Despite being championed by John Peel, The Birthday Party found little commercial success during their career. But though often indirect, their influence has been far-reaching. They've been called one of "the darkest and most challenging post-punk groups to emerge in the early '80s."
While their early music was sometimes classified as gothic rock, the band disdained the term, and their sound was very different from most goth music, closer to No Wave at the time. However, the Birthday Party did have an influence on deathrock, a genre of music related to gothic rock.
Despite their limited commercial success, the creative core of the Birthday Party have gone on to acclaimed careers: singer and songwriter Nick Cave, multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey and singer, songwriter and guitarist Rowland S. Howard.
After their final school year in 1975 the band decided to continue with friend Tracy Pew picking up the bass. Greatly affected by the punk explosion of 1976 which saw Australian bands The Saints and Radio Birdman making their first recordings and tours, The Boys Next Door, as they were now called, began performing fast original New Wave material in 1977.
Rowland S. Howard joined in 1978, and about this time, the group's sound changed dramatically. The addition of Howard's guitar was certainly a catalyst (his later use of audio feedback being a hallmark of the group) but there were other changes, as well: their sound drew upon punk, rockabilly, free jazz and the rawest blues, but transcended concise categorisation. Many songs were driven by prominent, repetitive basslines and drumwork that sounded like an angry Gene Krupa. Though the band was tightly rehearsed, the instrumentalists often sounded as if they were on the verge of collapse, this quality only emphasising the newfound mania of Cave's singing, and his expressionist lyrics. In producer/engineer Tony Cohen they found a willing accomplice to their experimentation and their refusal to repeat themselves; and in manager Keith Glass they found an enthusiastic financial backer. Glass' label Missing Link Records released all of the early Birthday Party records.
Above the barely-controlled racket, Cave's vocals ranged from desperate to simply menacing and demented. Critics have written that "neither John Cale nor Alfred Hitchcock was ever this scary," and that Cave "doesn't so much sing his vocals as expel them from his gut. Though Cave drew on earlier rock and roll shriekers; especially Iggy Pop and Suicide's Alan Vega, his singing with the Birthday Party remains powerful and distinct.
Calvert was ejected in 1982; he was reportedly "unable to nail down the beats for 'Dead Joe' to everyone's satisfaction" , and Harvey moved to drums. When Pew was jailed for drunk driving and petty theft also in 1982, Barry Adamson and several others replaced him on records or live appearances. Pew rejoined the band, but died some years later during an epileptic seizure.
In 1982 a spin-off group with Lydia Lunch, Honeymoon In Red, recorded an album which was eventually released in 1987. Harvey and Cave were reportedly so unhappy with the mixing and overdubbing done after their involvement, that they requested their names be withheld from its liner notes. Howard and Pew apparently had no objections to being credited by name.
In 1983 Blixa Bargeld from the German band Einstürzende Neubauten played guitar on the track "Mutiny in Heaven", tension between Cave and Howard came to a head. The Birthday Party disbanded in 1984, due in part to the split between Cave and Howard, and work and drug-related exhaustion.
Due in part to their legendary status and to the continuing success of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Birthday Party's back catalogue has been re-released on CD several times. In recent years Mick Harvey has overseen releases of rare or previously unissued recordings.
Rock acts that have cited The Birthday Party as an influence include The Jesus And Mary Chain, Coil, My Bloody Valentine, Deerhunter, Cocteau Twins, The Jesus Lizard, Scratch Acid, Melt-Banana, Big Boys, Dinosaur Jr., Billy Raygun, Tindersticks, The Horrors, The Witch Hats, Turn Pale, The Wahas and The Devastations.
In October 2007 Cave alone was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame. During his acceptance speech, Cave took it upon himself to 'induct' the Australian members of the Bad Seeds (including Harvey), plus Howard and Pew from The Birthday Party.