Rowland S. Howard
|Shivers||Six Strings That Drew Blood|
|Marry Me (Lie! Lie!)||Get Lost (Don't Lie!)|
|Black Milk||I'm Never Gonna Die Again|
|The King of Kalifornia||I'm Never Gonna Die Again|
|Exit Everything||Teenage Snuff Film|
|Autoluminescent||Teenage Snuff Film|
|Sleep Alone||Teenage Snuff Film|
|(I Know) A Girl Called Johnny||Pop Crimes|
|Pop Crimes||Pop Crimes|
|Ave Maria||Pop Crimes|
Contributor: Andrew Shields
“I think that the most important thing about music should be that it expresses some kind of humanity and it should express the personality of the person who is playing it. And if you’re good enough, then people will be able to tell it’s you, not just anyone.” Rowland S. Howard
“Rowland was the coolest. He was otherwordly. A room full of the greatest minds in science and the arts could not have invented Rowland Howard. The only person who could have invented Rowland was Rowland.” Conrad Standish
I first discovered Rowland S. Howard [for whom, as his close friend and long-term partner, Genevieve McGuckin put it, the ‘w’ in Rowland and the ‘S’ in the middle were ‘not negotiable’] through his time as a key figure in the Nick Cave-fronted The Birthday Party and later in Simon Bonney’s band, Crime and the City Solution. I was also aware of his collaborations with other artists such as Lydia Lunch and the late great Nikki Sudden. I did not, however, really appreciate the full brilliance of his later music until I saw Autoluminescent, the superb 2011 documentary about him.
I discovered it one night while desultorily flicking around the TV channels. Within a few minutes of finding it it, however, I was gripped. In many respects, Rowland was the perfect interviewee – knowledgeable, opinionated, witty and razor-sharp in his comments on music and on the people he had known. He had also an extremely distinctive way of looking at the world and a kind of quirky individuality which was both immediately engaging and refreshing. However, this would have counted for little if the programme had not also been a revelation in showing what a superbly original and innovative guitarist Rowland had been. Alongside this, he was also an extremely talented songwriter with a mordant wit and a darkly poetic sensibility uniquely his own.
With Nick Cave and a small group of like-minded outsiders, Howard was one of the key figures in the early days of the emergence of the new wave scene in the Melbourne suburb of St. Kilda in the late 1970s. Both arrived there independently and gradually drifted into the other’s orbit. Having played a leading role in a number of short-lived bands (including The Obsessions and The Young Charlatans), Howard had already established a reputation as a promising songwriter and guitarist even before his first meeting with Cave. He had also already written one of his most memorable songs, Shivers, which went on to become a recognised Australian rock classic. Indeed it was, as Nick Cave has pointed out, “a remarkably accomplished song” for such a young songwriter to have produced. From its classic opening line, “I’ve been contemplating suicide, but it really doesn’t suit my style”, the song also displayed that sardonic and slightly bruised quality which was to be one of Howard’s trademarks throughout his career.
He later described the song as being a largely satirical one designed to undercut the protestations of undying love for their partners which he had heard from his contemporaries. There is undoubtedly an element of this but it also had an undercurrent of genuine romanticism which gives it a nicely ambivalent and ambiguous feel.
The song’s melody is also a remarkably effective and memorable one. While it undoubtedly had some echoes of Rowland’s key influences (notably The Velvet Underground), the song nonetheless had a distinctive quality to it which signalled Rowland’s emergence as a significant artist in his own right. The songwriting prowess it displayed also convinced Nick Cave that he would be a valuable addition to his then band, The Boys Next Door. At the time, Cave was having problems with producing enough original material for the group, but Howard joining the group provided the solution to that problem.
Having established himself as the frontman/lead singer with ‘The Boys’, however, Cave was insistent that he should be the one to sing Shivers when the band recorded it for their 1979 album, Door, Door.
As it transpired, Howard was not particularly impressed with Cave’s version of the song which, he felt, lacked the ironic edge which he had originally intended it to have. Cave himself later expressed his regret that he had not let the younger man sing the song. The version of Shivers I have selected for inclusion is, however, an excellent live one from Howard’s solo years which was recorded by the Australian TV company, ABC, in November 1999 and features Rowland himself on vocals (see clip above).
After joining The Boys Next Door in 1978, Howard quickly became an integral member of that group. Indeed, the combination between his raw and abrasive style of guitar-playing and Cave’s unique singing style was a key factor in the group’s sound. As a songwriter, Howard also played a key role in the band’s transformation into a far more experimental and confrontational unit than it had previously been.
After its name change to The Birthday Party in 1980, Howard remained Cave’s principal collaborator and sounding board within the group. On stage, he also remained an essential counterbalance to Cave’s charismatic front man routine. The journalist, Everett True, has described his presence there in the following terms: “lean, ravaged; omnipresent cigarette dangling from the lips; guitar being wrenched and pummelled until it could howl no more.”
Rowland’s willingness to push the guitar into new sonic areas through an innovative use of reverb, distortion and feedback – and the band’s general willingness to shock the musical sensibilities of their audiences – also played a major role in creating the atmosphere of potential (and occasionally real) violence which hung over their concerts.
Over time, however, the creative tensions which had always underlain the collaboration between Cave and Howard became ever more marked. A critical turning point in this respect took place when the group moved to Berlin in 1982. During their time there, Cave began to develop a new and intensely creative musical partnership with the German guitarist, Blixa Bargeld, who had previously been with the German group, Einstürzende Neubauten. At that time, Cave had also begun to feel that his ideas about the band’s future musical direction were becoming increasingly divergent from those favoured by Rowland. Ultimately, these tensions were to result in the break-up of the group in late 1983. Soon afterwards, Cave re-emerged with a new band, The Bad Seeds, and went on to pursue an increasingly successful career, both in commercial and artistic terms, with them.
For Howard though, the break-up of The Birthday Party represented something of a watershed in his career. It led to a period of disillusionment with the music industry which only ended when he joined the Simon Bonney-led group, Crime and the City Solution in 1986. His stint with that band was, however, to be a relatively short one. During that the time he did make a substantial contribution to the group, writing the classic Six Bells Chime for their fine 1986 album, Room Of Lights. He also made a brief appearance with the group in Wim Wenders’ movie, Wings Of Desire, which was released in the following year.
It was becoming clear by this stage, however, that Howard was feeling increasingly constrained within the role of being a band-member and only occasional songwriter. What he was really seeking was a new group where he would be the acknowledged frontman and which could act as a vehicle through which he would be able to record his own songs in the manner that he wished to do. The eventual form this vehicle took was the group, These Immortal Souls, which Howard formed in Berlin in 1987. All of the other members of the group were close associates of Howard whom he could implicitly trust. They included his brother and musical ally, Harry, on bass, his then partner, Genevieve McGuckin on keyboards, and one of his closest friends, Epic Soundtracks (brother of Nikki Sudden and a founding member of that excellent group, Swell Maps) on drums. From the outset Rowland was the dominant figure in the group and his musical vision was always the directing force within it.
Generally speaking, These Immortal Souls tended to work in more conventional song forms than The Birthday Party had done. Their sound was also a fuller and lusher one than had been the case with his earlier bands. Lyrically, the songs Howard wrote for the ‘Souls’ often tended to reflect his interest in the works of Edgar Allan Poe and in classic ‘pulp’ and science fiction. They were also usually far less concerned with drawing a linear narrative than they were with creating an atmosphere, which, at their best, they did to superb effect. They also combined a raw and intense quality with occasional flashes of Howard’s brilliantly sardonic wit. At times, there was also a slight Gothic edge to their songs, as in my second selection, Marry Me (Lie! Lie!). In typical Howard fashion, it also includes a few glancing references to William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
My next selection, Black Milk, is one of Howard’s most powerful and most emotionally affecting songs. In the documentary mentioned above, Genevieve McGuckin explains that Rowland used the term to refer both to his problems with drug addiction and to the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle in general. At that time he felt that while this sustained him and facilitated his work, it would ultimately lead to his destruction. Sadly, as it transpired, this insight was to prove only too prophetic. I chose the next one, The King Of Kalifornia, as it is, perhaps, the best example of the band in full flight. From its snarled opening line – “You must allow me my significance” – the track shows a group at the very peak of its powers. All of its members shine on the song, from Rowland’s typically brilliant guitar playing which is complemented beautifully by Harry’s superb bass lines, Genevieve’s skilful keyboard playing and the outstanding drumming by Epic.
By this time, however, Howard’s interest in the group had begun to lessen as he became involved in side projects with Nikki Sudden (which produced the excellent 1987 album, Kiss You Kidnapped Charabanc) and with Lydia Lunch (which resulted in their classic record, Shotgun Wedding, in 1991). Rowland’s brother, Harry, subsequently claimed that this diversion of the former’s energies away from the group served to dissipate much of the momentum it had been building up to that point. Indeed, although These Immortal Souls did not formally break up until 1998, the band was to be far less active in the final few years of its existence than it had been up to then.
Its eventual break-up left Howard free to embark on the final and, perhaps, most artistically fruitful phase of his career. The two solo albums he produced in this period, Teenage Snuff Film in 1999 and Pop Crimes, made while he was very seriously ill and released shortly before his death in 2009, were both superbly accomplished works. Indeed, taken together, they represent probably the most fully realised artistic achievements in the course of his career.
Both were made with a small group of trusted collaborators, including Mick Harvey, a band-mate of Howard’s in The Birthday Party, on organ, guitar and drums and Brian Hooper of The Beasts Of Bourbon on bass. On Pop Crimes the talented multi-instrumentalist, J.P. Shilo, also joined this core group. Like the others, he proved to have an instinctive understanding of Howard’s singular musical vision. The two albums were also notable for what they displayed about the range of Rowland’s musical influences. These ran from those that could be expected of an artist with his background (The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, Bowie, Brian Eno, Roxy Music, Johnny Thunders and so on) to others that were far less predictable (Lee Hazelwood, Leonard Cohen and Townes Van Zandt being notable examples). The albums also owed a significant debt to the great American girl groups of the 1960s, especially the Shangri-Las and to Motown.
This instinctive understanding between the three H’s – Howard, Harvey and Hooper – is displayed to extremely good effect in Exit Everything, my first selection from these two classic albums. As with several of the songs on both records, Hooper’s brilliant bass line provides a perfect launching pad for some typically biting guitar playing by Howard.
In my opinion, the next one, Autoluminescent, ranks with Shivers as Howard’s most perfect song. It has a purity and otherworldly beauty to it which renders it unique even by the high standards of Rowland’s previous work. It also features one of his wittiest lines – “I was a nightmare, but I’m not going to go there again”.
My next choice, Sleep Alone, always reminds me of Paul Westerberg’s claim that Johnny Thunders could make the guitar sound “like an animal in pain”. On this track, Rowland achieves something of the same effect, albeit with an added rawness and intensity which even that great guitarist could not match. Indeed, the track features some of the most remarkably incandescent guitar playing of his career.
Rowland S. Howard’s final album, Pop Crimes, was made under incredibly difficult circumstances, at a time when it had become clear that the illness from which he was suffering was likely to prove terminal. Despite this fact, the album was another artistic triumph on his part and its ultimate effect, despite a sometimes sombre tone, is an uplifting one.
In the years after his return to live in the Melbourne suburb of St. Kilda in 1995, Howard proved very keen to promote those local bands whose talents he believed were being under-appreciated. Among the bands he helped in this way were such groups as Magic Dirt and HTRK. The next selection, (I Know) A Girl Called Johnny, is a duet between Howard and the lead singer of the latter group, Jonnine Standish. It combines a sassy and sensual quality with a tongue-in-cheek feel and this combination makes it perhaps the quintessential Rowland S. Howard song.
The title track of the final album, Pop Crimes is another fine example of the way in which Brian Hooper’s bass playing was the perfect foil for Howard’s style of guitar playing, and my final selection, Ave Maria, is a beautifully bitter-sweet song about the break-up of a relationship. It also has a directly autobiographical quality to it which is unusual in Howard’s work.
One of the many tragic elements to Howard’s early death was that it occurred at a time when he was producing some of the finest work of his entire career. Despite this, however, he left behind a remarkable legacy both as a guitar player of extraordinary originality and intensity and as a gifted songwriter.
Throughout his career, he also maintained a quirky individuality and a sharp wit, both of which were extremely refreshing given the bland uniformity which characterises much of the modern music industry.
Will end this appreciation with a superb tribute to Rowland written by his long-time friend and musical collaborator, Mick Harvey.
Six Strings That Drew Blood (2014) is a 2CD retrospective spanning Rowland S. Howard’s career, 32 remastered tracks including all the bands and collaborations mentioned above and solo work, plus a 40 page booklet containing photos and excerpts from his journals.
Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs …