Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, City Of Refuge (1988)

NickCaveTenderprey

Artist: Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds
Title: City Of Refuge
Description: album track, Tender Prey
Label: Mute
Release date: 1988
First heard: 1988

You better run, you better run …

At the end of 1988, the staff of the NME voted It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back its album of the year. And quite right, too. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Tender Prey came in at number 17, and it’s an album I played just as often as Public Enemy’s. It also had a more personal provenance. Here’s why.

Nineteen eighty-eight was the year I crossed the Rubicon from NME reader to NME contributor (or “NME reader with a typewriter”, as the late Steven Wells incisively dismissed me). I couldn’t have dreamed of such a thing at the beginning of the year, but that summer, having taken the requisite DIY route to publishing of typing up and photocopying my first and only fanzine, This Is This, I duly mailed a copy off to James Brown, incumbent features editor at my weekly bible and refugee from the ’zine hinterland. I know now how statistically unlikely it was that he’d even open the brown envelope, let alone read further than the front cover, but luck was a lady that day and the content – or maybe just the neat, Pritt-assisted layout, or the Deer Hunter-referencing title – caught his eye, and he called me up.

I wasn’t quite the chorus girl plucked from the wings to write the next cover story, but it got me over the threshold of the NME and into the heart of darkness, where I landed paid work as the assistant to the art editor. It was from the vantage point of the “art room” that I plotted my insurgency. I was, initially, another type of nightmare: an “NME reader with a scalpel and a can of Spray Mount”, laying out pages week in, week out, without glory, but learning a trade in the post-hot-metal but pre-desktop publishing era. And then, in what must have been August, the art editor went on holiday for a fortnight, leaving me in charge. The first cover I laid out featured Nick Cave. (I told Nick Cave this, about 20 years later when he and I coincidentally shared the table on Radio 4’s Loose Ends, thanks to the publication of my book That’s Me In The Corner, and the release of the first Grinderman record.)

The cover story involved Cave saying things about heroin that he later regretted into the tape recorder of interviewer Jack Barron and the kerfuffle that ensued. It made great copy, although if I’d been Jack I’d have been less gung-ho about going public with it. (I was not a journalist in my bones. Jack was.) The editorial top dogs headlined the story, “The Needle And The Damage Done”, a Neil Young reference I confess I didn’t get in 1988. Aussie photographer Bleddyn Butcher’s portrait was fabulous, taken before Cave went off on one. Thus, my first ever cover of the NME looked terrific. (All I had to do was arrange the Letraset around his striking mien and make sure nothing was upside down.)

The album this cover story flagged up was Tender Prey on the eve of its release. Although years earlier I’d bought Release The Bats by The Birthday Party – and loved its rickety, yelping energy and obscure sleeve – I’d never invested in a Bad Seeds album. After Tender Prey, I would go back and rectify that, but it holds a special place in my heart for self-evident reasons. The Mercy Seat is its blockbusting track, and it tears my guts out every time I hear its repetitive death-row mantra, but not this, nor the singalong Deanna, nor the sensual Watching Alice, comes close to the allure of City Of Refuge. It was no wonder to me that Cave crossed paths with movie soundtracks. He’d already had songs used in Dogs In Space and Wings Of Desire at the time of the handsomely red/black-packaged Tender Prey, but in City Of Refuge, he and the Seeds created a five-minute movie using just instruments and voices which, in troubling tone and world’s-end atmosphere, presages his work with Warren Ellis on The Road, also about 20 years later.

It rolls into view out of a heat-haze of howling harmonica and guitar strummed in readiness for something wicked which presumably this way comes. “You better run, you better run …” Cave warns, quietly at first, then with increased urgency. “You better run and run and run …” Only when Thomas Wydler’s snare rattles into life and the other instruments gather in step around it, does Cave specify where you better run to. That’ll be the City Of Refuge. Refuge from what? All manner of bad deeds: gutters running with blood, days of madness, the “Hell-mouth”, a grave that will “spew you out, it will spew you out.” This journey we’re being sent on is not one you’d look back over your shoulder at. I couldn’t have imagined it specifically in 1988 but when I picture it now it’s those diabolically encroaching walls of dust after 9/11 that are in pursuit of you as you run towards refuge.

Spinning my prized vinyl copy of Tender Prey endlessly, alone in my studio flat in Streatham, often over a bowl of Start to set me up psychologically for the commute to the NME offices, I understood what the fuss was about and why Nick Cave had earned cover-star status at my place of work, a Satanic Tom Waits dancing on the jailhouse roof. His debonair lounge-lizard appeal enveloped me. On City Of Refuge – itself inspired by a Blind Willie Johnson song of similar title that I have never heard – he testified like a pitch-mopped preacher and jumped-up devil combined. I imagined multitudes like ants at his feet, scurrying away to save their souls. And all this before breakfast! (Some mornings I required the bump and jive of hip-hop to start my batteries; on others, it was the Gothic splendour of the Bad Seeds. You should never restrict your options.)

I have stayed loyal to Nick Cave and his revolving carousel of outlets ever since, finding so much to latch onto in his swoopingly literate garage rock, not least his devastating use of the word “frappuccino” on Abattoir Blues in 2004, a song I wrote into the soundtrack of a rejected comedy-drama script called The Hoares, never to see the light. I finally witnessed he and the Seeds live at the parched end of Glastonbury ’09, with fellow fan Robin Ince at my side. It was glorious, as of course it was always going to be.

I decided in that heady moment that Worthy Farm was the City of Refuge. I’d made it, and I’d made it alive. The Spray Mount hadn’t killed me in the interim.

Pixies, Debaser (1989)

Pixies-Doolittle

Artist: Pixies
Title: Debaser
Description: album track, Doolittle
Label: 4AD
Release date: 1989
First heard: 1989

Bam-thwok!

What an injection of East Coast American adrenaline the state of Massachusetts administered into the vein of that stereotypically English-Scottish-Australian roster of 4AD in the mid-80s. First, Throwing Muses, from Newport, Rhode Island, who’d decamped to Boston and were the label’s first American signing. Then, the small-“t” Pixies, who’d formed around the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Both bands, who bent rock to suit their own fiercely cerebral, idiosyncratic, cross-gender agendas, seemed perfectly suited to each other as labelmates, shared a taste in producers and often played on the same bill. (My college friend Rob and I saw them both at the Town & Country Club in May 1988, with Pixies supporting the Muses – and, if I remember correctly, fem-dance group The Cholmondeleys on first – and again in ’89, at which the order was reversed.)

But who were these bands? As 4AD completists it was inevitable that either Rob or I would purchase Come On Pilgrim, the Pixies’ debut mini-LP, without having heard a note. Indeed, Rob has pricked my memory: we visited the degree show at the Royal College of Art of photographer Simon Larbelestier in the summer of ’87 and the hairy-backed Victorian freak-show gentleman adopted for Pilgrim’s sleeve was displayed therein. Making this link to the RCA – where Rob was about to start his own MA – he invested in the album in suitably Pavlovian manner. My clear memory of first hearing the subsequent Surfer Rosa is in a large, roomy artist’s pad in Notting Hill, where Rob was house-sitting for one of his tutors in Easter ’88. Salad days.

The second time we saw the Pixies in London, they were promoting Doolittle.  Rob remembers the band members coming round “all hunched with cigarettes pinched between finger and thumb” down the side of the venue while we were in the queue. With our feet in the air and our heads in the ground, we worshipped the Buddha-like Black Francis and felt the potent pop thrill of singalong songs like Where Is My Mind?, Gigantic, Monkey Gone To Heaven, Wave Of Mutilation and Debaser.

It’s painful to have to single one out, but it’s ideal that it’s not a single, as the Pixies have always either chosen the wrong tracks to be their singles, or simply produced too many suitable candidates on each LP for justice to be done. Debaser is a classic single that never was: adored by the faithful and treated as an old pal, and not in any way debased by Paul Rudd belting it out in the car in Judd Apatow’s This Is 40, a damning indictment of cultural disconnect between the parent generation and their children, and between men of a certain age and women. (His kids yawn in the back, while his wife treats his spirited singalong with amusement.)

Got me a movie, I want you to know …

Frank Black tears into this recording with its highbrow nonsense lyric as if these were his last two minutes and 52 seconds on earth, a sentiment in line with the apocalyptic fatalism that pervades much of Doolittle (“got killed by ten million pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey … Now there’s a hole in the sky … Everything is gonna burn … Drive my car into the ocean … A big, big stone fall and break my crown”). Black’s hymn to debasement is short on detail (“Wanna grow up to be a duh-base-ah”), but long on beret-wearing film-school cool, making an explicit reference in those sliced-up eyeballs and the “chien Andalusia” to the silent 1929 Luis Bunuel/Salvador Dali short Un Chien Andalou. Neither film nor song has a plot to speak of.

The BFI’s Museum Of The Moving Image opened on London’s South Bank in 1988; ill-fated, it would turn out, but fun to visit in those happy first years for its primitive interactivity, movie heirlooms and well-stocked bookshop. I feel sure I did so within its first year, and that’s when I saw Un Chien Andalou for the first time, transfixed by its darkly playful cut-up imagery in the little dedicated viewing booth for 21 minutes. I felt like staying for the next showing (it was on a loop), mentally prepared this time for the unannounced eyeball-slicing money sequence, in which the film cuts from Simone Mareuil’s eye about to be passed over by a straight razor to a cloud slicing into a full moon and then to a dead calf’s eye being bisected. It is one of the least forgettable moments in the history of the moving image. Who wouldn’t write a song about it?

Debaser doesn’t quite cleave to the quiet-LOUD, bam-THWOK mechanic of the stereotypical Pixies song, as after that neat, buttoned-up bass intro, it leaps into life, with a tambourine hurrying along the first verse, Black announcing to the world that he’s got him a movie. The chorus invites the rest of the band along to shout, “Chien!” and it’s a frantic evocation of Iberian canine declaration. Cobwebs are blown. Ears are syringed. Black’s vocal cords are ravaged for your listening pleasure. Kim Deal offers a characteristically dry spoken endorsement of the title (and she was so … quiet about it). And it sounds for all the world that he’s already grown up to be a duh-base-ah.

British producer Gil Norton does a bang-up job on Doolittle, taking the graphic sound of Surfer Rosa and giving it a fuel injection. He would remain an ally. The LP was their first hit. Monkey Gone To Heaven – a close contender for this entry – gained college radio traction in the States and consolidated the band there. But – unlike Samson in Gouge Away – success did not sap their strength. The animosity that precipitated their break-up and made frankly mercenary their cold-war reformation was nowhere to be seen in the late 80s and early 90s when they surfed that wave of adulation. I declined to see them play when they reformed, as I’d seen them the first time, when the band might still amble past you in the queue.

Thanks, Massachusetts. Thanks, Mr Dali and Mr Bunuel. Thanks, Rob.