Dennis Cooper’s Blog: Dan Wreck and Marilyn Roxie Present … Rowland S. Howard (Part 1)

Originally posted on the previous incarnation of Dennis Cooper’s Blog.
Intro
 
Rowland S. Howard (1959 – 2009) was a member of The Young Charlatans, Boys Next Door, The Birthday Party, Crime & the City Solution, and These Immortal Souls. He also made a frustratingly small number of solo records, and collaborated with Nikki Sudden, Lydia Lunch, and HTRK, among others. Most famous for his song “Shivers”, and although he may not be a familiar name, there’s a chance one of your musical heroes either played with him, alongside him, or just idolised him. He was a guitar hero with none of the machismo and idiotic posturing that phrase implies. He was a greatly underrated singer with an incredibly bruised and beautiful voice. He held his own alongside and somehow stole the show from Nick Cave at the peak of his smacked-out Aussie Iggy mania. He was a thin, frail androgyne with a delicate birdlike face and a broken boxer’s nose. He will be missed.

 

Rowland S. Howard & Ollie Olsen – Interview on ‘Music Around Us’

 

Young Charlatans – “Shivers”

 

For our two-part feature on Rowland S. Howard’s work, Dan will be taking the reins with the writing, with Marilyn providing editing, images, and audio/video selections, and also stepping in for a moment later on to discuss Rowland and Lydia Lunch’s collaboration.

 

Boys Next Door / The Birthday Party

 

“I’ve been contemplating suicide, but it really doesn’t suit my style”

 

The Boys Next Door – “Shivers”

 

Rowland apparently wrote “Shivers”, a song that would later become his albatross, when he was sixteen (according to Nick Cave). He went on to write better songs, but only marginally. Irritating for him but fine when you consider what a great song that is and one you’d be happy to have written at any point in your life. Howard says it was a satire of over-dramatic love-songs, but it’s one that could only have been written by the tortured romantic he was (if the accounts of those who knew him and the documentary are anything to go by).

So the story goes, Nick Cave’s first words to Rowland were the question “So are you a punk or a poof?”, an early demonstration of his way with words that would lead to widespread critical acclaim later in life. This was the unlikely beginning of a beautiful friendship and a highly influential collaboration. Their first recorded work together is on the second side of the Boys Next Door album Door, Door (1979). The first side is quite tame and uninteresting compared to what they later went on to do, but out of context I’m sure it’d be a good listen.To be fair, the second side with Rowland playing on was recorded quite a while after the first (six months, which is an eternity for a developing young band), but the leap in quality really is astonishing. Cave hates the record now which is a bit strong: it’s got “Shivers” on it so can’t be all bad, there’s nothing really terrible on it and it’s an interesting document of some artists developing.

 

The Birthday Party’s self-titled debut (1980) isn’t a million miles away from the Boys Next Door record but is definitely a step in the right direction. It’s out of print, apparently, but you can get it along with the Hee Haw EP (1979) on the Hee Haw disc (for the collectors). There’re a few Rowland sung tracks from this time period, including “The Red Clock” (which I’ve only just realised is him, I thought it was Cave til I looked it up). There’re very few songs I’ve heard that Rowland both wrote and sung I’d call inessential but they’re all from around this time. If you’re only going to listen to one track, make it “The Friend Catcher”: Nick Cave’s vocals here anticipate Jamie Stewart’s on the more restrained Xiu Xiu songs, he gives a great performance. It’s also bookended by some incredibly beautiful and noisy Rowland guitar feedback-shaping, turning noise into melody and melody into noise. It sounds futuristic now, I can only imagine how it did then: one of his great performances.

Prayers On Fire (1981) was despised by the band at first, who were worried they’d made a slick record. Time has proved them wrong, and while it’s undoubtedly less raw than their live sound it’s leaps and bounds from everything they’d done up to this point and definitely not over-polished (unlike, say, later Bad Seeds records The Lyre of Orpheus / Abattoir Blues or Nocturama). The band are, well, on fire: Cave’s unhinged rants set against Tracey Pew’s sleazy, speaker thumping bass; Phill Calvert’s frankly insane jazz-punk drumming; Mick Harvey’s all-around skill both on rhythm guitar and most of the keyboards on the album; and of course, Rowland (who also takes the mic on “Ho-Ho”). Henry Rollins said it best when he described it as being “surf guitar in hell” although there’s something free jazz-esque about his playing here too. It stumbles around, sounding as addled as the band (Mick Harvey aside) no doubt were, especially on “King Ink” when he plays the descending melody line post-chorus along with Cave’s vocals and Pew’s bass.

 

Junkyard (1982) is yet another improvement. Though just as I’m not buying that Rowland was just satirising over the top love songs, I’m not convinced “Release The Bats” is just a “satire” of goth. Not from a band with a bassist who wore a see-through fishnet top and leather trousers, with that androgynous alien lead guitarist. Not to mention Nick Cave charging around with an atom bomb explosion of backcombed, dyed black hair, dressed in velvet suits. If The Birthday Party weren’t a goth band no one was. End of story. They were also the best.

 

This is made all the more apparent by the opening seconds of “She’s Hit”, that bleak empty plain atmosphere created by splashy cymbals, rumbling bass and of course the twin guitars of Rowland S. Howard and Mick Harvey. Not a single note is wasted here or across the rest of the album. The free-jazz influence is most apparent here on the songs where Mick Harvey drums (“Dead Joe” and “Hamlet (Pow, Pow, Pow)”) and contributes atonal sax skronk (“Big-Jesus-Trash-Can”). Rowland’s lifelong friend and musical accomplice Harvey is in many respects as underlooked as him: he made more money out of music, undoubtedly, played on more prominent records, but I don’t think enough people who listen, really listen to this music realise that it’d all fall to pieces if you took his contributions away.

 

Nick Cave’s vocals on this album are terrifying: he does the insane gibbering madman thing perfectly but even his crooning vocals are scary on this. His screeches on the title track and “6″ Gold Blade” are almost inhuman. It’s as hard to believe the noise he made came from a human throat as it is to believe that some of Rowland’s guitar sounds didn’t. Incredible as the performance is, I do wish Rowland had sung the one he wrote (“Several Sins”): Nick even phrases it like Rowland would’ve. The influence of the Pop Group is just as obvious here as on Prayers On Fire but this is the record where, for me, The Birthday Party sound was really honed. Shame it’s their last proper album.

 

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The two EPs, The Bad Seed EP and Mutiny (1983) are the best stuff The Birthday Party did. They’re available collected on the one CD and if you’re going to get one thing by them make it this. “Sonny’s Burning” opens with a cry of “Hands up, who wants to die?!” and that just about sets the tone for everything that follows. Mick Harvey is now drumming on everything, replacing Calvert’s busier style with a rhythmically eccentric primal stomp, leaving Howard playing most of the guitar. Which makes it easier to single him out for praise: as Mick Harvey’s tribute to his friend on 2011’s Sketches From The Book of The Dead demonstrates, he was pretty good at playing in Rowland’s style too. It’s hard to decide which my favourite is, between “Deep In The Woods” and “Wildworld”. “Deep In The Woods” is Cave’s best vocal performance and lyric up to this point, an unhinged post-punk blues murder ballad. The band’s understanding of dynamics is streets ahead of many contemporary acts, best shown in the cavernous gap of near-silence that can’t be more than a second but is still somehow louder than the sonic overload that preceded it.
 
The Birthday Party – “Deep In The Woods”

“Wildworld” is less sinister, more darkly romantic, Cave’s twin obsessions with the sacred and the profane popping up again with “our bodies melt together, we are one, post-crucifixion, baby.” This is a seam he’d continue mining up to the present day, still surprisingly successfully at times. The guitar moment of this song for me isn’t, surprisingly, the juddering Link Wray explosions in the chorus but the almost slinky down-strokes playing off Pew’s bass during Nick’s grunt solo at the end.

I don’t think Rowland even plays on the highlight of the Mutiny EP, “Mutiny In Heaven”: one of my all-time favourite Cave lyrics and vocal performances, from the opening howl to the multi-tracked speaking in tongues and snarling, held in place by Pew’s perverted-Motown bass riff. He’d left by this point, replaced by Blixa Bargeld from Einstürzende Neubauten. Blixa was later to be a Bad Seed, only leaving after Nocturama (which would make me leave too, although the opening and closing tracks of that album would both make my own personal two disc Bad Seeds best of). Their playing styles are quite similar but I don’t think it’s a question of influence, other than maybe being influenced by similar things, just a shared sensibility. Nick definitely had good luck with guitarists. Rowland does, however, play on the rest of the EP which contains another eerie murder ballad in the form of the pitch-black, capital-G-Gothic “Jennifer’s Veil”. It’s a shame the two couldn’t have worked together longer, the differences obviously being more artistic than strictly personal as Howard pops up on a few Bad Seeds records further down the line (contributing backing vocals and guitar to tracks on Kicking Against The Pricks, Let Love In, and Murder Ballads).
 

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Crime & the City Solution

 

Just as Nick took Mick Harvey and a man who plays guitar in a similar way to Rowland and formed The Bad Seeds, Rowland took Mick Harvey, led by a man who sings in a similar way to Nick (Simon Bonney) to form the 1985 incarnation of Crime & the City Solution. The two bands appear side by side in Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire, the Bad Seeds performing “The Carny” from Your Funeral, My Trial (my favourite Bad Seeds album) — that’s enough about Nick Cave, though, as this day isn’t about him — and Crime & the City Solution with “Six Bells Chime” from 1986 release Room of Lights.
 
Wings of Desire (1987) – “Six Bells Chime” by Crime & the City Solution

3129055.jpgAfter Room of Lights and the song appeared in the film, this version of Crime & the City Solution was no more, with Simon Bonney forming a new line-up for 1988’s Shine. Rowland went on to collaborate with Nikki Sudden, playing guitar on his solo album Texas (1986) and making an EP and album with him, Wedding Hotel and Kissed You Kidnapped Charabanc (1987). Also in 1987, he formed These Immortal Souls with two other former members of Crime (his brother Harry Howard on bass and Nikki Sudden’s brother Epic Soundtracks on drums) and romantic and musical partner Genevieve McGuckin on keyboards.

 

Nikki Sudden & Rowland S. Howard – “Wedding Hotel”

 

These Immortal Souls

 

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The first These Immortal Souls album Get Lost (Don’t Lie!) (1987) is my favourite of Rowland’s works alongside the first solo record Teenage Snuff Film, a fact I realised listening to it now as I write this. I’d forgotten about it like pretty much everyone else in the world has. It was the song “These Immortal Souls” prompted this realisation. Now I’m a sucker for bands naming songs after themselves (or vice versa): it can’t be a coincidence that the best thing Black Sabbath ever did was that self-titled track, but that’s just an aside. The song “These Immortal Souls” is a brooding 8 minute epic starting in slow jazzy “Wild Is The Wind” territory with rolling, ride cymbal heavy drums, dramatic piano and glimmers of sheet metal guitar in the background. When the tempo picks up Rowland switches from a croon to a feral desperation closer to Nick Cave’s early delivery than anything else in Howard’s solo career. This album is a great showcase for Rowland’s guitar playing, and the rest of the band (including his brother Harry on bass) are on fire too. There’s a rawer edge to his vocals absent on the rest of his work, and it comes highly recommended for fans of Swans more accessible material.

 

The single “Marry Me (Lie! Lie!)” is one of those mystifyingly overlooked twisted pop gems he seemed to have so little trouble writing when he felt like it. Why it wasn’t more of a success I don’t know: the cascading piano is a great opening hook, the chorus is infectious and that voice (equal parts Joey Ramone, Mary Weiss and David Bowie) gets under your skin and lingers. The problem was probably that it was too dark for the already codified “indie” types, but too funny for the goths and too intelligent and passionate for both. The accompanying video has some stunning shots of Rowland, one minute wide eyed and incredibly pretty the next minute looking like the perfect anti-heroin PSA.

 

These Immortal Souls – “Marry Me (Lie! Lie!)

 

I’m Never Gonna Die Again (1992) is another unjustly underlooked record. The opening lines of the first song “King of Kalifornia” make a similar argument to the one I’m making now, “You must allow me my significance.” “So The Story Goes” is my favourite, an incredibly moving song, and one that with the right exposure could’ve been commercially successful, as could many of his songs; he was a great un-pop songwriter after all. It’s the self-awareness of the lyric that cuts deepest (another recurring theme), but here the unflinching self-analysis is set to an alternate universe power ballad arrangement with pretty piano arpeggios and cymbal heavy drumming.

 

These Immortal Souls – “King of Kalifornia”


“Hyperspace” has a hypnotic riff, mood-swing drums and a fantastically snotty vocal performance that is in places double-tracked. The ominous piano line all but buried in the mix is a nice touch. Finally, “Crowned” is the highpoint of the record, with outbreaks of fuzz guitar tantrum married to splashy reverb piano and propulsive tribal drums. Not only is this song full of the kind of religious references that are a staple in the work of his former Birthday Party sparring partner, but “through the vaporous veil of my shotgun bride” seems to be a reference to his project with Lydia Lunch, Shotgun Wedding (1991).

 

Lydia Lunch & Rowland S. Howard – Shotgun Wedding (1991)

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Marilyn: Lydia Lunch has always scared me. A lot of my own baggage around gender had gotten in the way of me being able to appreciate strong women — personality, talents, the whole bit — until very recently. Lydia is the sort of artist I had run away from, mentally screaming, too sonically intimidated to get involved. I did go through a period a few years ago of replaying “Atomic Bongos” just because it is so damn catchy, but other than that, I was just brimming with a mixture of fright and confusion over why her bored murmur or scary caterwauling was considered artistically relevant. I stayed far away, I rolled my eyes and scrolled right past if one of her photos appeared wherever I was browsing around online.

Then, Dan had gotten me into Rowland S. Howard, thanks to the inclusion of “Undone” from Teenage Snuff Film (which you’ll find out about in part 2) as the final track on a playlist for me – and who could not be smitten by that? Before long, I just had to listen to everything Rowland had to do with, and revisited the Birthday Party with a more acute knowledge of the role of his guitar-playing…before long, I realized I would have to come back to revisit Lydia, thanks to this collaborative album from 1991. I was partially upset about the idea of Rowland’s music running out eventually, trying to listen to things as slowly, piece by piece, so I put it aside for that reason as well. I made some exciting discoveries in the process, namely that he figured in haunting keys and guitar parts for HTRK’s Marry Me Tonight (2009), also covered in part 2, an album that I have listened to repeatedly without a clue of his involvement.

 

So, Shotgun Wedding, apparently “Lydia’s hymn to living in New Orleans”, does nothing to make me any less scared of Lydia, but I am for once able to rest within the fear somehow. I am safe because there is at least something familiar here (Rowland’s ever-majestic guitar); safe, even with titles like “Burning Skulls”, “Solar Hex”, and “Endless Fall”.

 

Lydia Lunch & Rowland S. Howard – “Burning Skulls”

 

Nearly 10 years earlier, Lydia and Rowland had collaborated on an unsettlingly weird, still enjoyable cover of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra’s “Some Velvet Morning”.

 

Lydia Lunch & Rowland S. Howard – “Some Velvet Morning”

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