The irony of the Shivers original
Written by Roland S Howard in 1978 at the age of just 16, “Shivers” is one of the most popular cult hits in Australian music. In fact, it’s my favourite Australian song. Many consider “Shivers” the reason for the Boys Next Door/Birthday Party and Nick Cave’s success. The “Shivers” original, performed by Howard’s band the Young Charlatans, appears to have an entirely different meaning behind the song. In later years, both Howard and Cave distanced themselves from the song. But there’s no doubt that “Shivers” is an enduring underground masterpiece about the adolescent pain of being in love.
When you hear Cave’s famously pained delivery on the Boys Next Door version, you may not realise that Howard intended the “Shivers” original to be humorously ironic. Howard was a teenager when he wrote the song, surrounded by kids navigating first romances.
‘Shivers’ was intended as an ironic comment on the way that I felt that people I knew were making hysterical things out of what were essentially high school crushes.”Roland S Howard
Howard found his peers’ reactions to love and crushes “incredibly insincere and blown out of proportion”. This inspired the cynical lyrics and delivery of the “Shivers” original version.
Composition and recording
Howard composed “Shivers” on his Ibanez Gibson Firebird copy, the same electric guitar he later performed the song’s first known recording. In 1978, the Young Charlatans recorded “Shivers” as part of a series of unreleased demos. The recordings featured Howard on vocals and guitar, Ollie Olsen on guitar, Janine Hall on bass and Jeff Wegener on drums. Au Go Go Records co-founder, former owner of the Tote and RRR broadcaster, Bruce Milne, recorded the Young Charlatans demos for a future single on his label.
Young Charlatans version
In the late 1970s, the Young Charlatans performed the “Shivers” original live at the 13 concerts they gave over their career. They released a recording in April 1981 on Fast Forward 004, a cassette compilation put out by another of Milne’s projects, Fast Forward Magazine. By that time the Young Charlatans had disbanded. The 2006 compilation CD, Inner City Sound: Australian Punk & Post-Punk also featured the “Shivers” original recording.
The Young Charlatans version of “Shivers” is a lot rawer than the Boys Next Door version. The guitars are jangly with a definite punk influence. And you can hear the irony in Howard’s vocal delivery.
1978 was an eventful year. Howard wrote, recorded and performed the “Shivers” original with the Young Charlatans. The group disbanded and he joined the Boys Next Door as their guitarist. The new lineup performed “Shivers” live with Howard on vocals and Cave on guitar.
The Boys Next Door recording
In January 1979, the Boys Next Door recorded “Shivers” during sessions for their debut studio album, Door, Door, at Richmond Recorders. Engineer Tony Cohen suggested that Howard perform the vocals, since he’d already been singing the song live and his voice best suited his own compositions. But Cave was the Boys Next Door’s regular vocalist and it’s said he insisted on singing on the recording. In hindsight, Cave said Howard’s vocals should have been recorded, as he was “never able to do that song justice”.
“Shivers” went on to be the tenth and final track on Door, Door, released on Mushroom Records. In May 1979, the song was released as the album’s only single, with “Dive Position” on the B-side. The single quickly went out of a print, with a second pressing required later in the year.
“Shivers” received critical acclaim and became a major underground success in Australia. Cave cited the song as the main reason behind the Boys Next Door’s eminence.
It’s impressive how, even at this early stage, Nick Cave was a confident and unique singer, perfectly aware of the strengths and limitations of his voice … he knows how to come across in a scary and theatrical manner that perfectly complements the music. Nowhere is this more apparent than on … ‘Shivers’, an unashamedly melodramatic example of post-adolescent anguish.”Will Lerner, AllMusic
According to Stereogum writer Dan Lawrence, “Shivers” and other songs written by Howard were “crucial to guiding the band in the darker, wilder direction” that defined the Boys Next Door and the Birthday Party’s music.
The Birthday Party
In 1980 the Boys Next Door moved to London and changed their name to the Birthday Party. Their recordings of “Shivers” are credited to the Boys Next Door. As the Birthday Party, the band performed “Shivers” with their standard line-up of Cave on vocals, Howard and Mick Harvey on guitar, Tracy Pew on bass and Phill Calvert on drums.
Blacklisted by Molly
While neither the single “Shivers” nor the album Door, Door sold in massive numbers, their impact was both immediate and lasting. “Shivers” set Cave up with a gothic persona and angst-filled voice that served him well through much of his music career. Molly Meldrum blacklisted the song due to the subject matter of the opening line, but this did nothing to dim the popularity of “Shivers”. The 7″ release was in such demand that it didn’t go out of print for nearly ten years.
In 1979, Australian film director, screenwriter and cinematographer, Paul Goldman, directed a music video for “Shivers” for a first-year assignment at the Swinburne Film and Television School.
Differences between the versions
The Boys Next Door version of “Shivers” is certainly more polished than the Young Charltans version. It opens with piano instead of guitar and, to me, sounds more goth than punk like the “Shivers” original.
What did Howard think of Cave’s delivery of his song? Years after “Shivers” was released he said that as a result of Cave’s vocal delivery, the song was:
… interpreted completely differently and now the song, to most peoples’ minds, is something completely different from what I intended it to be.”Roland S Howard
Impossible to distance
Howard distanced himself from “Shivers”, but it remained his most requested song throughout his lifetime. He felt frustrated that “Shivers” overshadowed all his other work for a long period. But towards the end of his life this started to shift.
I have just tried, perhaps finally successfully, to divorce myself from the song. It’s impossible for me to recreate what I was trying to do when I wrote that song so whilst I can see that people have an attachment to it, I don’t. I feel like, when I did use to do it in shows, I was doing a cover of some song that had been around forever. That’s how it felt. And I guess that is a strange way to feel about a song you wrote, so yeah, I am happy to not have to do it these days.”Roland S Howard, October 2009
Various other artists covered “Shivers”, including Marie Hoy (in the iconic 1986 film Dogs in Space), Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace, the Screaming Jets (bringing the song mainstream in 1992), Courtney Barnett (produced by Jack White) and Divine Fits.
Roland S Howard’s legacy
Howard made significant contributions to the Australian music scene over his 30+ year music career. And “Shivers” is part of those contributions. I love the Boys Next Door version and Cave’s delivery, but I prefer the Young Charlatans’ “Shivers” original. It’s raw and it’s sung how Howard intended it to be sung.
Rowland Howard’s (RIP) ability to write utterly haunting tunes was just magical. Totally one of the most important figures in the history of indie rock and a LARGE part of why Nick Cave has had such a successful career.”Tyler Kasuboski, YouTube comment
Read about more unknown originals from the 1970s here.