You might not know it but one of your life’s greatest regrets is never seeing the Birthday Party perform live. Perhaps you weren’t born yet, or maybe you were just stupid – either way you missed them and you are poorer for it. The Birthday Party were one of the most incredible bands In the history of Rock ‘N’ Roll. They were vicious and violent and unapologetically different at a time when most bands were sporting shoulder pads and putting the world to sleep with synthesizers.Nick Cave, Mick Harvey, Rowland S Howard, Tracy Pew and Phil Calvert were The Birthday Party, and they were a hot spray of bloody spittle in the face of those dreadful bands that filled the void left by punk.
God they were good. I never saw them of course – I’m stupid – but photographer Bleddyn Butcher did, and his new book, A Little History: Photographs of Nick Cave and Cohorts 1981-2013, is about as close as you’ll get to seeing the band in full flight. It’s also as close as you can get to Nick Cave without him saying ‘Why are you standing so close to me?’ and punching you.
Q. Did you study photography?
Bleddyn: No, English Literature- I got an arts degree, basically.
Q. How did you get into photography?
Bleddyn: Well, I had to make a living while I was at Uni, and I was into music and… Right, hang on. I better think about what I’m saying here because you’re actually going to quote some of this, you bastard.
Q. I’ll be quoting all of it,man.
Bleddyn: Right, well I did a poster for a band, which was, like, a cartoon of them that I drew, and they said, ‘Oh you’ve got a visual eye, why don’t you try taking photos of us?’ And that’s how it started.
Q. Who was the band?
Bleddyn: You never would have heard of them. They were a Perth band called Roadband. Anyway, I took these photos and they turned out okay, so I went and brought a camera.
Q. How’d you end up working for NME?
Bleddyn: I was into music. And NME was a good magazine – once – and I wanted to work for it. There were no good magazines in Australia; there were rock magazines but none of them were good. They were basically shit. There was no real critical depth to them, and no real interst in what anyone was writing, so I figured there was no point in going to Melbourne or Sydney, may as well go straight to London.
Q. How were you received in London in 1980? Was it like being a second-class citizen?
Bleddyn: As an Australian?
Bleddyn:Yeah, of course. Australian’s were expected to work behind the bar in Earls Court; they weren’t supposed to do anything else. It was very tiresome. Racist jokes, just the constant stereotyping. So it was hard to make inroads.
Q. But you did-you got a job at NME. How?
Bleddyn: Full-frontal assault; I went straight in there, you know, because I was already out there taking photos.
Q. What happened?
Bleddyn: I was rejected. There maybe eighteen months later they had a photo competition and I entered a picture – one that’s in the book – and I came second.
Q. What was the photo? Wait! Congratulations!
Bleddyn: Ha ha! That was in 1982, mate!
Q. You still won! What was the photo?
Bleddyn: It was one of Nick and Rowland. It’s the one where Nick’s eyes are drooping.
Q. Oh yeah, I know that one. Then what happened?
Bleddyn: So I rang up the editor and I said, ‘So what’s the prize for this competition?’ And he said, ‘Well, do you want to come work for us?’
Q. That’s great. Did you get to chose your assignments or—
Bleddyn: Oh, no way.
Q. Did you ever have to shoot a band you didn’t want to – like ‘Oh fuck, I’ve gotta go shoot Duran Duran today.’
Bleddyn: No, no. NME didn’t cover Duran Duran back then, but I have actually taken pictures of either Duran Duran or Simon Le Bon, I can’t remember which. I also used to work for Countdown magazine in the early ‘80’s, and that (Duran Duran) was the sort of thing Countdown covered. Countdown had no clout whatsoever. No English band had even hers of Countdown unless they’d been to Australia.
Q. So how did you meet Nick? You’re still mates with him now, right?
Bleddyn: Well, as much as someone from the journalistic profession can be mates. I suppose, but yeah, I like him. We’re friends.
Q. That’s interesting because Nick has had a notoriously picky relationship with the press. How did you guys end up having a good relationship?
Bleddyn: Well, I liked his band when a whole lot of other people didn’t like his band. I thought they were fantastic and I used to go and see them all the time. I’d see as many gigs as I could blag my way into, or afford to pay for, depending on what the circumstances were. There weren’t that many people going to those gigs they were small, In pubs. There’s a picture in the book of the crowd at a gig, and I think Nick has leather pants on, throwing his head back, and Rowland is wearing sleeve braces, it’s a picture at the Moonlight Club anyway, you can see the audience. Now, that’s not every member of the audience, but I can tell you, that was half of them, that’s how many people were at those gigs.
Q. So, like twenty people. That’s crazy.
Bleddyn: Anyway, after a while the band came to know some members in their audience, especially the persistent ones who were obsessed with them, like me.
Q. Wasn’t there a guy with a Mohawk who was always up the front going batshit at Birthday Party gigs? I think he became their unofficial security guard or something.
Bleddyn: Oh, you’re talking about Bingo.
Bleddyn: Bingo. Nick used to throw himself onto the crowd and try to goad them into doing something more than just pogoing up and down, and Bingo was someone who responded to this injunction to express your self. One time he grabbed Nick’s leg and wouldn’t let him go; another time he appeared in the crowd with all the malarkey you need to do fire breathing, and he started breathing fire at the band.
Q. Jesus. When you were photographing the band did you have the feeling you were documenting something important?
Bleddyn: Well, I felt it was, yeah. I mean, it felt important to me; I didn’t realize other people would come to agree with me, but it was definitely important to me.
Q. Your new book features photos of Nick (and cohorts) from 1981 to 2013. How did you end up shooting him for so many years?
Bleddyn: We made a connection, you know, and I was pretty dedicated.
To read the rest of the interview with Bleddyn Butcher, you’ll have to purchase the Photo Annual from here.