the sweet 16
(5) PETER MURPHY, “ALL NIGHT LONG”
(9) the birthday party, “release the bats”
and play on in the elite 8
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 20.
KATHLEEN ROONEY ON “ALL NIGHT LONG”
In the 1988 video for his solo single “All Night Long,” the skull of former Bauhaus vocalist Peter Murphy is obscenely gorgeous. Exalted, in fact. We taxpayers ought to fund the carving of his head onto a cliff—a goth Mount Rushmore. All four busts could be his exquisite visage in different poses. He’s a handsome, angular, living death’s head, deserving of a monument to his morbid beauty, worthy of serving as a collective memento mori.
I am not the only one who thinks so. In his rock memoir Who Killed Mister Moonlight: Bauhaus, Black Magick, and Benediction, Bauhaus bassist David J. Haskins recalls guitarist Daniel Ash introducing him to Murphy in the late 1970s: “Peter looked amazing. He had a preternatural beauty: high, chiseled cheekbones, pale skin, piercing blue eyes. He had his dirty blonde hair slicked back like a 1920s matinee idol. He moved with an elegant grace.”
In the “All Night Long” video, Murphy tosses in bed, his features troubled, shadows gathering beneath his sculptural cheekbones, the ne plus ultra of zygomatic arches. He sings, hollow-eyed, in a murky gray wood. How decadent to have bones so close to the surface of one’s face, to reveal the skull we’re all walking around topped off with. Look:
If music is playing in one’s proximity, it becomes virtually impossible not to hear it. Lately, I can’t not hear the dooming chords of climate disaster, and so must find a way to live in the sound.
Chris Baldick, editor of The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, describes the Gothic as “a fearful sense of inheritance in time with the claustrophobic sense of enclosure in space, these two dimensions reinforcing one another to produce an impression of sickening descent into disintegration.” That’s basically how it feels to be on Earth right now: our home enclosure, the planet, growing ever more unhomely.
Every day brings a new nightmare announcement. On October 29, 2018, for instance, the Canadian Broadcasting Company reported that 60% of the world’s wildlife has been wiped out since 1970.
The following day, a report from Vox entitled “Weather 2050” warned that “America is warming fast,” and invited readers to “See how your city’s weather will be different in just one generation.” If you like your sick sense of dread hyper-specific, then you can click through, but if you prefer your unease vague, then their analysis shows that in virtually every case, the places we all live are going “to be strikingly warmer in a few decades.” Moreover, “For those who can’t afford to move to cool off from the heat, or find work when local agriculture dries up and fisheries die, these changes will be devastating.”
In her book Gothic Music: The Sounds of the Uncanny, Isabella van Elferen distinguishes between horror and the Gothic. Horror, she argues, “explicitly brings the feared object onto the screen, into the relatively controllable space of the visible.” In doing so, “horror paradoxically comforts the viewer through the relative control vision gives: at least in horror films, we can scream at what we are afraid of.” Gothic, she says, “conversely, employs the implicit dread of terror, leaving the object of fear implicit, just outside perception. In Gothic cinema transgression is hinted at through shadows and camera angles, but always only present through absence, leading audiences not to the comfort of sight but rather to the discomfort of the uncanny.” Gruesome as it is, climate change feels more Gothic than horror, at least so far (though bursts of violent excess—heat waves, hurricanes, wildfires, floods—do keep ripping through the skin of the normal). The specters of global warming that haunt me the most here in Chicago, a northern and supposedly chilly city, are the ones that manifest as absences. What could be more uncanny than yearning for the usual snow in winter but receiving none? Reaching out with your whole body to feel the weather you’ve always expected and loved, only to find it creepily not present?
My sorrow for a dead and headstoned past in which seasons could be depended upon mixes with a need to learn to swim in the gloomy soup of the future, overheated, oceanic, and fast approaching. I am trying not to be afraid; I am trying to forge an authentic relationship to death.
For that purpose, I propose Peter Murphy’s peerless and ethereal head as a talisman and his defiantly moody song “All Night Long” as an anthem.
Memento mori—Latin for Remember that you will die: a medieval Christian tradition of meditating on the vanity of earthly life and the transient character of worldly pursuits. The prospect of one’s own death has unparalleled potential to frighten; for that reason, many people prefer to leave the subject unthought of. Yet in memento mori one gains mastery of that fear by coming at it directly: staring unblinking into its bony face.
My favorite account of this ritual as practiced in the 1500s tells of a clergyman called John Fisher who, when saying Mass, was “always accustomed to set upon one end of the altar a dead man’s scull, which was also set before him at his table when he dyned or supped.”
If the inexorability of one’s own death has the power to terrify, how much more so does the artificially hastened inevitability of collective death that we now know ourselves as a species to be both the cause and the victim of? To even have a chance of keeping global warming below a still fairly catastrophic 1.5 degree threshold, “by the middle of the century, societies would need to have zero net emissions.” At the rate we’re going, this goal remains unreachable. Individual actions have little to no effect and political responses remain entirely inadequate. It is not pessimistic or defeatist, merely honest, to acknowledge that the end has already happened and we’re just living in the echo.
In order to let that echo be something that that one can listen to without being destroyed by it, we can set Murphy’s head in the “All Night Long” video at our shared earthly table: Remember, we will all die—an attractive and a repellant reminder simultaneously, unsettling yet comforting.
For his fourth solo studio album, 1992’s Holy Smoke, Murphy had the English musical journalist Paul Morley do his press release. “I know very little about Peter Murphy,” Morley began:
I know his name, and I know the shape of his head, because it’s a shape I’ve always been very jealous of. I think anyone with a head shaped like that, all kind of sharp and hollow and almost sinister, must have something of the magical about him. I wonder if it’s a fluke that he has a head like that, a splendid accident of birth, or has it been sheer vain anxious willpower that has shaped Peter Murphy’s head into something so positively Artaudian, if you’ll pardon my French. I also know that he has eyes as hollow as a dream, eyes that seem incapable of shame, and a decayed mouth that could but for the grace of God eat you alive and kiss you to death.
In an age of shameless climate change, we are eating ourselves alive; we are puckering up to be our own kiss of death.
In their book Goth: Undead Subculture, editors Lauren M.E. Goodland and Michael Bibby note that within the Gothic sensibility, death itself is “typically perceived as a source of inspiration rather than a terminus.” Can the contemplation of our impending collective demise be inspirational rather than paralyzing? Can a song like “All Night Long” afford its listeners a symbolic solution to the question of how to keep living in the disempowerment of the Anthropocene?
“All Night Long” comes from Murphy’s album Love Hysteria. The disrupted global climate can make a person hysterical. I love the Earth so much and don’t want it to die. I’m not afraid of my own death so much as of everyone’s; I’m not afraid of my own death so much as my own suffering. An awareness of the Anthropocene means to dwell in a perpetual mourning for the planet and all the living things on it that we’ve extirpated and are extirpating, including ourselves.
But goth asserts as positive a tragic grasp of the truth: that all of the enchantment, passion, and beauty of existence will ultimately conclude with degradation. So too does goth remind the listener—or at least this listener—that the fact that everything is shadowed with its own demise is nothing new. It has always been thus. Every life story shares the same last chapter. So while climate change’s death is massive and on a scale heretofore unseen, it’s still, essentially, a variation on the same mortal theme. The death we’re facing now dwarfs individual consciousness, but it’s still just death. How horrible and yet how reassuring.
In the video for “All Night Long,” a restless Peter Murphy cannot sleep. He’s either insomniac or having ghastly dreams. When he’s not in bed, he’s out in a mist-obscured landscape amid the wan wraiths of leafless trees. “The air is wild open,” he sings. We see that it is also filled with gloomth, Gothic novelist Horace Walpole’s 1753 coinage for the perversely pleasing grim ambience of the Gothic.
Murphy’s bedsheets ripple like a blasted waste, a desert landscape void of life. Or like a boundless ocean, whispering and groaning. Wet hair streaks his cadaverous face, like black liquid—blood? Like tentacles from the deep? Like the “siren’s curl” in the lyrics he sings? Pearls spill like snow that will fall no longer. The line about “the see-saw smile” evokes the swings of climate change.
A figure wanders in an overgrown terrain, barbed wire blocking her way from time to time as Murphy sings, “Yeah, the seasons come in / All the nights are woven.” In horror movies, music warns characters of their impending death. Murphy’s song does this in an anthemic and transcendent way—a nocturnal fight song where night is not for sleeping.
I sometimes imagine the globe getting so hot that we’ll have to invert our uses of day and night, sleeping like vampires through the sun’s worst heat; coming out in darkness when the temperature will be bearable. The night described by Murphy seems as welcoming as it is forbidding.
Composer and musical theorist Jonathan Kramer argues that music creates its own temporality. “Does music exist in time or does time exist in music?” he asks. “If we believe in the time that exists uniquely in music, then we begin to glimpse the power of music to create, alter, distort, or even destroy time itself, not simply our experience of it.” The annihilating and transporting traits of musical time transmit through the very timbre of Murphy’s voice, communicating something almost incommunicable, something beyond the measurements of minutes and hours and the parameters of words.
At the time of Love Hysteria’s release, Murphy said to Record Mirror: “I wanted to reflect a sense of happiness, strength and optimism which I am currently feeling.” Visually and sonically, “All Night Long” is a song that says even—or maybe especially—when things are hard, keep going.
In his book, Dark Entries: Bauhaus and Beyond, Ian Shirley writes that “Indeed the songs [on Love Hysteria] are extremely polished and given great depth,” and that Murphy’s “singing shows greater depth and maturity.” Murphy himself observed, “I was confident now that I did have a good voice away from that very histrionic experimental guttural approach that Bauhaus had.”
He uses his baritone to boom and soar. He uses it to croon. Is crooning soothing? Yes and no. Etymology reveals this style of singing’s bifurcated effect. Originating around 1400 in Scottish, it means “to speak or sing softly”—how gentle, now nice. But compare that derivation to the Middle Dutch kronen, “to lament, mourn.” It can be a comfort to lament—to say “I’m sad,” and have someone else acknowledge the sadness.
In the (too-warm) summer of 2018 in Chicago, I was in an experimental play called L’Heure Bleue, put on by the Runaways Lab Theater, in which I was one of five actors playing a version of a character called Judy. For the interactive cocktail hour preceding the show, my Judy sat at a desk with a typewriter, asking people to help her make a Compendium of Memories through a series of personal but anonymous questions. The final one was “Are you afraid of the future?” The hardest time I had staying in character was when someone confidently and quickly responded “No!” How? I wanted to ask, thinking of climate change. How is the future not utterly fucking terrifying? But the script dictated that I had to thank and encourage them to move on.
I am going to miss fruit when agriculture collapses. I am going to miss being able to walk around outside when it grows too sweltering. And so I am searching for an ars moriendi—an art of dying. We’ll all have to do it, so why not think about how to die well? “All Night Long” in particular and goth in general provide instructive texts. Regal in his disquiet, Peter Murphy seems upset but self-possessed.
There’s a medical concept called the facies hippocratica, the Hippocratic face, which refers to the countenance of someone about to die—a literal death’s head, produced by long illness, wasting, excessive hunger and so forth. Here in the Anthropocene, the Earth wears this face. Because we are on the Earth, this face hard to see, but if you pay attention you can feel it: the face that we require to survive and the face that we are murdering.
What to listen to while the planet is dying? Goth music, of course, the soundtrack for when you’re sick with dread and seeking to transcend it.
The weirdest part of “All Night Long” arrives at 2:33, when in the video the knife point glints and the French growling begins. The little nightcap that Murphy has been wearing in bed now implies the appearance of ears, like he’s part beast.
In fact, these lines are a clip from the 1946 Jean Cocteau film La Belle et La Bête, aka Beauty and the Beast (which features another heck of a head, another sterling set of cheekbones, belonging to Jean Marais in the title role).
Translated, the passage goes as follows:
A rose that played its role
My mirror, my gold key, my horse, and my glove
Are the five secrets of my power
I’ll give them to you
If you put this glove on your right hand
It will transport you to where you desire to be
Where do we humans as a species desire to be? Death obsessed and yet undead, much goth music is characterized by a melancholy otherworldliness. Who in this world who pays attention is not sad? Who in this world would not want to live in another?
We are all part beast, all part animal. There is no outside, no separating ourselves from “nature.” We haven’t destroyed “nature,” we have destroyed ourselves. Murphy’s song has been described as an us-against-the-world one, but, of course, in the end, the world is us.
I used to consider the Hans Holbein the Younger painting The Ambassadors well-done, but goofy—a fun silly gimmick.
Like wow, sweet anamorphosis and good work on a hyper-realistic painting of a couple learnèd dudes and their sumptuous accoutrements, but what the hell is with the huge skull looming in the foreground like a kitschy Magic Eye? But lately I’ve come to respect Holbein’s death’s head. Because in a sense, the painting resembles how climate disaster functions. No matter how lovely or well-executed a day is, I can’t go for long without being reminded. Without seeing it. Without the stupid whack-a-mole cranium of uncontrolled, uncontrollable global warming popping up with its empty eyes to bore into mine.
And so I am working daily on a way to deal with that knowledge. “All Night Long” is a reminder that maybe the Gothic can be that strategy. Dead and undead. Escapist and accepting simultaneously. Because for all its scary trappings, much goth music is not really scary, because much goth music is not really trying to terrify, but rather to naturalize death and evil to make them less daunting.
Climatologically, we may be surrounded by ghosts—haunted by all the futures we’ll never get to live—and there may be very little of what could be considered hope, but that’s still no excuse for us not to keep going. Or if not to keep going, then to be able to sit and live with the tumult.
In 1982, shortly before Bauhaus broke up, the British commercial filmmaker Howard Guard directed Murphy in a television ad for Maxell tapes. Stylishly attired, he sits in a sleek leather armchair, blasted by the sonic excellence of a Maxell recording of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.”
The break-the-sound-barrier quality barely causes Murphy to turn his death’s head. As the plants, the decorative wooden ducks, and even his own tie are buffeted in the musical melee, Murphy has found a way to rest calmly, elegantly inside the storm. When he casts his unflappable gaze over his shoulder at the camera at 0:22, he seems to say wordlessly, You can do this, too.
In their book Goth Music: From Sound to Subculture, Isabella van Elferen and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock point out that:
The most obvious example of goth’s foregrounding death as a way to transcend it can be seen by starting with the most familiar—indeed, iconic—goth subcultural style: cadaverous white-face, often accentuated by black hair, clothing, and black or red make-up. […] The animate corpse uncannily foregrounds death in the present and thereby acts as an affront to the living who seek to repress the anxious awareness of mortality. When confronted with a corpse, one is forcibly reminded of one’s own ephemerality and of the inevitable corruption of the body.
So I wish for myself and for everyone else being emotionally chewed up by climate catastrophe to get to a state where we can put on “All Night Long” and a black outfit and look our own skulls straight in the eyes and say, “We are all going to die, and that’s sad but fine.”
Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a nonprofit publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, as well as a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches in the English Department at DePaul University, and her most recent books include the national best-seller, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (St. Martin’s Press, 2017) and The Listening Room: A Novel of Georgette and Loulou Magritte (Spork Press, 2018). Her criticism appears in The New York Times Magazine, The Poetry Foundation website, The New York Times Book Review, The Chicago Tribune, The Paris Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She lives in Chicago with her spouse, the writer Martin Seay. Follow her at @KathleenMrooney
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 (paraphrasing here), 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.