Rowland S. Howard

Six Strings That Drew Blood

The release of anthologies, collections and greatest hits affairs are often met with an expectant sigh, glazed over with ambivalence and apathy. It’s a format often synonymous with major label greed, revivalist desperation, creative stagnation and an excuse to torture us with shoddy demos that were originally left in the recording studio for a very valid reason. However, it can also be a useful platform to present the unsung and the unheard, whilst also presenting out of print or hard-to-find music in one accessible and encompassing collection. For the most part Six Strings That Drew Blood falls nicely into the latter camp.  

The collection couldn’t open with anything other than ‘Shivers’ – a song that Howard penned at just 16 and one that never really escaped him for the rest of his career. It was recorded with the pre-Birthday Party outfit Boys Next Door but appears here in the form of a solo performance recorded from a TV show in 1999 with Howard on vocals instead of Nick Cave. A black humour laced ode to the overblown nature of teenage love: "I’ve been contemplating suicide but it’s really not my style" is the brilliant opening line, backed here by a primitive guitar loop and course vocals. The interview (not included here) that accompanies this TV performance and recording sees Howard expressing his frustration about the songs longevity and unshakable impact. Howard also felt Cave’s vocal interpretation on the original Boys Next Door recording missed the vital humour; the piano crescendos, intense vocals and stadium-esque drums transformed the song into a sort of New Wave ballad, as brilliant as it was it was something the whole band would soon shy away from. So on this recording, some twenty-two years since Howard wrote the song, the tone radiates a sort of tired, resenting, exhausted air that captures an artist unwillingly chained to past accomplishments whilst dearly believing in the state of his own artistic present and future. This seems both significant and symbolic in telling the tale of the career of Rowland S. Howard.

The Birthday Party material on the compilation (‘Happy Birthday’, ‘Blast Off’, ‘The Dim Locator’ and ‘Several Sins’ are a few of the seven featured) have largely been selected based on Howard’s song writing credit and therefore his ‘official’ contribution, which is perhaps the only aspect of the collection that feels a little misguided and off the mark. Yes, it’s vital in gaining insight into the journey of Howard as a songwriter and lyricist (which is, to be fair, the real brunt, guts and purpose of this collection) but it misses out on what he was capable of saying, and contributing, through tone, presence and intensity without any lyrical contribution whatsoever. Some, in fact many, of Howard’s greatest contributions to the Birthday Party came from a place in which he wasn’t putting – or towards the end, allowed to – pen to paper. They came from singular expulsions of fractured, electrifying guitar experimentation that perfectly embodied the entire group’s desire to break new ground and to do so in a way that was often as physically terrorising as it was sonically.

Perhaps the thought process is that enough Birthday Party material already exists to highlight Howard’s input here, or it’s a means to sideline the already canonised Cave. However as a result – whatever the intention – some of Howard’s more magical moments and contributions do feel left out. Howard’s guitar playing during this period was incendiary yet seamless.  Often like some original and experimental jazz drumming, it was both the rhythm and the anti-rhythm. Grooving yet discordant. Flowing yet intermittent. It was swimming up-tide backwards. Then again, occasionally, it was none of those things and just instilled a simple, unnerving edge to proceedings, as found – on the included -‘Jennifer’s Veil’ in which his creeping guitar lines, intermingled with Tracey Pew’s rolling, creepy bass, captured one of the Birthday Party’s finest moments whilst in their animosity-ridden dying days.

The rest of the collection is divided into Howard’s post-Birthday Party output, including Crime And The City Solution, These Immortal Souls and his solo output, whilst taking in a few other projects and collaborations along the way, such as Nikki Sudden and one with Lydia Lunch. Howard collaborated several times with Lunch during his career but most notably is the featured take of ‘Some Velvet Morning’ which is a gloriously odd, at times brilliant at times garish, rendition. Howard’s voice sounds confrontational, petulant almost, still a long way from reaching a vocal ability that quite matched his intentions, this is interspersed with a trying-very-hard to be tuneful Lunch. It takes the unique dynamic and disconcerting time signature of the original and intensifies these aspects to knock one off balance. Howard’s choice to record this song is insightful however, much like when the Bad Seeds released Kicking Against The Pricks it acts as a myth-busting declaration of a desire to be something considered classic, popular even, something longstanding and impactful. Not the hip, cool and of-the-time goth band members they all had imposed upon them. Howard’s early and declared love for Hazelwood, much like Cave’s love for Elvis, Johnny Cash or Van Morrison, was something significant because it would mark a statement of intent that would represent a life-long artistic pursuit.

However, the road to becoming a household name didn’t really work out for Howard in the same way it did for Cave. The irony with Howard however is that the songwriting dispute in the Birthday Party that led to his departure arose due to Howard’s, then considered limp, romantic lyrical leanings. Cave would go on to give university lectures on the art of the love song and his ability to craft them but Howard would spend much of that same period struggling to get his heard.

His primary output for his own songs post-Birthday Party was in These Immortal Souls (records and CDs of which are very hard to come by and rack up enormous prices) yet by the time Howard had formed and fine-tuned the group, the content, as great as some of it is featured here, feels like fairly well-trodden ground in a decade that had already seen similar outfits such as the Gun Club and indeed the Bad Seeds release multiple albums before These Immortal Souls even got their debut out (1987). In many senses it feels like Howard had waited so long to have an outlet for his own material that it was a little dated and stale by the time he had the opportunity to properly expel it. That said several tracks still sound taut and punchy – such as the piano-led wonder of ‘Mary Me (Lie! Lie!)’ – and much of the group’s output is worth exploring.

Always an uneasy and unconventional singer, Howard grew into his voice, age was a necessity to allow it to richen and become dense and slightly worn. On the tracks from his two solo albums Teenage Snuff Film and Pop Crimes it feels like this is the first time in his career that Howard is hitting all the spots he wants to. He refusal to depend upon past successes and the techniques used that led to those successes is admirable, Howard could have easily tossed out a Birthday Party-esque screech fest and done a pretty remarkable job but he’s clearly aiming for something more personally fulfilling on these songs. The wonky, doom-soaked country he so clearly had a fondness for in the early days of taking on ‘Some Velvet Morning’ clearly never left him and in moments such as ‘Dead Radio’ and ‘Pop Crimes’ everything slots into place faultlessly, Howard’s voice a full-bodied purr that matches the equally rich production and glowing guitar lines.

There’s an overwhelming sadness when listening to this collection though, not just because in January it will mark five years since Howard died rather prematurely (at just 50 of liver disease – just after the release of Pop Crimes) but because of the clear sense of get up and go and rejuvenation – as well the exposure and appreciation – that Howard was experiencing in his later days. In many senses Howard’s greatest, or at least most notorious, achievements will be attributed to his ability to collaborate, a seamless talent in being able to slot into position, no matter how strange a shape, alongside show-stealing artists, and still managing to leave an unmistakable indelible imprint.  Yet one could argue that all along he was searching for a more permanent, stable and self-controlling home. He found that home in his later years as a solo artist, reunited with the Birthday Party’s/Bad Seeds’ Mick Harvey on drums, a spark was reignited and absolutely everything about Howard’s solo output suggested that more magic was to come.  He wasn’t ready to go, he craved the kind of success and recognition that was starting to flower towards the end of his career but he was unable to see it grow. The final page of the accompanying booklet to this anthology contains one of many hand-written notes from Howard and like much of his musical career it was perhaps an earnest truth cloaked in humour: "People keep inquiring of me the meaning of the ‘S’. I’ll tell you now it’s shorthand for the sweet smell of success".

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