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The John Peel Sessions CD by The Birthday Party was released in 2001 on the Varese record label.
The album has all four sessions recorded by the Australian post punk outfit The Birthday Party for the BBC radio John Peel show (RIP).
The line up of the band were -
Nick Cave - Vocals, piano
Mick Harvey - Guitars and occasional drums
Rowland S Howard - Guitars, Vocals
Phil Calvert - Drums (Tracks 1 -12 only)
Tracey Pew - Bass.
The first session, and first four tracks, on the CD were recorded in 1980 and featured four songs that also appeared on the band's debut LP 'Prayers on fire'.
1. Cry -
The session version is a slightly faster rendition of the song than its album counterpart. It features a thick jaunty bass and scratchy guitar stabs from Roland S. Howard. The song frenetically hops along with squawks and yelps from Mr Cave that probably hadn't been heard on a John Peel show since the broadcast of Beefheart.
2. Yard -
Unlike the opener this is a rather slow, tortured and spooky song. Lots of dissonant wails of saxophones screech over a slow back beat of thick bass guitar. Nick croons a tale of misery and misfortune - "In our Yard, how many chickens can we count?"
The whole expansiveness and musical space in the song conjures up a feeling of being lost and confused.
3. Figure of Fun -
Nick Cave sings a song of self mockery - "I am a figure of fun, deadpan and moribund'. Underpinning the lyrics is a fast claustrophobic wall of reverb drenched guitar and a spiralling bass loop. To top this off there are distorted Hammond keyboards and crashing drums. The song is an audio representation of a bad dream!
4. King Ink -
Here we have a much darker and condensed version of the classic track from the bands first album. The powerful combination of thick muddy drums and boxed deep drums create a dark groove that is sprinkled with trebly outburst of guitar and random percussion. The music creates a great accompaniment to the lyrics of a fictional dark squalid character known as King Ink.
The second session from the band, and the next four tracks, were taken from their session recorded in 1981. This session was important as it sees the release of two previously unheard or released studio tracks (Loose and Roland Around in That Stuff).
5. Release the Bats -
The John Peel session of this popular single was a lot more manic and musically loose compared to its vinyl counterpart. The song which is a jaunty bass and drum driven song has an unusual upbeat jazz swing to it that made it instantly accessible. The song was also adopted by the plethora of Goths that were emerging in the early eighties and branded the band as a 'Goth rock' band, which they were clearly not!
6. Rowland Around in That Stuff -
From the lyrics assumedly Nick is singing "Rolling around in that stuff" and probably changed the title to cheer up guitarist Rowland S. Howard! Musically this is probably one of the bands better tracks and it was a real disappointment that the track didn't appear on any of their official albums. The song has a disjointed beat with really great guitar noises and drowning strums of reverb and sharpness. Nick sings once more a tale of squalor, presumably based on his experiences of cheap motels and squats that he encountered in the bands early days in London after emigrating from Australia.
7. (Sometimes) Pleasure Heads Most Burn -
The song is a swaggering rumbling song that could have been the evil son of Adam Ant on steroids. There's lots of backing vocals here that resemble mutinous pirates in throws of drunken excess. "I burn, Rah, rah". God bless the good ship BP!
8. Loose -
This song is a rather tame cover of the Iggy Pop & the Stooges song. It is a good cover though tends to plod along a little slow and lacks the angst and energy of the live version the band had released on their shared LP with Lydia Lunch; Drunk on the popes blood. Nick's voice appears much calmer and restrained and the drums are a little offbeat and sluggish.
9. Big Jesus Trash Can -
This is definitely a wireier and spacious version of the classic song that also appears on the bands 'Junkyard' album. The song is based a round a jazz swinging ride cymbal and is big band music in excess. Nick screams and splutters a lyric of a bad presence driving into town in his trashcan (presumably Cadillac), selling drugs and armed with boots of gold. This song, in my opinion, is important as it marked the bands foray into restrained musical angst rather than the all out less contained style of earlier songs.
10. She's Hit -
Here we have another version of a track from the bands Junkyard album. This version of what is a slow song is far better than the vinyl version in my opinion. The song, which is a tale of death and murder, is performed in a slack and loose fashion that gives the song an organic feeling as if it is being improvised rather than performed. Nicks vocal on this track is great and ranges from the crooner to the crazed!
11. Bully Bones -
Another previously unheard track and not a million miles away from the bands cover of 'Loose'. I say that as all of the same elements are there; fumbling bass groves, muffled box drums and excessive crackling guitar sounds. Nick sings this song to his best ability but you get the feeling that it was not recorded as loud as he would have liked it and he has restrained his performance as a result.
12. Six Inch Gold Blade -
In this song we see Nicks fascination with death and murder (no wonder the gothic rockers liked him!). The song which is a very downbeat and sombre tune sees Cave's unperturbed confession of knife murder. Thankfully Mr Cave has never been convicted of murder, so the tales are fictional (!).
The last four tracks on the CD were the bands final session for the John Peel show.
Recorded in late 1992 the session featured a much more slimmed down version of the band and long-time drummer Phil Calvert was replaced by already band member and multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey. The session was proof that the band were imploding and their sound had finally reached it natural nuclear explosive conclusion.
13. Pleasure Avalanche -
As this song starts, it is a really slow and almost grinds to a stop. You get the feeling that the bands brief period in Berlin and trimming down to a four piece had maybe worked in prevented the inevitable musical meltdown that was occurring in their live shows. Then, halfway through the song the tempo slowly picks up, the volume picks up, then the tempo a little more. Before we now it we are back in old Birthday Party territory with fast drums, crashing cymbals, Cave bawling like a 1 day old baby in a cauldron. The music is on fire and the lyrics touch on desire, pleasure and death. Here we go again!
14. Deep in the Woods -
A slow damp start to this song again sees Cave treading common ground. The song tells a tale of death and murder in a darkened wood. The song reinforces Nick Cave's fascination with death and woe that would become the building blocks of his solo career. Nicks feeling of not belonging and isolation are captured perfectly in the ending lyrics - "All love is fool and all fools are lovers, it's raining on my house but none of the others".
15. Sonny's Burning -
The song starts off with Cave questioning - "Hand's up who wants to die?" This is followed shortly by a military drum riff by Harvey and then a catatonic wall of music. The orgy of sound burns whilst Cave proclaims that "Evil heat is running through me" and he isn't wrong. This song symbolises the end of the Birthday Party as they literally burn to a bright white that paralyses your retinas and liquidise your ear drums.
16. Marry Me (Lie! Lie!) -
A strange song to end the album with as for the most it is a relatively tuneful song of love and deception. The music takes a more contained and musical flow and Nick barely raises a rasp! As the song ends, it restarts into a bouncy track and guitarist Rowland takes over vocals in a deep and low vocal, almost baritone. Rowland was to later re-record this song with his band These Immortal Souls (which he formed after the demise of The Birthday Party.
There is no doubt that the majority of these songs are better than the studio versions that appear on the bands official output. I think the reason behind this is that the John Peel sessions were usually recorded in a day. As a result of this relatively short recording time each song appears a little rawer in sound as there has been far less time to mess with the final mix. This is the case with many of the Peel Session releases by other bands too. The Birthday Party's sheer angst and mayhem is seldom caught in the studio and you had to capture them live to experience the true sonic prowess and swagger. This record is halfway there.
Having caught the band's true spirit is not the only good thing about this CD; the inclusion of unheard and unreleased tracks is a definite bonus and is worth the purchase for this alone.
Price and availability
The album is currently out of print but can be purchased from the Amazon marketplace (www.amazon.co.uk) for around £20 at the date of writing (22nd August 2008).
Copyright M Jones (Otalgia) 2008.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
3 Figure of Fun
4 King Ink
5 Release the Bats
6 Roland Around in That Stuff
7 (Sometimes) Pleasure Heads Most Burn
9 Big Jesus Trash Can
10 She's Hit
11 Bully Bones
12 Six Inch Gold Blade
13 Pleasure Avalanche
14 Deep in the Woods
15 Sonny's Burning
16 Marry Me (Lie! Lie!)