Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds Reissues: The First Four Are Dead Good

Murder. We're all attracted to it in one way or another and Nick Cave is certainly no exception. John Doran revels in the first four Bad Seeds reissues

It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The ‘life-partner’ is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out to play next to the burnt-out car at the end of the estate. You put your feet up on the futon, turn on your Power Book and log on to the net. Cracked parsnips on a raft of sky-blushed polenta, or free-range squid with quince marmalade, followed up by gluten free sorbet and driven home, as it were, by a cup of mahogany-brown, fair-trade tea, have put you in just the right mood. In these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to hear about?

Naturally, about a murder. But what kind of murder? If one examines the murders which have given the greatest amount of pleasure to the music listening public, one finds a fairly strong family resemblance running through the greater number of them. We don’t want to hear about the actual reality of murder. You know, like that guy from down the road, who got stabbed to death outside the launderette after asking some youths to stop throwing stones at him. Or that fellow who came in from the pub pissed and beat his kids to death with a golf club. No, we want to hear about more intellectually and morally nourishing slayings. Biblical brothers, lovestruck ladies dressed in black, thunder-faced cowboys hell-bent on revenge, drunken preachers. Girls that you love so much, you have to stove their heads in with a rock. That kind of thing.

And some would say, now that Johnny Cash is dead, well, Nick Cave’s your man, isn’t he?

Cave left Melbourne, Australia in 1980 along with The Birthday Party to seeking infamy and misfortune in London. They chose their destination inspired by the British punk and post punk music they were hearing on the radio and washed up in old London town expecting to have a wild time but instead found that it actually wasn’t very good at all. This of course gave him an excuse to enjoy the age old Australian tradition of living here while complaining volubly about how terrible the experience was. Now, I can just about remember what the UK was like in 1980, and to be fair, it was fucking awful. If only before setting off he’d listened to some of the English punk and post punk which excelled in telling the listener how terrible living in the UK was. D’oh!

Of course this rancour, dislocation, arrogance and embattled spirit were all essential to Cave – who was, and still is, nothing without a loyal band of talented henchmen who share his negative world view. It’s just that The Birthday Party weren’t to be that group for long.

Dropping the junkyard blitz in 1983 for something that would sound more like a creature formed from broken orchestra instruments dragging its tortured carcass over broken glass he disbanded the Birthday Party and founded the Bad Seeds. His new project may have sounded totally different but the core was comfortably familiar. Mick Harvey came with him to play numerous instruments (and would remain as his lieutenant until the relatively disastrous Nocturama. He has recently retired, after Warren Ellis increasingly seemed to take on the role). Magazine bassist Barry Adamson had already subbed for Tracey Pew, while guitar savant Blixa Bargeld of Einsturzende Neubauten also joined, along with Hugo Race and Cave’s then girlfriend, Anita Lane.

The first album From Her To Eternity was tune parched and pulsed like a migraine but was not a collection of dirges by any stretch of the imagination. The band showed immense restraint, creating acres of space between a clicking snare, the occasional baroque organ flourish and the creaking scrape of sweaty guitar strings. Cave swelled to fill this space like a recently summoned demon. He was the man of many voices. He crooned, wailed, warbled, wheedled, pleaded, hectored, admonished, raved, spluttered and shouted. His true offspring isn’t Gerard Way or some other emo sheep in goth wolf’s clothing but in fact Li’l Wayne. Cave is Old Jeezy. Old Wheezy.

Musically, the record was bordering on avant garde. Experimental. Unhinged. And it still sounds new now. The title track and ‘Saint Huck’ are demented; fragments of jazz, punk and the blues heard while the listener is sweat slick, convulsing with the DTs and ‘A Box For Black Paul’ is a sinister funeral dirge dedicated to the victim of a lynching (or in reality, to his old group).

From Black Paul they moved on to a Black Cloud. ‘Tupelo’, the opening track of The Firstborn Is Dead is perhaps the most defining song of early period Bad Seeds. It is a mistake to say that this song is just biblical. It’s much better than that. Instead it’s like Yeats’ eschatological ‘The Second Coming’, except the King about to be born in this stormy night in Tupelo, of course, is Elvis Aaron Presley. Harvey’s clanking, creaking racket and Adamson’s sick bass shudder summoned the unholy noise of the Rough Beast slouching towards a shotgun shack in Mississippi to be born. This is Cave at his best, creating new mythology out of 20th Century pop culture fragments; at turns saucer eyed with terror and then chisel faced with threat like Harry Powell, the tattooed preacher from Night Of The Hunter. The Bad Seeds stripped down to Harvey, Bargeld and Adamson sounded as hungry as they looked.

I suppose on an album named after The King of Rock & Roll’s stillborn brother Jesse Garon Presley, it was perhaps inevitable that Cave’s Elvis obsession would surface again. His only half-perfected croon wobbles into hearing range on the shonky ‘Knockin’ On Joe’. Elsewhere this middle class, son of a teacher in a rock band junky equates his lot with a black man on a chain gang. Of course he would go on to perfect this schtick, and it’s still genuinely interesting to see it in its infancy here. Much better however is the rumbling and punch drunk ‘Wanted Man’ and Morricone damaged, re-imagined delta blues of ‘Blind Lemon Jefferson’.

He stares out from the sleeves of these early releases, a brooding presence, adding to the cult of him as a tortured artist. Porcelain skin, frayed black velvet hair, surly red cupid lips. The luminous eyes suggested murder and the upturned nose, good breeding. Boys wanted to kill him and girls wanted to be killed by him. Or sometimes the other way round. Journalists were routinely dismayed by him. And this was not just those who lived up to the cliche of having a frustrated desire to make music but most of them because the cove was good with words as well. So he was good looking, rebellious, violent, well-dressed, an auto-didact, a good writer, in a good band and even took more drugs than the hacks did. It became traditional for even writers who supported him to take the piss out of him; perhaps subconsciously thinking of that boyfriend/girlfriend at home daydreaming about being romantically murdered.

So, a non-sequitur: have you ever noticed that from a certain angle he looks like Tubbs from League Of Gentlemen? No? Are you sure? Oh well. The bastard.

Covers album Kicking Against The Pricks was, to borrow a crass term, an exercise in brand re-enforcement. For people who were steadfastly refusing to pay attention (some fans and journalists mostly) they were saying ‘No more goth! No more post punk! No more proto-industrial! This is the sphere that we inhabit now!’ The sphere of the greats such as The Velvet Underground, John Lee Hooker, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and Leadbelly. Not The Cure, The Creatures and The Sisters. Of course Cave had the benefit of a carefully constructed exoticism that tied the blood red Australian outback to the bad lands of the States and the tradition of Southern Gothic. This MO of Cave’s was most fully realised with his script for the film The Proposition, which transplanted the lore of the American wild west to the Australian outback. He found it easier to sidestep accusations of fakery and dilettantism in a way that his British peers never achieved and he certainly took a decision to step out of the parochial world of nihilism, socialism, cod-surrealism and dark psychedelicism of the mid-80s UK alternative scene. He had made it known that he was ready for his international audience and he was; although it would be some time before they would be ready for him.

Along with new drummer Thomas Wydler and guest appearances from Birthday Party sorts Tracy Pew and Rowland Howard (and even the singer’s mum Dawn Cave on violin), the Bad Seeds had become a hellish cabaret band – with the positive connotations of the word cabaret outweighing the negative. Despite the fact Cave had obviously been practicing, his voice still wasn’t quite up to Gene Pitney’s ‘Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart’ and the less said about the tragic ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ the better. For the most part however, this is sublime. After a thankful moment of self-realisation, the blacker the song, the whiter Cave sounds. They avoided obvious interpretations with the trad ‘Hey Joe’ being slightly closer to Patti Smith’s revolutionary version than the Hendrix standard. They flew the flag of love for Johnny Cash by covering an extremely self-aggrandizing ‘The Singer’, years before it became de-rigeur to profess love for the rockabilly legend. What is amazing is that this didn’t kill Cave’s career dead in the water. It’s hard to imagine a band having the cojones to release a covers record as their third album now and have it not be a steaming pile of shit. Even more crazy is the fact that Cave didn’t keep it a secret that he couldn’t be bothered writing new material because he was working on a book. A fucking book! So what should have been suicide was in fact a shot in the arm. But then I guess the laurels that Cave rests on are the laurels that many others would love to be crowned with.

Some of what I feel about Your Funeral… My Trial is summed up by the way Wim Wenders used footage of the band playing ‘The Carny’ in Wings Of Desire, one of the best films of the period. He used this cameo and music to bring out the inner life of the circus performer Marion (Solveig Dommartin); the wound at the core of her being. It also reflects the overload of sensation that Damiel (Bruno Gantz) is feeling now that he is no longer an angel. His life has literally become like a carnival. The album shares some of the film’s best qualities, it being poetic, monochromatic, regretful and sweet. Of course, most of the album doesn’t sound anything like the Tom Waits’ lurch of ‘The Carny’ but instead sounds like the Bad Seeds finding ‘their sound’, a sound that they would stick with for years to come. Unfortunately, some of what I feel about this album is also summed up by the crappy inner sleeve sketches of a whore with her legs spread and a Madonna. It was disappointing to say the least to see Cave channeling his self-inflicted junk misery and angry young man schtick onto women. But by strange dint of his fame and intelligence he was given a free pass to be a part-time misogynist along with the likes of Martin Amis, Steve Albini, Sir Mixalott and Hannibal Lector.

What’s that angry man on the internet? You want me to stop going on and to tell you some details about the actual reissues? Ok.

The lovely people at Mute are in the process of reissuing all 14 albums which have been digitally remastered and remixed. On the extra DVD discs are the albums in 5.1 surround sound with additional songs of the kind you’d expect such as ‘Scum’ and ‘In The Ghetto’ etc. These extra discs also include short films. As for the actual sound, well, the mix is undeniably very quiet but it’s also very clean and detailed, so there you go.

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