Baby-faced shots of rock ‘n’ roller Nick Cave reveal early years of music icon

Nick Cave & Mick Harvey of the Birthday Party in a Bayswater squat, London, UK on 17 May 1981. Pictu

Nick Cave & Mick Harvey of the Birthday Party in a Bayswater squat, London, UK on 17 May 1981. Picture: David Corio - Credit: Archant

To coincide with the release of his innovative new documentary, 20,000 Days on Earth, Camden’s Proud Gallery has launched an exhibition celebrating the career of enigmatic rock ‘n’ roll legend Nick Cave.

Nick Cave and the Birthday Party in disused church in Kilburn, London, UK on 22 October 1981. Pictur

Nick Cave and the Birthday Party in disused church in Kilburn, London, UK on 22 October 1981. Picture: David Corio - Credit: Archant

Primarily focusing on the earlier years of the infamous icon – enlisting the works of David Corio, Andrew Whitton, Steve Double, David Arnoff, Viliam Hrubovcak and Amelia Troubridge – the exhibition looks back at the fresh-faced Australian as he transitioned from the raucous post-punk group The Birthday Party into the cryptic, eclectic Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

For Corio, the mythologised ‘cigarettes and alcohol’ lifestyle of The Birthday Party proved entertaining but challenging when they came to England back in 1981.

“They certainly didn’t have any pretensions of being stars or big fish at all,” he says, “which certainly helped.

“The main problem was getting them out of the pub actually; I shot them about five times and each time it was, ‘Well let’s do it down the pub’. They were all constantly smoking cigarettes and because they weren’t overly star-conscious, photos were just something that had to be done and it could be a bit of a rigmarole to get them concentrating.”

Nick & Harpo Marx at Tropicana Motel. Picture: David Arnoff

Nick & Harpo Marx at Tropicana Motel. Picture: David Arnoff - Credit: Archant

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While admitting he would never have expected Cave to still be going strong – if not even stronger – 35 years later, Corio notes that in the pictures taken inside The Birthday Party’s Bayswater squat, there are small signs of the artful, emotive writer who would later come to the fore.

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“That photo of him with the horns – he’s got all those William Blake illustrations on the wall behind him, so he obviously had a bit of a literary venture in him from his early days.

“He’s been quite different all through his career; it’s quite unusual to move your way out of music into movies and literature as well. I can’t really think of too many who’ve done that.”

Arnoff, recalling Cave’s change in direction following the break-up of The Birthday Party, says: “When his first solo came out, I remember my friend who owned a record shop had heard it first.

“He said, ‘It’s horrible, it’s like lounge music or something’ – it was so quiet! But of course it wasn’t on stage because they had Blixa [Bargeld] and the band, so it wasn’t just a guy playing a piano.”

One of Arnoff’s favourite photos came about, ironically, when Cave was too exhausted for a shoot. Following a band all-nighter, the photographer turned up as scheduled, but was forced to take natural shots of the frontman in his hotel room.

“I really like them, I couldn’t have planned it. Especially having the Marx Brothers on TV like that, it was really sort of perfect. In the picture of him smiling, there’s no light, there’s just that lamp and the TV, and so I just said get close to the screen. He has the same look that Harpo Marx has on his face.”

While Cave’s reputation over the years has often been built through heavy drug use and a difficult – sometimes even violent – approach to interviews, both photographers reveal that the musician’s witty and down-to-earth approach was refreshing in an age of sullen-looking indie bands in long raincoats.

“A lot of people can’t be bothered too much or are too aloof, but Nick Cave was always a bit of a comedian,” Corio adds. “He’s not someone that you would feel oh, I’m in the presence of some mighty person, he always seemed like a regular bloke and that made it a lot easier.

“He was always one of my favourite people to photograph, even if you never quite knew what was coming next.

Nick Cave: Chasing The Myth runs until November 2 at Proud Camden.

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