone Room.
When producer Nick Launey meets The Birthday Party there, he’ll note their uniformly black attire and ruinous air—like a decayed, rat-infested church—and be left with the titillating impression that he’s just recorded the music of actual vampires. Launey’s been commissioned for a Peel Session by the band’s 4AD label, and he’s managed to secure rock-bottom rates booking an after-hours slot from studio two’s daytime resident—none other than Phil Collins, who, apparently, can’t leave the room now, the stone having claimed him...
In all Townhouse lore no song looms quite so large as Collin’s masterpiece. Probably because his signature drum tone so perfectly conjures the image of the room’s much-heralded building material (though it’s hard to know how all the stone in the world could interfere with that amount of gated reverb). For their part, The Birthday Party will have absolutely no use for it, choosing instead to lug in sheets of corrugated steel, transforming the warm, natural cave- like resonance of the space into an unforgiving crash-pad. They’ve been fucked by the studio routine in the past, cowed into prescribed behaviors which ended up capturing little more than cartoon sketches of their glorious noise, and they’re done with all that. Their last full-length album, Prayers on Fire, possessed a few triumphant flashes—most notably “King Ink” and “Nick the Stripper”—where the Monster they’d only successfully summoned before in live performance, could be glimpsed in the playback reel, and they feel they know how to do it now, how to draw him out into these cold, empty spaces, hold him there for good (or ill). With the two singles recorded over this April witching hour session—“Release the Bats” and “Blast Off!”—he will fully incarnate, once and for all, never to leave them; perhaps even consuming them. Summoned, in a sense, by laughter.
For “Release the Bats” was, it must be said, first and foremost, a joke.
“It was done tongue-in-cheek,” notes Mick Harvey, “this kinda ridiculous thundery rockabilly thing. The first time we got from beginning to end in the rehearsal room, everyone completely packed up laughing...”
When I tell you The Birthday Party were not a band, I mean that theirs was a conspiracy to supplant notions of musicality with visceral experience. One doesn’t measure the bass parts of Tracey Pew, for instance, in notes, but in thickness, in shades of black, in sticky, murky, slobbering heaviness; in the distinct sensation that you’re hearing not just a primal noise but a pornographic one. He holds the songs together, don’t get me wrong, but not like a metronome. More the way a tarpit could be said to have held things together. Similarly, Rowland S. Howard didn’t play songs; he vandalized them—slashing through verses like a drug fiend looking for a stash in the couch cushions. As for drums, the thing Phil Calvert could never fully wrap his head around (the reason they would sack him just over a year after the release of this recording and move Mick Harvey behind the kit), is that The Birthday Party didn’t require a drummer—what they were in need of was a demolitions expert. It’s Nick Cave you hear on the recording of “Release the Bats,” battering the snare out-of-time, as Calvert complained (signing his own death warrant in the process) that it was impossible for a “schooled musician” to play off-tempo.
In all these ways they were perhaps closer to performance artists than musicians; even, in and off themselves, a work of sonic sculpture. But when I call The Birthday Party “a monster,” I mean to say that they traveled this essentially intellectual road to an intensely primal place. In ways most reminiscent of George Bataille, perhaps, they recognized in horror, pornography and a wickedly provocative, signal-jamming humor, mechanisms which leapfrog past the rational, directly into the sludge—the places where, in each of us, desire first emerges, unadorned of the bells-and-whistles of selfdom. The Dim Locator, Howard reckoned himself, by which he meant, I’m not stupid, but I know how to get there....
“Early on,” he reflects, “we were all big fans of Bowie, Roxy Music, Alice Cooper and Alex Harvey who were all entertainers but we wanted to take it a step further, we didn’t want to take off our makeup when we got home, we wanted to be the same on stage as we were on the street.” Which is to say that the laughter of The Birthday Party doesn’t risk dropping the performative mask precisely because they’re not wearing one. It’s more akin to the laughter of Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch—the sound of unbidden self-possession, of those who know their element and revel in it. The phony monster, after all, is the one trying to scare you. The true monster’s simply doing the thing it loves best. In this sense, The Birthday Party is that thing goth dresses up as. It’s been said that when they threatened to interrupt a Bauhaus performance it wasn’t with physical violence, but rather a promise to pants lead-singer Peter Murphy (Pew ended up drawing a penis on Murphy’s chest instead). For the Monster innately understood that, while goth with could suffer a beating, pantsless—stripped of its costume, that is—it could not stand.
A year after the release (and shocking success!) of “Release the Bats,” so-called “goths” would flock London’s newly opened Batcave nightclub, slowly cultivating the overly precious and pretentious air which eventually overwhelmed the last vestiges of punk, transforming the entire scene into little more than a pop parody, where the notion of The Birthday Party was only as meaningful as a true vampire might be to a Halloween trick-or-treater—a snapshot for the makeup mirror. No matter. They were gone by then; escaping, first to Berlin, then the grave (“black puppet go to sleep, mama won’t scold you anymore...”)
But I want to lift the needle here. Reset it back a few grooves, back to the Stone Room, and the midnight chimes dividing Phil Collin’s time there from that of the Monster’s: the space between morning and night, dark and shiny, between “Release the Bats,” and “In the Air Tonight.”
Hold this space in your mind like a coin, if you will, spinning end over end. I offer it to our conversation, in part, because I feel that goth lives somewhere between these two songs. In greater measure, because I’m not sure goth actually lives at all, but perhaps only occupies the thinnest space between two clearly present states: pop & art.
Consider Collins’ song. Reverb-drenched, feedback-tinged, death-haunted. Unexpectedly propulsive and asymmetrical. As its resurgent fame as the centerpiece of 1984’s Miami Vice’s pilot attests, no song more effortlessly conjures an urban nightscape suffused with dark intentions and imminent danger than this. And so the question that must be asked here is simply: how is this not a goth tune?
Clearly Stuart Orme, director of its Grammy-nominated video, doesn’t know. The setting he chose might just as easily have served as Jonathon Harker’s Transylvania lodgings—a bare, clapboard room, complete with sickle moon and its very own phantom window-creature. At one point, Phil, the seated figure occupying the room’s sole wooden chair, subdivides—a second, spectral-self rising from the corporeal one to take its place at the window. Later, in a hall of doors, he apparently stumbles upon himself confronting himself as the phantom window-creature—I really can’t be sure, I’ve watched it over and over, phantom-Phil’s image wavers as if under water—suggestive of the drowning hinted at in the song, perhaps?—then seems to disintegrate; light explodes from the doorway with all the fury of a terrible insight. All within yet another Phil, this the grand narrative of his looming, shadow-sculpted face. The only thing not goth about it, frankly, is the bald spot on the back of Phil’s head as he enters the hall of doors.
But this, truthfully, can’t be taken lightly, the bald spot. It’s the shiny side of the coin we’ve just flipped, after all. The key to everything, I imagine. Consider, for instance, a Phil in Robert Smith’s mascara and fright-wig tresses delivering this song. Could you feel that coming in the air tonight? Position him there in lipstick and clown-white, as the face of the album cover. Or suit Smith, if you prefer, in Sussudio threads and cue “Close to Me.” Oh Lord! Is it possible that goth is just a costume drama for people ashamed to admit that they like pop music? Is this all really just the story of hair?
Phil’s is going. So be it. He wears jeans and a flannel in one video, a rumpled suit in the next. He’s just a guy, is what the bald spot says—the everyman. He feels something out there and he wants to know if you feel it, too. He’s haunted by difficult memories and now he senses more trouble in the offing. He sings to a dark figure, someone he’s seen do a terrible thing, but he’s not threatening, so much as withdrawing (“I would not lend a hand”), still he feels there’s no escape; the thing approaches, and he’s bracing himself, and you can sense his fear mingling with the resolution to meet it squarely when, at last, it arrives.
It’s The Birthday Party, of course, who alone deliver on goth’s promise: not to face the night, but to become it— "...what music they make!”
David Turkel is a playwright, screenwriter and poet based in Corvallis, Oregon. His play Clytemnestr@pocalypse premiered at the Théâtre National de Nice, France, March 2017. His newest work (ha)—a cabaret performance featuring Eva Braun in Purgatory, debuts in 2020 with The Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern (Durham, NC); excerpts published in Opossum, Fall 2018.