It’s been 35 years since Nick Cave released his first album with college band The Boys Next Door. In that time he has garnered a reputation as one of the finest songwriters working today, surrounding himself with world class musicians and amassing a huge fan base, some of whom consider him God-like.
Recently Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s pseudo-documentary, 20,000 Days on Earth, was made to celebrate that particular amount of time Nick’s spent on this planet. Complete with in-depth discussion about his life and fan-baiting factoids, the film is a must for any fan. In celebration of the film’s release we’re looking back at ten tracks from his extensive catalogue that may have been over-looked. Some got crowded in albums with a wealth of great music, some don’t get any live airings and some have just not been heard that much.
If you’re a fan see if you agree. If you’ve never listened, prepare for a feast.
Shivers (Boys Next Door – Door, Door. 1979)
And the opening song is one not actually written by the great songwriter himself. Rowland S. Howard, band member in The Boys Next Door created this “anthem to teen-angst” as Cave himself described it once during a rare live outing. The Boys Next Door where essentially the teenage version of what would later morph into The Birthday Party. Cave, along with eventual, long-time collaborator Mick Harvey, Tracey Pew, and the aforementioned Howard, put out their one and only album Door, Door in 1979. Cave himself has been dismissive of the record, once implying in an interview that if you like the album, you don’t really understand music. As a first album of short-sharp punk songs by a bunch of teenagers though, it still holds up pretty well and there’s already large dollops of intense melancholy in there that would later define Cave’s sound.
Shivers comes at the end of the album, sounding unlike anything else on it which helps to make it so memorable. The lyrics are simplistic, and as mentioned, sound like they have been written by a moody teenager – “my baby’s so vain, she is almost a mirror”. But the sorrowful sounding riff – which sounds like it owes a debt to Robert Fripp – coupled with Cave’s absolutely devoted delivery makes the chorus “shivers down my spi-i-ne-i-i-ine” sound heartbreaking rather than turgid.
Plus in the video Cave’s dressed like an undertaker’s apprentice. What more could you want?
The Friend Catcher (The Birthday Party – Hee-Haw, 1983)
By this point in The Birthday Party’s career, they had already become infamous for being one of the world’s “most dangerous” live acts. Mostly as a result of each band member’s unrelenting presence onstage aided, in no small part, by Cave’s manic, big haired, suited figure on stage. They already released two classic albums of dark punk with Prayers on Fire and Junkyard. The Friend Catcher was released as the band were seemingly starting to wind down, releasing a handful of Eps in the last few months of their short, but prolific, existence.
Beginning with a scream of almost feedback-like guitar, Mick Harvey and Rowland Howard mange to make a couple of guitars sound like an entire orchestra as they majestically swoop in ahead of Tracey Pew’s menacing bassline. Cave’s vocals are indicative of his style at the time – panicked and paranoid. Declaring to be trapped in a “prison of sound,” the song manages to throw all kinds of sounds at the listener, the dueling guitars, the feedback, jazz like drums, Cave screaming “Hee-haw, hee-haw” for some drug fuelled reason. It all builds and builds until crashing down again, never has the sound of dust settling been so perfectly captured on record. It’s a monumental punk track.
Jack’s Shadow (The Bad Seeds – Your Funeral… My Trial, 1986)
It starts on a dramatic note and it keeps building. It swoops in with an acoustic guitar riff more intense than anything Leonard Cohen ever noodled away to. Your Funeral… My Trail was recorded in a haze of drug abuse in the late 80s. The music was starting to sound more refined, but with a new, cleaner sound the songs began to take on a more uneasy presence. Earlier works had been overwhelemed by the sheer bombastic power of the music, now it was becoming more quietly menacing.
The song, Jack’s Shadow, sounds almost like a panic attack as the track builds and slows with frequent measure. Your Funeral… My Trail (incidentally brought out as 2 Eps, then combined into one album) was also the record that started to heavily feature Cave’s monstrous piano playing.
Apparently, it’s a song about writer and criminal Jack Henry Abbott who killed a man in prison whilst he was serving time for forgery. In prison he wrote the bestselling book In the Belly of the Beast and when released from prison was out for only six weeks before he killed a man. Although, listening to the song, a connection to Abbott seems abstract at best. Perhaps the “shadow” is the lingering air of murderous intent which he can’t shake. It certainly would help inform Ghosts… Of the Civil Dead, the film Cave would soon go on to co-write. It could also be about a grim, failing relationship. Either way it’s an uncomfortable listen.
Mercy (The Bad Seeds – Tender Prey, 1988)
That menacing piano I mentioned in the last song? It’s turned up by ten for Mercy. Taken from Tender Prey an album filled with religious and righteous fury, vengeance and redemption. Written at the same time as Cave was writing his first And the Ass Saw the Angel – a bleak and difficult read – this song has a particularly wicked tone to it. Often overlooked in favour of the sinisterly operatic The Mercy Seat on the same album, Mercy has the air of a prayer as opposed to The Mercy Seat’s plea.
It feels like a narrative of a convict running out in the harsh American South; the background whine of a Morricone-eqsue harmonica brings heat to mind. At this point in his career Cave was edging away from his trademark snarl into a softer melodic voice, it suits the song’s humble narrator. It’s a sprawling track that feels less chorus/verse as chorus/story arc.
Hallelujah (The Bad Seeds – No More Shall We Part, 2001)
After taking the longest break in his career between bringing out music, Cave returned in 2001 having been through rehab and a couple of bad break ups (for more on this listen to The Boatman’s Call). His voices had yet again seem to change. It seemed to go up a whole octave. The music has become much mellower, taking on the form of late night club jazz band, and I mean that in the best possible way. Warren Ellis also started to come to the fore as a real creative force in the band. On Hallelujah in particular his siren like violin carries the song.
His words are now becoming almost conversational in tone. The song seems to be dealing with his time in recovery, when he was suffering from writer’s block – “My typewriter had turned mute as a tomb, and my piano crouched in the corner of my room with all its teeth bared”. It’s a song filled with a sense of frustration and remorse. The lyrics form almost a stream of consciousness as the narrator travels from his room out into the night arriving at “a little house, with all hopes and dreams kept within”, perhaps implying temptation to return for one last hit.
It’s a song that sticks in the memory if for nothing other than the haunting violin loop. It appeared on tour when the album was first released but has since dropped out of rotation. Which is a shame because it stands as one his strongest songs post-2000.
Electric Alice (Grinderman – Grinderman, 2007)
On its release Cave said that he could listen to this track forever and I agree. Seven years after its release it remains my ringtone and I haven’t grown sick of it yet.
A four-piece consisting of Cave and fellow Bad Seeds; Warren Ellis, Jim Scalvunos and Martyn Casey. It was Cave’s chance to experiment more with rock and roll, picking up a guitar for the first time and writing dirtier, less refined songs.
A song of few lyrics as a narrator discusses a lovely lady called Electric Alice in the nocturnal light. The whole song is built around a hypnotic Warren Ellis guitar line that’s serves as an audio lava-lamp. It seems to swirl in your head as short sharp busts of guitars zap back and forth. The song acting mostly as a showcase for Cave’s electric organ. The music screams neon lights and nighttime mis-adventures. It’s music that sounds unlike anything else in Cave’s catalogue, and for the matter most other music. It would be fantastic if some Grinderman songs could weave their way into Bad Seeds shows and, if they did this, this song would be the highlight.
Animal X (The Bad Seeds – Record Store Day 2013 Release)
“There was a girl, call her Animal X”. Recorded during the session for Push the Sky Away (a scene of the band demoing the song appears in 20,000 Days on Earth) the track ended up being released as a single for Record Store Day in 2013.
Built around another of Warren Ellis hypnotic loops; this time treated violins that sounds as though they are being played backwards, and seemingly unending drum beat and music twists, turns and crashes like waves thrusting on the “boondocks” mentioned in the lyrics. The story of Animal X and Animal Y. A disjointed relationship story where neither participant know what they want from the other, but they sure do look good. “They can build their Gods way up high, they can build their Gods but they don’t know why”