The Art of Arson: The Birthday Party’s Prayers on Fire at 40

Nick Cave’s incendiary introduction to the wider world

Nick Cave and The Birthday Party ’81 (Art: Ron Hart)

If the element of the id separating psychotic serial killers from functional people could be isolated and recorded, it still wouldn’t sound as scary as Prayers on Fire.

The first song on The Birthday Party’s debut album contains the line “My body is a monster driven insane.” The second ends with a bone-chilling shriek approximating the cry of a cat being thrown into a meat grinder. The third is sung in a voice sepulchral enough to make Darth Vader sound like Pee Wee Herman. And then things get dark. 

It was not always this way. The 1981 album marked the first full-length release to bear The Birthday Party’s name, but Nick Cave, Rowland S. Howard, Tracy Pew, Phil Calvert and Mick Harvey had already spent a couple of years recording under the name The Boys Next Door. The music they’d made in that time, however edgy, was relatively standard-issue post-punk, though they’d begun developing a Pop Group influence in the final Boys Next Door recordings that pushed them towards a more commanding sound.

 

 

The Boys having failed to make much of a dent, it was time for a change. They relocated to England, renamed themselves after Harold Pinter’s unsettling 1957 play The Birthday Party, and pushed themselves far past anything that looked like a limit. The result was Prayers on Fire.

Despite their decampment to England, the band dashed back to Oz to record the album with producer Tony Cohen, who had overseen their Boys Next Door sessions. What they came up with was as far from The Boys’ 1979 album Door, Door as it was from anything else even loosely labelled “rock” up to that time.

Unleashed upon the world by 4AD (which was still focused on the intersection between goth and post-punk in those early days), Prayers on Fire was the first real exposure most folks outside of Australia ever had to Nick Cave. The feral freak terrorizing adventurous ears for 11 songs was farther from the urbane crooner the world would eventually come to know than Vlad the Impaler was from Dean Martin.

The Birthday Party Prayers On Fire, 4AD 1981

On the opening cut, “Zoo Music Girl,” there are actually two Nicks vying for our attention, spurting out overlapping verses. Coming off like a cross between an amphetamine-fueled Beat poet and a crazed hog caller, Cave bounces off an equally frantic punk-jazz arrangement. Tracy Pew’s titanically filthy bass lines, Phil Calvert’s edge-of-chaos percussive clatter, and Rowland Howard’s barbed-wire guitar careen into Mick Harvey’s manic organ blasts and guest Philip Jackson’s mad, Eastern-flavored trumpet lines. 

There’s barely time to collect oneself after that onslaught before being confronted with “Cry.” While the song ostensibly sports a classic “my baby done left me” theme, the reaction displayed by The Birthday Party to that situation seems more suited to something like an electrocution. The guitars aren’t so much played as detonated, and as noted above, Cave closes the song with a wail frenzied enough to give Screamin’ Jay Hawkins nightmares. 

The pedal’s not pressed to the floor the entire time. Things slow to a scabrous bump for the macabre burlesque of “Nick the Stripper,” where Cave paints a grotesque picture amid Henry Mancini-esque crime-jazz horns and death-rattle guitars. And “Yard” grinds along at a pace designed to wring the maximum amount of excruciation from Cave’s aggrieved roaring and yelping. When he runs out of words, the singer even shifts to an Albert Ayler-on-crack saxophone flurry. 

Cave’s undeniably Ian Curtis-like tone on “Dull Day” underlines both bands’ status as post-punk Doors analogues, while making Joy Division seem like polite schoolboys. For good measure, Cave curiously throws a quote from the early Soft Machine song “Why Are We Sleeping?” into the mix. “Dead Song” brings back the post-punk Beatnik jazz vibes, with perfectly twisted lyrics by Cave’s then-girlfriend Anita Lane, occasional Birthday Party collaborator and future solo artist, who just left on us April 28th.

RIP Anita Lane (Art: Ron Hart)

Though The Birthday Party would continue to commit crimes against nature for a couple more years after this, the closing track of the original LP probably comes the closest to an early Nick Cave solo cut. If Iggy Pop fronted U.K. art-rockers Henry Cow on an interpretation of Brecht/Weill’s Threepenny Opera, it still wouldn’t sound as madly fractured as “Just You and Me,” but you’ve gotta start somewhere. 

Back in 1981 it would have been impossible to guess where Cave’s path would eventually lead. But even if neither he nor his co-conspirators ever recorded another note after Prayers on Fire, The Birthday Party would still be remembered as one of the most transgressive crews ever to scare the pants off the punters. 

 

 

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