This was written by Ken Scrudato, and originally appeared in BlackBook, 18 February 2020
THE CULTURAL landscape is littered with the faded memories of those who came and went without the honours corresponding to the levels of their actual artistic significance.
One of those was absolutely Rowland S. Howard, who passed on in December of 2009, likely due to the effects of years of unchecked consumption of alcohol. Such were the rigours of three decades of dwelling in the musical underground after the breakup of the Birthday Party, whose singer was, of course, the one and the only Nick Cave.
As confirmed in a new interview with Birthday Party bandmate and future Bad Seed Mick Harvey, it is very possible that the now-legendary Australian singer would not have been urged on to such great heights without Howard’s explosive talent nipping at his heels. And if you had the thrill of losing yourself in either of the records by the latter’s incredible band These Immortal Souls – 1987’s Get Lost (Don’t Lie), 1992’s I’m Never Gonna Die Again – you would understand how much that is not an exaggeration.
As Cave himself has said it, “Rowland Howard’s guitar sound defined a generation. He was the best of us all. His influence continues to reverberate, down the years, to this day. Truly one of the greats.”
Fat Possum – the American label known for the likes of the Black Keys, the Stooges, even Al Green – is now re-issuing Howard’s arguable masterpiece and debut solo album, 1999’s Teenage Snuff Film (release date March 6, including double vinyl). But to really understand his all-encompassing magnificence, it is recommended to watch Lynn-Maree Milburn and Richard Lowenstein’s 2011 documentary Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard.
We caught up with Harvey to remember his friend and nascent musical conspirator.
What made Rowland so essential to the development of the Birthday Party style?
There are arguably several things which Rowland brought to the band over the years that were crucial to what the Birthday Party was and how it came to be that way. One could say that of any of the members, to be honest – it was a band which functioned with a very complex chemistry drawn from a set of strong personalities.
But he was like a force of nature…
When Rowland joined the band…then called the Boys Next Door…in 1978, he brought with him a batch of songs, many of which we were already familiar with from them having been played in his previous band, the Young Charlatans. His arrival was like an injection of adrenalin. As a band we were still searching for our direction, our purpose, what we really wanted to be. We were very young and wanted to take what we were doing somewhere and find our own special thing, but really we were still scratching about in the dirt. Rowland’s arrival gave us a big boost and a bit more swagger and confidence that we could take that next step.
Did his writing influence the rest of the band?
The level of his songwriting forced Nick [Cave] to up his game. I would say it’s one of the things that led him to take things more seriously. Until that time it felt more like Nick was tinkering with it, like a weekend hobby… and that he would have considered other disciplines such as writing or painting to be more serious and proper channels for his self-expression. The competition inherent in having two songwriters in a band was very important.
And his jagged guitar style essentially helped define the post-punk zeitgeist.
As he was not singing very much, he was able to focus a lot of energy into his instrument and applied his very [singular] aesthetic to finding his sound and style over the next couple of years – mainly 1979 and 1980. The whole sound of the Birthday Party was very heavily personalized, from Tracy’s bass style through the approach to the drumming and the other instrumentation and Nick’s vocal delivery. But certainly, the music is bathed in Rowland’s guitar sound and his unique stylizations.
Did that carry over into the Bad Seeds?
In the latter period of the Birthday Party, Nick commented to me that he didn’t really relate to the music the band was making. I suppose on one level he was using it as a vehicle for his lyrics and his live performances. So I would disagree that Rowland’s style influenced the aesthetic of the Bad Seeds. Nick’s desire to distance himself from that musical style and find the music he wanted to play completely underpinned the sounds which the Bad Seeds found on the first four albums. Avoidance of some of the signature sounds which belonged to the Birthday Party was, in my opinion, one of the key drivers in what we were doing musically in the early years of the Bad Seeds.