In 1975, Rowland S. Howard wrote a song called ‘Shivers’, one of the best songs ever to come out of Australia and indeed anywhere (in my humble opinion) at the tender age of 16. Originally written for Howard’s first band,The Young Charlatans, Howard took the song, ‘Shivers’, with him when he joined another local Melbourne band, The Boys Next Door (Nick Cave, Mick Harvey, Phil Calvert and Tracey Pew), where it was released as their first single off the otherwise fairly straightforward post punk new wave album “Door, Door” in 1979. Ironically, Howard was rueful that it was always this song that defined him:
Howard had a marked impact on the direction of The Boys Next Door with his ferocious and distinctive feedback-laden anarchic guitar style using his signature combination of a Fender Jaguar, a Fender Twin reverb and an MXR Blue Box pedal. The Boys Next Door subsequently moved to London, changing their name to The Birthday Party in the process and went on to becoming one of Australia’s most iconic, influential and legendary bands.
It was the combination of Howard’s manic discordant guitar style and the unhinged nature of Cave’s enigmatic presence and delivery that drove The Birthday Party – powered, and to some extent grounded, by the thunderous rhythm section of Phil Calvert and Tracey Pugh and the steady hand of musical genius Mick Harvey:
The presence of two creative songwriters in The Birthday Party couldn’t be maintained, however, and Howard eventually left as the band evolved into the more restrained Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
Post The Birthday Party, Howard went on to be involved in an extraordinary number of collaborations with artists and groups such as Lydia Lunch, Nikki Sudden, ex-Barracudas singer Jeremy Gluck, guitarist Gavin Poolman, French electro group KaS Product, Barry Adamson, Einstürzende Neubauten, guitarist Chris Haskett, The Gun Club singer and songwriter Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Fad Gadget, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Henry Rollins, and Wire’s A.C. Marias. A key factor in all of these bands was a dedication to scuzzy, goth-tinged and slightly unhinged rock.
Howard and Harvey joined Crime and the City Solution and then Howard left to form These Immortal Souls (including his brother, Harry Howard) and even sang backing vocals on the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album Let Love In in 1994.
To me however, Howard’s two solo albums provided incontrovertible evidence of his genius. They are both dark pop masterpieces noticeable for the trademark slashing guitar style and Howard’s laconic delivery. Mick Harvey contributed to both albums on drums. Both albums have surprising covers – on the second album “Pop Crimes” Howard’s version of Talk Talk’s brilliant ‘Life’s What You Make It’ turns it into an ominous threatening rumble, the guitars translating the original synth riffs into shards of glass.
On 1999’s “Teenage Snuff Movie”, Howard transforms the posturing Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” into a considered, restrained alt.country ballad you would never have imagined possible.
“Pop Crimes”, released in October 2009, was Howard’s last album – in 2003 he was diagnosed with end-stage cirrhosis of the liver – and in full knowledge of his impending death the album is imbued with a sense of finality and regret. It is an extraordinary and criminally underrated album that highlights Howard’s highly distinctive guitar style and songwriting ability. While receiving critical adulation, Howard’s illness prevented proper promotion of the album. A live performance of one of the tracks off the album, ‘Golden Age of Bloodshed’, captures the enigma of a very ill Howard in one of his last gigs:
Howard died in December 2009. I saw one of his last ever performances at the All Tomorrows Parties rock festival in Australia in January 2009, curated by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. He was backed by Mick Harvey on drums, and JP Shilo on bass. In the crumbling ruins of an old barracks on Cockatoo Island in the middle of Sydney Harbour during the early afternoon sunshine: a band dressed in black and a pale and wan Howard. It was an extraordinary gig.
A brilliant and heart-breaking documentary of his life, Autoluminescent was released in 2011, and a laneway in Melbourne was named in his honour in 2015, joining only two other artists in receiving such an honour (AC/DC and Chrissy Amphlett, late singer of The Divinyls). A compilation of his work throughout his career can be found on the album ‘The Six Strings That Drew Blood’.