NME - December 4, 1982
The Birthday Party w/ Virgin Prunes - Ace Cinema, Brixton
With Channel 4's cameras peering over their shoulders, both sets of Wild Men Of Pop felt a little inhibited. Mindful of television's cold, reducing stare, their performances were controlled and concise, gestures rehearsed. So though we were spared self-indulgence, the evening lacked that edge of risk and danger which can turna gig into an event. But as gigs go, half of this was great.
The Virgin Prunes are renowned for audience inter-action, often mingling with it during the performance, presumably to make some conceptual point. But there was no funny stuff tonight. They just whacked out eight numbers, mostly from the new LP, with the slick professionalism of any ordinary rock band. Which is what they are. All that for which they are notorious seems to be a half-baked attempt to distance themselves from fellow Dubliners U2.
Whereas U2 are cleancut and direct, the Prunes attempt to intrigue and mystify with a shambolic pretence of spontaneity and a clutter of Gothic-horror props. Dismembered dolls, death-mask-face-paint, monks' robes and the scattering of ashes are devices too cliched to be either shocking or amusing.
Like Screaming Lord Sutch, it's feeble vaudeville.
And while the Prunes sing 'Pagan Love Song' to U2's 'Gloria In Excelsis', both employ similar techniques of four-square rhythm, ringing guitar, and sanctified frontmen exhorting their followers to communion with swelling anthems or threats of damnation.
The Virgin Prunes are sheep in wolf's clothing, but were widely applauded as warm-up for the true High Priests of That Old Time Religion.
The Birthday Party are a leaner, meaner outfit than when they last played in Britain. Mick Harvey now drums full-time, requiring Rowland Howard to play guitar with greater fluidity and resonance. They have never sounded so sharp and concentrated. Even more than The Gun Club, they extracted more from their blues, jazz, and rockabilly roots an essence of dark, visceral excitement.
For the record, they have dropped all pre-'Junkyard' numbers and have added four new songs, at least one of which, 'Pleasure Avalanche', is an instant classic. Other highlights included a cataclysmic 'Big-Jesus-Trash-Can' and 'She's Hit', which uncoiled with melancholy, serpentine inevitability. I was gripped.
But the night was not right to go All The Way, so despite prolonged partisian ecstasy there were no crowd-pleasing encores. Always hold something back.
On leaving, I was not alone in thinking that The Birthday Party are, in that quaint old phrase, maybe the Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band in the World.
- Mat Snow