“No Bono, no Henry Rollins!”
This is the proud boast of Phill Calvert, original drummer of The Boys Door and the band they became mid-air, midway between Melbourne and London, The Birthday Party, as he contemplates the rambunctious documentary of the band’s short, eventful, and influential life.
Look all you like but neither of these perennials of music documentaries – the Irish and American uber fans loved by filmmakers for the same reason the ABC used to love Tasmanian senator Eric Abetz: because they will talk on anything, anytime – can be found anywhere in Mutiny In Heaven. Nor indeed will you find much of anyone talking but band members Nick Cave, Calvert, Rowland S. Howard and Mick Harvey, which is no accident says the film’s director, Ian White.
“That was one of Phill’s conditions: he said I’m not doing it if either of those guys is in it,” says White. “And good on him. One of the key points of the film was not wanting to have a lot of third-party talk about the band, because when the material is that strong you really don’t need other people telling you how good it is.
“What I wanted to do was create a world and drop the audience into that world. And having third parties – other bands, critics, journalists – talk about the band seemed to break that world that we were creating.”
Sure Ian, do some of us out of work why don’t you?
But then the world White drops us in, arty and experimental, drug-filled and alcohol-fuelled, noisy and gothic, punkish and comic, transgressive and ridiculous, sexual and schoolboy-ish is something better experienced than explained. It’s more than a Nick Cave origin story or some cautionary “don’t try smack at home, kids” tale, for a start.
Not only are there few other people to hear in Mutiny In Heaven, a lot of the time the people we’re hearing are not even seen on-screen. Mostly the band members are heard off-camera as original performance or personal footage is played – the only one we don’t hear at all is Tracy Pew, the lasciviously-hipped, cowboy hat-wearing bassist who died after an epileptic episode in 1986, three years after The Birthday Party split, and left virtually no record of his voice anywhere.
Occasionally the musicians are absent altogether, represented by some blackly humorous, ‘80s-friendly animation.
“Coming back to the thing of creating a world, the band were really gracious in opening up their personal archives for this project, and in looking through boxes of material I came across all these fantastic textures that don’t exist anymore: aerograms, photocopies, postage stamps, and these things really informed the visual palette of the film,” explains White. “And I wanted to bottle some of that energy and the energy of the time, rather than the film being a nostalgic look back at the band.
“And also that band was very much a band. It’s as odd saying ‘Nick Cave and the Birthday Party’ as it is saying ‘Joey Ramone and the Ramones’. They really were five distinct individuals and the combination, the dynamic between those individuals, is what created the band. That was another reason for mixing the voices up altogether.”
For “energy” sometimes you could transpose “the ever-present threat of violence”, which became part of the mythology, and sometimes reality, around the band. Early in the film we see Cave, who would sometimes end shows or filmclips speckled with blood (or worse), tell an audience member “Next time you’ll know not to come up front when we’re playing. The front row is not for the fragile my dear.”
It’s pretty clear the back of the stage wasn’t any place for the fragile either.
“There were occasional microphone stands flying across the stage, and I do remember one time Nick had [the stand] by the microphone and he whipped it like that and the cast-iron base came up and it hit Rowland in the head and knocked Rowland to the floor,” Calvert says.
But he’s quite over the mythmaking that happened and occasionally overtook the music, adding. “I think we got a real [but unfair] reputation for this kind of violence in live performance”.
“There was a kind of tension between Nick and the band, musically, and the audience,” Calvert says. “Some of that came out of that first 12 months in England where you would basically play and they would stand stock-still, with their arms folded, just staring at you. And I think that’s when he came up with some of the stuff that’s in the songs like ‘do something … make a sound! … just do something’. “
The provocations led to people expecting a certain kind of behaviour, from both band an audience, which in turn fed that behaviour and practically demanded that the band be the bloodsport the audience had come for. That is still true even if, as Calvert insists, “we were just cracking fucking jokes all the time”, a bunch of lads prone to banter, bad jokes and “you would never believe, Nick Cave in a transit van singing Take It To The Limit by The Eagles, or maybe it was Desperado”.
Still, let’s not pretend they were choirboys badly misunderstood.
“I remember the tour we did in Australia between 81 and 82, at the time that we were recording Junkyard, and it was getting very physical,” Calvert says. “There were a couple of Stooges songs in the set – Nick and Rowland were both getting off on some of those early Stooges records as part of the zeitgeist of where we were going, being very confrontational and stuff – and I remember certain gigs where even I was scared on stage. Of what might just happen.
“We had a roadie … who quit halfway through the tour, he couldn’t fucking take it, and said, this is nuts, someone’s going to get hurt. It was really crazy, but I think the more it got wound up the more we went out there tingling.”
If real and cartoonish violence, genuine and manufactured fear, were the principal legacies of The Birthday Party, a film like this might struggle to earn its 100 minutes, even if you highlighted them as the foundation stone for Cave’s long career with The Bad Seeds, Grinderman, and more recently his film score work and elevation to some kind of emotionally-wise sage.
But White, who grew up in Melbourne around the same time as the band members, and saw them perform several times in their pomp before a career as an art director took him from Smash Hits and Mushroom Records to two decades of work in the UK and USA, argues for a more important slot in the Australian music history than actual sales figures, corporate recognition in the ARIA hall of fame, and appearances on Countdown would suggest.
“They were a really important band, and remain so. Very dedicated, extremely dedicated, to what they were doing in an extraordinarily uncompromising way. In today’s world where everything is Instagrammed and everyone is a brand, I found it incredibly refreshing how cavalier they were,” he says. “They may have sold relatively few records in the time of the career but they inspired an enormous amount of other musical acts, an enormous amount.
“They were incredibly influential in the US hard-core scene, and within the UK too they inspired an enormous amount of copycat bands, none of whom can close to the authenticity that The Birthday Party had.”
Influential, and done and dusted in a matter of a few years. Which is probably just right and certainly perfect for a one-shot-at-it biographical film.
“They burnt so bright and they burnt so fast,” says White. “That’s really the story.”
AN UNHAPPY BIRTHDAY? MAYBE NOT
(Phill Calvert, centre)
Mutiny In Heaven film tells the story of Calvert’s sacking from the band, a brutal ending – even when presented in animation – for someone who had known three of the others since school. It was at Cave and Howard’s instigation, though Harvey was delegated to do the dirty work as the others hid away, and it was quick and pitiless.
Calvert is ok watching that story told now. And figures it wasn’t exactly a distressing ending in retrospect.
“To watch it now I just go, yeah well that’s exactly what happened and I’ve reconciled that stuff. I’ve had 40 years to deal with it,” he says. “And the other thing is my very last gig, at the venue in London, who turns up backstage but the singer and guitarist from Psychedelic Furs, and then the manager calls me two weeks later and goes their drummer has just quit, do you want to audition? Three weeks later, I’m on the road in America, so I didn’t have too much time to be crying in my beer.”
He laughs. “Those guys were starving to death in Berlin and I was on the tour bus and staying in five-star hotels and probably doing too much cocaine. It wasn’t such a bad outcome for me in the end.”
Mutiny In Heaven opens:
Melbourne, October 26: Cinema Nova (premiere with Q&A), The Lido, The Classic and Thornbury Picturehouse. And Geelong, The Pivotonian; Bendigo, The Star Cinema
Sydney, November 2: Cremorne Orpheum (premiere with Q&A), Randwick Ritz, Golden Age Cinema
Perth, November 20: Luna Leederville (premiere with Q&A), Luna on S/X, Fremantle
Also screening at the Adelaide Film Festival and Byron Bay International Film Festival