Emerging in England on Stiff Records’ initial roster, and with Nick Lowe as his producer, Wreckless Eric (Goulden) greeted the pop world on his first album in 1978 with a grin and a badge proclaiming “I’m a mess.” A drop of the needle on the disc confirms it (in the best possible sense). Led by producer, labelmate and ex-Pink Fairy Larry Wallis, a motley crew (whose previous employers include Ronnie Lane, Marc Bolan and Ian Dury) slosh together some mangy guitars, slurpy sax and cheesy organ to surround the strangled, semi-sodden vocals of this lovable scruffy runt from Brighton on Wreckless Eric. All too often, though, catching the bits of perception and knowing desperation requires clearing the sonic mud, not to mention deciphering Eric’s drawl. All, that is, except on the brilliant “Whole Wide World,” produced and mostly played by Nick Lowe.
As if noticing that Lowe’s well-defined pop sense brought out Eric’s best, a series of producers then tried to clean and dress up his sound. The next album’s lineup is only slightly less rag-tag (Hollywood Brats holdovers and ex-Man man Malcolm Morley), helmed by Pete Solley. This time, though, a balance is struck between Eric’s innate looseness and the clarity and sheer musicality needed to adequately present his tunes. As a result, The Wonderful World is a rollicking good time, propelled by Eric’s trademark guitar chug.
No hits were forthcoming, though, and Stiff apparently decided to clean Eric’s act up further, as is evident from the new-material first half of the double set, Big Smash!. Fresh faces in the band (who also collaborated with him on songwriting) and decidedly more commercial-minded production unfortunately seemed to have sanded off all of the Wreckless edges. (The standout tune, “Good Conversation,” is one he wrote alone; it’s also the nastiest.) Clearly establishing his merits once and for all, the other half of Big Smash! is an irreproachable distillation of the first two LPs and a batch of singles. That disc had previously been issued separately in the US as The Whole Wide World, indicating — even to those who might have otherwise dismissed him — Eric’s surprising resonance, not to mention his squandered and/or squelched potential. (For collectors of odd discs, the first LP was also issued as a brown-vinyl 10-inch, with two songs fewer.)
Dropping the “Wreckless” and reverting to his given name, Goulden returned in 1985 as leader of Captains of Industry, a trio including ex-Blockhead bassist Norman Watt-Roy. The group’s sole release, A Roomful of Monkeys (guest-starring Mickey Gallagher, another former Dury sideman, whose roller-rink organ is actually the most prominent instrument on many tracks), makes it clear that his five-year absence did nothing to dull Eric’s spirit or his talent. Considering that Goulden produced himself, it’s a surprisingly disciplined effort, mixing the craftsmanship of Big Smash with the spontaneity of earlier efforts. With songs that are as pungent as ever (including the uncharacteristically serious reggae-tinged “Food Factory”), Eric sings them confidently (and in tune!). A resounding comeback by an estimable talent; why it wasn’t greeted as such by the British public remains a mystery.
A move abroad in the mid-’80s (later officially characterized as “a nine-year exile living in a shack in the French countryside” spent coming to grips with alcoholism and bankruptcy and mental health problems) did little to dull Goulden’s songcraft, or his imagination in billing his work with confusing invention. Two releases appeared from the Len Bright Combo, an enterprise that naturally involved no one named Len Bright. Their rough and tumble attitude and sonic values owed much to the confluence of Eric with the likeminded rhythm section of ex-Milkshakes. “You’re Gonna Screw My Head Off” and “Someone Must Have Nailed Us Together” are two would-be classics given cleanly played garage-raveup treatment that suits them as well as the pop arrangements on A Roomful of Monkeys. But the lo-fi production makes it sound as if the band was playing in the back of a station wagon while a car driving alongside recorded them through the window.
Though Captains of Industry and the Len Bright Combo demonstrated that Eric had finally gained enough self-control to hone his raw talent into consistently satisfying music without putting himself at the mercy of unsympathetic producers, his subsequent releases make it clear that this was just a phase. Reverting to the Wreckless moniker, Goulden teamed with a French rhythm section to record Le Beat Group Électrique, a casually delivered set that — despite its title — is the most minimalist and least-rocking studio disc in his catalogue. Though it lacks the musical cohesion of the preceding group efforts, it’s a charming little reminder that Eric can still sound like a mess when he’s in the mood. The brief “Fuck by Fuck” could be interpreted as misogynistic, but it’s more likely that Eric’s just trying to be annoying.
The six-song At the Shop! is even sparer, with Eric and his barely audible French sidemen performing live at New Rose’s record store in Paris. Eric sings and strums his way through five originals, including “(Waiting for the Shit) (To Hit the Fan)” and “Big Old World”; the solo acoustic rendition of the Stiff-vintage song “Semaphore Signals,” as well as the two similarly realized CD bonus tracks — “Depression (Version Francaise)” and “Boney Maronie” — were “found in the warehouse.” Eric’s liner notes indicate that he’s finished trying to tailor his music to suit mainstream recording standards. An enjoyable keepsake to be sure, but how far can sloppiness-for-its-own-sake go?
Then, quietly, came The Donovan of Trash, Eric’s first Stateside release in more than a decade. A natural-sounding ease imbues all aspects of the record, from material to arrangements and performance. This is as likably flip as Eric’s ever been; likewise the excellent 12 O’Clock Stereo, the first flowering of the unpretentious Hitsville House Band (Goulden, drummer Denis Baudrillart and bassist Fabrice Lombardo).
In 2003, Eric published his autobiography, A Dysfunctional Success.
The title track that begins Bungalow Hi is offbeat electronica performed on something called solarton oscillator, but that’s the least surprising aspect of an album that scarcely resembles Eric’s past work beyond his undisguisable voice. While it may not explain the echoing samples and ultra-lounge vibey-ness of “Magnificent Party,” the patchwork noises of “The Sound of Your Living Room (Part I)” or “The Sell-By Date”‘s six minutes of floating atmospherics, at least some of what’s going on here may be explained by the subject matter of “33s & 45s,” an anguished and angry breakup song that primarily considers a split’s vinyl implications. Continuing the bummed-out theme, “Continuity Girl” is disconsolate autobiography, and the 10-minute finale, “Housewives,” essentially repeats Betty Friedan’s feminist analysis from the outside. For all the rudimentary home-made sound effects and the rattled tone of the auteur, Bungalow Hi — which strangely bears a trace resemblance to both Syd Barrett’s solo work and mid-period Pink Floyd — is engrossing as a conceptual aural collage born of genuine pain.