REVIEW | OPINION: ‘Mutiny in Heaven: The Birthday Party’

One of the highlights of my week is when the latest edition of The Red Hand Files shows up in my inbox. The Red Hand Files is a website founded in 2018 by Australian singer-songwriter-author Nick Cave to answer questions from his fans. The questions are sometimes funny, but often have to do with weightier subjects like religion, grief, mental health, addiction, love and art.

Cave, founder and frontman of the long-running band the Bad Seeds, is an empathetic, sensitive and optimistic correspondent, dispensing advice and humor artfully and with great consideration. If you're feeling negative or cynical, reading through a few of the files just might give you a spark of hope for this mad world.

And speaking of mad worlds: Long before he was a well-dressed, erudite advice giver, Cave was a member of the Birthday Party, a postpunk band that included guitarists Rowland S. Howard and Mick Harvey, bassist Tracey Pew and drummer Phil Calvert. The Birthday Party sounded like early PiL and the Stooges in a knife fight at a Cramps concert and the band's shows were transgressive, confrontational and sometimes violent.

"Mutiny in Heaven," a new documentary from Australian director Ian White, is streaming now on Amazon Prime and tells the story of the Birthday Party in all its primitive, menacing, dysfunctional glory. The film features exclusive interviews with Cave, Harvey and Calvert and a previously unseen interview with Howard filmed shortly before his death in 2009 of liver cancer (Pew died in 1986 after an epileptic seizure).

There are animated segments, band photos and sweaty, live footage that shows just how intense and thrillingly unhinged the group could be (the film opens with Cave onstage warning that the "front row is not for the fragile, my dear").

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The Birthday Party was born from the Boys Next Door, which Cave, a Johnny Cash fan since childhood, formed in Melbourne in the mid-1970s with schoolmates Harvey, Calvert and Pew. They performed often, built a loyal following in the Australian musical underground and signed with Mushroom Records. Their sound was solidified with the addition of Howard, whose wiry guitar tone and penchant for experimentation, coupled with Cave's charisma and growing confidence as a songwriter, propelled the band into something more original and daring.

The members were nonconformists, musically and otherwise; hard drinking and drug use were prevalent (except for Harvey, "the sober one").

In Howard's words, which may as well be a romanticized definition of rock 'n' roll: "There was a sense of immortality, a sense that everything was possible and you could do whatever you liked and you didn't have to obey the rules."

By 1980 London was calling, so the boys moved and changed the band name to the Birthday Party. The group was met with indifference and gigs were sparse and sparsely attended. The members lived at first in a cramped one-room space and practically starved; Howard in particular was miserable and sickly and both he and Cave were developing full-on heroin addictions.

The adversity they faced in London galvanized the band, and the members poured their frustration, contempt and rage into their music. A self-released single, "Mr. Clarinet," got some traction; another single, "Friend Catcher," was released by hip London label 4AD. Influential disc jockey John Peel began playing their songs on his show, the London music press was writing about them and things were looking up.

After a year, the band returned to Australia for a well-received tour and the recording of an album, "Prayers on Fire" (Howard tells the story of having to stop their sessions on occasion because Australian easy listening heroes Little River Band needed the studio). They returned to London having been honed into a howling machine of scary, boneyard art punk, and their shows were becoming legend.

"It wasn't like, rip up the chairs and smash the place up," Harvey said of what would happen onstage. "It was really something from inside the psyche."

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One of the great strengths of "Mutiny in Heaven" is the abundance of live footage. We see the rail-thin Cave shouting and growling like a demented carnival barker and rolling on the stage floor; the eccentric Pew in his cowboy hat and mustache playing bass while doing back bends; the zombie-like Howard slashing his guitar; Calvert pounding out primal rhythms and Harvey, the calm at the center of the storm around him.

There is also a bit of humor, like memories of the band's debut in New York at the Underground that was shut down after 10 minutes. They lasted twice as long at the second New York gig before being tossed out. The next show, in Chicago, was by all accounts a triumph.

A new album, "Junkyard," was released in 1982, but the band was starting to come apart.

Pew had to leave to serve an eight month jail term for multiple DWIs and theft (he rejoined after he got out) and the relationship between Cave and Howard was becoming strained in the way that relationships do between certain frontmen and lead guitarists. Heroin, of course, was also a factor.

The group moved to Berlin and fired Calvert. Harvey took over on drums and they worked on what would become the band's final studio recordings, the EPs "Mutiny!" and "The Bad Seed" which were combined in one release. After a farewell show in Melbourne in 1983 the Birthday Party was over.

Cave and Harvey formed Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (Harvey left in 2009); Howard started These Immortal Souls and Calvert joined the Psychedelic Furs.

The Birthday Party never got huge; they were far too strange, dark and destructive to cross over to a larger audience, but their influence had an impact on groups like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Dinosaur Jr., Royal Trux and Sonic Youth.

With this documentary White has captured the poster boys for a time we might not soon see again, when underground rock was unpredictable and tinged with danger, like the Johnny Cash that Cave was transfixed by as a boy. These were young men arrogant and brave enough to fully believe in themselves and their music and the freedom that promised.

It's not for everybody, but for those who are drawn to the Birthday Party's brand of bleak, poetic nihilism, it's heavenly.

  • 89 Cast: Nick Cave, Phil Calvert, Mick Harvey, Rowland S. Howard, Tracy Pew
  • Director: Ian White
  • Rating: Not rated
  • Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes

Now streaming on Amazon Prime


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