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Radio Baxter, Session 2 Murder Ballads

Twisted tales – Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Murder Ballads

Welcome to Radio Baxter, a tribute to the FM tradition of the classic album hour. The only difference is you bring your own music. The following was originally live-tweeted on Saturday 8 March 2014 at #RadioBaxter. Thanks to everyone who joined me. 

According to historians and Wikipedia, murder balladeers were the forerunners of today’s tabloid journalists. It seems punters then, just as now, couldn’t get enough of the grisly details of the crimes of their day and the balladeer brought it to them, complete with catchy tunes and singalong choruses.

It’s possible to trace the details as told in some murder ballads to actual events. Others have transmogrified over centuries so all that’s left is a vague morality tale on why you shouldn’t try this at home. Don’t murder! Rarely does it end well.

It’s a genre that was always going to attract Nick Cave and his Seeds and they attack it with relish. There are some old songs updated for our modern, bloodthirsty sensibilities and there are plenty of Cave originals in the traditional vein.

Murder Ballads was released in 1996 and is probably best remembered for the bit where Cave ‘kills’ Kylie. While that moment shook Australia to its cultural foundations, there’s a lot more to the album.

There are some really pretty tunes but for the most part we’re in for a profane exploration of the dark side. Strong language and themes ahead.

So, if you’re over 18 and sitting comfortably, let’s begin.

PLAY

00:00 T1 Song of Joy

If you’re expecting any joy for the Joy of this song you’re listening to the wrong album. Instead, we’re treated to an unsettling tale told by a dubious stranger.

She saw in the heart of her final blood-soaked night those lunatic eyes, that hungry kitchen knife

On a cold dark night, would you let this guy into your house? It feels like a dare… alright Nick, come on in. Tell us all about it.

Gulp.

In my house he wrote his red right hand, which I’m told is from Paradise Lost.

Not the first time Cave has referenced Milton, or this line. See also Red Right Hand from the earlier Let Love In, released in 1994. And here, just for reference, is the context: 

What if the breath that kindled those grim fires,
Awaked, should blow them into sevenfold rage,
And plunge us in the flames; or from above
Should intermitted vengeance arm again
His red right hand to plague us?
–  Milton

 

Death toll: 4 Rolling body count: 4

06:46 T2 Stagger Lee 

Having wormed his way in, Cave puts down the Milton and takes up a traditional blues song – only it’s not quite how we remember it.

You might like to grab a cuddly toy, for comfort or stabbing – it’s about to get ugly. And profane.

This is what happens when you open the door to a dark stranger on a cold and lonely night.

Death toll: 2 Rolling body count: 6

11:61 T3 Henry Lee 

Oh, he’s not alone! But don’t take any comfort from the presence of his first guest – the wonderful PJ Harvey.

Henry Lee is another traditional ballad, with roots going back to an ancient Scottish song called Young Hunting.

This version borrows heavily from a 1929 recording by American blues singer Dick Justice.

Little Henry Lee is the victim here, stabbed and thrown in a well by his spurned lover.

It’s an old tale. Boy meets Girl, Boy tells Girl he loves a prettier Girl, Girl kills Boy. Don’t try this at home.

Death toll: 1 Rolling body count: 7

15:16 T4 Lovely Creature 

One of the things I really love about this album is the mix of the traditional and the new. Lovely Creature is a homage to the creepy, sidelong telling of wrongdoing which marks some of the most haunting examples of the genre.

Our ‘hero’ goes away with a lovely creature and comes back without her. But you just know it didn’t end well for the poor lass.

Death toll: 1 Rolling body count: 8

19:29 T5 Where the Wild Roses Grow 

Here it is, the one that made a pop sensation out of Nick Cave. He was nominated for an MTV award for the video but kept it real by turning it down.

It’s absolutely gorgeous and so is (diminutive/chirping/Pop Princess/take your pick of the usual descriptors) Kylie, it must be said.

But you gotta feel for the people who bought Murder Ballads on the strength of this pretty, if sombre, tale.

Death toll: 1 (But it’s Kylie!!!) Rolling body count: 9

22:82 T6 The Curse of Millhaven 

There are actually too many deaths to count in The Curse of Millhaven but they range from 20 kiddies to the residents of an entire slum.

And a dog – but our killer, green-eyed yellow-haired Loretta, pleads not guilty to that one while rather gleefully admitting to all the rest.

Apparently this one was originally intended for PJ Harvey but there’s something irresistible about Nick Cave’s baritone giving voice to a little lady killer.

I’ve got a pretty little mouth underneath all the foaming…

Yes dear, I’m sure you do.

Death toll: 23 plus 1 dog Rolling body count: 32

29:38 T7 The Kindness of Strangers 

A cautionary tale for young girls who travel across the seas.

Another Cave original and again he sticks thematically to the traditional murder ballad. I really like the way he captures the mood of these old songs while creating something totally new.

Poor Mary Bellows lies cuffed to her bed with a rag in her mouth and a bullet in her head.

Death toll: 1 Rolling body count: 33

33:76 T8 Crow Jane 

There’s something very satisfying about Crow Jane when she comes along. The traditional female victim, doomed by her beauty to die, instead gets her bloody revenge.

It’s the first time since Stagger Lee that Cave’s taken the traditional form and twisted it to our modern sensibilities.

This woman isn’t sneaking a knife into you when you least expect it. She’s turning up guns blazing, to make those miners pay for what they stole.

There’s a worthwhile discussion to be had about the portrayal of women in crime fiction generally – both as perp and victim – but no time for that now, Crow Jane’s walking the road of hate.

Laughing all the way back from the new town. Population: Now 28.

Death toll: 20 Rolling body count: 53

37:91 T9 O’Malley’s Bar

We’re still a long way from 65, I hear you grumbling? Grab your teddy. Over the next 14 ½ minutes things get brutal.

The blood-soaked rampage through O’Malley’s Bar is one of the most extraordinary musical moments ever.

One of my favourite stories about this album comes from Nick Cave himself who sat down to listen to it with his mother.

“After three or four songs I began to think ‘what the hell kind of record is this really… it’s just grotesque and disgusting.’ “

Not too disgusting for mum, who kept listening while Cave went off to take a hot bath or something.

Look, with all the overt psychosexual stuff going on here, you can hardly blame him for leaving the room.

Oh mercy!

Death toll: 12 Rolling body count: 65

52:19 T10 Death is Not the End

We made it! From the end of the killing to a glorious version of Bob Dylan’s Death is Not the End – and the gang’s all here.

Joining Cave on vocal duty are PJ Harvey, Shane MacGowan, Kylie, Anita Lane and Bad Seeds Thomas Wydler and Blixa Bargeld.

This song originally appeared on Dylan’s Down in the Groove, labelled his worst album by Rolling Stone.

In fairness, Dylan’s worst still beats most people’s best and this version is a small candle of hope at the close of a dark, dark album. Or is it? If death isn’t the end of all this killing what is?

The Dark Stranger goes laughing on his way as we retire to an uneasy rest.

STOP

Remember, Death is not the End. This Classic Album session was dedicated to Raymond Day, who passed away peacefully on 3 March 2014 in Hong Kong.

ROLL CREDITS –

Produced by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Tony Cohen and Victor Van Vugt. Mastered by Ray Staff. The Bad Seeds are: Blixa Bargeld, Thomas Wydler, Mick Harvey, Martyn P. Casey, Conway Savage, Jim Sclavunos. Guests: PJ Harvey – vocals. Terry Edwards – horns. Katharine Blake – background vocals. Kylie Minogue – vocals. Jen Anderson – violin. Hugo Race – guitar. Warren Ellis – violin, accordion, backing vocals.  Anita Lane – vocals. Shane MacGowan – vocals. Spencer P. Jones – backing vocals. Dave Graney – backing vocals. Clare Moore – backing vocals. Rowland S. Howard – backing vocals. Astrid Munday – backing vocals.

LINKS –

No doubt you’ll want to see it again – Where the Wild Roses Grow

Nick Cave – a Murder Ballads interview retrospective originally printed in Swedish magazine POP

Rolling Stone’s review of Murder Ballads

Even more Murder Ballads – a Top 10 of some of the best at Pigeons and Planes

And finally, some Nick Cave fun trivia

© Sally Baxter 2014

 

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About Sally Baxter

Once I was a girl reporter. Now I'm an interested observer covering the past, present and future of journalism and whatever else takes my fancy. All views my own.

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