In 1986, the year Kicking Against The Pricks was released, then 28-year-old Nick Cave was the object of both reverence and antagonism in the contemporary press. In interviews he’s baited, held up as genius, soothsayer and arrogant, autistic nutcase.
Melody Maker reports, ‘There’s enough almost casual brilliance on Kicking Against the Pricks to justify Cave’s bloated sense of his own importance’. In the same publication, Cave explains that in his Berlin hideaway he tends to have almighty rows with his girlfriend, then slam the door and go off and write. Behaviour not all that atypical of a bloke in his 20’s, perhaps especially so of one with an inclination to communicate in lyrics who finds work makes everything okay. In any case, Cave’s admittance spurs a journalistic tangent about ‘fantasies of omnipotence’ harboured by ‘touchy and aloof people. Such creatures are uncommon’.
Cave was indeed uncommon, and still is; but what the interviewer characterises as arrogance may just as well be as awkwardness and a ragged emotional depth. When Glyn Brown interviewed him in Berlin that same year, Cave explained that what pissed him off the most was that his mother read whatever was written about him and it hurt her. Nonetheless, he kept as he was, and continued to sing out his demons in unexpectedly moving kitsch cabaret and morbid ballads, a more uniquely creative way of working through one’s problems than most options.
The UK press simply weren’t ready. Look what we had at the time: on a page of Record Mirror reviews, there’s Teena Marie and Five Star. The mid-80s gave us indie from Cocteau Twins to The The; but it was all very English, very parochial. The Queen is Dead – Morrissey going on about Manchester; The Housemartins, going on about Hull. Into this, in a wash of blood soaked exotica, stepped Cave.
Kicking Against the Pricks was actually a holding device. Following 1984’s From Her to Eternity, the Bad Seeds recorded The Firstborn is Dead in the final two months of that same year; but because Bob Dylan’s lawyers made them wait months for clearance to include “Wanted Man”, the album wasn’t released until 1985. Due to a lack of new songs and as Cave was in the middle of writing his novel And The Ass Saw the Angel, a covers album looked the thing to follow up.
If intended as filler, or a scene setting for what was to come; it became much more. It moved Cave on, freed him up, let him loose on stuff that frankly rocked, in a deathly way, and broke him into a much wider audience. And it happened because Cave kept walking deeper into the American heart of darkness.
In the mid-80s, the States weren’t cool; you had Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Madonna and Top Gun. For Cave, that didn’t exist; he reached back to the America of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, a Southern Gothic wild west of swampland and twisted religion, of extreme good and bad, a place of chaos. Not Cave’s roots, but that doesn’t matter, it’s always really your own story whatever background you choose. Cave happened to be working through a broken-down relationship, and working out his mounting dislike of music journalists. “Kicking against the pricks” is a biblical lift, referring to an ox kicking in irritation at the sharpened rod – the goad or prick – used by the driver when tilling soil. It would seem there were plenty of goads and an abundance of pain to deal with.
The album finds its feet for the first few tracks, starting to hint at what it wants with John Lee Hooker’s “I’m Gonna Kill That Woman”, which moves from loneliness and desolation to fury and retribution. But nothing prepares the listener for track five, the point of no return: a cover of Tim Rose’s masterpiece “Hey Joe”. Against the tightening noose of Hugo Race’s Morricone-style guitar, Cave delivers a western vendetta. Forget Hendrix’s version, a clutch of blues riffs: now, as the hair rises on the back of your neck, you see a man striding inexorably down a dirt road to shoot his woman, see the blood in the mud, feel what it takes to do the job.
You’re not over that and you get “The Singer”. When Johnny Cash delivered this, it was the guitar man in black. Here, astonishingly, it’s something else entirely. Cave speaks the words of a cynical, dusty-booted loner once hosanna-ed, now rejected – ‘I pass a million houses but there is no place that I belong… All the truths I tried to tell you were as distant to you as the moon’ – and you grasp that this is the first time Cave talks about a Christ figure, really talks. Naturally: it’s an album of outlaws, and Jesus was one of the biggest.
In the rakish “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, a clutch of mates raucously ask themselves what she can wear, poor deluded cow, for the rubbish future she was fool enough to pick. A shoulder-shrugging “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” allows Cave to fantasise that he’s the one who left. This is vindictive cabaret, with a snare drum, organ and jazzy cymbals, and a mirror-ball to highlight female tears.
But “Something’s Gotten Hold of my Heart” drops the act, adding deep layers to Pitney’s exultant original, singing the words of a happy, happy man whom we know is really on his knees. Cave’s voice is youthful and raw; when he talks about the ‘beautiful land’ that he’s found, says how he wants her to stay, ‘all of my nights, and all of my days’, the yearning and regret are tangible and the Bad Seeds’ faultless delivery, balanced between irony and heartache, help Cave outline his picture of ideal love.
There’s more – cowboy yells, barbershop-quartet gospel – but I’ll mention just the final track, which took The Seekers, an Australian folk group, somewhere they’d only ever been in a parallel life. ‘Now the cloak of night is falling / This will be our last goodbye / Though the carnival is over / I will love you till I die.’ Against almost tuneless harmonising and Blixa’s sawing, rising guitar, Cave’s emotion seems never more genuine. Ending with an unbearable two-note repeating coda, it could move one to tears.
Cave the twisted genius? Yes, something exactly along those lines.