Why Billy Childish Matters

Like, more than anyone else in Rock & Roll

Billy Childish from the cover of My First Billy Childish Album (Treatment: Ron Hart)

Friends, if you take away anything from the abundance of words I have written over the years, pray heed this: Billy Childish is one of the most remarkable artists in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, and likely the greatest living rock musician. 

I think of 61-year-old Billy Childish the same way I think of Charles Ives or Bob Dylan, Moondog, Louis Jordan, or Phil Ochs. When you investigate Childish’s vast catalog of music, you discover someone who has transcribed the heart’s deep yet inarticulate love for rock ‘n’ roll into an actual body of work. He has taken the subject – rock ‘n’ roll – and made it one with the object. (And today, we just discuss his career as a musician, and not his extraordinary work as a painter, poet, and author. Suffice to say that I contend that future generations may regard Childish, the painter, they way we regard Kokoschka, Gerstl, Otto Dix or Van Gogh.) 

In simplest terms, Billy Childish wants to make us feel the way he felt when he fell in love with rock ‘n’ roll, and he does this over and over again, with literally dozens of projects he has undertaken as a bandleader, producer, band member, and conceptualist. He makes music because he wants to feel what the Beatles felt when they were grinding out “What’d I Say” in low ceilinged Hamburg cellars stinking of cheap beer, cheaper cigar smoke and bleach. He wants to feel what the Kinks felt on the night in a rain-pissing, everything-closed midlands town when they slashed through “You Really Got Me” for the first time. He wants to feel the way the Pretty Things felt when a unique mix of cider, youth, hope and hopelessness caused them to combust the tire-fire holler of “Rosalyn.” He wants to feel what the Saints felt when they stepped out of the harsh, hateful Brisbane sun and into a dark ashtray of a room and made a new sound that sounded like scissors tearing into construction paper amplified eight thousand times. He wants to feel like Pete Seeger felt when a song could actually inspire the formation of a union. He wants to feel what Moondog felt when he translated the thump and hum of the heart into a pure expression of how art could triumph over both darkness, and duet with the noise of a smoky city. Yet Childish does not create homages, but rather evocations of the very moment when grace, garbage, heritage, rage, and sin created our music. 

Billy Childish “wolf in birch trees” 2019 (Art: Billy Childish)

I am not going to attempt a biography of Mr. Childish, except to provide this most generalized sketch: For 40 years, he has made music, endlessly, in the hope of touching others who have been transformed by rock ‘n’ roll the way he has. He has released hundreds of records under dozens of monikers, and produced and helped assemble multiple groups he wasn’t technically a member of. But this monumental body of work never feels like concept art, or quantity just for the sake of quantity. It feels like joy. It feels like a sparkling, singular musical imagination, one of the greatest of our time, spinning with precision, ecstasy and zero conception of music industry standards. Listen, I do not say this lightly: Every record Billy Childish has ever been involved with – is it 100, 150, or more? — is worth hearing. Period. And not just on an academic level; each one has something fantastic on it. You never know when you will stumble on one you were previously unaware of (a complete Childish discography seems elusive), and that, too, will stun you. For instance, not long ago I first learned about the Buffets who, apparently, formed, rehearsed, recorded, gigged, and disassembled all within the space of about ten days in 2006. That would sound like a gimmick, except Childish (who was not in the Buffets, an all women band, though the group is clearly his handiwork) does not do gimmicks. The lone Buffets album, Saucy Jack, is literally one of the very best compact slice-an’-dice punk albums that I’ve ever heard, right up there with Wire’s Pink Flag, the Circle Jerks’ Group Sex, or the Undertones first album. And another album that had eluded my awareness until recently, Medway Wheelers by the Buff Medways (2005) is an (extremely successful) attempt to filter the early Who through the early Pretty Things if they had been recorded at 2120 Michigan Avenue while the Lurkers were looking on. I would say it’s one of Childish’s best, except he probably has twenty-five or thirty albums that are just as good.  

There are times when I have suspected that Childish, in an echo of Borges’ Ficciones, is seeking to do nothing less than create an alternate history of rock ‘n’ roll, one so flawless in execution that future generations would mistake it for having been recorded within the era that inspired. But then I recognize that this is my fantasy, not his. I would love if Childish, one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest artists, systematically replaced the work of lesser men, those who are driven by fear and ignorance, those who did not realize they were children in men’s bodies and slaves dressed as masters. But Childish only wants to make music in the moment, to feel the way our greatest geniuses (Dylan, Davies, Hamburg Lennon, Leadbelly, the Ramones, the O’Neill Brothers, Chris Bailey, some brilliant tramp busker standing in front of the Hackney Empire in 1958, etcetera) felt at the moment of discovery, the moment they realized the angel/devil in their head could be bought to life by their fingers. He lives within that moment, the moment the lightning of an idea becomes real, and he puts that on tape, again and again and again. 

Sometimes I wonder why I hate well-intended pretenders like Dave Grohl so much. And I think, “It is because they will never hear what Moondog, Wilko Johnson, Fred Neil or Vini Reilly heard in their heads; they will never make music because they absolutely had to, or they would die.” But Childish gets it, I swear. Childish is both his own industry, and a Shambhala vision of what an industry could have been, i.e., people releasing music when they wanted to and because they had to. His music is a newspaper for the heart. 

After all, in the non-Childish reality, the music industry had been crumbling under the weight of its archaic structure even before its’ death knell was hastened by the streaming revolution. It wasn’t merely the means of delivery that was becoming outmoded, and it wasn’t just all those non-paying, constantly clicking thumbs that threw dirt over rock ‘n’ roll’s lonely gravesite. The death rattle of the music business was also the vacant, collapsing sound of the structure of myth itself: How and (probably more accurately) why should a band be formed, and how should its’ arc of life unfold? Few – maybe no one – challenged this as successfully as Billy Childish. 

We are living in the 21st century (my god, fairly deep into it, actually), yet so many of us are still playing by JohnPaulGeorgeandRingoPettyGrohl rules, and still hearing Scott Muni or Jann Wenner in our head when we think about releasing records. This is certainly one of the reasons “our generation” – that is the so-called elders, and their younger brothers and sisters – have tumbled into obsolescence. Our slavish adherence to the old rules has made us believe in Grohl-ism, these identikit copies of our past romances. It has caused us to write angry Facebook posts about the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and angry tweets defending bikini-wearing ingénues on the Grammys when we should have been celebrating the utter and complete genius of new Polish and Russian stoner metal. Which is to say, we have become so distracted complaining about  today’s pop stars that we have missed the bloody point: rock ‘n’ roll is what happens when the most insane and impossible fireworks of our imagination meet the ability of a treasured few to replicate the moment of elation/creation. I am not looking forward to the next calculated release by a Grohl-ist, or someone who believes in Muni-ism; I am looking forward to a thousand releases by people I have never heard of, who had to make music or they will die. I know rock ‘n’ roll is alive, but I also know it has nothing to do with yesterday’s Muni-isms. I am interested in yesterday, today, and now, because it’s all Bo Diddley or Mia Zapata to me (or it better be), it should all be geniuses and sages screaming at me because they have no choice. 

To clarify, this is what I mean when I refer to Muni-ism: For roughly 35 or 40 years (from the mid/late-ish1960s to the beginning of this century), a band would release something Very Important Indeed about once a year. Rum throated, mouth-breathing DJs at FM radio stations would then announce the delivery of this sacred object with great gravity. “Gather around, we’ve got something new from The Future Gusts. I’ll play a track now [long, mucous-y pause to inhale], but our sandy-voiced token female DJ will play the album in its’ entirety at 11 PM tonight, after our live broadcast of the Elephant Story Plus Mama from the Calderone Concert Hall.” 

Although Muni-ism certainly resulted in some great artistic triumphs; it also resulted in, well, Tarkus. More importantly, this emphasis on artists grunting out yearly plops of great works of ahhhht separated music from the element of broadside, front parlor, and worksong. Music was no longer all the news that was fit to sing; instead, it was a way for the adolescent consumer to affect “deepness” while trying to get into someone’s pants. Removed from the element of utility, it was only a matter of time before we forgot who Victor Jara was because his face wasn’t on a t-shirt in Hot Topic, and because he had never been produced by Jeff Lynne.

 

VIDEO: Thee Headcoats Live 1989

Yes, that’s a little harsh and lord knows my utter worship of Pet Sounds, Metal Box, or Eternally Yours underlines how important albums were in my life, and what vital music the album era produced. In fact, albums weren’t the problem. The problem was that due to Muni-ism, basing careers around these yearly or bi-yearly album arcs became the standard, and an industry codified, then ossified, around it. 

In the pre-streaming era, a handful of artists publically challenged Muni-ism. However, as exceptions to the rule, these challengers found themselves measured against traditionally formatted artists with traditional aspirations, as opposed to being considered a legitimate and viable alternative to the self-killing industry. So the myth continued to hold, until the bandages that held it together were no longer useful. In the end, no one was rewarded because they played by Scott Muni’s rules. Muni-ism itself died because those in power realized that if you could throw more and more pies at The Wall of Click-Happy Thumbs, the more the Machine could stay in power, and the less important the ever-troublesome artist was. If only The Myth had been more artfully and aggressively challenged in the era before Streaming – if only we had seen Childish and, say, R. Stevie Moore as models of a new way of doing business as opposed to eccentrics — then maybe the artist could have been more in control of the revolution. But the post-1999 artists who should have been leading the revolt – the Grohl-ists — only saw themselves as the inheritors of Muni-ism, and only wanted to be judged alongside the wax figures of Muni-isms past. 

The myth of stardom and the rules of the machine polluted us, and left us with a generation scratching their fingernails into red, suppurating pus for the chance to be a panelist on America’s Favorite Masked Singer Who Also Bakes Cakes and Makes Out With Bachelors. That, y’see, became the new Madison Square Garden. And this new breed are, by and large, so vacant (and their aspirations so transparent) that we posit the Grohl-ists, this Xerox of a mimeograph of a rebellion,  as the opposition, when they are really nostalgists clinging to a myth that was always defined by businessmen in the first place. Actually, I can easily forgive those dreaming of a place on the panel of a TV talent show: This is an honest, careerist goal. It is those who still lick the chalk outlines of Muni-ism and call it art who are far more repugnant. 

Childish refutes pollution, not so much contesting it as ignoring it. He is his own industry, though the word “industry” cheapens his achievements, which are almost entirely about transcribing the love of rock ‘n’ roll onto recording tape. True, Childish has the faint whiff of an anthropologist, since in so many ways he treats the entire species of pre-Revolver British rock and pop as its own indigenous art form (which he then uses as the foundation for his own explorations — for instance, with the William Loveday Intention he presents us with Bob Dylan if he had been discovered by Shel Talmy instead of John Hammond); but his extraordinary catalog of work has none of the stuffiness or preciousness of the anthropologist. 

 

“Leonardo didn’t care whether the last supper lasted. All he wanted was the experience of having painted it.”

— Orson Welles

 

It is possible that the main point of Childish’s work is that it exists at all. The standard artistic formula — inspiration leads to creation, creation leads to result — becomes a vigorous and joyous ouroboros in Childish world. With Billy Childish, the result is already extant in the creation, the creation is already extant in the result. The music is born whole the moment he dreams it. In fact, all of Childish’s music already existed the moment he first heard “I Need You” by the Kinks. In more practical terms, with Childish the result does not reflect the careerist goals of the artist. The experience is the result of an entire life led living, loving, and listening. Childish is so loyal to the experience and so skilled as a craftsman that the result is of such high quality that literally any dive into Childish’s catalog, no matter how random, will reveal a gem. Thee Headcoats, Thee Headcoatees, and the Delmonas are three of the very best garage punk bands (literally) in history, and they almost uniquely found a way to marry ’77 and ’63; almost anything by the Buff Medways or Wild Billy Childish and the Musicians of the British Empire is worth hearing; and 20 Rock and Roll Hits by Thee Milkshakes (the “The” is not a typo – Childish altered the spelling of his bands and the articles the preceded their name to suit the project) is, without question, the best evocation of what the Fabs sounded like in Hamburg . I mean, as I said before, tip of the effing iceberg. 

Billy Childish makes music for THE very best reason: Because he wants to hear it, but he can’t find it anywhere. Billy Childish is the listener, given the power of the musician, and the musician, given the liberty to create without the shadow of mammon. He is a musician, freed to pursue and realize the dreams every rock’n’roller had when they are in the bloom of discovery, and absolutely everything is possible.

He reproduces the moment we fell in love with music, over and over. 

 

 

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Tim Sommer

Tim Sommer is a musician, record producer, former Atlantic Records A&R representative, WNYO DJ, MTV News correspondent, VH1 VJ, and founding member of the band Hugo Largo. He has written for publications such as Trouser Press, the Observer and The Village Voice. Follow him on Twitter @Timmysommer.

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