Without a doubt one of the most influential guitarists of our time, Rowland S Howard started his career in Melbourne, Australia as part of the nascent punk scene with his group The Young Charlatans. Writing what some consider his most well-known song “Shivers” as a mere 16-year old, he became one of the formative members of legendary band The Birthday Party, as they morphed from their earlier incarnation as The Boys Next Door. While Howard wanted to do the vocals himself, Nick Cave pulled rank as the singer of the group and did his own version. Originally thought out as a song about the strongly felt but rapidly changing and risible feelings of emotionally instable teenagers, it was initially banned from air-play because of the mention of suicide in the lyrics. Later it became a strange and uncharacteristic hit from a band that went on to alienate everyone looking for easy pop.
Moving from Australia to London, The Birthday Party developed into one of the most important bands of the post-punk movement, with an intensity and aggression still unsurpassed. The extremely original guitar sound that Howard developed during this period, partly based on the MXR Blue Box effects pedal, had never been heard before and was in some ways a perfect foil to Nick Caves powerful vocals. After moving to Berlin, The Birthday Party gradually turned into a vehicle for the ideas of singer Cave, and the group imploded in 1983. The split gave birth to Crime and the City Solution, fronted by Howard, as well as Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Superb live work from both bands feature in Wim Wenders´ classic movie “Wings of Desire”. Such a perfect rendition of Howard´s stage presence and Nick Cave´s intensity, backed by Blixa Bargeld and genius multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey.
While The Bad Seeds was and still is extremely successful, Howard´s bands (including These Immortal Souls) largely remained a concern for the initiated. Finally taking the step from groups to a solo career, Howard released his first own record with 1999´s “Teenage Snuff Film”, recorded with old comrade Mick Harvey. An immensely enjoyable album of high-quality songs with the trade-mark Rowland S Howard guitar sound and his droll, intelligent and humorous lyrics.
After a hard life of substance abuse Howard was left suffering from hepatitis C, ultimately developing into liver cancer. The recording of “Pop Crimes” proved to be his last, and Rowland S Howard passed away in December 2009, some two months after the release of the album, still waiting for the liver transplant he so desperately needed.
This is one of those great records that fairly few has heard of. It´s reach goes from the euphoric pop of starter “(I know) A girl called Jonny” to the intensely emotional end-of-relation chronicle “Shut you down”. Title track “Pop crimes” perfectly showcases his guitar technique, expressive but still somehow restrained. All about heart and soul over technique. Closer “The golden age of bloodshed” is just so good and one of my favourite songs of the year.
Although aged beyond his years by hard living and disease, Howard still kept his impeccably elegant airs. Dark suit and white shirt, pale chiselled features, black crop of hair and the obligatory cigarette hanging from his red lips. Staggering across the stage while yanking the whammy bar of his trusted Fender Jaguar, face enveloped by a cloud of cigarette smoke. A rock star look to beat all other rock star looks.
I think it´s absolutely great that he got to end his career with a work like this. The product of a rare and singular mind fully exploring his particular brand of genius. Great songwriting, lyrically vital and with guitar playing out of this world. Please listen to this, and if your appetite is whetted watch the “Autoluminescent” documentary that´s available on DVD. They don´t make them like this anymore. Respect, and thanks for all the music.