Graded on a Curve:
Thee Headcoats, Elementary Headcoats: The Singles 1990–1999

Celebrating Billy Childish on his 62nd birthday.Ed.

Wild Billy Childish has played in many bands, with Thee Headcoats arguably the biggest. Flaunting ’60s beat rock swagger, ‘70s punk energy, and a prole-art thrust of unquestionably British persuasion, for roughly a decade the trio of Childish (guitar and vocals), Johnny Johnson (bass), and Bruce Brand (drums) produced an unrelenting stream of material. Keeping up with it all could be a daunting task, but Elementary Headcoats: The Singles 1990-1999 admirably sequences 50 tracks across two compact discs or three vinyl records; first issued in 2000, and back in print through Damaged Goods.

Author, poet, painter, photographer, filmmaker, publisher, and of course musician: Chatham, Kent, UK’s Billy Childish remains a crucial figure in various movements, and foremost amongst them is punk rock. By the formation of Thee Headcoats in 1989 he was already a veteran of a half-dozen outfits, the most well-known being the Pop Rivets, The Milkshakes, and Thee Mighty Caesars.

In sonic terms Childish is oft and fairly categorized as an indefatigable extender of the garage impulse, but just as importantly he can be assessed as an exponent of Brit DIY, a phenomenon linked to the rallying cry from the b-side of the Desperate Bicycles’ ’77 single- “it was easy, it was cheap—go and do it!” Scores took the advice either directly from the Bikes or through inspired peers, and subsequently Wild Billy’s activities gushed more abundantly than any industry would deem appropriate; in 1984 The Milkshakes released four albums…on the same day.

Childish’s longevity is largely defined by a constant tinkering with inspired simplicity. Proving impervious to fashion, he’s influenced numerous trendsetters along the way, and folks considering punk as an era or phase rather than an undefeatable style are likely to rank him as a curiosity or a fly-in-the-ointment. His racket is well summed-up by a verse from Alternative TV’s “Action Time Vision,” a tune tackled by Thee Headcoats in ’93 and one of this set’s highpoints: “Quarter notes don’t mean a thing/Listen to the rhythm, listen to us sing.”

Elementary Headcoats’ assorted cover selections can provide handy insight for the newbie, a pair of Link Wray borrowings vital to understanding the trio’s encompassing of garage norms. “Fat Back” was on Wray’s ’78 Chiswick LP Early Recordings, surely an eye-opener for UK punks of the moment, while “Comanche” is a doorway into Childish’s interest in/advocacy of indigenous global cultures; Sub Pop collectors may recall the laudable benefit compilation The Billy Childish Native American Sampler – A History 1983-1993.

The Wray entries join with a swank version of Bo Diddley’s “Sad Sack” to nicely underline a love of potent pre-Mop-top R&R, though broadening this unsurprising scenario are a couple of nods in the direction of the Fab Four, the better of the two being a reading of Bill Haley-defectors The Jodimars’ “Clarabella.” Part of the fledgling Beatle-book as found on ‘94’s Live at the BBC, the’97 Headcoats recording is no surprise given Childish’s fondness for the Star Club/Hollywood Bowl live stuff.

The second Beatles nab accentuates the band’s humorous side, “Help” getting saturated in Brit eccentricity as Billy embodies a character seemingly trapped in leaky commode. It’s an enhancing diversion, but the majority generally sticks around the beat rock/punk rock neighborhood cited above; the group initially brandished a lean Brit R&B/blues angle.

Occasional gestures toward US-based ‘60s garage do emerge as Elementary Headcoats progresses. The Seeds’ “No Escape” adds a hint of Nuggets as it smartly retains Daryl Hooper’s keyboard vibe, and also included are two rips into “Louie Louie,” or actually three if one counts (and one should) “Louie Riel,” a rewrite concerning the controversial 19th century Canadian resistant leader/folk hero.

To rate this trifecta as redundant variations upon a theoretically exhausted chestnut misses the point. The mode of operation was about termitically inhabiting a sound and then barreling forth; if the last limited edition 45 was elusive, don’t worry, another will be out soon. And “Louie Riel” welcomes Thee Headcoatees (featuring ex-Delmona Ludella Black, Kyra LaRubia, “Bongo” Debbie Green, and most famously Holly Golightly) to the program.

Childish has an expressed preference for the earlier output of his influences, and two of the punk-era swipes appropriately derive from debut singles, specifically Johnny Moped’s hard-charging pub-rock-tinged “No One” for Chiswick and The Lurkers’ “Shadow,” a Ramones-inflected stomper notable as the inaugural release on Beggars Banquet.

Both are from ‘77, the year of the Pop Rivets’ arrival; “Action Time Vision” dates from ‘78 and was Alternative TV’s third 7-inch. The triad underscores a desire for urgency over sophistication as inspirations get hammered out with nary a trace of undue reverence. It’s an aura extending to collaboration, as ‘60s beat group the Downliners Sect are made proper and appealingly casual partners.

Landing near the impromptu and eschewing calculated self-congratulation, Thee Headcoats Sect bears the Diddley-descended fruit of “She’s Got a Strange Attractor” and a swell update of Downliners’ original “Be a Sect Maniac.” They also nudge toward the sense of humor mentioned previously, a disposition further explored by Thee Headcoats during the braggadocio of “The Earl of Suave” and more substantially in the Sherlockian role-playing of “Dear Watson” and “Headcoat Lane.”

There’s no shortage of punkish temperament as “(We Hate the Fuckin’) NME” evades sour grapes to endure as a declaration of principles from a decade that fostered rising interest in Childish’s work. And anger turns darkly autobiographical on album three, “Pedophile” concerning the sexual abuse of Childish by a family friend as “The Gun in My Father’s Hand,” “The Day I Beat My Father Up,” and “I’m Hurting” detail severe paternal derailment.

In a genre where attitude is often feigned, the sincerity cuts deep. However, overdue credit must be paid to the other individuals making Thee Headcoats such a vibrant entity; Bruce Brand first joined Billy in the Pop Rivets and Johnny “Tub” Johnson was a hail fellow from the scene with prior experience in The Cannibals.

The beat rock side of their personality immediately flourishes on opener “Troubled Times” and additionally shapes “(I Don’t Like) The Man I Am,” “Shouldn’t Happen to a Dog,” and “I’m a Confused Man,” while “Every Little Thing,” “Every Bit of Me” and closer “Art or Arse?” offer piledriving studies in ’77-ish raucousness.

“When You Stop Loving Me” and “Don’t Try and Tell Me” wrangle up a tad more Nuggets-like fuzz guitar, “Hog’s Jaw” briefly detours into B-movie horror territory, “A-Z of Your Heart” delivers an uncommonly swampy passage courtesy of moaning mouth-harp (an intermittent Headcoats weapon), and “The Messerschmitt Pilot’s Severed Hand” connects like a DIY jewel circa 1980.

The main clientele for this reissue of Elementary Headcoats will certainly be garage mavens, though in fact the scale and understated range makes it a suitable fit for listeners cultivating a smaller shelf. Loads of singles comps basically just dump their contents onto plastic, and that’s no crime. But Damaged Goods’ non-completist collection is an endeavor of vast portraiture; it jointly celebrates one of punk’s singular voices and a truly kick-ass band.


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