Nick Cave’s 30 Greatest Songs
The Bad Seeds’ head honcho features in the latest issue of Uncut (Take 181, June 2012), out now, at home in São Paulo in 1994 in our Snapshot photo special. So we thought we’d take the opportunity to reprint this amazing look back at Cave’s best songs (from our September 2010 issue) – as chosen by his Bad Seeds and Grinderman bandmates, famous fans including Guy Garvey, Richard Hawley and Bobby Gillespie, and Cave himself… “I thought, ‘Fuck, that’s pretty good…’”
In 1980, a moody band of Australians moved to London, changed their name to The Birthday Party, and initiated a full-blooded assault on the music business. Volatile and chaotic, it seemed unlikely they would last long. Thirty years later, however, their leader Nick Cave has survived to become one of his generation’s pre-eminent singer-songwriters. This month, Uncut celebrates the wild and erudite maestro behind The Birthday Party, The Bad Seeds and Grinderman, and invites him, his friends and bandmates to select the 30 finest songs in his capacious repertoire.
“As far back as I can remember, there was something that thrilled me about telling a story, and it’s absolutely the way I think, and when I sit down and try and write a song, I think in a narrative way. I don’t think James Brown does that – it just comes rolling out of his heart. But lately, I’ve been trying to work out a way of writing so a listener doesn’t have to be hearing a story to enjoy what I do.
“Round the (Birthday Party’s) Junkyard album, I wrote a song called ‘King Ink’ that I listened to and finally felt that I’d done something that seemed original and authentic to myself – that I’d arrived somewhere with that lyric. I think before that I was floundering around all my various influences, and people I wanted to write like: poets, writers. I started to get a voice in that particular song.
“I try and make them work on the page – that’s the way I usually write songs. I don’t write with an instrument in my hand. I write a bunch of lyrics and take them to the piano or the guitar. So on some level they have to work on the page, though on some level I think that’s a fault with what I do.
“When I get too tangled up in the language, I get to a point with lyric-writing where I start to disappear up my own rectum and it’s always nice to pull back and go back to something that is basic and from the heart. I always return to the blues – especially John Lee Hooker. He has a certain style of writing that begins with one idea in mind, and by riffing on a theme, ends up with something very different. It makes for a very perplexing, structurally strange kind of lyric and I love that kind of thing.
“I think when you’re making something, you really think like you’re making the greatest thing that the world has ever known. Then you get the record, and you realise it’s just another record and there’s a terrible sucking of perspective on things, which just makes you want to run away and make the next thing that’s going to change the world. You see things for what they are. Fifteen albums later, I’m still trying…”
30 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
From the Bad Seeds album, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus (September 2004)
Cave’s only song thus far to reference “wisteria”. This song about love found at a flower show was given polished, poppy backing from the Bad Seeds, somehow reminiscent of Cockney Rebel’s “Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)”.
Robert Forster, The Go-Betweens: I like this song because it plays against type. There is some “ordinary slaughter” and “routine atrocity” in the first verse, but this is only to set up an ideal of beauty, which Nature Boy spies in the female form on his wanderings through a flower show in the following verse. Maybe because the melody suggested ‘pop song’, there is a lightness to the lyric, and some very funny and well written self-mockery in the portrait the singer makes of himself in relationship to his loved one. Some people have Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds as black; with murder, Victorian drama, and the Bible at the front. ‘Nature Boy’ is another in a run of songs that go back through the band’s catalogue – including ‘Breathless’, ‘Lime Tree Arbour’, ‘The Ship Song’ and ‘Sad Waters’ – that show the band and its chief songwriter are also at their best when making music with a softer touch.”
29 The Birthday Party
From the Birthday Party EP, “Mutiny!” (November 1983)
Mysterious gothic narrative concerning a woman “who drew the curtains on her face/Ever since they came and burnt the old place down…”
Bobby Gillespie, Primal Scream: “I have good memories of listening to this in my girlfriend’s bedroom back in Scotland, maybe just before the Mary Chain. She had all the Birthday Party records. We used to listen to ‘The Bad Seed’ and ‘Mutiny!’ EPs a lot. ‘Jennifer’s Veil’ is a strange, beautiful song, quite dark and mysterious. And also it’s unlike anything else The Birthday Party did. A lot of their songs had stuttering rhythms and this had a quite gentle, almost psychedelic feel to it. It’s a weird little song. The lyrics are quite abstract, they don’t really tell the whole story of what’s happening. There’s just little fractured images and you have to use your imagination to make up the rest.”
From Grinderman 2 (September 2010). Released as a single: August 2010.
The new Grinderman single, and an example of Cave’s quest to break from narrative songwriting into something more impressionistic. The scene: a bath, wherein a young woman is confronted by her unconscious urges.
Nick Cave: “I love this song, and I’m really pleased with the lyric. It was taken away and worked on quite a lot after the fact. But the essence of that song is kind of a riffing and an ad lib on the idea of a girl in a bath – being kind of raped by the monsters of her subconscious. She’s the innocent trembling on adult-hood – that was the theme. And I’m really pleased about where that went because it’s obscure, magical and non-narrative enough to keep you interested. You don’t have to sit there and follow the narrative. It becomes part of the song itself. I feel I’m getting to some simpler, truer place with a song like that.”
27 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
From the Bad Seeds album, From Her To Eternity (June 1984)
The first song the Bad Seeds recorded. A cautionary tale imagining Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn trading “the Mighty ol’ man River for the Dirty ol’ Man Latrine.” Needless to say, it doesn’t end well for poor old Huck…
Hugo Race, ex-Bad Seeds: “Nick has a lot of presence. And a great sense of humour. People don’t tend to see that, but it’s there. He can tell a joke, but he’s more about picking up on a conversation and steering it somewhere else, which often reveals something about the people who are talking. The first time I played with Nick was learning the songs from the ‘Mutiny!’ EP when we were touring Australia.
“The Bad Seeds’ brief was to come up with a new take on everything; Nick was really looking for originality and authenticity. With ‘Saint Huck’, the bass work was already there when I joined the band, then we added things. The lyrics were rewritten a lot, too. That process of elimination was key to the way we worked. For Nick, From Her To Eternity was an important record. He had to make a break with the past, as well as do something that didn’t reflect The Birthday Party but had the same energy.”
26 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
From the Bad Seeds album, Murder Ballads (February 1996). Released as a single: February 1996.
Based on a trad folk song about a woman who kills her man for failing to love her. Recorded here as a duet with then-partner PJ Harvey.
Alison Mosshart, The Kills/Dead Weather: “It’s a beautiful story, and I love the way Nick sang it with PJ Harvey. The storytelling is very visual – when he rejects her, she stabs him with a penknife and throws him down a well. It’s a pretty normal story. It’s about love that goes really wrong. And love that was always meant to go wrong, I guess. His lyrics are amazing, I don’t know if anyone else could sing them. He never sounds fake. I’ve admired Nick for years. But when I did finally get to meet him, it was pretty weird. I went over at a party and he was screaming over my shoulder, as I was trying to shake his hand. I was heartbroken, and for two years I thought Nick Cave was a horrible person.
“Then the next time, the Bad Seeds were playing the same venue as us and we went to see them play, and afterwards I talked to Nick all night, about a million and one things. He swore he didn’t believe me about our first meeting, he probably thought I was delusional. But I got him to recreate it, and took a photo of it, with him screaming in my face and getting ready to punch me…”
25 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
TOWER OF SONG
From the Leonard Cohen tribute album, I’m Your Fan (1991)
Raucous deconstruction of Cohen’s classic. The album version was reportedly cut down from an hour-long take you can find on YouTube.
Thomas Wydler, The Bad Seeds: “I first met The Birthday Party in 1982, when my band Die Haut supported them in Berlin. They were kind of exotic, and Nick was a wild singer. Here in Berlin, we didn’t know much about Australian music at all. They just came here with this strange, upstart-blues music. Then they decided to live in Berlin and work in the Hansa studio. After The Firstborn Is Dead was out  the Bad Seeds had to do a promo tour of England. [Guitarist] Blixa [Bargeld] couldn’t do it because he was on tour with Einstürzende Neubauten and I think [guitar/bassist] Barry Adamson was sick. So they took Christoph Dreher from Die Haut on bass, Rowland Howard on guitar and me on drums. Then they decided I was the right man on drums for the next tour and beyond.
“The song where we improvised more than ever was the old Leonard Cohen one, ‘Tower Of Song’. That was a straight improvisation, where Nick took direction from the lyrics, then we played in a style that followed those lyrics. It was like a comic. I remember the long version and how all those different styles affected the music. We did it in voodoo style, then there was a jazz part and more rock sections. Mostly Cave leads the song with piano, so that phrase and mood was already set. The great thing with Nick is that he changes from record to record. I’m not a drummer with a straight style, so it suited me perfectly.”
24 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
I’M GONNA KILL THAT WOMAN
From the Bad Seeds album, Kicking Against The Pricks (August 1986)
Cave’s professional interest in bluesman John Lee Hooker is registered in this cover, as he gathers material to point the way forward for his own music.
Mick Harvey, ex-Bad Seeds: “Obviously, none of us could play the blues properly or had pretensions to do, as people who get involved in that sort of thing do. It became an exercise in trying to find something elemental in that kind of music and the atmospheres of that kind of music, going deeply into that side of it, rather than going into the styles of that type of music as a genre. Nick was listening to a lot of John Lee Hooker – it was about him trying to work out what sort of music he actually wanted to write. He’d become uninterested in the music The Birthday Party were playing – he couldn’t relate to it any more for whatever reason.
“He had to spend the first couple of albums trying to work out what he did want to do – and Kicking Against The Pricks was probably a continuation of that. The excuse was that he was writing his book [1989’s And The Ass Saw The Angel], so he couldn’t write any songs, but in some kind of unconscious way he wanted to study the kinds of things he was interested in musically, picking out songs of different styles, to kind of help him form himself.”
23 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
RED RIGHT HAND
From the Bad Seeds album, Let Love In (April 1994)
Unsurprisingly a regular fixture on slasher movie soundtracks, this warns of a supernatural figure living “on the edge of town” with few good intentions. Spooky organ stabs and sound effects only amp up the scream factor.
Howe Gelb, Giant Sand: “My wife first brought that song to my attention, and suggested that Giant Sand should do it. The lyric content is maniacal. Dubious. A cold sweat begins to break out when you wonder how that hand got so red. But the melodic slant is strangely celebrational – especially the cool turning point in the middle, when the big bells come out. That shit is classic, right up there with the best jazz standards. When that bell hits, it’s that tolling bell that’s always in songs, like Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ – ‘off in a distance a lonely bell was ringing’. Anyhow, from playing that song over and over, in my mind it kind of flipped over. And in the end, I considered it a Christmas song. And the red, red hand was just old Santa’s glove. And the bells were Christmas bells. And the guy in that song, he’s just calling it how it is, telling you what got messed up. Just like Santa. He knows if you’ve been naughty!”
22 The Birthday Party
NICK THE STRIPPER
From the Birthday Party album, Prayers On Fire (April 1981)
Sleaze! Brass! Stripping! Cave’s “hideous to the eye” dancer cavorts to a sweaty funk backing. The video finds Cave pole dancing, with “HELL” written across his chest.
JG Thirlwell, Foetus: “I saw [Cave’s early group] Boys Next Door play about 15 times in Melbourne in 1977, at parties in people’s living rooms or at small clubs. When they first came to London everyone was living in squats. It was tough for them. But they played a lot and had such incredible live presence that it was inevitable that people would latch on to that. They played jaw-dropping shows in pretty small places, like the Moonlight Club in West Hampstead. ‘Nick The Stripper’ was one of the classics of those shows. I think Phill [Calvert, drums] was still in the band, and Mick would put down his guitar and play snare. They were electrifying. Rowland [S Howard]’s guitar tone was huge and abrasive, but at the same time he was playing strange, dissonant stuff. And Tracy [Pew] was an amazing bassist, who could really lock it down with repetitive riffs, but then play some extraordinary passing notes.
“I was in the first incarnation of the Bad Seeds for about five minutes. It was Nick, myself, Blixa and Mick on the first sessions. I dropped out when Barry [Adamson] came in. Nick was definitely trying to take a left turn with the Bad Seeds. I don’t think he was trying to tap into the feral energy of The Birthday Party. They might have been shedding the reputation that preceded them.”
21 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
DIG LAZARUS DIG!!!
From the Bad Seeds album, Dig Lazarus Dig!!! (March 2008)
The Bad Seeds get the funk! A darkly comic travelogue, where Larry – who “never asked to be raised up from the tomb” – cannons around New York and Los Angeles.
Kid Congo Powers, ex-Bad Seeds: “Nick is special to me for his dedication to his own vision with no apologies or retractions. His love of artists, be it Burt Bacharach, Tammy Wynette, John Lee Hooker, or The Stooges, are on equal pedestals of reverence without irony. I first heard Nick Cave on The Birthday Party album Prayers On Fire. Lydia Lunch ordered me: ‘Listen to this band! They have this song called “Nick The Stripper”…’ She growled then cackled. How could I resist? The inverted rhythm, stinging guitars and Nick’s lyrics immediately seduced me.
“I met Nick post-Birthday Party in LA. He was hanging out a bit with [The Gun Club’s] Jeffrey Lee Pierce. I just remember a lot of wild hair on him, and on me, and the book, Under The Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry. It wasn’t until a few years later in London that Mick Harvey and Nick asked me to fill in on the Your Funeral… My Trial tour that I got to know Nick better, as I moved to Berlin and spent the next three years as a Bad Seed. ‘Dig Lazarus Dig!!!’ is my favourite track. That song made me fall in love with Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds all over again. Plus it has a good beat and I like to dance to it. I believe Nick has gotten stronger with time. For me he’s added another element to his recipe, too – he’s become uplifting.”
20 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
From the Bad Seeds album, Your Funeral… My Trial (June 1984)
Freak shows, torrential rain, dwarves, dead horses… Just another day at the office for Cave and his Bad Seeds. See the band play it in Wim Wenders’ Wings Of Desire.
Flood, producer: “It was the first track we recorded for the Your Funeral… My Trial sessions. I remember Mick Harvey arrived in the studio with the guts of an old grand piano, that was the basis of the sound. It was just the strings, attached to a metal frame. He tuned certain notes, and used a guitar plectrum to pick the notes. I was like, ‘Whoah, what is this?’ It then ended up as ‘The Carny’. It was done bit by bit. It was a question of getting a few oblique sounds that seemed to fit the whole mood.
“That was the first day of recording Your Funeral… My Trial, and that kind of set the tone for the whole record. In some respects it encapsulated everything about that album on one track. This was in Hansa, Berlin, so it seemed perfectly suited to the location. Berlin was part of ‘The Carny’, without a shadow of a doubt. I abhor opera, and I abhor musicals even more, but it’s theatre. The whole Kurt Weill thing, that is much more what Nick feels at home with. With Nick, you’re never complacent and you always end up with some absolutely fantastic piece of music. He’s given me some very bizarre requests, but you give it back as best you can. The most bizarre request I ever had from Nick? ‘I want to sound as if I’m singing in a concrete box…’”
19 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
From the Bad Seeds album, The Boatman’s Call (March 1997)
One of the best songs to appear on the transitional Boatman’s Call album, this finds Cave’s narrator privileging human beauty over spiritual nourishment: “No God up in the sky… could do the job that you did, baby…”
Chris Bailey, The Saints: “I relate to this because much as I wish I could be a man of faith, I’m a man of doubt. Nick encapsulates that quest from time to time. There are lines here that are funny, wrestling with spirituality and filthy. Nick’s a randy old coot, even when he’s at the altar. Nick is fairly cosmopolitan, but has an Australian larrikin element – and not just because half his band looks like Ned Kelly. It’s the notion of being on the outside. The first time I toured with him was very funny, because I had this vision that I was travelling with a bunch of evangelical Presbyterians. The Bad Seeds were like this touring Protestant circus, and they’re very dysfunctional as a unit – there are Bad Seeds, and there are Naughty Seeds! But it somehow works brilliantly. I remember getting on a tour bus one day and thinking, ‘Ahah! I see the way that you rise in this organisation is to look exceedingly dour, and carry the biggest book.’ When they travel en masse they’ve all got these heavy, impressive-looking tomes, and whoever had the biggest was the most popular for that day. It wasn’t necessarily Nick, it was very democratic…”
18 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
THE HAMMER SONG
From the Bad Seeds album, The Good Son (April 1990)
Not to be confused with the Alex Harvey cover on Kicking Against The Pricks, this Southern Gothic yarn finds Cave’s narrator tormented by visions and guilt in the wilderness, while Mick Harvey’s vibraphone punches through the melodramatic arrangements.
Tom DiCillo, director: “‘The Hammer Song’ has this very basic riff that just keeps repeating. But this little groove has enough interest and complexity that it can carry itself almost forever. And the more it goes on, the more I fall into the intense emotion of what that song is about. The Good Son was the album a lot of people who wanted to maintain The Birthday Party idea of Nick looked at askance. I was going to direct a video for it, and Nick told me one of its greatest influences was Burt Bacharach. But with that Nick view of the world, which is a little different to ‘Do You Know the Way To San José’! ‘The Hammer Song’ has a bit of both – it’s more ballad-like, then switches to this powerful crunch. And ultimately it comes down to Nick’s voice and performance.
“He said to me once that he had the greatest admiration and awe for actors [Cave has acted in a number of films, including DiCillo’s 1991 movie Johnny Suede]. I think he acts with his voice. And if he was faking, you’d hear it. I saw him once where he started a song alone at the piano, stopped because something was off, walked around, then started again. And he found what he thought was missing. That’s ballsy. He walks that line between abandon and absolute control. It takes tremendous courage to just go into areas that interest you and not worry.”
NO PUSSY BLUES
From the Grinderman album, Grinderman (March 2007)
In the basement, Cave and his band of Bad Seeds refugees kicked out white mice, black dogs – and produced this wordy tale of sexual frustration. And still, she “didn’t want to”.
Nick Cave: “When I go into the studio with Grinderman, it’s a kind of talent I have to be able to think on my feet lyrically and be able to ad lib and rhyme at the same time. I get into these long narrative stories. They go in directions that somehow bypass those things that get in the way of writing a song – like good taste. Like whether it’s a good idea to be singing about this thing or not. It takes you to different places than when you’re sitting in an office. Something like ‘No Pussy Blues’, for example: that was a title that I’d written in my notebook, and my notebook is anything goes. But once I sit down, I think ‘Nahh…’, because you can’t help but consider the ramifications of a particular lyric, or you can’t help see the lyric through other people’s eyes. But when you’re ad-libbing you don’t have that self-editing process. Then you see it in a format where it works, and think, ‘Fuck, it’s cool.’
“At some point in my career, I’ve managed to flip this little switch in my head which says ‘It doesn’t fucking matter’ and go in with a certain sense of humour about it all – do what you can do, and it doesn’t really matter. And I think for my lyric writing that became hugely beneficial, and induced a kind of levity to the stuff I was writing, and lyrically it wasn’t all quite so weighed down.”
16 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
From the Bad Seeds album, Kicking Against The Pricks (August 1985)
A darkly atmospheric Johnny Cash cover, with heavy twanging guitar: “Will they marvel at the miracles I did perform/And the heights I did aspire/Or will they tear out the pages of the book to light a fire…”
Richard Hawley: “I was looking through some singles one day in FON Records in Sheffield and saw this Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds record. It had a great cover, him with his big black guitar, looking pretty cool. I asked the guy in the shop to put it on and it was ‘The Singer’, the old Johnny Cash and Charlie Daniels song. It just blew my mind. The original version came out in ’68 I think [called ‘The Folk Singer’, it was the B-side to ‘Folsom Prison Blues’] and the guitar is fairly tame. And all the dark side of the song is very orchestrated. There’s an undercurrent of darkness in the original, but Nick Cave’s version seemed to encompass everything that I deeply loved – Johnny Cash, Lee Hazlewood, Sanford Clark, Duane Eddy’s guitar playing. It wasn’t like he was copying them. It was a bit like a car crash, but Nick Cave won. He confronted and encompassed all those things and moved it forward. I actually think Nick’s version is better than Johnny Cash’s.
“A set of covers is unusual for a third album, but I thought Kicking Against The Pricks was a brilliant record. He bit a big shark’s chunk out of the classic school of songwriting. I think this was an album where he set his stall out, saying: I’m going to be as good as this. It was one of the bravest moves of his recording life…”
15 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
CITY OF REFUGE
From the Bad Seeds album, Tender Pray (September 1988)
A lone harmonica introduces one of the Bad Seeds’ most ominous songs (no easy feat), full of pounding drums and jagged guitar riffs, with Cave turning the Old Testament cities of refuge into a ferocious tribute to his then home, Berlin.
Mark Arm, Mudhoney: “Nick has a unique vision. It’s dark and funny and they’re two of my favourite things. I remember hearing that song ‘Deep In The Woods’, which wouldn’t strike most people as necessarily funny, but my friends and I were rolling around laughing. That line “tonight we sleep in separate ditches” was just brilliant. There’s always been a lot of dark humour threading through his work. I love ‘City Of Refuge’. It’s got that steamroller drumbeat that Thomas Wydler lays down so well.
“Nick was still steeped in a lot of the blues at that point , so that song was a homage to [Blind] Willie Johnson’s ‘I’m Gonna Run To The City Of Refuge’. The only thing that’s similar though is the chorus; the verses and the music are totally different. He was making something new without seeming like a rip-off, which was also something from the folk or blues tradition. I think that, for a while, Nick was very obsessed with the notion of the American South, even though he hadn’t been there. He was doing romanticised versions of what is the horrible reality of it. There’s a strong literary influence but then he totally rocks. And that doesn’t happen very often. It’s unpretentious, with a lot of truth to it. It’s not like the fucking Decemberists.
“Mudhoney did the Big Day Out tour of Australia in ’93, along with the Bad Seeds, Iggy Pop, Sonic Youth and The Beasts Of Bourbon. At the last show, we ended up doing a giant version of “Little Doll” with Iggy’s band and the Bad Seeds and Sonic Youth. The singers were Iggy, Nick and myself. I have to say it was pretty fucking amazing.”
14 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
From the Bad Seeds album, No More Shall We Part (April 2001)
Accompanied by an elegant string arrangement, and owing not a little debt to Neil Diamond, this beautiful reconciliation plea comes with bewitching backing vocals from Kate and Anna McGarrigle.
Jonathan Lethem, author: “Nick is one of those 12 or 15 unmistakeable voices. You wouldn’t want to hear him sing opera – and I’m not sure what a technical expert would make of his singing – but his voice just breaks time open. It’s so singular and unmistakeable that I’d put him right up there in that way with Dylan or Lucinda Williams or Lou Reed. To listen to him is to know someone unsinkable. I’ve never been a slavish collector of his music, the kind of person who never misses a record, so he’s one of those guys who sneaks up on me again and again. I’ll suddenly hear a Nick Cave song and think, ‘Oh shit, that’s great.’ He’s always a dark horse for me. I adore ‘Love Letter’, it’s so verbal. He’s a great writer as well as a singer. The shattering simplicity of the key phrase is worthy of Shakespeare. And I don’t mean that in a bathetic, if-you’re-looking-to-praise-a-writer-then-reach-for-Shakespeare way, but in addressing the love letter itself as an emissary: ‘Go tell her/Go tell her’. Also worthy of Shakespeare is the verbal trick of using ‘letter’ (l-e-t) and “tell her” (t-e-l). That has a power that any writer would die to harness.”
13 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
STRANGER THAN KINDNESS
From the Bad Seeds album, Your Funeral… My Trial (November 1986)
Not written by Cave, this Anita Lane/Blixa Bargeld composition is a highpoint of the Your Funeral… My Trial album – a band favourite.
Nick Cave: “We really hit on something there. We found it really beautiful – to me there’s some really delicate, strange abstracted kinds of songs, that I loved. One of my favourite Bad Seeds songs is ‘Stranger Than Kindness’, which has a kind of unearthly beauty about it, and I think that’s largely because I had nothing to do with writing it. I mean by that I don’t understand it so much, and it remains mysterious to me, and very beautiful – Anita Lane wrote it, and Blixa wrote the music. I really want to say something about Bargeld’s guitar playing, because on those first four records the stuff he was doing was extraordinary. He had this knack of making the guitar sound like anything other than a guitar.”
12 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
From the Bad Seeds album, Murder Ballads (February 1996)
Mississippi folk song, previously reinterpreted by Dylan, the Dead and The Clash. Cave reworks the exploits of “bad mutherfucker” Stagger Lee Shelton into a profane and violent barroom massacre.
John Hillcoat, director, The Proposition/The Road: “Nick is known for his lyrics. But to adapt a song and make it your own is a real art – like what Johnny Cash did with ‘The Mercy Seat’, where when you hear it you think that came from Cash, it’s his. Nick’s done the same with ‘Stagger Lee’. Musically it’s a turning point. It’s got real funk to it. And the detail of the violence, and the use of the sound effects, and the way it builds then explodes with screeching points forwards to the wildness of Grinderman. Lyrically, I recall talking to Nick about Murder Ballads. And what he managed to do is he really got inside these characters’ heads. He makes the story his own by the perverse humour, making it really filthy and dark – like hardcore hip-hop, Nick Cave-style. He really gets inside the character so it’s got this heightened drama that’s very Nick. It’s something he’s perfected over the years. When he came out of rehab, I think that gave him more direct access to expressing his feelings. From the get-go, when we made Ghosts…Of The Civil Dead together [Cave also wrote and scored The Proposition], it’s like he’s a million different characters inside his head that express different elements of himself. You can track that through his career, how these characters would emerge. He’s like a controlled schizophrenic.”
11 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
GET READY FOR LOVE
From the Bad Seeds album, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus (September 2004)
Full-tilt gospel punk – Cave, doing his best blood-and-thunder prophet, exorts us to “Praise Him a little bit more.”
Jim Sclavunos, Bad Seeds/Grinderman: “In my book, the only thing that beats playing on Nick’s songs, is getting to co-write with him. “Get Ready For Love” was one of the first instances where I got to share in that process. Nick, Warren [Ellis], Martyn [Casey] and I were in a modest studio in Paris, working on a couple of songs that we recorded for Marianne Faithfull’s album Before The Poison. We had some spare studio time and began jamming, just to see what came up. Nick can be quite clever at devising impromptu lyrics, which helps move things along: it spurs the band on and handily lends an immediate shape and a sense of direction to an improvisation. After considerable honing and finessing, a few numbers written this way ended up on the album, including ‘Nature Boy’ and ‘Lyre Of Orpheus’; but the one I’m particularly partial to is ‘Get Ready For Love’. It’s the most aggressive up-tempo opening track salvo that has appeared on a Bad Seeds album since ‘The Mercy Seat’ kick-started Tender Prey. From my perspective, ‘Get Ready For Love’ was a clarion call announcing a new chapter in the ongoing evolution of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. It was one of the first songs written together by Nick, Warren, Martyn and I, giving a vague hint of what was to come with Grinderman.”
10 The Birthday Party
From the Birthday Party album, Junkyard (May 1982)
By their second album, The Birthday Party had hit an impressive peak somewhere between the Stooges, Bo Diddley and Suicide. One of the finest tracks from that album, this perfectly captured the band’s feral punk.
Lydia Lunch: “I first met The Birthday Party on their first trip to New York. It was obvious Rowland [S Howard] and I were going to unleash something together. We just clicked. Nick Cave and I were like two alien sub-species shadow-boxing with our diametric opposites. Exciting, incomprehensible, chemically imbalanced. ‘Junkyard’ is the most incredibly raunchy slab of pathos ever recorded. A sledgehammer of raging libido spiralling into murderous perversity. Soaked in bloodlust and riddled with the contaminants of love’s dirty remains. Slick with the sticky pus of a sick twist’s wet dream, it’s a filthy grind of roadhouse black’n’blues spiked with punked jazz where hammering drums, degenerate bass and the razor slice of Rowland’s ‘six strings that drew blood’ set the stage for The King to thunder, threaten and ultimately massacre any would-be contender to the heathen’s sleazy throne. Ferocious. Masterful. Demented. It still gives me goose bumps.
“Why does such a prolific artist have such consistently high-quality output? C’mon, it’s like asking me to comment on my own insanity!”
9 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
DO YOU LOVE ME?
From the Bad Seeds album, Let Love In (April 1994)
“She had a heart full of love and devotion, she had a mind full of tyranny and terror” – heavy on madness and obsessive love, with a great swaggering chorus from the Bad Seeds.
Ed Keupper, The Bad Seeds/The Saints: “Back in the early to mid-’90s I got asked to perform ‘Do You Love Me?’ at an Aussie award ceremony. The organisers told me they needed someone of good standing to perform it as it was being awarded Australian Song Of The Year. In reality, it’s more likely they couldn’t afford Nick or that he didn’t want to do it. I agreed. As is usual for these shows, a foreign dignitary is employed to MC, add credence to the proceedings, and boost TV ratings. At this event, it was Billy Joel. Towards the end of the evening as I was waiting outside, Billy, who was also leaving, got his driver to pull up and called out a friendly, ‘Nice song, Nick.’ To which I waved back and replied ‘Thanks, mate.’
“I didn’t know Nick particularly well at this point. In fact I hadn’t been paying that much attention being totally wrapped up in my own stuff. But hearing ‘The Mercy Seat’ blew me away and after that point I did start paying attention. However I’d always thought before performing ‘Do You Love Me?’ that Nick’s songs were fairly singular and that in some ways couldn’t be covered as they were unique to his own performance. This lent itself well to interpretation, even if that interpretation was perhaps a bit overly prettified by me.”
8 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
From the Bad Seeds album, The Firstborn Is Dead (June 1985)
Not just a riff on John Lee Hoooker’s song of the same name, but also a reference to Elvis Presley’s birthplace. Indeed, the parent album refers to Jesse Garon Presley, the stillborn identical twin of The King.
Alan Vega, Suicide: “I love that song, because of John Lee Hooker’s original ‘Tupelo’ – there has to be a connection, I know Nick listens to the stuff. When I heard Nick did the song, I went, ‘Holy shit!’ It’s about Mississippi in the time of the flood. There’s that great line in the Hooker version, sitting in his porch ‘watching his shoes going floating down the river’. That wasn’t in there, but there was thunder, lightning, crazy vocals, and they had this great guitar player twanging shit. It’s punk-something. I can’t say it’s country or blues, but it has all those things in it, and Nick the surrealist, doing his thing, writing about Elvis and his still-born twin. [Mute Records founder] Daniel Miller introduced us in the late ’90s. We’re looking like punks, and he’s in a white tuxedo, really spiffy. And I swear to God not a word passed between us! Next time, it was handshakes and hugs…”
7 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
WE CALL UPON THE AUTHOR
From the Bad Seeds album, Dig Lazarus Dig!!! (March 2008)
“Prolix! Prolix! Nothing a pair of scissors can’t fix!” Cave takes The Almighty himself to task on a couple of salient points…
Mick Harvey, ex-Bad Seeds: “Much of Nick’s work has probed at the big questions. Whether searching for the essence of our emotional foundations in his love songs or throwing up moral conundrums in a murder ballad – through a wealth of subject matter in between – it’s the deeper, inner human workings that Nick repeatedly probes. They can be gut-wrenchingly confronting, heartbreakingly delicate, disturbingly violent, or just plain funny, and sometimes all of these at once. But they are always pushing at the boundaries of the listener’s own emotional and moral positioning.
“Occasionally the music is more of a vehicle (though usually a pretty cool one) to transport the lyrical content. And so it is with ‘We Call Upon The Author’, a song which literally purports to be asking The Big Question, or at least confronting the Great Architect head on. A heady rush of rough verbiage, self-effacing observations and raw humour, it’s typical of a kind of wild-word-roller-coaster which Nick has used throughout the years. As one of the songs on my last album with The Bad Seeds which helped me continue that love affair, it has a special place.
“It’s hard for me to pick out just one song and write about it after so many years and songs that I love; the songs which were the reason I was around from first to last. At the end, after 30 years, I was still deeply affected, impressed and inspired by what Nick was writing. Long may that continue.”
6 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
STRAIGHT TO YOU
From the Bad Seeds album, Henry’s Dream (April 1992)
Love in the face of apocalypse! Towers of ivory crumble, swallows sharpen beaks and Mick Harvey provides a Dylanesque organ riff…
Marc Riley, 6music DJ and former Fall member: “I remember the first time I saw Nick with The Birthday Party, at Rafters in Manchester in November 1981. He’d said in an interview that Fun House by The Stooges and Slates by The Fall – the band I was in at the time – had kept him sane in Australia, so a few of us went to see them. It was a pretty wild set, which culminated with Nick unscrewing a presumably red-hot lamp from above the stage and throwing it into the crowd. It whizzed past my ear and shattered on [Fall bassist] Steve Hanley’s shoulder. We played with them quite a few times and they were always eventful.
“One of the great things about Nick is how he’s managed to age with dignity. He grew up loving Iggy and Leonard Cohen – and as time passed he was less the former and more the latter, writing some of the most beautiful songs of the last 20 years. At his best, his songwriting is equal to Cohen. And ‘Straight To You’ is a brilliant example of that. It sounds like a classic Cohen song.
“I once introduced Nick and the Bad Seeds at a bash to celebrate John Peel’s 40 years in broadcasting with the words ‘...and if he does “Into My Arms”, prepare to see a grown man cry’. Now he has Grinderman as an outlet for his reckless side, I suppose Nick proves you can have your cake and eat it. I also think he’s currently the world’s best frontman…”
5 The Birthday Party
RELEASE THE BATS
Birthday Party single, August 1981
First conceived as a jokey filler, this went on to become an early live favourite. The tongue-in-cheek sentiment was largely lost on legions of Goths, who made it a dancefloor staple.
Nick Launay, Birthday Party/Bad Seeds producer: “This was one of the first songs I ever produced, when I was 20 years old. I got a call from their record company, 4AD in London, and they asked if I wanted to work with The Birthday Party. The funny thing about that session was we went into the studio after midnight, because that was the only time we could get cheap studio time. It was done in a recording studio where, during the day, I was a studio assistant working with Phil Collins. It was very odd, it felt like at night I opened the door and all the bats flew in, it all got very dark and angry. We bashed out ‘Release The Bats’ and [B-side] ‘Blast Off!’ in one night and it felt like I was messing with the Devil. I was going to the dark side. They were all on heroin, I think, but I was very innocent of all that because I hadn’t been around it. I just thought they all had attitude. It felt like I was working with vampires, and it has helped me get into gothic nightclubs ever since. That’s another reason it’s one of my favourites.”
4 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
THE SHIP SONG
From the Bad Seeds album, The Good Son (April 1990)
This wonderful composition was written with an eye on the classic writers of romantic ballads – in whose company it quickly established him.
Nick Cave: “There was a record we had done called ‘Kewpie Doll’ – I hadn’t written the lyrics for it, but we had to record it, so I just sort of mumbled the lyrics and made words that basically sounded like a vocal. Which was fine because it sounded cool and all that sort of stuff. But I actually had to come and put them in a book or something like that… and they had to be written somewhere. So I just started writing stuff very quickly, and I wrote ‘Come sail your ships round me…’ I wasn’t really thinking about it, and just sent it off. Later I saw the line and thought, ‘Fuck, that’s really nice…’ It was like a little gift. And it is, in a high romantic way, a beautiful little line.
“At that time, I was really trying to write a bunch of classic love songs – because I loved those sorts of songs. I’ve always been impressed by people who can write songs that catch people’s hearts – I don’t know if I ever got anywhere near that. What did the Bad Seeds think? Well, generally you change in increments, don’t you? They don’t even know it’s happening until suddenly they’re going onstage and playing an hour and a half of ballads.”
3 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
FROM HER TO ETERNITY
From the Bad Seeds album, From Her To Eternity (June 1984)
A co-write with former partner Anita Lane, with Cave’s protagonist – “standin’ like this with my ear to the ceiling” – doing himself few favours listening to his ex in the room upstairs…
Warren Ellis, Bad Seeds/Grinderman: “This blended rock’n’roll with the excitement of improvisation. On every level, the song is a masterpiece. Musically, lyrically and sonically it’s extraordinary, a song you couldn’t imagine anybody else bettering or even attempting to do.
“The song had that relentless, pumping beat. The drums seemed random, but they weren’t at all, then Blixa would come in with that guitar sound. I mean, what the hell was it? It’s just the most mysterious song in every aspect, one that keeps building and building. Then the pay-off at the end is unbelievable. When you hear that screaming, you’re totally there with the guy, in the room, feeling him go out of his brain. You have this incredible guitar and what feels like an improvised line that gets into this trance-like state that builds up and up into a cathartic release.
“I first met Nick in several rather unsavoury households, when we were all doing what we used to do back then. I’d played a little on [1994 Bad Seeds album] Let Love In, but he was too busy constructing wall-charts at the time. He had the whole wall plastered with his lyrics; he was certainly trying one on. Officially I met him at dinner in the mid-’90s, when he asked if I’d like to play on the Murder Ballads session. I just said: ‘Fuck, yeah.’”
2 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
INTO MY ARMS
From the Bad Seeds album, The Boatman’s Call (March 1997)
The high-water mark of Cave’s piano ballads, written in the aftermath of his splits from Viviane Carneiro and PJ Harvey. Cave also performed the song at the funeral for his friend, INXS singer Michael Hutchence.
Guy Garvey, Elbow: “The opening line just cracks me up every time: ‘I don’t believe in an interventionist God, but darling I know you do.’ It’s pure Elvis Presley theology. He must have chuckled when he wrote it. A lot of Nick Cave’s love songs have a gentle humour to them. It makes me think he must have a laugh with his wife. First time I heard it was when I borrowed the album [1997’s The Boatman’s Call] off [bassist] Pete Jobson of I Am Kloot. He asked me specifically to listen to that song. When I got round to it, I was on a bus somewhere and I must have rewound it three times to listen to it again. The last time I spoke to the great man he’d just finished a movie, another book and had two albums out at the same time. How somebody can be so prolific, and still pay attention to the lacework detail that the lyrics of this song have, is beyond me. He strikes me as a man who lives to work. And we’re all better off for it. I’m currently working on a song called ‘Into Your Arms’. I hope he doesn’t think I fancy him. I really don’t.”
1 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
THE MERCY SEAT
From the Bad Seeds album, Tender Prey (September 1988)
A hardier perennial even than his favoured wisteria, “The Mercy Seat” touches on Cave’s holy trinity of God, crime, and narrative songwriting. Potent Biblical references abound as we strap into the Bad Seeds’ most infinitely adaptable work…
Nick Cave: “I was concentrating on writing my novel, And The Ass Saw The Angel. ‘The Mercy Seat’ was a song that I would add to over the months, that I wasn’t really paying attention to, weirdly. It was a thing growing on the side, a kind of… organism growing on the side of the novel that I just kept adding to and adding to. It was written from a different place, a less conscious place than some of the other songs, I think. And I think it has quite a strange, obscure lyric to it in the end.
“It’s a really great song – it’s the staple song of the Bad Seeds live, mainly because it has the capacity to lend itself to seemingly infinite variations, and it can adapt to whatever we happen to be into at the time – a folk song, or a headbanger number. I think that was the one song I wrote when I was writing the novel.
“That record [Tender Prey] was so fucked up, the making of it was seriously difficult for everybody. ‘The Mercy Seat’ was a song that we recorded, and felt like it was there, and every mix we did, we went back in and remixed it, to try and get this song which we thought was monumental, to work in some kind of way, and that was really difficult. I think we even had Daniel Miller from Mute come in and try. Why was the recording difficult? Everyone was very fucked up, in a standard kind of way, and a little bit more so, and not only the band.
“When your heroes cover your songs [‘The Mercy Seat’ was covered by Johnny Cash in 2000], to me personally it gives some kind of… endorsement of the song that’s really meaningful. You have the opportunity to step back from the song and actually hear it for what it is – which you never do if you’re playing it live. I was really impressed. I thought, ‘Fuck, that’s pretty good…’”
INTERVIEWS BY MICHAEL BONNER, STEPHEN DALTON, NICK HASTED, ROB HUGHES AND JOHN ROBINSON