Wild Billy Childish is such a prolific figure in a wide range of artistic fields that it’s well nigh impossible for one mortal to assess the entirety of his output. And this statement applies to his musical activities as well, for he’s been the impetus for the manufacture of so many records that it’s a safe bet no one human being owns a copy of them all. One of his best bands was Thee Mighty Caesars, a trio that combined Childish’s love of hard-edged UK Freakbeat, no-nonsense garage-rock, and the back to basics oomph of ’77-punk, and one of that trio’s best showings was the 1990 7-inch “Cowboys Are Square” b/w “Ain’t Got None.”
Writer, painter, musician, filmmaker, publisher; Billy Childish has worked in a variety of forms for so long now that to focus on his recorded output is to short shrift him in a huge fashion. Childish (born Steven John Hamper, December 1, 1959) isn’t a rocker who dabbles in other forms; he’s a multi-media force of nature. In fact, a very sound argument can be made that his paintings, poems, and novels have had a bigger impact on the culture than has his role as singer, guitarist, and general instigator of no-nonsense mania in the bands Pop Rivets, Thee Milkshakes, Thee Mighty Caesars, Thee Headcoats, Buff Medways, and most recently Spartan Dreggs.
The reason mainly comes down to Childish’s categorization as a garage rocker. It’s a tag that’s certainly true, but it also misses a big part of the point regarding how he uses that platform. For starters, where nearly all of the ‘80s garage bands, a bunch that so often got erroneously assessed as being his peer group, were attempting to replicate the look and capture a sound that’s best summed up as deriving from the Nuggets compilation series, a definite retro-minded impulse on the whole, Childish instead targeted a UK-based ‘60s sound; a little early Mod, a whole lot of tough Freakbeat, a touch of upstart white-boy blues rocking, all with the intention of extending it into an ‘80s milieu that was drenched with an upswing of professionalism.
Childish is the direct opposite of that ideal, being one of rock music’s great amateurs. And lots of folks, even those that like him, hear his stuff and pigeonhole it as the sound of a guy doggedly determined to mine an out-of-date sensibility in the opposition of trends and changing times, a sort of musical Luddite, but that’s only partially accurate. Instead of just thumbing his nose at contemporary musical developments, Childish identified in the records made by those ‘60s bands a certain working class ethos, the aesthetic of the Underdog, a stripped down energy that synchs up perfectly with the unschooled nature of his writing and painting. He wasn’t stamping his foot and refusing to accept change, but rather identifying a tradition and bringing it forward with single-minded intensity.
And it makes total sense that he gained his bearings in the unruly atmosphere of ‘70s punk. The Pop Rivets, made up of Childish on vocals, first Will Power and then longtime cohort Bruce Brand on guitar, Big Russ Wilkins on bass, and Little Russell Lax on drums, was one of a manic influx of youthful outfits high on the fumes of rock ‘n’ roll’s liberation, chalking up two LPs of rudimentary mayhem in ’79, Greatest Hits and Empty Sounds From Anarchy Ranch, before dissoving amidst the encroaching sophistication of the next decade. If they burned brief, their discography also holds a live album and a collection of demos, providing more sonic meat than the average punk-era fly-by-nights.
In The Pop Rivets, Childish was openly influenced by the fine motions of Mark Perry’s quite underrated band Alternative TV, a connection that’s lingered into his later material. But another point of reference was The Beatles circa Live! at the Star Club, an inspiration made plain by the Rivets’ opening cover of “Hippy Hippy Shake” on Live in Germany ’79. This love of the formative years of The Beatles, four working class guys intoxicated by the beauty and possibilities of early rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues, became further manifest in Childish’s next band Thee Milkshakes, formed with Brand, bassist Mark Gilbert (briefly, for Wilkins was soon back in the fold), and guitarist Mickey Hampshire. And it was with this group that Billy first began brandishing his own guitar to fine results.
Thee Milkshakes’ unwavering garage-gauged Merseybeat is probably the closest Childish came to fitting the label of a merely retro-focused musician. But they were so insanely prolific (fourteen albums in under half a decade), individual in orientation (nobody else sounded close to these guys at the time, or later for that matter) and just downright tuneful that once heard it was very hard not to like them, particularly because they didn’t seem to be trying very hard to be liked. They just offered up their wares and if you dug it, well then welcome to the club.
An interesting aspect of Thee Milkshakes was the general absence of punk snarl. In the eyes of the band punk had essentially been killed by commercial concerns that were antithetical to its essence, so instead of trying to pump life into the carcass, they instead looked backward and revamped a sound that was in no danger of being seized and weakened by attempts at cracking the pop market. But by the middle of the decade, Childish was itching to turn it up and let it loose, which meant goodbye to Thee Milkshakes and hello to Thee Mighty Caesars, a scrappy trio that settled into the membership of Childish, bassist John Agnew (a later period Milkshake), and drummer Del, aka Graham Day.
But rather than just reverting back to a model reminiscent of The Pop Rivets, the Caesars grappled with a rough mid-‘60s UK sound that was remindful of Downliners Sect and the wilder moments of the early Kinks, infusing it with just enough ’77-ish rawness to make it contemporarily relevant. Not a throwback, but instead three guys delivering the sheer gut punch of another era right to the doorstep of the highfalutin present. And it was a sound that was impossible to fake; to bring it across required a love of basic, unvarnished rock ‘n’ roll not as one of many great things, but indeed as the greatest thing going.
The band’s recordings initially appeared via such labels as Big Beat (Beware the Ides of March), Milkshakes Records (Thee Mighty Caesars, Acropolis Now, Thee Caesars of Trash) and Ambassador (Wise Blood). The real breakthrough in the states came through an association with Tim Warren’s Crypt Records, a militantly garage-centric imprint that was the prime source for unkempt ‘60s r ‘n’ r action across the period of the Caesars’ existence and beyond. First came the killer ’88 compilation English Punk Rock Explosion!! A year later John Lennon’s Corpse Revisited appeared, and suddenly Billy Childish’s name was on the lips of discerning garage mavens from sea to shining sea, a rather intense group of individuals that scrambled furiously in their attempt to hear everything the guy put to vinyl.
A tough mission, for it seemed that every week or so another Childish-led record hit the racks, adding heft to his already massive discography. One especially fine example was the “Cowboys Are Square” b/w ”Ain’t Got None” 45 on the Pittsburgh based garage label Get Hip. By 1990, Thee Mighty Caesars had cooked their potent stew to a delectable taste of uncommon intensity, caring not a bit for a reverence to period trappings, opting instead for a raucous pummel that placed them at the forefront of punk-minded concerns that was set to explode in this new decade through the work of bands like The Mummies.
On the A-side, Day whacks the skins with a furious abandon that surely recalls the bruising approach of Bob Bennett from ‘60s kingpins The Sonics, but the guitars tap into a unsubtle din that felt ripped from the annals of primo late-‘70s throttle ala Raw Records of the UK. As such, it was louder and more aggressive than just about anything from the era that got labeled as garage, a stream that while often likeable was definitely a little well mannered and a lot calculated.
And it’s not that “Cowboys Are Square” doesn’t also possess a bit of calculation, it’s just that Childish and Co. elected not for the aura of time warp, opting to prove their brand of low-flash, high-energy racket was the best game in town. And in terms of uncut non-hardcore punk from around this period, it’s kinda hard to argue that they weren’t, for nearly all of that stuff was flogging a dead horse (and so too was the HC-oriented junk). By contrast Billy, John, and Del were riding three strapping thoroughbreds through the muck of bad decisions and heading directly into the halls of punk brilliance.
Maybe the biggest point of difference comes down to Childish’s vocals. Rather than adopt the tropes of the post-’77 belter, something he’d left behind in The Pop Rivets, he chose to carry forward the tradition of rock singer. As punk vocalists became burdened with how to make rage believable, frequently sounding ridiculous as a result, Wild Billy instead imbued his work with a soulfulness that hasn’t aged a bit because it already sounded classic at the time. And he really is a fine, non-showoffy singer.
But “Cowboys Are Square”’s lyrics are the icing on the song’s cake. A celebration of Native Americans and a rude dismissal of the cult of the rootin’ tootin’ cowboy, it’s a song I’ve listened to every year around Thanksgiving for a long as I’ve owned the single. Not out of disdain for the holiday but simply as a reminder of the realities of the past. For remembering the darker aspects of our history and championing the victims of strife is an essential part of really giving thanks in the present; otherwise it risks becoming just another empty ritual.
And “Cowboys Are Square” rocks to the rafters, designed to make a body and mind feel good. B-side “Ain’t Got None,” a blistering lament on the theme of money (specifically the lack thereof), utilizes mauling, early Kinks-like power-chords and intensity to the same effect. It makes this single a double-sided monster in the labyrinthine progression of Childish’s lifework, a 45 that can likely be picked up second hand for not too much scratch since it thankfully wasn’t a conceived as a limited edition.
Next was Thee Headcoats, a somewhat broader exercise into the trio style that was Thee Mighty Caesars’ stock in trade. That group brought Childish his biggest increase in notoriety via a deal with Sub Pop. And along with Thee Headcoats the label also issued a 2CD sampler I Am the Billy Childish and a benefit LP for indigenous peoples The Billy Childish Native American Sampler – A History 1983-1993, a record that focuses upon the Native American influence on Billy’s work. “Cowboys Are Square” is on that record, but I’ve never located “Ain’t Got None” anywhere else but on the flip of this 7-inch. It’s just one killer amongst many in the work of Wild Billy Childish, but it’s one I’d not want to do without.
(RE)GRADED ON A CURVE: