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Rowland S. Howard started playing in teenage bands in late 70s Melbourne. Whilst still a callow youth, he wrote Shivers, an undisputed classic, (quietly ignoring the fact that Rowland perhaps doesn’t see it that way and approaches the song as if it was written by someone else.) The song was recorded by his band The Boys Next Door, who mutated into the Birthday Party and then relocated to Europe to wage a guerrilla campaign against the trivialities of the 80s, until they turned their fire upon themselves and disintegrated mid-decade.
Whilst his former associates have moved on to weekend color supplement acceptability, Rowland has commonly been perceived as the banished wastrel prince... exiled to a squalid garret on the colder edges of the kingdom, accompanied only by his dreams and inclinations. His demeanor (pale, gaunt, stick thin, sickly, dark humored, fatalistic) has perhaps inadvertently added far too much credence to this interpretation of events. The shadow of this myth has seemingly obscured by the sheer volume of his creativity and the singularity of his musical vision.
Always respected by his peers, a scan through Rowland’s catalogue of work sees him allied with the likes of Lydia Lunch, Thurston Moore, Wim Wenders, Barry Adamson, The Gun Club, Nikki Sudden, the Beasts Of Bourbon, the Hungry Ghosts and HTRK. Rowland’s own ensemble, These Immortal Souls, gun their engines in the ill-lit background and the legacy of his work with The Birthday Party scores the skin of successive generations of musicians and fans.
But it’s a history Rowland would gleefully put a match to. With or without it, Rowland S. Howard would make tense, beautiful music, would deliver us his personal vision of the world, would create Pop Crimes.
Longtime faithful friends Mick Harvey (who has played with Rowland for over 30 years), JP Shilo (Hungry Ghosts) and producer Lindsay Gravina make for a formidable backline. Out front, the guitar playing couldn’t be any one else but Rowland S Howard and his weary, almost journalistic vocal delivery dispassionately sits amidst the sweaty panic of the music, adding to the ill ease.
The band lurch in to Pop Crimes as if dragging a rain soaked body across a muddy field. The ghosts of Lee Hazlewood, Snatch, Sergio Leone, The Shangri-Las and nameless guys from a never known chain gang watch on. Within the first few breaths, Rowland references Stalin, Calvary and genocide, whilst razoring guitar lines the current crop of post-punk revisionists could only fantasize about.
Shut Me Down is Rowland at his most romantic, though inevitably it’s shot through with loss and longing. If only Dusty Springfield were alive to revel in its drama. Talk Talk’s ‘Life’s What You Make It’ is re-imagined as if it had risen from the grind of a Detroit auto plant’s assembly line. ‘(I Know) A Girl Called Johnny’ sees Jonnine D from HTRK sidle up to the microphone for a duet that will melt even the coldest of hearts. It’s a glorious missing link between the New York girl group sound and the street smarts of Suicide. Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Nothin’ is given a chilling tenement building transformation. ‘Wayward Man’ has the band wailing like alarm sirens before Rowland emerges at his most contemplative with the gorgeous, fragile build of ‘Ave Maria’. Final track ‘The Golden Age Of Bloodshed’, takes the album out on a swaggering, swashbuckling epic, with salvation slipping through the narrator’s fingers.
Rowland S. Howard carved a deep scar across the landscape of contemporary music. Elsewhere in the world, such a rogue character would be rewarded with glowing features in glossy music magazines, invited to curate arts festivals, offered their own radio show or feted with tribute albums. In Australia, such a triumph of the spirit, a lifetime spent wilfully unyielding to the middle ground, is not so highly prized and not so publically commended. Sadly we don’t do gravitas. We don’t value those who scratch the polished surface, shine a pale light in to our darker corners, alert us to the fact that we are not without blame or weakness, dare to infer that the very same things that pleasure also corrode.
“Sometimes, Muhammad must come to the mountain.”
Rowland S. Howard: October 24th, 1959 – December 30th, 2009