PLAYING MELBOURNE: Anita Lane Leaves A Legacy of Post-Punk Art Rock Brilliance

“Bury me high up
Up on that mountain
Bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao,
Bury me high up
Up on that mountain
And let a flower mark my grave”

– Anita Lane, “Bella Ciao”

Anita Lane, courtesy Mute Records.

Anita Lane was an exceptional talent – a songwriter, a singer, a creative powerhouse. The greatest pity of her lifetime and now, after her passing, is that she is often referred to only in relation to the men she co-wrote and duetted with, but in the interests of karmically restoring the universe to rights and doing justice to Anita’s legacy, here is why you ought to spend a few hours at least indulging in her prolific work.

Born in March, 1960 in Melbourne, Lane was clever and musically gifted. While a student at the Prahran College of Advanced Education in Melbourne’s inner south, she began writing songs and singing in her mid-teens. This was also where she befriended Rowland S. Howard – the iconic post-punk guitarist most commonly associated with The Birthday Party and The Bad Seeds.

Still a teenager, Lane met Nick Cave in 1977 when he was fronting The Boys Next Door, a seminal Australian post-punk band featuring Cave’s schoolmates from Caulfield Grammar: Mick Harvey on guitar, Tracy Pew on bass, and Phill Calvert on drums. The two began an on-off romantic relationship that lasted another 10 years, but it was their powerful co-writing relationship that was epic and memorable. The following year in 1978, Lane’s schoolfriend Rowland S. Howard joined the band on lead guitar and, riding the popularity of post-punk, frenetic guitar and furied lyrics over immense walls of feedback fuzz, the band moved to London in 1980, freshly renamed The Birthday Party.

Their debut 1981 album Prayers on Fire featured “A Dead Song,” co-written by Lane and Cave. She also co-wrote “Dead Joe” and “Kiss Me Black” on their sophomore album Junkyard (1982), released the same year the band and Lane moved to Berlin just before breaking up in 1983.

“Kiss Me Black” epitomises the best of The Birthday Party – clattering percussion like starving cats released into a drum set, Cave’s gothic baritone shifting between hollow cries and frenzied, almost shouted pleas and accusations. Chugging bass drives the whole bloodied, brilliant body of a song while snaggle-toothed guitars take savage bites into the melody.

Lane went on to join Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds on keyboards and vocals. The band comprised ex-Birthday Party member Mick Harvey, Barry Adamson, Hugo Race and Blixa Bargeld. Most notably, she co-wrote the beautiful, tragic “From Her To Eternity,” also the title of the band’s 1984 debut album. She left the band soon after, but would continue to co-write with Bargeld for both the Bad Seeds and Bargeld’s other band, Einstürzende Neubauten. She would later feature on Einstürzende Neubauten’s sixth album Tabula Rasa (1993) both as a co-writer and vocalist on a couple of tracks, including “Blume.”

In 1986, she co-wrote “Stranger Than Kindness” with Bargeld, which appeared on Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Your Funeral… My Trial. It is a glorious, jangling, delicate beast of a song that reveals the significantly mellowed yang to The Birthday Party’s frenetic yin. The same title was given to an exhibition of Nick Cave’s life and work in 2020 and to a book released to align with the exhibition.

In 1988, Lane sang vocals on the soundtrack to Australian gothic western movie Ghosts…of the Civil Dead, which Bargeld, Cave and Harvey scored. The same year, she also provided vocals on the German post-punk band Die Haut’s Headless Body in Topless Bar album. She’d also duet with Kid Congo Powers on Die Haut’s Head On album of 1992.

One of her most wonderful collaborative outings was with Mick Harvey on his Serge Gainsbourg tribute album Intoxicated Man in 1995 and again on his second Gainsbourg-inspired album Pink Elephants in 1997. She sounds so gorgeously young and louche on “Harley Davidson” when she claims to be a “hell hound.” “I don’t need anyone on my Harley Davidson,” she sings, “If I die tonight, it’s my destiny, I’m alright.”

All the while, Lane had been in the process of recording her debyut solo album; Dirty Pearl was released in 1993 after a decade in the making. It opens with another devastating and beautiful Harvey co-write, “Jesus Almost Got Me,” a divinely gothic ballad in which the country-folk guitar is tempered by solemnly poetic lyrics (“Love is cruel/Love is truly absurd/Jesus almost got me/I don’t know how many prayers he overheard”).

Four of its tracks were originally released on a 4-track EP called Dirty Sings in 1988. Adamson, Cave and Thomas Wydler (of both the Bad Seeds and Die Haut) perform on these, along with Mick Harvey, who also produced it. She sounds breathy, sad, like there’s only a thread holding her to this earth and yet, there’s something primal and sacred in her shameless femininity. Even surrounded by men, or perhaps because she is, she embraces the elements of girlhood and womanhood in her voice, her writing and her videos. One moment she is delicate and complicit, the next she is scarily knowing, determinedly solitary.

The album also features her solo versions of some of her best co-writes, like “Blume,” along with a brilliant, quite creepy, cover of “Sexual Healing.” You’ll never hear the song the same again; the same is true of her 1991 collaboration with Barry Adamson on their version of “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’.” Anita Lane put an indelible mark on everything she touched.

Her second solo studio album was also produced by Harvey. Released in 2001, Sex O’Clock was a little less jangly, primitive and arty. Instead, it embraced greater melodic hooks and pop  elements, though Lane’s deadpan, sardonic approach to lyrics and vocals was ever present. Pop Matters referred to her as “the female Leonard Cohen.” Track names like “Home Is Where the Hatred Is,” “I Hate Myself” and “The Petrol Wife” contrasted with the almost sunny, laidback album cover image of Lane swinging an umbrella as she gazes, smiling, to the horizon.

Lane was a bit of a nomad, as many musicians were in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and still are. She moved from London to Berlin, then later lived in New York and Sydney before returning to Berlin in the late 1980s. She married a German man, Johannes Beck, and had her son Raphael in 1990, before that relationship ended four years later and she moved to Morocco. She had two sons to her Italian partner, Luciano (born in 1995) and Carlito (1998).

Melbourne reclaimed her in 2008, when she returned to live in the suburb of Glen Iris, where she’d grown up. Last year, she moved to Collingwood at the same time that I was packing up to leave it, and remained there until her death in April, aged 61. She isn’t the first nor will she be the last woman to be shrunk down, becoming merely the “muse” to the men around her, but let’s hope, at least in this case, that Melbourne names a lane after her, or erects a statue, or both. Vale Anita Lane.