The albums listed represent only a portion of the oeuvre produced by Bill Hamper, the iconoclastic bandleader/producer/poet/painter/publisher known, among other pseudonyms, as The/Thee/Wild Billy Childish. Behind the tangled discography lies the singular, if proudly derivative, vision of an Englishman whose insanely prolific output stresses unpolished immediacy over quality control, taking the DIY ethos to ridiculous extremes. Thus has Mr. Childish — working under various band names and in an endless variety of personnel permutations — amassed a huge catalogue of musical products that vary greatly in quality but share a consistent lo-fi passion underlining their creator’s obsessive sense of mission.
Childish first came on the scene in 1979 with the Pop Rivets, a sloppy mod-punk combo whose three self-released studio albums were a lot more enthusiastic than inspired. By 1982, the Pop Rivets had mutated into the (sometimes Thee, initially Mickey and the) Milkshakes, whose energetic garage rock — possessed by the spirit of Bo Diddley, the early Kinks and a legion of obscure no-hit wonders — was considerably catchier and more competently played. Though the Milkshakes’ best work matched the fervor of their influences, the band was equally impressive for the prodigious volume of its output (in 1984, its most productive year, the band released no fewer than seven albums — four of them on the same day). Singer/guitarist Childish and Milkshakes partner Mickey Hampshire also served as behind-the-scenes Svengalis for sister group the Delmonas, who originally convened to sing backup with the Milkshakes and ended up releasing several discs of their own. In the mid-’80s, Childish traded the Milkshakes for the not-dissimilar Thee Mighty Caesars, whose original lineup included the Milkshakes’ rhythm section and maintained a typically prolific output — much of it on Billy’s own Hangman imprint, whose book-publishing arm has issued dozens of volumes of his left-wing poems and rants — through the second half of the decade.
During the Caesars’ lifespan, Childish began churning out solo and side projects, working in a variety of collaborations and under an assortment of assumed names. I’ve Got Everything Indeed and i remember offer his idiosyncratic take on the blues; The 1982 Cassetes consists of even-more-ragged-than-usual early recordings. Poems of Laughter and Violence is a venomous spoken-word effort whose you-are-there ambience is a large part of its appeal. The dodgy 50 Albums Great is a retrospective of sorts, with raw solo remakes of several items from previous releases.
Since 1989, the main vehicle for Billy’s more accessible rock’n’roll impulses has been Thee Headcoats, a trio which includes Pop Rivets/Milkshakes/Mighty Caesars drummer Bruce Brand. The Beached Earls CD combines the vinyl releases Beach Bums Must Die and The Earls of Suavedom for a heaping 30-song helping emphasizing Thee Headcoats’ ’60s garage-trash leanings. With a neat cover by Dan Clowes, Heavens to Murgatroyd (proudly proclaimed to be “mastered directly from vinyl”) and Headcoatitude each feature plenty of catchy R&B/pop numbers. Bo in Thee Garage is a careless but frequently compelling Bo Diddley tribute.
The enjoyable live albums Live! At the Wild Western Room and The Sound of the Baskervilles are split between Thee Headcoats and the all-girl Headcoatees (actually, a reshuffled Delmonas), whose own releases are produced and largely written by Childish and employ Thee Headcoats (for fair play, if no other sake) as their backup group. Other Childish diversions include the Black Hands, a lineup with accordion, banjo and trumpet that plays deceptively bouncy, cheery-sounding music contrasted by Childish’s harsh megaphone-filtered vocals and leftist finger-pointing.
Childish’s continued insistence on making all of his musical whims available to the buying public leaves catalogue-surfing him a very tricky proposition, but careful sifting will reward the effort. Curious neophytes without unlimited free time, cash or patience are immediately recommended to I Am the Billy Childish (subtitled Fifty Songs From Fifty Records), a handy two-CD sampler of numerous outfits throughout the ’80s complete with an extensive (no, make that daunting) discography, a printed interview and samples of Billy’s painting and poetry. The eighteen-track Native American Sampler — previously released Native American-themed cuts by various Childish-led-or-affiliated bands to benefit the tribal-rights organization Survival International — is a decent companion piece.