“My favourite criticism of what I do is that I only do one thing and it’s all the same,” laughs Billy Childish. “But I write novels and poetry, do blues, country, punk rock, rock’n’roll, some vague psychedelia, and I’m a painter. Just because I’m interested in the elemental in all aspects of life doesn’t mean that it’s one element, it’s the elemental within anything. It’s like cooking – if your basic ingredients are good, you don’t need fancy sauce.”
42 years into his career, the Chatham singer and guitarist is currently rehearsing his CTMF group for gigs in Margate and the US, and working on short stories and a novel (“I’ve done about 18 drafts over the last few years”), but he takes a couple of hours out to talk Uncut through nine of the finest albums from his vast discography. From Troggs-inspired rock’n’roll and Great War song cycles to the very fine new CTMF record, Last Punk Standing, these selections are raw, vital and in line with his favoured musical traditions.
“Musicians are ten-a-penny – I’m not one of them!” he says. “I can appreciate musicianship, but there’s something else that needs to be found. I’m not saying that we’ve found it, but that’s what I’ve wasted a lot of my life looking for!”
WALL CITY, 1983
Childish’s second group, after the punky Pop Rivets – heavily inspired by The Beatles’ Star Club set
BILLY CHILDISH: Big Russ [Wilkins, bass] used to work at a television repair shop and they had an old garage out the back where we used to rehearse. We’d often record backing tracks onto our Revox half-track machine, then take them to the studio and pop some vocals on. It circumnavigated the difficulties of working in studios at the time – they all had this obsession with ‘proper recording’, which meant making everything sound as processed as possible, with very little life or energy left. The obsession we’ve always had is with sound. That’s what I’m interested in in music – not so much songs, but sound. Our friend Hansi [Johann ‘Hansi’ Steinmetz], who The Milkshakes met out in Germany, was inspired by the way we did things, so when he moved to Berlin he set up his own one-man label, Wall City Records. As a favour to him we let him release this. [‘Producer’] Karl Valentin is a real person, I think he was a German comic from the ’20s. Because we always listed the producers on our records as British comedians, like Tony Hancock, we needed a German comedian for this one, so we asked Hansi for someone from back in the day! “Love Can Lose” was one of the very first songs I ever wrote. Me and my girlfriend at the time used to be really into these teenage angst comics for girls. One story was called ‘Love Can Lose’, I seem to remember.
THEE MIGHTY CAESARS
This heavy trio’s finest moment is arguably this raw LP, with “You Make Me Die” especially ferocious
Acropolis Now, haha! You can take that back to one of my favourite books, Heart Of Darkness. The Troggs were a big influence on Thee Mighty Caesars – I’ve always loved The Troggs and I used to love winding up Beatles fans by arguing that the great band of the ’60s were The Troggs and not The Beatles. By this time we were solely using the Revox G36 to record in the very small basement of the terraced house I was living in. I was using this strange talkback mic for the guitar, and the drums and bass are being recorded on one other microphone on the other track. Then we’d just drop a vocal in on top of that. We’d often put really good guitarists in on drums, because we didn’t really want to showcase people’s dexterity or ability, we were just trying to get the energy of the song across. People told us we weren’t utilising our best strengths, but what we were trying to do was serve the song. You’re meant to serve the song, not impose yourself on it or show the next-door neighbour how clever you are. That solo on “You Make Me Die”, I like that. Steve from Mudhoney asked if I could show him how I played it. I said, “Well, it’s quite difficult…” I play very heavy-handed with a heavy plectrum – the most strings I ever broke in one hit was four – so in “You Make Me Die”, I hit the E and B strings off the bridge [by accident]. And that good part of the solo is me trying to hook the strings back on the bridge! I try and impersonate it sometimes when we play live, but it’s a masterstroke, never to be repeated, up there with the best of Jimi Hendrix…
BILLY CHILDISH & SEXTON MING
YPRES 1917 OVERTURE – VERDUN OSSUARY (FOR PIANO AND HARMONIUM)
A lo-fi poetry/concept piece, inspired by Ivor Cutler and the First World War
This was recorded on the Revox, in the kitchen of this slummish house I used to rent for £20 a month. I bought a harmonium off someone for £30 and we had that in there. Sexton and I were working on our nursery rhymes, we both liked absurd poetry, Edward Lear and that sort of thing, and Sexton was into Ivor Cutler which I’d never heard. I think I was messing around on the pump organ and I probably thought that some of it sounded quite doomish. And I had bought this book published in the ’20s, a book of photographs of the World War One dead and the ossuary where all the dead are kept in Verdun; I thought, ‘Well, Verdun Ossuary is a very good title for an album, and this organ is definitely channelling the dead, so let’s make a record.’ I think a couple of other people wandered in – Jamie Taylor down the road played some piano and I played a broken cello he had. Kyra [De Coninck, Childish’s then partner] was doing the washing-up while we were recording, and we had all of these weird noises coming from the sink, so we thought, ‘That doesn’t matter, that’s part of the Great War as well!’ The foot pedals on the pump organ sounded like lungs sucking, which is where we got the idea for the gas theme – it sounded like someone dying because the bellows were so shot!
A female counterpart to Childish’s ’90s group The Headcoats, covering The Beatles and The Kinks
Sarah [Crouch, aka Lubella Black], who was in The Delmonas, the sort of girlfriends group of The Milkshakes, did some backing vocals with the Caesars. When Thee Headcoats were going, I said, “Why don’t we have a girl version of the group?” Holly [Golightly] was dating Bruce the drummer, so we said, “Well, we’ve got Sarah, Holly can sing…” And then we got Kyra, who was my girlfriend, who’d never sung before. Then Johnny, who was playing bass, was dating Debbie [Green], so she was in the group by default as well. We booked a studio, learnt some tunes and took them in. If you want to get a lift when you’re hitchhiking, it’s best to hide in the bushes and send your girlfriend out, and the cruel reviewing world suggested that’s what we were doing [with this album], but I’m not sure! They only slated us for not sounding like The Smiths… Covering The Beatles’ “Run For Your Life”, that would almost certainly have been Sarah’s idea, if she’s singing it. Sarah realised she could do that Nancy Sinatra thing on it.
THE MESSERSCHMITT PILOT’S SEVERED HAND
DAMAGED GOODS, 1988
Recorded in a day, this late Headcoats efforts is a dark, aggressive set which includes a humorous jab at the NME
We were going in to record an album at a studio down the road, but the fella’s wife went into labour so we couldn’t go. So I just took the Revox into the little rehearsal space at the back of the house, and scribbled out some lyrics and some little tunes that we recorded as we went along. Unusually, I put the vocals on live too. Virtually every album I’ve done has been recorded on a Selmer 15 amp I bought a million years ago, and that had to take both the vocal and the guitar through it, which means you have to have a very low level on the guitar to make the vocal audible. I’m very interested in having low levels on the guitar, being unimpressive – and people would probably say that I’d achieved that quite successfully [laughs]! It’s got quite violent, weird lyrics, some of this album. [The title track is] based on a story from my father when he was a boy: he saw some kids playing football with a Messerschmitt pilot’s severed hand. I also used to be into archaeology round here when I was 14 – out in the marshes we found some bits of an old Heinkel engine, and some older guys I knew had seen this plane blown up over the Medway. This thing got a direct hit in the bomb bay and was blown from lower Gillingham to Sheerness, and they said that dogs were bringing in bits of human flesh for a good few weeks afterwards. When we released “We Hate The Fuckin’ NME”, we got really slated by a couple of NME journalists, namely Johnny Cigarettes, but we had other people who put the song on their answerphones. I consider that we were on the side of the NME workers, not against them! I found it amusing. Everything we put out into the world, it’s nothing to do with what people want, it’s what I think is classy behaviour – like, if I heard that someone else had done it, would I think it was funny? That’s the rule of thumb.
BILLY CHILDISH & HOLLY GOLIGHTLY
WABANA ORE, 1999
Channelling the drones of John Lee Hooker and Bo Diddley, this collaboration is an overlooked one-chord classic
There were a couple of songs I was writing towards the end of Thee Headcoats which were inspired by Bo Diddley’s “Mama Keep Your Big Mouth Shut”, where you’ve got 12-bar music that doesn’t even bother [changing chord]. I got really into the idea of how you could do a song without having a key change or doing the 12-bar. Then I probably thought of the [slogan] for the album, ‘One Chord! One Song! One Sound!’, which harkens back to some dodgy ideologies, as does the title In Blood in a way. I think this has got two or three really good songs on it, which is actually what I aim for with every record – it doesn’t matter how hard you work, that’s all you can ever get out of a record, so it’s not worth sweating it. When I was a kid I was in charge of thinking up games, so when I’m changing group names and projects, that’s the next game. Really it’s just entertainment for myself and my friends, there’s no other goal. And with In Blood, I thought, ‘I really want to do this.’ This was recorded on the Revox too, at May Road, a little terrace half a mile from where I am now.
WILD BILLY CHILDISH & THE CHATHAM SINGERS
DAMAGED GOODS, 2005
A spirited country-blues excursion, featuring Graham Coxon and Childish’s wife Julie Hamper
The Chatham Singers were based around my interest in early blues. I thought, ‘Well, Jim [Riley, engineer at Ranscombe Studio] is a phenomenal harmonica player, my wife’s really into country music which I don’t know a lot about, she can sing a few songs…’ Graham Coxon’s on two or three tracks on this, like “Angel Of Death”. That was recorded at Boundary Road in the kitchen. I did annoy Graham a bit – I said, “You can play this bit because it’s a bit country.” We had a go, and then we recorded it, and Graham would do it a bit better each time. I said, “No! Stop letting me know you can play guitar, I don’t want to know.” I think he got a bit peeved with me hamstringing him. I’ve always liked Graham. Julie [Hamper, Childish’s wife] and I have been discussing going in and doing a blues-country album again. I’ve got to knock together a couple of blues tunes first, at least get some lyrics down. The great thing about the way we work is that we’re not making anything for any particular audience, there’s no-one to please.
WILD BILLY CHILDISH & THE SPARTAN DREGGS
TABLETS OF LINEAR B (The Siege Of Thebes, Prologue Part The 1st)
DAMAGED GOODS, 2012
Childish teams up with one of his favourite singers, Neil Palmer, for this album – free with coupons from two others
Neil was in The Fire Dept, who are my favourite group. We wanted to get him recording again, so we did The Vermin Poets with him, but that wasn’t working because I didn’t get enough control. So I said to Neil, “We’ll do Billy Childish & The Spartan Dreggs. I’ll write the stuff with you, you’ll be the singer and it’ll be all about you, but I’ll be doing the arranging and decision-making.” So we did a few albums, and this is some of my favourite stuff we’ve done. Then I said to Neil, “Nobody wants another Spartan Dreggs album, so why don’t we do three?” My idea was that if you bought the first two and cut off the corners you’d get a free album. I was doing this as a favour to record collectors who want rare things, which of course meant that we could never make any money because you’ve got to give everyone a free album. It was a thankless endeavour! The songs were written in the studio, mainly – we’d bat out some lyrics or I’d get chunks of The Iliad or corrupted versions of Housman poems and we’d bat them back and forth until it looks like lyrics. It’s classics for the everyday man, educational rock’n’roll! “The Sir John Hawkins Memorial Car Park” is named after the Sir John Hawkins car park in Chatham… it’s a really horrible car park, they destroyed a big central part of the town, and then named it after this famous Elizabethan slaver! [laughs] That’s where we park my old Volvo.
LAST PUNK STANDING
DAMAGED GOODS, 2019
Wah wah! The Velvet Underground! The latest from Childish’s current outfit is 14 tracks of streamlined, psychedelic punk
I had quite a serious nervous breakdown last year, which made me put the breaks on everything. I was on drugs for a little while, but I quickly got off the medication and got painting and writing songs again. I think this might be one of the strongest albums we’ve done. We recorded about three albums’ worth – usually I go for uniformity, so it all sounds like it was done in one go, but this time I decided to go for the opposite and have these real changes of mood and feeling. One track even sounds like The Velvet Underground, which is not something I’ve been interested in or even listened to. It’s usually like, ‘Well, we’ve got to go in the studio the next day, so I’d better write a song’, so I sit down in the evening when Julie goes up to bed, and then in the morning we go down the studio and I play the song to them and we record it. I wrote a couple of love songs for Julie, like “You’re The One I Idolize”, and I don’t do too many of them. “Everything Intensifies” has a very strong resemblance to “The Plan”, by Richard Hell, who I really admire. Ideally I like ideas to sneak up on me, but sometimes you have to slog away – some songs take six months to write. When we’ve been playing live recently we’ve done “We’re Gone”, from Thee Headcoats’s 1990 album, and that’s got wah-wah on it. Seeing as I’d bought one I thought I may as well use it on [new song] “Like An Inexplicable Wheel”. But you wouldn’t believe the fooling around we do in the studio, and how I annoy Jim with my requirements. It can sometimes take a lot of messing about to make something sound like it’s not been messed about with.