Wreckless Eric Whole Wide World.
With his first new album in some time, “Bungalow Hi” (Southern Domestic Records), & an autobiography, “A Dysfunctional Success” (The Do Not Press) both available from: www.southerndomestic.co.uk
- Wreckless Eric is on fine form once again. Jean Encoule thought it would be an appropriate juncture to track the man down & send him some questions to answer. This is what he had to say about Stiff Records, Pub Rock, Punk Rock & the loneliness of the long distance runner:
trakMARX - What was it like growing up in Sussex during the sixties?
I saw the sea every day but I didn’t think that was unusual or special because I’d never not seen the sea. In the first place there weren’t any roads where I lived, just muddy tracks between the houses. They started building the roads in 1959, a fact that I mention in the song ‘Lureland’ (version 1 on the first Len Bright Combo album, version 2 on The Donovan Of Trash).
trakMARX - What were the sounds that informed your formative years?
To start with the Beatles hadn’t happened so pop music didn’t exist as we now know it. The first record I bought was ‘Globetrotter’ by The Tornadoes, produced of course by Joe Meek, though I didn’t know that back then. Somewhere in the background I remember ‘Hound Dog’ by Elvis Presley but for the most part it was utterly turgid I Want An Old Fashioned House With An Old Fashioned Fence And An Old Fashioned Millionaire I think that was Eartha Kitt, and there was Kenneth McKellor doing Road To The Isles, A Scottish Soldier by Andy Stewart, and endless afternoons filled with the sound of Victor Sylvester & His Orchestra competing with the vacuum cleaner or the washing machine, depending on which housewifely activity my mum was engaged in at the time. Then the Beatles came along and saved us from all this misery. That’s when I really started buying records, 1962. I was eight or nine at the time. First it was called Merseybeat and then The Beat Boom and then it exploded into all sorts of other things the Swinging Sixties. I got into the Rolling Stones, then The Kinks, The Yardbirds, The Animals, The Who (I was and still am a big Who fan), The Small Faces, and then soul and blues the first Stax record I heard was Walking The Dog by Rufus Thomas the first blues was John Lee Hooker playing Boom Boom on Ready Steady Go. And I really loved the groups that came slightly later in the sixties like The Easybeats (Friday On My Mind), The Troggs (With A Girl Like You, Wild Thing, I Can’t Control Myself), and The Equals (Baby Come Back). And when The Jimi Hendrix Experience came along with Hey Joe it all went gloriously out of control and I started buying albums, the first one being Are You Experienced of course by The Jimi Hendrix Experience. I entered into a world that my parents couldn’t possibly comprehend, a world in which groups that nobody had ever heard of could fill concert halls like the Brighton Dome where I saw just about everybody from the Pinkfloyd to Doctor John The Night Tripper. That would be about 1968/69. I started listening to John Peel’s Top Gear programme on Radio One he was the only DJ playing obscure stuff at the time.
trakMARX - Prior to Punk Rock, you plied your trade on the Pub Rock scene. How would you best describe Pub Rock & the people who made it?
This is a chance to put the record straight I never had anything to do with Pub Rock. Before I came down to London and signed to Stiff I was an art student in Hull. I played in a few bands around Hull and wrote songs. I was aware of pub rock of course, Brinsley Schwartz, Bees Make Honey and all that but it didn’t particularly bother me except Dr Feelgood (the early version with Wilko Johnson in it) and Ian Dury’s old band, Kilburn & The High Roads. Those bands were both life changing, the Feelgoods because of the manic energy and drama and the Kilburns because they sounded, and looked, as though they might fall to bits in front of you, but somehow they never did. I think it was the Englishness of it all that was so inspiring. Kilburn & The High Roads were easier for a dysfunctional young man like myself to identify with than most bands.
trakMARX - When did Punk Rock first begin to make inroads into your psyche?
I remember the term punk being used in conjunction with music as early as 1972 just as I was leaving school. I knew this kid who wanted to start a group like Frank Zappa’s Mothers Of Invention crossed with Danny & The Juniors, and he kept saying it was going to be really punk, but we couldn’t get it together…er, maan. I think All The Young Dudes by Mott The Hoople was pretty important it seemed to be the first record since My Generation or Friday On My Mind that related to being young and kicking against society.
Punk grew slowly and once it hit it was misunderstood, misinterpreted and re-invented as something completely different. But somewhere near the beginning there was White Punks On Dope by The Tubes, and we’d heard about a New York group called Television with a singer called Richard Hell who’d written songs called Blank Generation and Love Comes In Spurts. That would have been about 1974 or 75 but we couldn’t get to hear them because they either hadn’t made a record or you just couldn’t get them over here. At that time I played bass guitar and sang in a group called Addis & The Flip Tops (named after the Addis Flip Top Bin). It was all based around the art school in Hull. We couldn’t play very well but we weren’t really bothered because we thought of ourselves more in terms of an art statement than a musical event. Our equipment was all either home-made or stolen. We took the piss out of other bands for their musical aspirations, we wound people up, got in fights and played busted up rock ‘n’ roll and the odd Velvet Underground cover. I wrote songs too but we didn’t start playing them until later on.
trakMARX - You emerged from the London Pub circuit to join the Stiff posse around 1976. How did you get involved with Stiff Records?
Firstly, as I said, I didn’t emerge from the London pub circuit I had nothing whatsoever to do with any of that. Stiff Records did however it was originally set up in part to release a lot of live recordings of pub rock bands from the Hope ‘n’ Anchor where Dave Robinson (one of the founders of Stiff) had a studio. But the music scene was changing and so many new people came along, people like me, that the pub rock stuff got buried and forgotten, which was just as well as far as I was concerned because most of those people were deadly dull and very pleased with themselves.
I didn’t have contacts in the music business or anything like that, I just read about Stiff Records in the Melody Maker and decided to give them a tape of my songs. I was their first cold caller.
I hadn’t really met any professional pop musicians or music business people when I signed to Stiff. I thought they’d be intelligent and enlightened but I was surprised to find how ill educated, unintelligent, bigoted and reactionary a lot of them were, especially the pub rock people. They thought they were an elite because they knew about soul, r ‘n b and country music it never occurred to them that someone like me might know about that too they’d never met anyone quite like me and they didn’t know how to deal with me, so they talked to me as though I was thick which was a bit of a laugh because they didn’t know I had a degree. There were exceptions, like Ian Dury, who I met backstage after a very dull Graham Parker & The Rumour concert at the Victoria Theatre in London. Ian and me became very good friends. He saw what was going on and wrote Clevor Trever which he always said was about me. Later I met the Blockheads and they made a refreshing change, they’d tried everything and seemed very old and wise to me.
trakMARX - Your debut 45 - "Whole Wide World" - remains a classic to this day. What inspired the song & your sound?
My mum really did say that there was only one girl in the world for me and she probably lived in Tahiti. I wanted to write a song like a Kevin Ayers song because he was a great hero of mine. I wanted it to be a beatnik sunshine kind of thing and I was writing it in the shadow of Kevin Ayers songs like Clarence In Wonderland, Take Me To Tahiti, Whatevershebringswesing and Caribbean Moon. Actually I wrote it sitting on a park bench in Hull one evening in 1974 when I was nineteen. I finished it off with a bass guitar and one ear pressed up to the wardrobe (so that I could hear the bass guitar) whilst having a row with a girlfriend. I think the girlfriend was doing all the shouting I was too thrilled at having written my first half decent song. The most thrilling thing was that it worked with only two chords. At the time I was developing a perverse liking for bubblegum records The Ohio Express and the 1910 Fruitgum Company, Yummy Yummy, Simple Simon Says - that sort of thing. It was a reaction to the overblown stuff that bands like Genesis, Emerson Lake & Palmer and Barclay James Harvest were coming out with. I always thought those bubblegum records were a bit classy and later on I found out that it was the Atlanta Rhythm Section playing on most of them, so that’s why.
The sound of Whole Wide World had a lot to do with the Velvet Underground (which I didn’t quite realise at the time) and a sort of late sixties pop thing. Ten years later I told Nick Lowe (the producer) that I didn’t know how he’d done it he said it was me that had done all the hard work, it was after all me that wrote it and sang it. According to him his bit was ‘just the Velvet Underground songbook’. I found that shockingly self-effacing and somewhat surprising I’d never seen a link between Nick Lowe and the Velvet Underground but after that I realised it was everywhere in his stuff. I don’t think it is now though, not on his current stuff.
trakMARX - What are your abiding memories of those halcyon Stiff days touring the country with a bunch of dangerous herberts?
Most of them weren’t particularly herbertish or at all dangerous other than under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Ian Dury had a bit of an edge and once nearly came to physical blows with Elvis Costello’s bass player in the back of the bus. Davey Payne, an ex-Kilburn who played saxophone with me, was an exception - he was extremely dangerous - practically psychotic in his behaviour at times. Ian later nicked him, much to my relief, for the Blockheads. After twenty years of tantrums and unexpectedly flung punches the Blockheads finally let him go in 1998. He hit me once, tried to push me off the front of the stage at the Lyceum, and that was enough for me.
The tour manager was a drug dealer and there was a tour nurse - an American girl who was very popular with the lads most of Elvis Costello & The Attractions fell in love with her - which almost split up the band in mid-tour.
Nick Lowe woke up one morning in a room he was sharing with the drug dealer/tour manager to find the floor covered in blood and broken glass, and the tour manager gone. He'd been whisked off to hospital with the back of his foot hanging off after an offer of a plate of biscuits and a glass of milk from two coke hungry musicians went horribly wrong. One of them hit him over the head with the plate of biscuits, cutting his face, the other threw the glass of milk at him and he almost lost his foot by stepping on the debris. Nick slept right through it. I don’t think anyone else has ever told that story, it’s been suppressed. There was a lot of heavy drinking, drugs and sex, and the occasional outbreak of violence. I think everyone was glad when it was over. I was never the same again.
trakMARX - Your debut LP appeared as a 10" on brown vinyl that is now one of Stiffs most collectable artefacts. Was it a bonus to be making artefacts as well as music?
I never really thought about it in terms of making artefacts, except that I wanted to make records - seven and twelve inch black vinyl things like the ones I’d been collecting since I was a kid. I had a few misgivings about the ten-inch thing at the time and I never really got on with the idea of coloured vinyl and picture discs. But looking at it now I’m beginning to see that it is a bit of a bonus and I’m getting a warm glow all over.
trakMARX - How did it feel having to go up against such talents as Elvis & Dury?
I didn’t really think about it I wished I could write lyrics like Ian Dury - but in a way I think I quietly surpassed him in the end. I know he was always nervous that I would. Ian always had to be top dog and for that reason he went head to head with Elvis Costello. Me, Nick and Larry Wallis just stood back in a drunken haze and watched them battle it out. I’m sure it was really quite unpleasant.
trakMARX - Was there a palpable sense of competition?
trakMARX - Was Costello that far up his own arse back then?
Of course he hadn’t written the symphony back then but only because he hadn’t had time. I’m afraid my enduring impression of him was that he was a clever-dick. I don’t think I ever had a conversation with him. One morning he challenged me to a song-writing race. At lunchtime he came over, announced that he’d written his, and where was mine. I hadn’t bothered - I’d been staring out of the coach window.
trakMARX - You came under great pressure to achieve commercial success as the decade ended. How did that effect your relationship with the music?
It was a real drag. Without actually realising it at the time I’d started doing music of a sort that I didn’t like. I was even listening to music I didn’t like (easily done by the start of the eighties). I bought records that I could hardly bear to listen to. It was a kind of conditioning. In the end I didn’t play music myself, other people did it for me and I sang a bit in between the guitar solos and little blasts of ego. I started off as a weirdo with the odd hook line. I was unselfconciously eccentric, an original. But my talent ended up in the hands of people who had no understanding or vision. It’s an old story and it still holds true today when I listen to the radio most of what I hear is stuff that I’ve somehow heard before, hardly anything original gets through because most people haven’t got the guts for it.
trakMARX - Looking back, was it an opportunity missed or a trauma avoided?
I did a gig with Kevin Coyne the other night. Kevin is adamant that neither of us should think of ourselves as anything other than hugely successful even if just for the fact that we’re both still doing it and pulling in an audience every night.
If you miss one opportunity another comes along. If you’re ready for it you’ll see it and perhaps you’ll take it to where it leads you, otherwise you’ll miss it and then you’ll never know. I’ve met more unhappy famous people than happy ones I’m quite happy these days. Poor but happy - so maybe I have avoided a trauma or two.
trakMARX - By the early 80s you'd retired from the business. Why did the wheels fall off?
One thing I’ve learned is that it’s not necessarily musical talent that’ll get you through in this business, it’s more likely pushiness, an inflated ego and the ability to make and sustain useful contacts. I’m really not very good at that kind of stuff so I tend to get pushed out of the way. It happens less now because I have much more confidence in what I do. By the end of the eighties I’d developed my drink problem to the detriment of the music. I didn’t know whether I was coming or going, and I was tired of meeting arseholes from the music business who promised the earth and delivered nothing (I still am come to think of it). Most people give up the music business because they get sick of demeaning themselves and being poor. I have to concentrate very hard on the music to stay in it. The rest is like deliberately stepping in dog shit.
trakMARX - You returned to active service with the Captains Of Industry in 1984. Tell us a bit about their story.
Eventually I stopped trying to do what I thought was expected of me and started writing lyrics about what was around me, which was the Medway Towns. England in the early eighties, in the grip of Thatcherdom. I got right into it (the writing, not Thatcherism) and curbed my drinking to the point where I was fully functional. Captains Of Industry went through a lot of different versions. First it was Medway locals, then it was a drummer called Dick Adland who used to be in the Pirahnas and a keyboard player called Baz Murphy. Eventually I signed a deal with Go! Discs and Norman Watt Roy and Mickey Gallagher from the Blockheads joined. We made an album, A Roomful Of Monkeys, full of my grim songs about England. Everybody hated it and someone in one of the music papers said, ‘nobody wants to hear this album populated with misfits and morons’. Me and Go! Discs didn’t really get on their slogan was giving the green light to the young lions. Despite their professed socialist leanings and the inclusion of Billy Bragg on their roster there was something slightly Thatcherite about them. The eighties was a big pop star party full of bright young things. I didn’t feel young or bright and I certainly wasn’t in the mood for a party. Ten years later when Pulp came out with Different Class I realised that I’d been doing the right thing with the Captains Of Industry, it’s just that I was out of step with the time.
trakMARX - In 1991 you worked with Die Toten Hosen. How did that come about?
They came to a gig I was doing in Germany in 1991. I’d heard of them years before. In the meantime they’d got very famous and sold loads of records but I didn’t know this. They asked me to play on their album of cover versions and I said I would. I was quite surprised when they offered me serious money and a hotel and everything. The following night I met a girl I knew whose boyfriend was a music journalist. I told her about the Hosen and asked if they were any good had she heard of them. She laughed herself silly. It turned out she was the singer Campino’s sister. I like the Hosen, they’ve got a good spirit and the people in their organisation are all decent, human sort of people. Success hasn’t fucked them up.
trakMARX - Tell us about your interface with Billy Childish & Hangman.
I moved to the Medway Towns in Kent in 1982 owing to the cheap house prices and a bent mortgage. I used to go and see the Milkshakes play. After the Captains Of Industry I formed the Len Bright Combo with Bruce Brand and Russ Wilkins, the former drummer and bassist from the Milkshakes. Obviously I got to know Billy. He was a mouthy drunk in those days but we got on quite well. In some ways he’s bigger than the Medway. It was a stifling scene, it could suck you in. It took me years to shake off the Medway. Creatively it was like being put in a straitjacket. For the most part it was always more of the same though some good things have obviously come out of it. I’ve got a great admiration for Billy at his best, but I’ve always wished he make fewer records and take a bit more care. I don’t think there’s anything laudable about making an album in the shortest time possible in the end that’s not what matters.
trakMARX - You've recently released your 1st long player for some time - Bungalow Hi - which has been favourably reviewed (likened to The Streets wit Gtrs!) & is even available on the racks of HMV!!! Does the fickle finger of
success beckon once again? Have we come full circle?
I very much doubt it. The music business has changed too much for that. If I’d had these kind of reviews twenty-five years ago I’d be on my way to my first million. As it is I’m probably on my way to my second bankruptcy. Nobody’s really selling many albums anymore. It’s probably a good thing because if there’s no money in it the gravy train people are going to jump off and that might free things up a bit. It’s turning into a cottage industry. I made the record in one room, I run the mail order from another and I’ve got boxes of CDs stacked up all over the house. I don’t think I’m going to get rich doing this. In my black moments I sometimes think the best I can hope for is to die before I get to the age when I won’t be receiving any sort of pension. The best I can probably hope for in the long term is abject poverty. But fuck it it’s too late to stop now.
Jean Encoule tMx 17 11/04