Noted painter/woodcut artist Bill Hamper considers music a sideline, a hobby. But don’t tell that to record producer Rollin Slim, or music historian/art director William Loveday (or his colleague, Chatham Jack), Jack Ketch or…Billy Childish. Idiosyncratic dyslexic poet of discontent and disgruntlement, Hamper organized a mutually hateful bunch into the Medway (named for a British river) poets, elevating them into the public eye and even putting the runts on vinyl before their acknowledged distaste for one another melted the union.
In addition to publishing booklets by assorted members of the Medway cartel, Billy’s Hangman imprint has released a library of several dozen volumes of his own introspective/socially accusatory poems and lyrics, plus LPs by various friends and co-conspirators, as well as Link Wray and Billy’s own manifold incarnations. Challenging the accepted corporate policy of attempting to sell 50,000 copies of one LP, the Childish strategy calls for absolute immediacy and absence of polish, constant inspiration (if not innovation) and the release on vinyl — in limited numbers for a decidedly limited (if insatiable and growing) audience — virtually every musical spark, no matter how bright or dull. In other words, 1,000 copies each of 50 different LPs.
Following his stints in the Pop Rivits and the Milkshakes, Billy briefly retreated to svengali status in the Delmonas, but quickly hopped back into the spotlight, and the attendant machiavellian control that had helped drive his partner M. Hampshire from the Milkshakes. As heard on its first 45 and LP, the Mighty Caesars consist of the final ‘Shakes lineup minus Mickey, and sound predictably like the former band, if a bit more ragged and amped up, with one guitar substituting for two. Beware the Ides of March introduces new drummer Del (aka Graham Day of Medway stalwarts the Prisoners/Prime Movers) for a slightly more reserved and crafted set of idiopathic beat punk, with the best track excerpted for the Little by Little EP. The next two albums only hone their spew, with more of a garage pop underpinning; Acropolis Now adds Fay (organ, vocals) from Makin’ Time and Sarah from the Delmonas.
Live in Rome isn’t; reprising past Mighty Caesars’ highlights alongside covers of the Damned, Pistols and Chuck Berry, the exuberant crowd is dubbed in, the spontaneous banter a boozy prank. Wiseblood (released on Wreckless Eric’s label) is rougher (… la the debut), whereas Henry Chinaski (subtitled “Early Demonstration Recordings”) offers some of their loosest and least solicitous performances of material (both familiar and unreleased) from several periods.
Punk Rock Showcase collects fourteen tracks from previous LPs, some of them duplicated on Thusly, Thee Mighty Caesars English Punk Rock Explosion, their US debut, which contains only one new item. John Lennon’s Corpse Revisited (with a Sgt. Pepper “tribute” cover) is all new, all loud, all lewd, all rowdy — a rampant romp of unhinged punk trash. Surely They Were the Sons of God is yet another compilation, and the last Mighty Caesars release to date, with bassist John Agnew discovering a more lucrative career as soundman for the James Taylor Quartet, while “Del” busies himself with the Prime Movers.
Respecting the Caesars’ reputation, Billy retired the name until such time as the band (which all insist has not broken up) finds time to once again play together. In the meantime, Billy has focused on various solo projects, duo projects, one-off projects and the ongoing nonspecific project known as Thee Headcoats. I’ve Got Everything Indeed is pure solo mono blues and rhythm, roll’n’rock in the tradition of Jimmy Reed, but reduced to absolute raw essentials. The 1982 Cassetes [sic] has far more of a demo feel, with painfully ragged tunes more in an acoustic blues vein; the home-recording hiss and screwy levels contribute to the maniacally insular feel, making it perhaps the most personal Childish LP to date, hence the “Warning! You most likely won’t like this record…” i remember fits stylistically (if not chronologically) between these two LPs, riding the Medway rails between rural Mississippi and the urbanized Chicago sound.
Poems of Laughter and Violence is Billy in even more reduced terms, reading his often vitriolic prose alone into a microphone, accompanied only by the sound of pages being turned and liquid being guzzled. Still, this is as possessed and incensed, as naked an LP as any punk classic.
The 10-inch Laughing Gravy reunites Billy with Milkshake/Rivit Russ, again bowing to the blues muse for a mostly relaxed, mostly acoustic set of tunes celebrating Delta traditions.
Which Dead Donkey Daddy? pairs Billy with Medway poet Sexton Ming (likeminded and similarly dyslexic leader of Auntie Vegetable and the Mindreaders and solo artist; B. Childish makes major contributions as musician and vocalist on both of his Hangman LPs), mixing elements of forgotten blues with bleary Beefheartian subversive art, plus two parts all things non-pop and four parts uncaring self-indulgence, with just a niggle of music off in the distance. Plump Prizes and Little Gems is a goofily selfconscious distillation of same, while Ypres 1917 Overture is so perpendicular as to be virtually unfathomable in its mute alleyway operatics to all but its two principals, intent on condemning all war via the microcosm of Verdun.
Elsewhere in history, incompetent British executioner Jack Ketch frequently watched his charges die of strangulation rather than snapped necks and, on at least one occasion, abandoned his beheading axe for a knife after several unsuccessful blows. Reincarnated as a Billy Childish pseudonym (with Bruce Brand and Banana Bertie, for an original Milkshakes reunion minus Mickey Hampshire), the rock on Brimfull of Hate is punk with darkly arty tendencies, riff-simple but psychotically unblinking and devoid of roll.
The Blackhands coalesced after Nicaragua’s Bluefield Express declined Billy’s offer of a UK release on Hangman, prompting him to record his own out-of-tune New Orleans-cum-reggae version. Returning to the blues, Long Legged Baby deposits Billy in front of Sexton Ming and Big Russ for a minor run through familiar territory.
Which brings us to Thee Headcoats. Originally Billy Childish, Bruce Brand and either Alan Crockford (of the Prisoners) or John Agnew, the band’s first LP is like a more assured Mighty Caesars, with punkier punk, trashier trash and a major dollop of solid unadulterated country blues. The Earls of Suavedom is a more obvious LP that echoes past glories, but it is far overshadowed by The Kids Are All Square, which branches into new pop directions. The resurrected Delmonas are here redubbed Thee Headcoatees, and new bassist Ollie Dollar has joined the revolving lineup. Catchy as poison ivy, the uniformly excellent tunes fall into any number of styles, not just the same old blueprints. Beach Bums, an augmented compilation, eschews any stylistic escapades for a pure garage LP, including several remakes with new titles and lyrics (in accepted blues tradition). Heavens to Murgatroyd (its CD “mastered directly from vinyl”) bows in both directions, including new pop wonders alongside updated versions of their own and others’ songs.
Released early in ’91, Childish’s 50 Albums Great (his fiftieth LP only by creative arithmetic) consists mostly of “hits” from various post-Milkshakes phases of his career, plus several new tracks and a Billie Holiday cover, all played raw and solo with and without guitar. Not his best.
In Billy’s words: “Half the songs I steal ideas direct, the other half indirect, which is true of everyone. Sometimes I have an idea of my own…”