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Meeting Rowland S Howard: A rambling tale of ambition, meeting your heroes and vodka & lime

First a bit of background information.

Being a Birthday Party fan was never easy. Or, more accurately, it was seldom a group activity.

I had friends who liked all kinds of noisy, out there music made by people who inhabited the fringes of society and convention, but none of my immediate social circle were Birthday Party fans.

On the other hand, I loved them! I loved them with an intensity that set them above other bands I followed. Liking the Birthday Party became a badge of honour, a way of identifying like minded souls.

It seems strange in these Internet-enriched times, but finding fellow fans was not easy. At the time, I was writing to a girl who had placed an ad in the classified pages of the NME, wanting contact with fellow Birthday party fanatics, and we were in touch for many years. However, we only met at Birthday Party gigs.

I had one other friend who I dragged to see a Birthday Party show at Liverpool Warehouse – he didn’t say he hated it, but he never came to see them again.

I saw them three times and, at last, here was a band who were a truly unpredictable proposition. You never knew if you were going to get a conventional show or a violent confrontation, a kiss or a kick.

The second time I saw the Birthday party Nick baited the crowd a little, but definitely led from the front. The next time he drank a whole bottle of Jack Daniels whilst performing, in less than an hour and finished the night collapsed at the back of the stage crying.

Moving forward to post-Birthday Party times, Nick definitely had the public’s attention. His shows were getting bigger, the critical reception was generally very good and the spotlight was firmly pointed at him.

Rowland on the other hand seemed to have been critically neglected and his stock was much lower. This was obviously wrong and obviously a shame.

By now I was no longer in touch with my pen pal and finding fellow believers in the cause was even harder. I did manage to drag a friend along to see Crime and the City Solution in Manchester, but no-one I knew liked or would listen to These Immortal Souls.

Moving forward again. I had a job in Our Price records – remember them?

I thought this would be my ideal job – there were after all questions on the application form asking me who my favourite bands were and what kinds of music I preferred. I remember thinking that all application forms should ask these questions if they were expected to reveal anything worthwhile about a person.

It actually turned out to be more concerned with shifting units and marketing the big sellers, but that’s another story.

Again, this may seem strange in these download days, but it was tricky finding records and CDs by some bands, so customers would place an order and we would try to find it for them and then call them to let them know if we were successful.

One day it was my job to phone customers and tell them we had their orders ready to collect. Part way through I came across a CD of Get Lost (Don’t Lie).

I was amazed; I didn’t know one other person who had this! So when I phoned the guy up to tell him his order was in, I couldn’t help myself. I went against company protocol and asked him about it and generally struck up a conversation.

When he came to pick his CD up, we spoke again and arranged to go for a drink a few days later. Fans of These Immortal Souls had to take company where they could find it, and as I mentioned earlier, this was a way of finding people who were on the same page as you. We occasionally went for drinks and swapped tapes and tales.

Anyway, this is all background.

Shortly after this, I saw in the NME that These Immortal Souls were on tour. This was quite an infrequent occurrence so I had to be there.

I contacted my new friend and we got tickets for their Liverpool gig. Bearing in mind that Nick Cave was by now playing some fairly big venues I found it a little sad that Rowland and TIS were playing at the tiny Planet X venue in Liverpool.

I had headlined this venue myself (well, with my band) so I thought they should be playing somewhere much more prestigious. But even this venue seemed to be out of their reach as it was far from sold out, I’d played to bigger crowds there myself!

Hindsight has led me to see this as an unexplainable and shameful neglect of a truly great and individual talent, but there we go, life’s like that sometimes.

Now, occasionally when I went to a gig I had an ambition to do a certain something.

For example when I saw Hanoi Rocks I wanted to have my photograph taken giving Michael Monro a hug, or when I saw the Au Pairs I wanted to share a spliff with Lesley Woods. I’m not sure why these ideas even came up, but both of these ambitions were fulfilled.

When I went to the These Immortal Souls the idea had formed that I wanted to buy Rowland a drink. I wasn’t sure how possible this would be but, for some reason, the ambition was there.

At the gig, the crowd was sparse and the band were just hanging around. Seeing my chance, I went to speak to Rowland.

He was a surprisingly slight figure, but I always thought that when he was in the Birthday Party. It always amazed me that this thin, almost geeky looking individual was responsible for the whirlwind of noise that was emanating from his guitar amp.

Even though he was quite a weedy looking kind of guy, he had an air of something about him. Not violence exactly, but perhaps the potential for violence.

 Not arrogance exactly, but perhaps the potential for an aggressive tirade. He looked like the kind of person you didn’t want to argue with, not for fear of a physical attack, but because you imagine he could cut your argument dead with a well chosen barb or two.

Anyway, he looked a lot more approachable this time around.

I asked him to sign a few things for me. The Honeymoon in Red album, Some Velvet Morning 12”, a CD or two.

We chatted while he was signing. When he was signing Some Velvet Morning I asked him what Lydia Lunch was really like. He replied “when she was good she was very, very good, but when she was bas she was horrid”, which struck me as a great answer. Partly because it sounded true!

I seized my moment and asked if I could buy him a drink. He asked for a vodka and lime which struck me as immeasurably cool, partly because it was so un-rock ‘n’ roll, i.e. because it was about as far away from a Jack Daniels or a pint of lager as you could get, but partly because it gave me a flash back to one of my earliest experiences with the demon drink.

This was when I was about 13 or 14 and my mum asked me to drop some Christmas cards off at next door’s house. The lady of the house invited me in and was obviously a bit tipsy by this point.

She asked me if I wanted a drink and wouldn’t hear of me having a glass of orange, so she gave me a vodka and lime! I don’t know why, I can only assume that they were big spirits drinkers. I

 thought it tasted nice enough, a bit strong on the lime cordial front because I was more used to having it diluted with a glass of water. I don’t remember the vodka tasting of much, but it doesn’t really does it?

It also tasted a little like the Lime Barrel from a box of Terry’s All Gold chocolates, which I also loved. She must have given me three vodka and limes, quite a lot for so young a chap, and I was at least a little drunk by the time I got back home.

So I bought Rowland his drink, and I got one for myself too. I was so enormously pleased to be buying him a drink, and fulfilling my latest gig ambition.

I remember being at the bar asking for two vodka and limes and wanting to shout out “I’m buying a drink for Rowland S Howard!” but thankfully I managed to resist these urges.

I gave Rowland his drink and we chinked glasses.

We chatted a bit more; he seemed to be quite an intense sort, his answers seemed very thought through; possibly because he’d been asked them all before, but possibly because he genuinely gave a lot of thought to what came out of his mouth.

It was, is and always will be such a shame that he didn’t become more famous, because he suited being a star. He had the charisma, the talent and the bearing of someone who was born to be feted, to have his picture on a million teenage bedroom walls, to be admired from afar.

Maybe there’s an alternate universe somewhere where Rowland S Howard is a name synonymous with an almost superhuman level of fame and worship. I hope so.

I was a bit concerned about looking like a bit of a fanboy by this stage, so I went off to chat to the other members of the band.

Genevieve was as lovely as I’d imagined, all elfin and smiley. I didn’t talk much to Harry, but I had a brief chat with Epic about the Swell Maps.

I always thought it odd that two people from this underachieving tinny punk band would go on to become these respected figures, working with some of the greatest musicians I had ever seen.

A friend of mine used to run away from home to stay with the Swell Maps, I asked if he remembered him. He didn’t.

During the gig, the friend I was with kept shouting out for Black Milk. When this song was about to be played, Rowland dedicated it to his ‘friend’ at the front.

After the gig I never saw either of them again.

Banjo

Categories
Lost Albums

Crime and the City Solution’s Paradise Discotheque

Crime and the City Solution’s Paradise Discotheque is an album that should be in everybody’s top ten, Sun 13’s Banjo looks at why success never came for this lost gem.

Crime and the City Solution are a band who seem trapped in a ‘should have been’ situation.

They should have been more successful, their albums should have been selling in huge quantities and they should have been a band that everyone has heard of and loves.

But fate can be cruel and quality is sadly no guarantee of success.

What we are dealing with here is not so much a lost album, as a lost band.

Why this should be the case is difficult to determine. I am put in mind of a comment made by Al Jourgensen when he was asked why he thought Ministry had suddenly become famous and successful back in the 90s, after many years at the fringes.

His reply was along the lines of there being decision made by either fate, record company execs or both, whereby a finger was pointed at a particular underground band, a decision was made that ‘they’ll do’ and levers were pulled, decisions were made and said band were then rocketed to stardom and stadiums.

The flip side of this coin however, is that for the bands who do not have this finger pointed at them, success in any meaningful, financially supportive way is often disallowed.

Such was the fate of Crime and the City Solution, who were denied success at anything other than a cursory level.

This does not mean that the music they made has any less value than that of their more successful peers. On the contrary, few bands that have ever existed made music as beautiful and haunting as Crime and the City Solution.

Their story starts back in Australia in the maelstrom of 1977, when Simon Bonney put the band together in Sydney. There must have been something in the Australian air at the time, as this was when Nick Cave formed The Boys Next Door (later to become The Birthday Party) and Rowland S Howard was involved with The Young Charlatans. Kindred spirits bringing bands into being at the same time.

In 1978, Bonney moved the band to Melbourne where, with the distance between them removed, all three bands became friends to some degree.

The initial lineup lasted only a couple of years before they fell apart, leaving no records behind to tell their story.

Fast forward to 1985. The Birthday Party had fallen apart, as they were always bound to do, and the band’s members were scattered to the winds. Nick Cave, as we know, went on to huge critical and commercial acclaim with a career that still, magnificently, shows no sign of tailing off.

But what of their stellar guitarist, the whirlwind of sonic turbulence that was Rowland S Howard?

Well, Simon Bonney travelled to London and reformed Crime and the City Solution, with Howard at its heart, the guitarist perhaps seeing Simon Bonney as a natural successor to his former partner Nick Cave.

For a while, Birthday Party drummer/guitarist Mick Harvey played with both Crime and the Bad Seeds, also taking on management duties for both bands.

As you may expect from all this, there are common threads joining these bands together, in terms of sound, lyrical slant and attitude. But, while eclipsed by the success of Nick Cave, Crime and the City Solution can lay claim to an output the equal of anything their more famous countryman has produced. But, tragically, one that has had less coverage and reach.

Crime and the City Solution have produced a body of work without flaw, including such gems as the haunting Six Bells Chime, All Must Be Love and Shine.

The cliché is that a band’s debut album is often their best, but Crime grew in stature with each release, reaching a pinnacle on what was to be their last album for 13 years, before reforming again in 2013.

On Crime’s fourth album, everything fell into place perfectly.

Paradise Discotheque starts with single I Have The Gun, an almost jaunty number with country leanings that may give the listener a false sense of normality. The country theme was further explored in Simon Bonney‘s first solo album Forever, itself an incredible, 24-carat gold record more than worthy of its own lost albums feature.

By track two we are into something denser and more intense. The Sly Persuaders is a bluesy tale of corruption and greed, or perhaps even capitalism itself.

Bonney’s words were often very literate, coming across more as a story than actual lyrics and again it is easy to see a connection to the work of Nick Cave. The Sly Persuaders can be seen as a short story, with its cast of shadowy characters and easily-persuaded town residents.

Musically, the importance of Bonney‘s wife Bronwyn comes to the fore on this album. Her input helps lift Crime above the masses, often adding a melancholy counterpoint to proceedings. She also shares song writing with her husband and between them they make a formidable team.

Next track The Dolphins and the Sharks is perhaps Crime and the City Solution‘s high watermark. An unabashed love song, The Dolphins and the Sharks is beautiful and, again, literary. The object of the song’s affection is a beacon that shines out in grim conditions; ‘Waking from the slums of the night, you kick your toes out and touch the light, you are a beautiful and lazy sight.’

Simon and Bronwyn Bonney‘s ability to set a scene with just a few words is again in evidence as the opening lines show: ‘The urban heat is stifling, the kettle’s on the boil. The dishes are dirty and the milk’s about to spoil. The sounds in my head crowd the hours, you brush across me like a summer shower. It ain’t loud now‘ all delivered in a slow drawl.

Musically, The Dolphins and the Sharks is hauntingly beautiful. If you are reading this and by any chance are unaware of Crime and the City Solution, listen to this song and marvel at how uplifting and affecting music can be. The Dolphins and the Sharks is really as good as music gets.

From here, most bands and most albums could be forgiven for lurching into a trough, after so magnificent a peak. But Paradise Discotheque is not most albums. The Sun Before The Darkness features a cyclic, melancholic guitar riff that works its way into your subconscious and stays there.

Live, the guitar in this song was more to the fore, but here in the album version it is buried in the mix adding atmospherics and letting the strings take over and guide the song.

Lyrically, we find ourselves in a world where the deeds of man have stopped the sun from rising, ‘Since the sun has refused to rise, to wake is an unwelcome surprise‘.

Again, there is a story here that conjures images with an efficiency of words: ‘Daybreak, strange shapes on the horizon obscure the sun.’

The only cover track on the album is a version of the traditional Australian song, Motherless Child. Crime and the City Solution‘s version here is a claustrophobic and dense take on this tale of a rootless person travelling the world.

Ironically, this is pretty much what happened to the Bonneys after Crime and the City Solution split up, with  work and a restless spirit taking them to live in places such as Papua New Guinea, Bangladesh and The Marshall Islands, before settling in their current home of Thailand.

With side one (remember sides?) out of the way, Crime and the City Solution settle down into the main part of Paradise Discotheque, an incredible, ambitious and brave four-part epic called The Last Dictator.

The songs follow an epic tale of ambition and power seeking, with references to historical and biblical stories. The scale of the songs and the ambition needed to bring them to life is staggering.

The only other record I can think of that matches the scope and aspirations of The Last Dictator is The Hazards of Love by The Decemberists, which has even been performed as a play.

There is something about The Last Dictator Parts 1 – 4 which would also suit being performed in this manner and it is easy to imagine it cast as an epic film, such is its depth and density of language.

Simon and Bronwyn Bonney were clearly working at a level that is quite simply beyond the reach of most lyricists. As good as these songs are, it is perhaps a shame that The Last Dictator didn’t take the form of a novel; the themes and treatments are utterly compelling and work on many narrative levels.

As to the question of why this magnificent album wasn’t more widely received, I really have no answer. When I was younger and in a band myself, I believed that the cream would always rise to the top and all a band had to do to become successful was to produce great records and fantastic music.

Time has robbed me of this illusion and I realise that success is more to do with chance, payola and sheer dumb luck.

The fact that Crime and the City Solution were deprived of these does not make this record any less valuable, any less powerful or any less wonderful.

Seek it out, play it, fall in love with the marvel that is Paradise Discotheque and marvel at the unfairness of the world.

https://open.spotify.com/embed/album/64TMVdqoLQvuEoGnA5t8jC