Mutiny in Heaven: The Birthday Party
Director: Ian White
UK Release: November 2023
“My life is a box full of dirt” is not only a line from the song Zoo Music Girl, but also an apt description of The Birthday Party’s grim daily experience trying to scratch a bare living and make some headway in cold, damp and dreary post-punk London after tipping drunkenly off the plane from Australia (re-naming themselves from The Boys Next Door in the process). In Melbourne they were local celebrities who had fans queueing round the block to see them, whereas in England they were near starving until 4AD’s Ivo Watts spotted them and offered them a deal. Labelled as drug addicted trouble makers, their gigs were unpredictable and dangerous, but always glorious and unforgettable – exactly what you wanted from your favourite band. Coming from Australia allowed them to reject the painful and self-effacing politeness that infested British society, and combined with their hatred of the bad weather, lack of culture, and the indifference they experienced in London (“this fucking country!” as guitarist Roland S Howard frequently cursed under his breath), channel that frustration, anger and bile into their performance to fuel the cathartic release that was The Birthday Party with stunning results.
Ian White’s long overdue biographical documentary ‘Mutiny in Heaven’ collects together early interviews with various members of The Birthday Party to tell the story of the band, starting with their incarnation in suburban Melbourne, where Nick Cave was already notorious for smashing sinks off the wall in the toilets of local venues and riding on the roof of cars stolen by cowboy hatted bassist Tracey Pew and driven recklessly around the local streets at top speed. That complete lack of fear or the notion of consequence was to drive The Birthday Party to some of the wildest and most deranged performances seen on a concert stage, label them as the most dangerous band in the world, and get the plugs rapidly pulled on them at the opening date of their inaugural US tour. Seeing The Birthday Party live was something you never forgot. Lydia Lunch described the experience as feeling like “you were being wiped out, annihilated” by the band. The band themselves described it as “frightening” with the performance “unshackled and with a life of it’s own”. Anything organised they would instinctively rebel against and that became both their greatest strength, allowing them to break all the rules, and also their downfall as the band slowly disintegrated in front of our eyes every night, illustrated by guitarist Roland S Howards gaunt and hunted facial expression in many of the live videos.
There was no way anyone could possibly hope to control a band like The Birthday Party. They were like petrol and a lighted match, 24 hours a day, drug and drink fuelled and without boundaries. That they lasted as long as they did without incurring serious injury, madness, or arrest was a miracle, although bassist Tracey Pew did do a stint behind bars for stealing a sewing machine of all things, amongst a multitude of other offences. That lead to cancelled gigs and the use of stand in replacements before he re-joined them on his release. The video for ‘Nick The Stripper’ sees an impish and wild eyed Nick Cage careering drunkenly around a burning garbage dump in nothing but a lion cloth with the words ‘Hell’ painted on his naked chest. It would have been impossible then to imagine him in years to come donning a morning suit to attend the Kings coronation in Westminster Abbey as an Australian cultural ambassador.
Where no images survive, the film uses graphic novel style graphics to illustrate anecdotes of bad behaviour, but the incendiary live footage forms the core of the film, detailing the chaos and carnage that was a Birthday Party performance. Razor sharp slices of distorted guitar feedback, driven along by crowbar brutal staccato drum shots, underpinned by the basslines that marked Tracey Pew out as one of the great post punk era bassists alongside Jah Wobble, all accompanied by Nick Cave rolling around on the floor singing King Ink like he is about to cough up a lung or plunging head first into the crowd. It was a unique mix, but in the end the band imploded for the oldest of reasons; ego clashes, artistic differences, lack of communication, and just plain physical and mental exhaustion.
It’s a fascinating, exciting, and sometimes tragic spectacle to watch, but you had better buckle up. ‘Mutiny in Heaven’ is a bumpy ride from start to finish.
Mutiny In Heaven is show at Everyman's and elsewhere in November and December