Wednesday 19 December 2012

Top 102 Albums. No 80. Teenage Snuff Film.

Top 102 Albums. No 80. 
Teenage Snuff Film. Rowland S. Howard.
*Albums not presented in any particular order.*

Here's a distressed jewel of a record, the first of a few in this list to feature Rowland S. Howard "crown prince of the crying jag". That crying white (Fender) Jaguar is one of rocks signature guitar sounds, and the dry humour of the line a snippet of Howard's desertified wit. He may not be for everyone but if you acquire a taste for him his work is  consistently rewarding and unique.

When he joined Nick Cave in The Boys Next Door, Howard brought their signature song Shivers along with him, written famously when he was 16. The creative relationship between Howard and Cave was to blossom and the band morph into The Birthday Party whose sound was defined by Howard's wheeling, spiky, violent, plaintive, regret laden, physically wrenching guitar playing as much as by Cave's overwrought lyricism and dulcet tones. His own lyrics, then and later, were more clipped and gnomic.

After The Birthday Party split and while Nick began his long escalator ride to fame and elder statesman respectability with The Bad Seeds Howard also continued to make startling and often brilliant records. Albums with Lydia Lunch, Crime & the City Solution and These Immortal Souls count amoung the many he contributed to. This was his first solo album, released in 1999. It is fair to say that it hardly caused seismic ripples in the music world at the time although pretty well reviewed. However it has grown in stature over the years (although under the radar) and vinyl copies have changed hands for hundreds of dollars.

I was lucky enough to see These Immortal Souls live in Berlin in 1988. Howard was impossibly thin and almost translucent but his playing was stunning, totally authoritative, his presence full of quiet charisma. Afterwards as we sat in a nearby pub an old american car with fins and painted with flames pulled up outside and Howard emerged like a prince of the night.  Luciferal pride is one of the central themes of this album, particularly on Autoluminescent and Sleep Alone.

"The sky is empty/silent
The earth as still as stone
Nothing stands above me
Now I can sleep alone"

Later he was on the same U-bahn platform when we were going home, and changed trains at the same station. I began to feel like a stalker when he got off at our destination and proceeded to walk in the direction of my apartment. Turned out he lived just around the corner. To my regret, but probably to his relief, I didn't approach him.

In 2009 he recorded his second and last solo album while dying of liver cancer. Called Pop Crimes it showed that he was still, at fifty, ploughing his own furrow with continued success. His work is singular and circles the same themes and imagery again and again: fire, suicide, knives, light, an apprehension of the awful, bloodied beauty of the world. But never without that dry wit and the authority of a true survivor. If you need an entry point to the world of Howard listen to his startling evisceration of Billy Idol's White Wedding. He stands beside Richard Thompson in the pantheon of guitar players for me.

I'll leave the last words to Rowland:

"I backed away from the stars
Because the light cut my skin
Like shards of glass
And the cordite sting
I'm far too late, I'm far too thin
I've lost it all, that's everything
I don't feel a thing"


  1. Like this; gloomy as hell but great self loathing soapbox dramas; the songs sound like a Tarantino soundtrack to me. Great band sound; f*ck off drums, barracuda bass and that grinding guitar sound... the fiddle adds an oddly affecting touch...
    Sounds like a young man's angst rather than the concerns of a 50 year old...

    1. He was a mere forty when he released this one Trevor. He released his next and final album at fifty.

      I'm imagining Tarantino clips to some of the songs now.

    2. By the way drums are played by Mick Harvey, ex Birthday Party / Bad Seeds etc who also produced. A great musician with some really interesting solo albums, two of them Serge Gainsborough covers albums he also produced Robert Forster's Danger in the Past. Just thought I'd say...

  2. Another new one to me but "distressed jewel" sums it up nicely.

  3. 'Danger in the Past' is a fine sounding thing too.
    Currently listening to Go Betweens' 'Oceans Apart' after a reminder over on Friends of RW...
    Grant was a lovely huggable writer, Forster about as cuddly as coffin but his arch, mordent humour and drawl vital to the bitter/sweet.
    I really miss that band...