Rowland S. Howard’s first solo album Teenage Snuff Film is a thing of distinct beauty. The 10 song collection serves as a testament to the undeniable talent and vision of one of Australia’s greatest musical auteurs. Here’s a short look back at this modern cult classic.
As guitarist for the legendary rock agitators, the Birthday Party, Rowland S. Howard cut quite an impression. Gaunt looking, yet stylish, playing surf guitar, but adding shards of noise to his style, Howard was an oddity in rock music. He was unique.
By the time of the release of his very first solo studio album, Teenage Snuff Film, his reputation was firmly established to a select few. And, even those who knew of Howard’s music, based their appreciation especially on the guitarist’s high-profile collaborations with the likes of Nick Cave, Lydia Lunch or the terrific Crime and the City Solution.
A songwriter in pursuit of endless shivers
But, a mere sidekick Rowland S. Howard certainly was not. Far from being a remnant sparking the interest merely of completists of the aforementioned artists, the Aussie songwriter’s debut album delights and frightens in its intensity.
Alternative rock music’s history is paved with great, rare gems. Even so, frankly, listeners will be hard-pressed to use their instincts and find a better-written collection of songs, with a more cohesive vision. That vision is stark and grim, like your favorite noir movie that no director has yet been able to finance. In a music world filled with exercises in evil and aggressiveness, the vast majority of artists exploring these dark arts will bow their heads in wonder.
Teenage Snuff Film stands erect as a monument to some alien race, demon god, or prophesy mere mortals can barely heads or tails of. Its creation, especially given the fact that it took its chief architect, Howard, a few decades to even consider manufacturing, seems impossible.
While Rowland S. Howard collaborated with alt-rock figureheads such as Lydia Lunch, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Tex Perkins or Thurston Moore, his best work, outside of his final two solo albums, can be found on the records produced by his other groups.
The Birthday Party, These Immortal Solus, Crime and the city solution
First, there was Rowland’s first serious group, the Boys Next Door, which then morphed into the menacing the Birthday Party, for whom the guitar player penned the memorable song Shivers, a song covered by the likes of Nick Cave and Against Me!
These Immortal Souls recorded two tense and memorable post-punk albums for Mute Records. Crime & the City Solution, a band in which Rowland played during the mid-1980s, announced itself as one of Australia’s more imaginative indie-rock outfits. Friend, collaborator and sometimes rival, Mick Harvey, would accompany Howard Rowland into a number of these musical explorations, playing a vital role in the recording his final solo albums.
But, Teenage Snuff Film is a treasure trove that could set you up for life. And, it arrived 20 years into what fans of alternative music Rowland S. Howard would easily describe as already stellar career.
For all the cliches about it being the work of a man knowledgeable of his own imminent demise, in truth, the record sounds fresh and robust, fizzy with musical ideas, original poetic lines and songwriting craft that had achieved maturity.
Rowland S. Howard – Dead Radio & assorted hits
Teenage Snuff Film opens with the guitar twang driven Dead Radio, a violent attack from the onslaught. But, here, it’s not the sound that is aggressive, quite the contrary. It’s the words and world-weary voice letting the words slip like droplets of poison. As Charles Bukowski memorably once announced When you get the shit kicked out of you long enough and long enough and long enough, you will have the tendency to say what you really mean.
Dead Radio contains the memorable lines I’ve lost the power I had to distinguish/Between what to ignite and what to extinguish. Howard S. Rowland super-fan, Laura Jane Grace, recently told RollingStone magazine “I would trade 30 of my songs to have written that lyric”.
Infrequent, yet passionate tributes, include praise from artists such as The Jesus and Mary Chain, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Richard Lowenstein, J.G. Thirlwell and, especially, Against Me’s Laura Jane Grace. The book is being rewritten in recent years and it portrays Howard’s influence in a much better light than before.
The neo-noir glamour of Teenage Snuff Films
The neo-noir display continues with Breakdown (And then..) and She Cried, where the songwriter’s poetry is accompanied by surf-rock guitar, occasional violin murmurs and the confident, minimalist drumming of Mick Harvey, Rowland’s former guitar teammate in the Birthday Party.
I burnt your clothes sounds like a misanthropic beat-poetry recital circa the 1950s. In fact, his delivery throughout the album is reminiscent of John Cooper Clarke, albeit in a much less humorous manner. (With that being said I recommend thoroughly taking a listen to Rowland Howard’s interviews that can be found online. They reveal the artist’s overall shy, polite and warn personality)
Exit everything proclaims the album’s mantra of Out of the black and into the ether. It’s a number seemingly designed for the crackle and pop of vinyl. Formulaic angry music is created daily. Rarely are songs as utterly furious, yet presented with as much refinement as they are here.
Silver chain is one of the record’s strongest moments, a country murder ballad, that could easily have been covered by one of the genre’s great men, like Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash.
White wedding continues a tradition for Howard S. Rowland of choosing to cover unexpected material. He had done so in the past and will continue this approach on his final record, Pop Crimes, choosing to cover Talk Talk’s Life’s what you make it.
What could easily have turned into a tongue-in-cheek parody of a Billy Idol song is reworked into a genuine Southern-rock drama, where the reverb-drenched chords lead the listener into the cathartic chorus.
Undone may sound like it could belong on a These Immortal Souls record but Rowland’s gruesome tales and his genuine disenchantment with creation at large have never been as well delivered as they are here.
Autoluminescent and Sleep alone may just be two of the best performances ever recorded to tape. The first seems to hover over the listener, marked by beautiful words of regret and could easily soundtrack the end credits of the best melancholy tinged movie you have ever seen.
The legacy of Howard S. Rowland
Sleep alone is another matter. All the legends of the Birthday Party’s wild theatrics and of Howard S. Rowland’s impossible to predict shards of Fender Jaguar guitar-noise and surf-rock rhythms are brought alive once more in this 7-minute song seemingly aimed at torching itself and previous 11 songs in the process.
Howard S. Rowland was destined for cult-hero admiration. Beyond the love of a dedicated few, great recordings, inspired sound and amazing songwriting prowess, lie. More than just mere exoticism, Rowland’s music is the genuine article of one of alternative rock’s greatest figures.