As I have mentioned before, I love writing these Lost Albums features. Partly because they give me a good reason to revisit some of my favourite records, but also because they allow me to turn a spotlight onto something that I feel has been overlooked or neglected.
But what we have here is not so much a couple of lost albums, but more of a lost performer.
Rowland S Howard was the visionary whose innovative guitar work drove The Birthday Party, whether it was the feral, scathing guitar lines of Zoo Music Girl or the delicate, barely there work of Wildworld, Howard approached his guitar like you expected he approached everything else, trying to create something new and awkward from what was familiar.
He has been a major influence for many years, from those strange days when dozens of Birthday Party copyists stalked the earth, through the like of The Horrors and into the modern day with bands like The Blinders and Psycho Comedy taking their cue from Howard’s guitar lines.
The sound he got out of his guitar was razor-sharp, almost all treble and soaked in reverb. It cut through the noise that surrounded it like a knife. He suited the sound he made onstage, looking lean and angular himself.
The Birthday Party were a band who were doomed to split up sooner rather than later. With Rowland and Nick Cave in the band, they were both cursed and blessed with two uniquely creative individuals who soon began to pull in different directions. Mick Harvey remembers what was perhaps the beginning of the end when Cave asked him to write the music for Deep in the Woods, rather than ask Rowland.
“Nick collared me in the van on tour, probably in Germany, and said: ‘Would you write this song with me?’ He had the lyrics. I said: ‘Why don’t you write it with Rowland?’ He said: ‘I don’t want to write with Rowland any more.’ Rowland was there in the van, so this was a significant historical turning point. I thought: ‘Well, now we’re fucked, aren’t we?’ When the two main songwriters aren’t talking to each other much, it was all kind of inevitable.”
When the band split, Cave went on to form The Cavemen who soon changed their name to The Bad Seeds after a handful of gigs. As we know, his creative arc has been constantly upwards since, creating some of the best and most powerful music ever set down.
Rowland S Howard joined the wonderful Crime and the City Solution for a while, playing on two albums and delivering his distinctive stylings to such classics as Six Bells Chime, before leaving to form These Immortal Souls.
As I have recounted elsewhere in these pages, while Nick Cave built up an audience, playing larger venues and moving up festival bills, I saw These Immortal Souls play Liverpool’s Planet X while promoting their excellent second album, I’m Never Gonna Die Again. The club held only a few hundred people and was far from sold out.
In one particularly heartbreaking development, the club’s DJ announced that the band and crew were looking for someone to put them up for the night, the tour revenues presumably not being enough to cover things such as hotel rooms.
Fate can be cruel sometimes.
When These Immortal Souls also split up, Rowland seemed to retreat and fade from public view, although he did manage to reconnect with Nick Cave as he sang backing vocals on the Let Love In album.
The main reason for this near disappearance would appear to be a terrible heroin addiction that became the centre of his attention and interfered with his creativeness. Rowland’s brother, Harry Howard, said “Whenever he came off heroin he’d get this massive nerve-jangling awakening. A lot of the songs people think are about drugs are actually about stopping taking drugs.”
Then, in 1999, he released a new album, Teenage Snuff Film, the first to be released under his own name. It is a record of off kilter beauty and downbeat, scuffed up charm. The songs that it contains are generally more straightforward than a lot of his back catalogue, but every song has its own unique style about it, they could only have been created by Rowland S Howard, no one else has it in them to come up with this kind of work.
His heroin use was still present at this time, but he was involved with an experimental treatment for addiction and managed to avoid taking the drug while recording the album, a move which led to what Mick Harvey, who played drums on the album, described as “the best singing he’s done”.
Listening to Teenage Snuff Film now it is hard to understand it’s lack of commercial success. Since its release and the passing of its creator, it has achieved a level of cult status. People who get Rowland really get Rowland, in the same way that some people get Leonard Cohen or American Music Club.
Teenage Snuff Film has, aptly, a cinematic noir feel to it, its songs becoming vignettes in their own right. Opening song Dead Radio lays out the album’s stall with a slow, haunting strummed guitar line before Howard sings the line “You’re bad for me like cigarettes, but I haven’t sucked enough of you yet.”
Howard was always a literate songwriter and Dead Radio demonstrates this perfectly when he sings “I’ve lost the power I had to distinguish between what to ignite and what to extinguish”.
The instrumentation is mostly sparse and quiet, giving Rowland’s voice centre stage. The song sounds like it would fit perfectly in a David Lynch universe, with an edge that could be menace or could be despair.
Next song Breakdown (And Then…) starts off with some trademark tremolo action form Rowland’s Fender Jaguar before the opening line provides him with a nickname, “Crown prince of the crying jag.” He manages to create a rich atmosphere with little more than a single guitar string and a bass drum before the song comes crashing in.
There is no denying that he was one of the most distinctive guitarists of his generation, we only have to hear a few bars of any song to know who we are listening to, whether he is playing gently picked notes or sweeping chord, his musical DNA is writ large in everything he does. No matter how many people have tried to emulate his style, there is only one Rowland S Howard and the way he approaches his guitar is something that cannot be effectively learned or truly copied.
This is something that may not have done him any favours, and it is easy to think that one reason Nick Cave ever invited Rowland to play guitar on any of the Bad Seeds albums is that they would instantly become Rowland S Howard albums as much as they were Cave’s. He was a great foil for Cave, but his style of playing was never something suited to fading into the background.
There are two covers on Teenage Snuff Film, the first of which is Rowland’s treatment of the Shangri-Las He Cried, renamed here as She Cried. The song is quite faithful to the original, despite the gender change in the lyrics. Rowland seemed to gravitate towards a fifties vibe rather than the Southern gothic themes favoured by many of his contemporaries, so the drum beat and girl-band feel of this suits him well. The guitar work in the bridge is just stunning and a wonderful example of how he could create glorious guitar lines while still avoiding the cliches commonly associated with such things.
I Burnt Your Clothes is a slow dark tale of love gone wrong and perhaps the most Birthday Party-like of the tracks here.
Exit Everything has a dirty bass line and some archetypal Rowland S Howard guitar lines that slice through the mix. It is easy to see just Mick Harvey meant about Rowland’s singing voice as he tracks the guitar line. The songs reads like a noir story; “The sky was deep and the wind was hot and I tried to speak but I could not. The telephone rang like church bells, Jesus Christ I’ve gone to hell”.
Silver Chain would appear to be at least partly autobiographical. However, this was co-written by Rowland’s long time partner in crime, the eternally lovely Genevieve McGucken. Carried along by on organ, all seems a bit lighter until Rowland seems to address his own concerns about his creative output and even his mortality when he sings, “By the time I stop singing, you won’t love me anymore”. The effect is heartbreaking, especially looking back, knowing what we now know.
The album’s second cover version is more of a surprise than the first, being a reinterpretation of Billy Idol’s White Wedding. In Rowland’s hands, this becomes an almost country-fied lament, rather than the power-pop song we perhaps grew up with. The minor chords turn the words “I’ve been away for so long” into a song of regret.
Undone is a huge song that grows as it progresses, its intensity ratcheting further and further up, an unruly waltz that sometimes seems like it will topple over, but never does.
Autoluminescent follows and the word is defined as the light of a substance emitted due to energy originating within itself, which is a pretty fucking succinct way of describing Rowland himself. Ignored, left on the sidelines and out of the public consciousness, but still shining as bright as can be due to his own creative energy, his charisma and his own power. It is also the title of a documentary that comes very highly recommended.
The song broods and is carried along by a slow, heavy bass line and again seems to contain a degree of autobiography as Rowland sings, “I am blinding, autoluminescent. I am white heat, I am heaven sent. I was a nightmare, but I’m not gonna go there again.” If this is autobiography, it is the work of someone who is quite prepared to stare into his soul and lay out both strengths and faults for all to see.
Teenage Snuff Film finishes with the sonic squall of Sleep Alone and we are back to the early Birthday Party days with his guitar work very much to the fore. By finishing his album with this, it is as if Rowland is letting us know that he could turn up the intensity any time he wanted to and that he may have matured now but he is quite capable of letting his demons take centre stage when he wants to.
It is a song that makes me want to go right back to the beginning and play the whole album again, to go on this journey again and to experience the highs and lows that its author has already experienced for himself. This is a coruscating epic that drips with an inwardly directed disapproval, as he sings, “This is a journey to the edge of the night. I’ve got no companions, only Celine’s on my side. Don’t need nothing from no-one, the needle’s in the red. Nothing to lose, everything’s dead.”
It is the perfect ending to what we have just gone through.
Ten long years were to pass before fans were again able to listen to new Rowland S Howard material, when he released his second album, Pop Crimes.
This is another overlooked classic, forever tainted with sadness as the recording was rushed due to Rowland’s ill health and the album was released just a couple of months before he passed away from liver cancer.
Opening track, I Know a Girl Called Jonny, written using Jonnine Standish from Melbourne band HTRK as the song’s muse, finds Rowland still in thrall to the 60s girl band Phil Spector drum beat. The lyrics play around with gender restrictions as Rowland tells us “I know a girl called Jonny. She’s a bullet, she’s a villainess. In my silver dress I’m the disasteress, combing out her long straight hair” Standish gets the chance to reply, singing “He’s a pin-up poster, high school crush, he’s a full-sugar UV gloss, he’s a new dance, he zips me up, he’s changing all the boys into girls.”
All of this hints at a fascinating creative relationship between the two and a productive meeting of minds.
Shut Me Down sees Rowland cast as a suitor who has to leave his lover despite the fact that he misses her even in the act of leaving. There is a connecting thread to some of Rowland’s peers here, such as Cohen and even Nick Cave, where love is seldom seen as a happy ending. There is pain and failure in human relationships and it would seem to be this aspect of love that Rowland and his contemporaries are drawn to; not for them the surface-deep, disposable love songs, but rather a lifting of the lid and a critical look at their own shortcomings as partners, as summed up by the line “And I agree what I’ve become is surely worth the hatred that you spat on me.”
Pop Crimes also contains a couple of cover versions. The first is, perhaps surprisingly, Talk Talk’s Life’s What You Make It, re-imagined as a Birthday Party-esque dirty swampland blues, reminiscent of King Ink. Rowland’s voice naturally tends to the melancholy and the song bears only a passing resemblance to its source material. Rowland’s signature guitar howls are still present and help drive the song further away.
The album’s title track is a sprightlier affair and lyrically reminds me of something from Crime and the City Solution’s Last Dictator epic. It is a huge shame that Rowland never got around to finishing his novel, as Pop Crimes is further evidence of his ability to tell a story, to set a scene and to draw people into his world.
Nothin’ is our second cover version, this time of a Townes Van Zandt number. In Rowland’s hands it is a return to the blues and sounds as if it were recorded in an off-the-beaten-track Mississippi shack sometime in the ’30s or ’40s.
Throughout pretty much all of his records, Rowland shuns modern influence, not because of his age or a refusal to keep up with the times, but more because of the instinctive rejection of rock ‘n’ roll stereotypes that also defined much of the punk music he came of age in. One senses that his motivations for doing this are similar to Nick Cave’s, who avoids listening to contemporary music when he is writing or recording, as he wants his songs to be measured against the likes of Johnny Cash and Nina Simone, not whoever was being played at the time.
This approach is also evident in Rowland’s time in The Birthday Party and Crime, there is a classic seam of music that he mines for influence and it has no connection to shifting fashions or fleeting scenes.
The result of this is that he creates a music that is timeless, or rather does not belong to a specific cultural or musical point. This is something that many bands have been unable to manage, perhaps due to record company pressure or a desire to still seem relevant to a new generation. We only have to look at missteps such as The Cure’s Mixed Up album for proof that this is seldom a good idea.
Wayward Man starts of with a menacing, stomping bass line reminiscent of Wiseblood era Jim Thirlwell, but still has one foot in a traditional blues storytelling.
Ave Maria contains more of Rowland’s literate lyrics. An intense love song that seems to tell of a relationship that is still intact, where the two lovers were destined to meet. “History led her to me, each footstep cut in memory. Clad in a dress of silver-grey, she walked into our wedding day.”
Sadly this does not last, as the song finishes with how this idyllic love has failed to last the course; “But when I try to talk to her, I don’t speak that language anymore. For though my crimes remain unnamed, all my treasons, all my shames, later you would rightly say we didn’t dance upon our wedding day.” Happiness is again frustratingly out of grasp and a doomed character again walks away.
Final track, The Golden Age of Bloodshed, continues this theme, with masterful use of feedback and effects on a guitar that is almost hidden in the mix. For me, this is the album’s standout track and points to how good a third album could have been.
This makes us face that the loss of Rowland S Howard is a terrible one, he was truly a one off musician, performer and character. For us fans, this loss is felt not just for the body of work he left behind, but for the body of work we have been denied. There is a sense of still unfilled potential, a feeling that we need more of this. There is also the thought that perhaps this time his work would be duly recognised and his star would finally be in the ascendant.
This also comes when we think back to what may have been lost to heroin. To think about Rowland S Howard is to think about loss as much as it is to think about the beauty of what he left, what he created.
For those of us who love him, Rowland’s music hit us hard – a blow to the chest, to the heart, to the mind, a physical force beyond the boundaries of mere songs.
Lydia Lunch once said, “The color of Rowland Howard’s music is a deep-purple bruise”, and I think that seems to sum things up well enough.
Fans of Rowland S Howard are urged to check out the excellent Rowland S Howard Tribute Page on Facebook to join in the discussions, updates and competitions they regularly post.
Those looking for an introduction to Rowland’s music would be well advised to listen to the excellent Six Strings That Drew Blood compilation.