There’s a scene in the new doco Mutiny in Heaven: The Birthday Party that shows – at least in illustrated form – a young Mick Harvey sitting on the bonnet of a speeding car, hooning down St Kilda Esplanade like some low-budget Mad Max stunt. For the guitarist and long-time Nick Cave collaborator (the two met and formed The Boys Next Door at Caulfield Grammar), the 1970s and ’80s were a wild time, and frequently brutal. But the music they made – and continue to make – still packs a mighty punch.
Harvey acted as music supervisor and producer for the film, which stitches together archival footage and interviews with cartoons for a scrappy punk-zine retelling of how a high school outfit transformed into The Birthday Party, one of Australia’s most influential, and infamous, bands. He’s philosophical about reliving the story on the big screen; it’s “already a public thing”, he says. Still, some mystery remains.
“Apart from it being extremely abrasive music, the only thing I do wonder is what on earth we really thought we were doing?” he tells Broadsheet. “We felt at the time like we were making an important statement about music, and about what you could do with a band, and what could be inspired in people. And we felt that we were achieving some of those things. But in hindsight, it’s hard to determine the specifics.”
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The film shows the band gigging in Melbourne, recruiting post-punk prodigy Rowland S Howard, doing time in a dreary, drug-infused London bedsit and – among changing line-ups – recording The Birthday Party (1980), Prayers on Fire (1981) and finally Junkyard in 1982. There’s also time for a move to Cold War Berlin and a very stressful incident filming a music video in a burning Melbourne rubbish dump.
For Australian fans, there’s a special nostalgia in glimpses of the late ’70s/early ’80s Melbourne underground scene, which Harvey remembers extending to Richmond and Carlton as well as St Kilda’s iconic Crystal Ballroom, which also hosted local bands such as Models, Dead Can Dance and Hunters & Collectors.
“There was a promoter who started using the Seaview Hotel in St Kilda, which is also called the George Hotel. Or the Seaview Ballroom or the Crystal Ballroom. It’s all the same thing. It’s just very confusing and has many names.”
Harvey remembers a particular triumph returning from the band’s first London jaunt and playing to a capacity room heaving with new fans. “By the time we came back from the first year in England, and we played our return show at the Ballroom downstairs, it was sold out. We probably didn’t know many of those people. All of a sudden it had become something else,” he says. “I remember when I was told how many copies Junkyard sold – and it was something quite modest really, about 15,000 copies worldwide – I was like, ‘Wow, who are these people buying our record?’”
Though the film ends with The Birthday Party, Harvey’s career doesn’t. He was a pivotal member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds until 2009, and has a prolific solo career as well as a string of high profile collaborations with musicians such as PJ Harvey and Clare Bowditch. He just got back from a European tour with Mexican singer Amanda Acevedo promoting their album, Phantasmagoria in Blue, and he’s soon set to kick off some Australian dates.
“Somehow I’ve kept going, I’m not quite sure how,” Harvey laughs. “It’s a bit like that with people in music. Unless you get disrupted by practical circumstances, if you’re able to continue making music, you tend to just keep doing it. You don’t really ‘retire’ like Billy Joel! That’s something you shouldn’t do if you’re real about it.”
Mutiny in Heaven: The Birthday Party is screening at select cinemas across Australia, including some special Q&A sessions with Mick Harvey. See birthdaypartymovie.com for details.
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