Graded on a Curve: Wreckless Eric,
The Donovan of Trash

Many stubbornly persist in rating Wreckless Eric as no more than a colorful piece in the late-‘70s UK punk puzzle, but after a few years of retirement he returned to fly underneath the radar in a spectacularly unkempt fashion. Fire Records is doing a fine job of returning his later stuff to print; the latest entry to hit the racks is the terrific ’93 LP The Donovan of Trash.

Those of us reserving a special nook in our musical heart-space demarked with a button/badge reading “If it ain’t Stiff, it ain’t worth a fuck” likely have a tiny subsection cleared out for the work of Eric Goulden, or as he’s better known to rock fans Wreckless Eric. “(I’d Go the) Whole Wide World,” the plug end of his ’77 Stiff 45, is one of the grandest chunks of melodic emo-tug produced by the original punk wave, and “Semaphore Signals” is far from a meager B side.

Due to appearances in films, numerous cover versions and frequent inclusion on homemade (and amorously inclined) mix-tapes, “(I’d Go the) Whole Wide World” remains right up to this very second, and by a wide margin, the man’s most well-known song. It’ll probably always be that way. Anybody that’s heard it should quickly understand this is no terrible injustice, even as the level of involvement by fellow Stiff signee Nick Lowe (he produced and reportedly played much of the music on the tune) steals a bit of Eric’s thunder.

For unlike Lowe and label-mates Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, and Madness, Eric’s punk-era commercial fruits were minor (if not necessarily fleeting), and in fact he’s still occasionally wrongly appraised as a minimally talented English oddball. Disproving that notion rather easily is his eponymous long-playing debut and its follow-up The Wonderful World of Wreckless Eric, both from ’78.

I haven’t encountered the 2LP Big Smash! in a couple of decades or more, but I recall the smoother material from its first two sides being a disappointment, and the lack of success sent Eric into retirement for about five years. When he chose to come back, he did so (briefly) under his real name (with ex members of Dury’s Blockheads in tow) as leader of the outfit the Captains of Industry, but more interesting, to these ears anyway, are the two albums he cut as part of the Len Bright Combo.

The Len Bright Combo included nobody named Len Bright; the moniker was instead a humorous nod to the perceived greener pastures of the UK Beat rock period, a circumstance greatly underscored by the union of Eric with former Milkshakes Russ Wilkins and Bruce Brand. In a swell development Fire Records reissued the ’86 efforts The Len Bright Combo Present the Len Bright Combo by the Len Bright Combo (with the adapted title Wreckless Eric Presents…) and Combo Time! last year for a whole new generation of garage lovers.

And that pair delivers a major statement, for the Combo had a firm grasp on an aesthetic at once anachronistic and infused with punkish vigor, though in doing it themselves without fuss they were essentially doomed to future cult status. But Eric didn’t stop there and happily for us neither has Fire, the label giving us fresh rereleases of his next two full-lengths, ‘89’s Le Beat Group Electrique (which marked the return of the Wreckless handle) and ‘93’s The Donovan of Trash.

They are each highly worthy of attention. The first was waxed shortly after Eric’s move to France following the Combo’s breakup; it finds him loose, tuneful and spiritedly out of time. Originally issued by the French label New Rose (one guess from whence that name derives), an imprint that specialized in the mingling of roots and grit in a vacuum of sophistication, Le Beat Group Electrique holds flashes of pre-stardom Beatles, Jonathan Richman, Syd Barrett, Bobby Fuller, and the stripped-down side of Robyn Hitchcock. But mostly it’s like Wreckless Eric in a more introspective and less rocking mode.

The Donovan of Trash does rock, but in such a disheveled and indeed trashy manner that in contrast to 15 years prior, any pop chart potential Eric might’ve absorbed was absolutely zilch, though in truth his actual ‘70s commercial fortunes are sometimes overstated. “(I’d Go the) Whole Wide World” didn’t chart; it was his first LP and Big Smash! that landed him in the midsection of the UK album lists.

Pressed up in the UK in ’93 by Hangman (Fire’s version retains the unique look of Eric’s block printing) and in the US by Sympathy for the Record Industry, The Donovan of Trash was a decidedly underground affair, and as the shambling opener “Birthday Blues” makes plain, one that additionally lacked the possibility of getting swept up in the decade’s currents of alt/indie.

Driven by Eric’s ragged but gripping voice, his simple acoustic strumming, a dinky organ maintaining wondrously slack ties to the original ‘50s R&R impulse, and just a hint of a stand-up bass beneath it all, “Birthday Blues” is a tough kernel of the sort of gorgeous garbage many thought was dead and buried below a quarter century’s worth of erudition.

That’s not to infer that Eric’s indulging in a narrow retro tip, for “Duvet Fever” is hazy folk-rock with a strong backbone and twists of pop and psychedelia (think Syd). But the most revelatory track on The Donovan of Trash (at least in terms of reinforcing Eric’s born-in-the-wrong-era charm) is “Joe Meek,” a loving tribute to the eccentric but effective and enduring pre-Beatles Brit producer.

And it’s a musically appropriate one to boot, sporting the basic but bursting fidelity and curious instrumentation that makes it sound like it could’ve derived from the hands of its very subject. To elaborate, the disc was made in a rural French farmhouse and village dancehall using a Teac ¼” four track tape recorder and a WEM Audiomaster mixing desk along with two-track tape machines and other “discarded studio junk.”

From there “The Consolation Prize” is reminiscent of an adenoidal English Jon Richman exploring an achy pop-Dylan angle with striking aggressiveness; it’s amongst the tunes that’ll surely separate the late-period Wreckless Eric partisans from the detractors. Next, the chugging mid-tempo of “Semi-Porno Statuette” keeps the Meek-ian strains and blends them with a very comely early-‘80s Brit DIY punk vibe. By the end Eric’s ranting is hanging on the razor’s edge of unhinged, and the offices of Stiff are very far away.

Things take a serious turn with the anti-authoritarian “School,” (“school is a place where you learn to keep your mouth shut while they close down your mind” “I asked questions/they told me to button my lip/so I didn’t say anything/and they told me I was stupid”), revealing a shared background with Childish (and certainly thousands of others), though structurally it roughly examines a Sun-era Johnny Cash template while simultaneously embodying the antithesis of tightness and throwing in a kazoo chorus of “Silent Night” just to piss off any music instructors possibly lingering on the fringes.

On the Sympathy CD release (and as part of Fire’s current MP3 download) “The Extra Bonus Track” found Eric ably affecting record exec pomposity as the music simulates a faux-beatniky aura behind him. Back then it registered as a dose of anti-tech based humor lampooning audiophiles and a bogus Cracker Jack-prize compact disc promotional strategy, but in the present tense it fits snuggly into the atmosphere offered by the LP’s titular theme.

As litter-strewn as it can get here however, don’t be surprised if the ‘60s pop meets ‘70s snot (aka the Ramones recipe) of “The Nerd-Turkey Song” triggers a bout of inspired singing in unison. Then the lyrically expansive and fairly lengthy “Lureland” reengages with the folky, the number loaded with strum and swelling organ as Eric unloads his imagery. And from there a tangent; “Harry’s Flat” introduces a fiddle to the scene and along the way this jaunty tune impressively mixes Hot Jazz and honky-tonk into the punk ambiance.

“Haunted House” continues to riff on the spirit of Joe Meek, and the song’s air can also be assessed as dollar store Phil Spector. What a bargain! “If It Makes You Happy” is a rough pop diamond, and the sound of faltering tape at the end leads us to the closer, the comparatively sprightly and together “Paris in June,” even as the mouth harp howl that emerges halfway through is indicative of Eric’s true course.

Make no mistake, this record (and Wreckless Eric’s music overall) sounds truly splendid with a handful of spirited nips under one’s metaphorical belt, though I’m in no way inferring that teetotalers won’t also enjoy its pleasures. And if the title seems a tad hyperbolic, taking it for a few spins makes the self-proclamation from a Hamburg beer hall stage that gives the album its name seem like the most natural statement in the world.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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