Our Daily Bread 367: Guest Post: Rowland S Howard ‘Teenage Snuff Film and Pop Crimes’

March 4, 2020

ICON SPECIAL
Dan Shea





The Monolith Cocktail is ecstatic and grateful to have coaxed a guest spot contribution from the impassioned and adroit musician/writer Dan Shea. Roped into his family’s lo fi cult music business, The Bordellos, from a young age, the candid but humble maverick has gone onto instigate the chthonian Vukovar and, with one part of that ever-shambling post-punk troupe, musical foil Buddy Preston, the seedy bedsit synth romantics Beauty Stab. An exceptional talent (steady…this is becoming increasingly gushing) both in composing and songwriting, the multi-instrumentalist and singer is also a dab hand at writing. His first time ever for the MC, Dan shares a grand personal ‘fangirl’ purview of major crush, the late Rowland S. Howard, on the eve of Mute Records appraisal style celebration reissue of his highly influential cult albums ‘Teenage Snuff Film’ and ‘Pop Crimes’.


Rowland S. Howard   ‘Teenage Snuff Film/Pop Crimes’
(Mute)   Remasterd Reissue Albums /27th March 2020



Teenage Snuff Film

“You’re bad for me like cigarettes, but I haven’t sucked enough of you yet”.

Curls of Morricone guitars, the ‘Be My Baby’ beat slowed to a kerb crawl as it is on every song on Teenage Snuff Film and a voice so soft it smashes stars.

Then in the middle, a spiraling surf guitar run; subtle organ chords in the background and the sort of strings I am contractually obliged to describe as sweeping. Teenage Snuff Film is an immensely important record to me, so important that I kicked a perfectly attractive possible suitor out of my flat when he described it as “boring”. Cute as he was you’ve got to draw a line somewhere and we have never spoke again.

The first time I heard Teenage Snuff Film I was sixteen and I think that’s the perfect time to hear a record like this. It all comes back to the beginning, conjuring up a world I was yet to experience. Now I have been there, watching the party end through a haze of smoke slumped insensible with my head on the shoulder of a femme fatale (of several genders), I can’t help but prefer what I had imagined.

Following ‘Breakdown (and Then)’ in which he writes his own epitaph (“Crown Prince of the Crying Jag”) there is ‘She Cried’. One thing he does a lot on this record is admit to his own cruelty and use this admission to gain your sympathy – it’s a lowdown, filthy trick and one I frequently find myself doing. ‘She Cried’ again uses a bastardised Hal Blaine beat and with his customary rusted, pealing bell guitar sound he lays waste to a perfectly pleasant 60’s girl group song. From amidst this wreckage The Horrors are conceived in unholy means.





‘I Burnt Your Clothes’ does the same thing as ‘Breakdown’ but more unpleasantly and lyrically, more violently and with the addition of frenetic horror movie organ vamping.

‘Exit Everything’ pivots around a propulsive bassline from the similarly dearly departed Brian Hooper that threatens to steal the show from Rowland S Howard: also listening to this record and in particular the sizzling hi hat patterns on this track, you can’t help but wish Mick Harvey would play drums more. There must have been some reason he took the drum stool in The Birthday Party besides Phill Calvert just being tired of everyone’s shit.

It’s at this point I have to revert to cliché and describe this album as cinematic: it’s a cliché Rowland clearly endorsed as the liners state ‘Written and Directed by Rowland S Howard’. With that in mind, I apologise for how flooded with spoilers this review / hagiography / fangirl diary is.

‘Silver Chain’, as co-written with Genevieve McGuckin who contributed the fantastically understated and slightly mad keyboards to These Immortal Souls records, is a thing of real beauty. I struggle to do things like this justice with my words because I am very aware as a musician myself that throwing a mixture of technically accurate adjectives and superlatives at something this heartfelt is just entirely risible. What I will say is that when it all builds to a crescendo, screeching violins and hymnal organ, as Rowland sings “I tattooed your name in a ring round my heart”, that invisibly in the act of singing this he tattooed his own on mine.

Then ‘White Wedding’. It’s got to the point now that whenever I hear the original, usually on the radio at work, I find myself wondering “Why are they playing that shit cover of a song off Teenage Snuff Film?”. Somehow he discovers a deep and primal longing in this song, recasting it as if it were an ancient folk song he found under a rock or in Nick Cave’s basement.





The final three tracks of the record are, for me, where the record’s heart is: any noir director worth their salt knows that it’s the climax you’re talking about on the way home. ‘Undone’ is the kiss-off of all kiss-offs: that trademark shower of splinters rhythm guitar approach most obviously spotted on the title track from The Birthday Party’s Junkyard is back but so are Bernard Herrman strings and the fastest drums on this record. He accentuates his filthy Valentines with scything one note atonal guitar fills until the carnival organ escapes from Cave’s ‘Your Funeral, My Trial’ and propels him to greater heights of loathing. The cruelty of the earlier songs on the record is still there but undercut with an obvious vulnerability, particularly in the ‘Coy Mistress’ quoting midsection.

‘Autoluminescent’ is just achingly sad: there is a reason they named the biopic after it. Another truly beautiful vocal performance: Rowland’s voice is not discussed enough. The focus is always, obviously, on his guitar playing but when I hear Rowland’s voice I hear one of the saddest instruments in the world. The only voice as sad and as beautiful as his for me is Billy McKenzie but obviously they sound nothing alike. While Billy masked his vulnerability (or tried unconvincingly to do so) through his technical expertise, Rowland takes strength from his. The result is the slurring, croak of a grievous androgynous angel. It’s the kind of sadness you experience when you’ve cried as much as you possibly can and you’re starting to smirk at your own ridiculousness.

What makes this song as heartbreaking as it is? It’s the way his voice cracks and frays as he slips into desperate, insane self-aggrandisement: “I’m bigger than Jesus Christ….I am dangerous, I cut like the sharpest knife” then settles again. Again I can’t do it justice and you’re just going to have to listen to the thing.

If you’ve heard of and enjoy Nick Cave, Swans, The Fall, The Gun Club, etc. and you haven’t already then why? Why not? For me Rowland S Howard is every bit Nick Cave’s equal, asides from in work ethic: Rowland penned and fronted four albums across three decades where Cave does that in three years plus umpteen soundtracks. Most of them haven’t been as good as this album but that’s alright because for me personally not much is.

Cooking Vinyl‘s track list of this record originally also included a version of ‘Shut Me Down’ after this, which I’ll be discussing in the Pop Crimes section. I see no reason whatsoever why this alternate edition should be absent from this record: The new deluxe edition with less material?

‘Sleep Alone’ brings this record to a tumultuous close with another utterly filthy Brian Hooper bassline and the most deranged guitar playing on this record. “This is my journey to the edge of the night, I’ve got no companions Louis Celine’s by my side”.

It builds, and builds until it ends with just that voice again sounding incredibly damaged and vulnerable but defiant and then there’s an outro of feedback skree and noise that could easily fit onto a Whitehouse record.

Making these things more accessible to more people can never be a bad thing: maybe next Mute can reissue the These Immortal Souls back catalogue so I can own a physical copy of Never Gonna Die Again without having to resort to prostitution. Given that Mute already issued these records in the first place there would be no reason to issue deluxe editions minus several tracks.

It is however disappointing that on neither of these reissues has there been made room for the original version of ‘Shut Me Down’ which makes the lachrymosity of the version on Pop Crimes sound like K-Pop in comparison; or Rowland’s heartbreaking cover of the Velvet Underground’s ‘Ocean’ which for my money (not enough for a deluxe double red vinyl edition) is an improvement on the original, this obviously not faint praise.

 





Pop Crimes

“My life plays like Grand Guignol, blood and portents everywhere”

 

Years of silence followed: make no mistake, in terms of gaps between records Rowland made Scott Walker look like Edward Ka-Spel or Mark E Smith. Then he produces a great album that is again annoyingly out of print, HTRK’s Marry Me Tonight. A wonderful album but I’m not going to write about it here.

A word of warning here: obviously the tenor of this piece has made it clear I am not writing objectively and these two records are very much a part of me at this point in time, so you may ignore this and I don’t blame you. Disclaimer aside, this album will break your heart and there’s no two ways about it.

‘I Know A Girl Called Jonny’ refers to Jonine Standish from HTRK and she sings on it in a voice that sounds almost exactly like his. Another languid, androgynous croon that makes you wish he’d reprised the Lydia Lunch ‘Shotgun Wedding’ record with her. It’s all pleasant and correct: Mick Harvey is playing a variation on the Be My Baby beat, strings are scraping, guitars are slashing and it feels like a warped girl group record. ‘Shut Me Down’ follows, and in this setting also has a 60’s pop drama: a French film embrace, black turtleneck clad lovers departing at fountains in the snow and knowing they’ll never see each other again. This time the chime of a vibraphone underscores what sounds like a Billy Fury record playing at half-speed. Then something interesting happens. Your heart just breaks. I won’t reproduce any lyrics because the ones that look the best on paper aren’t the ones that sound the best but it is another fantastic vocal performance.

Then comes his cover of Talk Talk’s ‘Life’s What You Make It’ and throughout this I have tried manfully to avoid dwelling on the biographical details behind these records: a great record should stand alone without them and I firmly believe this does. However, for a dying man to re-record ‘Life’s What You Make It’ bitterly recasts it.

When I first heard this record he was still with us: I had no idea that the man was dying. I bought a copy in Liverpool’s Probe Records, spotting the name and that incredibly distinctive face looking back off the cover. Birdlike, broken boxer’s nose, otherworldly and androgynous swathed in red light. “At long last, the lazy fucker”.

Maybe the hints were there, but Rowland was singing and writing about death since he was a teenager. On Pop Crimes, which reprises the previous track’s angular, extended lope with regular lead guitar breaks and a descended bassline akin to ‘Exit Everything’ on the previous record there are several turns of phrase that catch my breath: “open heart surgery kiss” and the phrase Pop Crime itself. Several friends of mine, some collaborators, have latched onto this phrase and shamelessly half-inched it. I in particular have stolen a lot from Rowland.





‘Nothin’’ is another cover version this time of a Townes Van Zandt song. This one isn’t such a stark transformation but it’s a fantastic song well suited to his voice and turned me onto the artist’s work: which I guess is another useful function of the cover version. Inviting you into the artist’s living room rather than throwing you out of it because you were disparaging of a genius.

‘Wayward Man’ compels me to use the word swagger and I don’t like that, I absolutely hate that word. It’s the only one that fits: there’s something sexy about it. It struts about all over the place in spite of itself. There’s a particularly nasty descending guitar riff Rowland plays at several points which takes me aback almost every time.

Again it’s the record’s climax where I really have to wax lyrical. ‘Ave Maria’ is another fantastic lyric: it’s all in the delivery but when he sings the phrase “History led her to me” it carries with it the grim inevitability of what happened next. I’m finding myself welling up simply imagining the instrumental bridge towards the end, which sounds simply like the ascension of a soul. Distant vibraphone again, a gentle surge with JP Shilo‘s violin pulling us all skyward. An overhead shot of the moment of rejection as it happens then we’re back to ‘Be My Baby’ drums slowed to a drunken heartbeat crawl. The final verse takes us into the final track on the album, and the final song we heard from the great man.

The Golden Age of Bloodshed’ from which my header quote to this section was drawn is, again, shorn of biography incredibly moving but with full context it’s just…fucking hell. A walk to the gallows rhythm serves as a backdrop to some of Rowland’s best guitar playing: all the shower-of-splinters chainsaw noises, pealing bell single notes and fuzz tantrums you can fit into the song’s short runtime. There’s a mordant black comedy to these lyrics, with their Schopenhauer references, “Catholic girls with Uzis” and a “harsh new brand of aftershave that gives you a thousand yard stare”. There’s even a “take my wife” joke any Northern standup would be proud of:

“I’m suspicious of my wife, I suspect she left long ago

I recall my finger on the button of the ejector seat

But I can’t recall letting her go”

This sounds intensely alive and vital in the shadow of death. Then it all comes to a climax with a final burst of noise trailing off into nowhere: a fade-out, a ticking rhythm disappearing off into the fog of the world. The credits roll. I am not merely dragging this cinematic metaphor to its brutal end I am again paraphrasing the liner notes that list Rowland as the director.





Cherish these records: it’s a shame he’s not around to enjoy the plaudits or the financial reward with which he may not have died skint and we may have had more to enjoy by him. I am a fervent believer that we should cherish the angels that walk among us before death beatifies them, ironing out the creases and possible unpleasantness that did not allow us to properly revere their beauty while they were alive. But sometimes it’s not possible, so allow these records into your heart and home; hope, a dangerous thing, but hope that it continues to inspire and enflame.


Related posts from the Archives

(Author) Beauty Stab Interview

(Author) Vukovar ‘Cremator’ Review

(Author) Vukovar ‘Puritan’ Review

Mick Harvey ‘Four (Acts Of Love)’ Review

Mick Harvey Live Report


The Monolith Cocktail Is Now On Ko-Fi

Hi, my name is Dominic Valvona and I’m the Founder of the music/culture blog monolithcocktail.com For the last ten years I’ve featured and supported music, musicians and labels we love across genres from around the world that we think you’ll want to know about. No content on the site is paid for or sponsored and we only feature artists we have genuine respect for /love. If you enjoy our reviews (and we often write long, thoughtful ones), found a new artist you admire or if we have featured you or artists you represent and would like to buy us a coffee at https://ko-fi.com/monolithcocktail to say cheers for spreading the word, then that would be much appreciated.

2 Responses to “Our Daily Bread 367: Guest Post: Rowland S Howard ‘Teenage Snuff Film and Pop Crimes’”

  1. […] S. Howard ‘Teenage Snuff Film’ & ‘Pop Crimes’ The Monolith Cocktail is now on the micro-donation hub Ko-Fi: Hi, my name is Dominic Valvona […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: