This Swirling Sphere - August 1999
It's fuckin' glorious, it really is. Rowland S. Howard's debut solo album, Teenage Snuff Film, is the kind of record that sears through the murk of consciously programmed garbage that masquerades as the majority of music and hits the subconscious with brutal seduction. Teenage Snuff Film is the lay you always wanted - and had to have - despite the fact you knew they were going to consume you, bruise you, emotionally scar you and spit you out.
That it comes - at last - from a 39-year-old guitarist whose own battle-scarred (and Rowland S. Howard is) road begins around the age of 16 in 1976 with his first recognised band, Young Charlatans, which also contained an equally young Ian "Ollie" Olsen , is not surprising, only long overdue.
As Howard points out: to look at his career from an Australian perspective would be to conclude a certain patchiness. There are gaps, but they are gaps of omission. Overseas those times are filled with never-released-in-Australia albums. When Rowland S. Howard joined Mick Harvey (who - with bassist Brian Hooper of the Beasts of Bourbon - provides the drums and organ on Teenage Snuff Film) in the Boys Next Door, he brought with him a song, Shivers, that was to become one of Australia's greatest cult singles when released by the Boys Next Door in 1979.
By February 1980 the Boys had transformed into The Birthday Party and perhaps the most malevolent and crazed band in Australian history staked its claim over three wild years to legendhood. When they split Howard and Harvey collaborated on Crime And City Solution before Howard formed his own 'supergroup', These Immortal Souls, in 1986.
The Souls went to heaven or hell in 1994 when Howard returned to Melbourne and began his journey to Teenage Snuff Film. But there are other credits, particularly Lydia Lunch with whom Howard and Harvey recorded the 1981 12-inch classic EP Some Velvet Morning/I Fell in Love With A Ghost. That relationship with Lunch peaked on the outstanding Shotgun Wedding (1991) set and its accompanying live disc on which the pair redefined extreme emotion in some sort of erotically-charged emotional burnout zone.
And then there's his work as a hired gun with French pop band Kas Produkt, The Bad Seeds, Barry Adamson and Primal Scream. All these things fit into Howard's view of life. He sounds remarkably sane for a man whose album charters some insane emotional turbulence.
No song you'll hear this year will chill quite as much as I Burnt Your Clothes: "I had no knife but myself, it was me I cut but you bled as well, how could I help my dear sweet pretty one, when I could not put down the gun.
"And I don't know your name, sweet baby Jane, you'll find it unbelievable I left you in the hospital and you don't have a stitch to wear because the doctors cut the clothes right off your back, and - guess what - I don't care about who or what or when or where, heaven knows, I burnt your clothes ..."
Howard is talking about the 11 songs that fill the 54-plus minutes of Teenage Snuff Film, the majority of which are autobiographical. The stunning opener Dead Radio was written in Adelaide while walking from a soundcheck to getting something to eat; Autoluminiscent was in his head one morning when he woke up - the whole song, "An extremely nice gift from the gods," he deadpans. "And the only time it's ever happened.
"I Burnt Your Clothes is absolutely autobiographical," he continues. "It's dealing with about three different things at the same time so lyrically it'd be very difficult for anybody to know exactly what I was talking about. But, yeah, with certain songs on the record I tried to make them very straightforward in terms of being very revealing and it's an incredibly hard thing to do - to write songs where you do just say what you're feeling in fairly straightforward terms. I'm using imagery and stuff but it's very basic emotional stuff.
"There's been enormous changes in my life over the last three years and I guess I had a lot of things to talk about. "
But there's more to this than just blunt emotional soul-baring. Howard's record is crafted with surprise and contrast as the two most conscious characteristics. Its two covers - a dripping-with-Phil Spector version of the Shangri-La's classic, He Cried (retitled She Cried), and - believe it or not - Billy Idol's White Wedding, which is given a complete makeover, both play a part in the big picture that Howard was aiming for in Teenage Snuff Film.
"I really like the idea of having a song like I Burnt Your Clothes on a record that also has a song like She Cried which is an incredibly simplistic version of love in a way. And the contradictions of the two songs are some of the things that interest me about songwriting and humanity. The more you the think about things the less consistent things become.
"I'm also a really big fan of the Shangri-La's. I think that Shadow Morton, their mentor or inventor, was a genius. I wanted to somehow demonstrate my love of pop music on this record because it's not something I'm really associated with, and to also show that my concerns are not that far from the traditional concerns of pop music which are love and death and sex and all that stuff. It's just the big three to write about.
"The same with White Wedding. I just felt that somewhere beneath all that hideous bombastic production that there was a really romantic song and it was just a good idea to make it incredibly simple and balladic. I also liked the idea purely because people would look at it on the record cover and go 'Oh, my God, what the hell is that doing there?'."
Teenage Snuff Movie is also a subtle comment about stereotyping and expectation as much as it is about knowing yourself better than the people who think they know you.
Aiming at being back in the studio within six months, Howard has no intention of backing off; "The idea is to just try and do some things that surprise people and aren't exactly what people expect me to do. That's another reason for putting White Wedding in there because the idea that people know exactly what I do sickens me to an extent. I may be 39-years-old but I'd like to think I can still do something that surprises people."
What he doesn't say is that Rowland S. Howard still has attitude; nearly as spunk as it was way back when in The Birthday Party whose recently released live album he and Harvey compiled; an experience he describes as "very bizarre and strange" because he found the material difficult to relate to from his current perspective.
Yet the Howard he sells now is still the man rooted in the wild dervish of the Party that knew no end. The album title itself is simple proof of that.
"I liked the fact that it had the word teenage in it, because there were some fairly teenage concerns on the record. It's a homage to the things that got me involved in music in the first place, to a certain extent; to punk rock and bands like the Alice Cooper band and just to be wilfully offensive, as well, just because I wanted to be.
"There is no meaning really other than it's a nice set of words and it's a great title. I guess when people make solo albums they feel that they can be a little bit more self-indulgent, and tend to have really ridiculous titles on their records that are obviously really important to them and they feel are terribly portentous - and I see no reason why saying 'fuck you' should be the province of bands. It's an essential part of music. It's part of my job description."
- MIKE GEE, Music Editor