Hot As A Stolen Car: The Making Of 'Teenage Snuff Film'
Ahead of the long-awaited vinyl reissue of Rowland S Howard’s 'Teenage Snuff Film' (1999), ANDREW STAFFORD revisits the timeless Australian classic with producer Lindsay Gravina.
To take an absurdly reductionist view, it’s all there in the first two lines. “You’re bad for me like cigarettes,” the singer croons in a tone that veers between haunting and waspish. “But I haven’t sucked enough of you yet.” Even the acoustic guitar can’t disguise that voice, or the dustbowl-dry wit and inimitable style of the unfolding lyric. The late Rowland S Howard was one of a kind.
The song is “Dead Radio”, heralding the beginning of Howard’s masterpiece, Teenage Snuff Film. The album will be finally reissued on vinyl next week to celebrate the simultaneous release of the eagerly awaited biopic, Autoluminescent. Original copies of this always very scarce record – released on Bruce Milne’s Radio One label in 1999 – had become so coveted by fans and collectors that a month ago, a mint copy sold on ebay for close to $700 (at press time, with the reissue imminent, another sold at the far more modest price of $202.50).
Yet, at the time of its release, Teenage Snuff Film was buried more than praised. “Bruce, of course, was just as disappointed as I was when the album seemed to go unnoticed,” says its producer Lindsay Gravina. “Obviously it has finally been accorded some kind of cult status and is a much-loved album [now], but back then no one wanted to know about it. Financially Bruce and myself both took a hit, but those are the hits you are always willing to take, because it’s art.”
Gravina first crossed paths with Howard in the mid 1990s, by which time Howard was playing to a devoted but dwindling group of devotees around Melbourne. (I saw him just the once around this time, at the Continental in Prahran, playing solo and acoustic in support to Spencer Jones. He was wearing an immaculate turquoise suit with a beautiful rose-pink shirt underneath, and only this absurdly charismatic rake of a man could have pulled it off with such panache.)
Howard had a reputation, but at the time not all of it was about a record of consistent artistic excellence extending back to the late ’70s. “I could never understand the naysayers, the people that said I was wasting my time, that he was washed up and finished as an artist,” Gravina says. The producer first collaborated with Howard on another band, the Hungry Ghosts, before mixing some Birthday Party tapes that ended up being released as Live 1982-’83.
In the meantime, he kept prodding Howard to write sufficient material for an album he had already promised to record. Once that time came, Howard was more than ready, with all the songs written. That said, there was still room for them to develop. “Rowly was always vague about the songs, like he didn't really know what to expect. They always grew their own legs and he would just follow,” Gravina says.
Many songs were built up around Brian Hooper’s bass lines, notably the pulsating ‘Exit Everything’. Mick Harvey’s drums were improvised. “I can distinctly remember looking at Mick through the drum booth window during one particular song with many different sections and as it was his first and I think only run through, he kind of shrugged his shoulders as he was looking back at me as if to say, ‘I have no idea where this is going.’” Hooper, for his part, was so nervous to be working with Howard that he confessed to Gravina to being barely able to make it up the stairs to the studio on the day of his arrival.
Sessions were spread over a couple of months, all four men working around their availability. At the time, Gravina recalls he was moving studios, sandwiching the Teenage Snuff Film sessions in between Magic Dirt’s notorious Young And Full of the Devil and the first Living End album. Howard himself was in a good space, having just begun a treatment regime for his heroin addiction, with Mick Harvey remarking he seemed “almost sprightly” compared to his usual sullen self.
Highlights? You could point to the whole damn lot in an album with very few, if any weak points. There’s the slow, magisterial ‘Breakdown (And Then…)’, which sounds like it was recorded in a cathedral, Howard intoning rhymes like “cold as a distant star … hot as a stolen car” into an obsessive narrative. ‘Autoluminescent’ is at once narcissistic and haunted, while ‘Sleep Alone’ brings the album to an epic conclusion, with tortured drones of feedback and amplifier buzz concluding its near eight minutes.
For guitar lovers, perhaps the best aspect of all is hearing THAT sound – the sound that could only have been made by Rowland S Howard and that beautiful white Jaguar – captured in all its glory. Howard had been impressed by Gravina’s work on the live Birthday Party album, and trusted him. “Rowly was hyper-intuitive, he was always sure of what he liked, even if he was unsure of what could be done to make that happen,” the producer says. “Luckily he usually liked what I liked, so the sounds and atmospheres came about by me just doing my thing and him saying, ‘Yes Lindsay, I quite like that...’”
There are two covers. The first, ‘She Cried’, was originally recorded by vocal group Jay and the Americans in 1962 and later by the Shangri-Las and Aerosmith, among others. Howard subverts the sublime melodrama of the original with a sneering take that dismisses his suitor with regal disdain; the final “kiss that only meant goodbye” rendered as a slap in the face. It’s a fine example of what an original vocalist Howard had become, adding a snarl to his distinctively lugubrious tones and phrasing.
But even in such stellar company, ‘White Wedding’ is a standout, Howard tearing apart and reconstructing the Billy Idol classic with a kind of malevolent glee. “He [would play] that live around that time at solo acoustic gigs that were usually attended by less than 10 people at places like the Town Hall Hotel in North Melbourne,” Gravina says. “He took a perverse kind of pleasure, I think, in taking a song that no one would dream he would do, and imbuing it with his ‘Rowlandness’.”
Tantalisingly, Gravina adds that a version of the Boys Next Door’s ‘Shivers’ was recorded – but in such a throwaway fashion that it was hastily discarded and no one seems to remember (or wants to own up to) playing on it, except maybe Gravina himself: “There’s vibes and a suspicious guitar overdub that I can’t imagine Rowly having played.” When the recordings were sold to Bruce Milne, he declined to release it, saying its inclusion would be “needlessly gratuitous”.
“Now, of course, it sounds extraordinary in a way we didn’t realise at the time,” Gravina says. “I played it to Mick and his instant response was that it was the best version of it in existence. Funny how even he couldn’t recall playing on it!”
“Financially Bruce and myself both took a hit, but those are the hits you are always willing to take, because it’s art.”
For Gravina, working on the album with Howard remains one of his proudest moments. “Although we were friends outside of the studio, when we were at work, there was always this feeling, for me at least, that we were doing something important,” he says. “As an experience, I have to say that I always loved being in Rowly’s presence. You felt charmed to be even in the same room as him.
“Some of us would loan Rowly a little money from time to time, knowing that we’d never see it again. He wasn’t taking us for a ride; he was accepting our generosity without being apologetic. But he never forgot who his friends were and he returned many favours in kind to me that would surprise many people, even myself. I once loaned him six of my Raymond Chandler novels thinking there was little chance I’d see them again. About two years later, he made a special trip to my door to return them with thanks and a smile. He was like that. A noble prince. A true gentleman.”
Related: Rowland S Howard – A Tribute.