(This was originally posted on ABC’s Double J)
Rowland S. Howard’s unique legacy
Rowland S. Howard was never a virtuoso. Rather, he was a primitive iconoclast of the highest order.
The Australian underground has a history of producing bands that create mutant forms of rock and roll that could only have originated from Australia. From the garage thump of ’60s icons The Loved Ones to the hard sharpie R’n’B of Coloured Balls to the thug punk of The Saints, there seems to be something in the Australian water which produces an ugly and malnourished version of rock’n’roll that is unrelenting, damaging and unhinged.
The Birthday Party encapsulate this ethos perhaps more than any other band. At the heart of their sound was the unique caterwauling guitar work of the inimitable Rowland S. Howard.
The Birthday Party had a peculiar and unique intensity, in no small part thanks to the contrasting, larger than life figures onstage. From the drug ravaged Elvis-style performance of Nick Cave, the cig on lip swagger back-and-forth elegance of guitarist Howard and the midnight cowboy aesthetic of bassist Tracey Pew, The Birthday Party was as riveting aesthetically as they were sonically. Even the office worker image of quiet genius Mick Harvey and drummer Phil Calvert offered a reserved intensity.
The Birthday Party were enticing because they were not normal ‘working class blokes from down the road’. They weren’t perpetuating the popular image of the era that Australian pub rock icons Cold Chisel and The Angels flaunted. During this time in Australian music if a band sauntered onstage looking like tradesmen, people assumed the music to be authentic. It was the raw and honest music of working class Australia. The Birthday Party never perpetuated such a façade because the music they produced was a wild and seething animal in itself. The Birthday Party’s music was simply an extension of the lives of the members of the band.
Rowland S. Howard once remarked to Melbourne newspaper The Age “I think that the most important thing about music should be that it expresses some kind of humanity and it should express the personality of the person who is playing it. And if you’re good enough, then people will be able to tell it’s you, not just anyone.”
In one succinct sentence Howard encapsulated what made his music so unique and important. When you hear his albums with The Birthday Party, These Immortal Souls, his solo records or collaborations with Nikki Sudden or Lydia Lunch, it is immediately obvious that it is Rowland’s treble scratched guitar howling through the speakers. Underpinning his signature sneered vocals that often delivered the most sardonic of romantic lyrics.
When Howard served as producer for Melbourne band HTRK’s album Marry Me Tonight, guitarist Nigel Yang acknowledged Rowland’s influence extended far beyond that of a mentor. His influence resonated with him long after the recording sessions had concluded.
“When I’m in the studio I often think of Rowland for inspiration,” he says. “His guitar solos are beautifully confined and speak to me of confinement in general. However his noise guitar sections express a wholly different quality, of freedom and delirium. Rowland exists in my mind as a collection of such qualities, oscillating between romanticism and detachment, endlessly.”
Howard’s motto for guitar was to learn to play one note. If you can get that one note to sound good then you can play guitar. This advice ran contrary to the opinions and guitar histrionics of many ’80s icons. They would have you believe playing guitar was more about skill than kicking out a noise that was unique to your own vision. Rowland stood then, and does to this day, as the anti-guitar hero for miscreants across the globe.
While a member of The Devastations, Conrad Standish collaborated with Howard. He praises the guitarists inventiveness and natural prowess.
“Rowland didn’t use any unusual pedals, or obtuse trickery or gadgetry; he just had that sound in his fingers,” he says. “He channeled desperation, ennui, tenderness and malevolence and he never once broke a string.”
Critics often come back to the first 30 seconds of Howard’s piercing shards of feedback on The Birthday Party track ‘The Friend Catcher’. With its shrieking and unrelenting clatter, the noise Howard conjured remains as confronting today as it did upon release in 1980. It is a testament to Howard’s vision and continual progression as an artist that he could create a sound as formidable and violent as the hollering feedback that careened out of his amplifier at the start of ‘The Friend Catcher’.
Then, decades later, he would write innumerable songs as tender and morose as ‘Autoluminescent’. Therein lies what made Rowland S. Howard such a complex and rewarding talent. He paid no heed to trend, nor gave any credence to the opinion of his critics, nor did he seek to replicate his former legacy. He pursued his own artistic wont.
He paid no heed to trend, nor gave any credence to the opinion of his critics, nor did he seek to replicate his former legacy.
Many picture Rowland S. Howard as a man of utter elegance and grace, whose knowledge of literature and music knew no bounds. In my mind I like to think of Rowland S. Howard doing the mundane things in life. I enjoy picturing Rowland in Berlin in 1984 taking out the rubbish or perhaps in 1997 mowing the lawn.
I picture this because, as decades pass, The Birthday Party, Beasts of Bourbon and other Australian bands of that era have entered the critical realm of ‘seminal status’. Accordingly the bands and their individual members have become mythologized. Ian Rilen, Tex Perkins, Nick Cave and Kim Salmon all now fall into this category.
As does Rowland S. Howard, one of the most substantial, yet culturally neglected, guitarists Australia has produced. With that in mind it easy to relegate Rowland S. Howard as another untouchable icon. But I think it is important to dispel these notions and remember his talent lay in the fact he had the tenacity and creative want to pursue his own unique vision. In doing so, he created an enduring catalogue of music and a distinctive approach to guitar playing that deconstructed the form to its most primitive conclusion.
Harry Howard, brother to Rowland and bassist in Rowland’s post Birthday Party project These Immortal Souls, says Rowland did not simply arrive with that otherworldly guitar sound and genius intact.
“He didn’t arrive on the music scene fully formed but he did come highly developed and with a real sense about how to keep developing.”
This is perhaps what resonates with so many. Howard simply explored and found his own unique sound and pursued this artistic vision until his final days.
Rowland S. Howard was never a virtuoso. Rather, he was a primitive iconoclast of the highest order. He explored that noise in his head, that noise that was unique to him.
To place artists like Rowland S. Howard on a pedestal and relegate the albums he left behind as the untouchable work of an iconic artist is to miss one of the most important parts of Rowland’s artistic process. That was finding that sound that you could truly call your own.
Rowland S. Howard mastered the art of making that one guitar note sound good and in doing so he has left behind a catalogue that is singular.
Perhaps the highest praise one can bestow is that it sounds only like the one and only Rowland S. Howard.
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