Last Hee-Haw from the Boys Next Door, from RAM, 1980
The Boys Next Door's career has been a turbulent one. In just two short years, they've recorded for three different labels: Suicide, Mushroom and now Missing Link; turned down potentially lucrative offers; earnt not even the contempt but the ridicule of fellow musicians; been ignored by radio, shunned by Countdown, barred from Bombay Rock, beaten up, arrested several times, and turned in some of the most miserable excuses for perfomances I've ever witnessed.
But at the same time, they've probably produced a handful of excellent records, and on occasion, delivered performances verging on brilliant.
It's this side of the Boys Next Door that leads me to consider them, simply, one of the finest bands in this country.
From their very beginnings, the Boys Next Door chose a path leading towards freer abstraction, and every phase of their development has been a step further along that path.
Their vinyl progression is a fair indication of this-from the punk-inspired beginnings of their contribution to Suicide's Lethal Weapons; to their debut album, Door, Door on Mushroom, which found them finally entering a more sophisticated sort of ground, not unlike that which Magazine and Television were working within; to “Scatterbrain,” a one off single given away at the Crystal Ballroom, which was a looser, more spontaneous extension of the style established on Door, Door; to their latest offering, Hee-Haw, a five-track 12 inch EP on Missing Link. Hee-Haw is the Boys Next Door's most coherent statement yet.
"The group is starting to realise its ideals," guitarist Rowland Howard said. "It's not an entirely new thing that's gone click, and we've started doing this, that and the other."
"It seems the more we write, the less influence of other people we're under," says vocalist Nick Cave.
"We're getting more confident, and that's allowing is to become more adventurous," adds bassist Tracy Pew.
Rowland: "There's more understanding, within the group, of what we're trying to do, rather than just the person who's writing the song."
Of course, the way a song is written can determine what it will eventually sound like.
Tracy: "The songs are becoming more and more band compositions."
Rowland: "Like, nowadays, Nick tends to come along to rehearsals and say, 'I've got a new song', and sit down at the piano and pound out this three-note little thing. My songs are always more worked out than Nick's, but still much less than they used to be."
Tracy: "Nick's offerings are getting less and less substantial. He doesn't bother composing them, or arranging them."
Nick: "It's quite true that I don't bother too much about actually arranging songs, because the group as a whole generally do it better. It's much easier, I think, to feel out an arrangement, as opposed to doing it beforehand."
So songwriting is a growth process?
Tracy: "Yeah, yeah. They come in stages. Like, when Nick showed us “Hair Shirt,” which is on the EP, all he had was a sort of bastardized version of 'What shall we do with a drunken sailor'."
Nick: "I had the tune, and an idea of how the tune should be played, and the words, and the vocal melody."
Tracy: "I think it's a good way to write songs. Rowland's earlier songs used to be very much the opposite. He'd start with a bass line, and build on it, layer by layer. And we had these very stolid songs like “I Mistake Myself."”
Rowland: “There's nothing really wrong with that type of thing. It just comes out with a different feeling, and that's not really the type of feeling we want at the moment. The music I've always liked best has been the music that's conjured up an atmosphere, and had a really strong feeling about it. I've always wanted to do that, maybe we're accomplishing it now..."
They are. Hee-Haw is a vindication of the band's approach. Each of the five songs – Rowland Howard's “Red Clock” and “Death by Drowning,” and Nick Cave's “Faint Heart,” “A Catholic Skin” and “Hair Shirt” – capture a palpable tension. In some ways, the band has managed to escape many of the absurd constraints of the rock-song structure – these are songs of base simplicity, mobile structures (usually characterised by a recurring repetitive motif), and improvised embellishments.
Nick: "We generally work with one theme that basically runs through the whole song."
Tracy: "Sometimes it sounds really chaotic, like in “Death by Drowning,” which has a clarinet tooting away all the time, but fundamentally they're simpler songs. Our songs seem to be getting simpler and simpler."
Rowland: "They're getting sparser in a way too. There's more spaces."
Tracy: "It's just getting into more freedom."
Rowland: "I find it really hard playing a really organised piece anyway. It's not very much fun, and it's hard, after a while, to inject any sort of energy into it. It's a lot harder for us to convey our ideas now, because they're more abstract."
Nick: "A lot more of our own...obsessions, I suppose, are coming out."
Rowland: "I think the really good thing about our music is that it always has a slightly self-mocking element to it. Whatever we do, we're never totally serious about it. I mean, music's just sound anyway." Hee-Haw has met with a mixed reaction. It is, after all, music unlike any ever recorded in this country (and could only be compared to one other Australian band – Whirlywirld.)
The Boys Next Door are still playing basically the same circuit they were two years ago, but by now their labors have become little more that a means to an end.
Tracy: "We reached a plateau in Australia a really long time ago and we've just been rolling along ever since. The thing is that we're doing gigs mainly with a view to getting money to go overseas."
Obviously, England seems like a greener pasture.
Rowland: "Well, we could sell ourselves better in any country where there's a larger population, because there's be more people per acre that liked us. These tracks (in the EP) we're going to use as demos for record companies in England."