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Eccentric Primitivism

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Billy Childish recently released a retrospective of his musical work, entitled 25 Years of Being Childish. For this past quarter century, Childish has diligently and consistently worked to produce a vast body of work. His retrospective not only offers an introduction, it also offers a de facto history of rock and roll.

Eccentric Primitivism

Billy Childish is a painter, poet, Luddite and musician who has lived in the unremarkable London suburb of Kent for most of his life. Steadfastly uncommercial, he has been making music for twenty-five years with a host of players, in styles that range from rough garage punk to winsome Spector-style pop, never once even grazing the pop charts. He has made spectacular displays of commercial suicide, such as refusing to have his punk band play in London during the punk explosion in the late seventies and releasing four LPs on the same day with his band the Milkshakes. Recently, a two-disc compilation of forty-two Childish songs has been released, and it is nothing short of brilliant.

To hear it is to realize that Childish is a rare talent and an artist in a genre where real artists are often thin on the ground; the two discs also present a vivid, panoramic image of British underground rock and roll from the last quarter-century: the scrappy, snarling wit of the Kinks; the power of the Who; the energy and anarchic spirit of punk. It’s all here, and Childish is not involved in pastiche or regurgitation. He’s lived these eras and participated in them, and his decision to remain connected to a particular genre comes from a sense that it’s the most honest and direct form of music available. On record and especially live, Childish’s songs are powerful, wonderful bursts of noise that connect on a primal level, pushing past any questions of revivalism. It’s the essence of rock and roll, distilled and dispensed without pretense or self-consciousness.

After being turned down by all the art schools in London, Childish began working in the dockyards of his hometown of Kent, and in 1977, he formed his first group, the Pop Rivets. Their music was inspired, as Childish writes, by punk rock, tv 21, and the Swinging Blue Jeans. The next fifteen years found Childish forming a number of groups, including the more mod-informed Milkshakes, the garage-inflected Thee Headcoats, and the blues and country-influenced Blackhands. During this time, he briefly attended St. Martins School of Fine Art, one of the more well-respected art schools in the country. After being summarily expelled, he began to paint and exhibit on his own, creating a body of work that has been recently exhibited in London, coinciding with the release of 25 Years of Being Childish.

In that intervening quarter century, Childish has produced an enormous body of work, both in music and visual art, and he has stayed around long enough to earn begrudging respect from even his most vehement detractors. Generally speaking, he is more successfully received for his music rather than his art; his neo-Primitivist paintings and etchings are often dismissed as callow by those in the art world. And, indeed, for every vocal supporter, there is a fierce critic of Childish, who many view as a phony. This seems, however, to misinterpret his very philosophy, which is to abandon the conventions of art-consumption and to simply produce work that speaks to both the creator and the listener/viewer. Childish’s eclecticism has been something of a hindrance to him as an artist, but it has made him a far more interesting musician, lending his seemingly basic musical pursuits a veneer of high artistic purpose. Also, it must be noted, polemics and artistic convention tend to fall away when you can rock with authority, and Childish is incredibly adept at channeling his influences into vibrant, bracing garage rock that sounds entirely his own.

Although there are obvious pitfalls to Childish’s heel-dragging approach to musical progress, it’s also arguable that there is more work to be done with these genres, and Childish, free from commercial expectation, is just the man to do it. What emerges from this retrospective is the sense that British Invasion-style rock can be used as an equivalent to American folk music, a means of telling stories that embraces national culture and places these narratives in a social context. And so you get particularly English tales of bust-ups outside of pubs, the joys and curses of alcohol, and a countrified cover of “Anarchy in the U.K.”. To an extent, Childish has a point: however brilliant Radiohead are, how much do they really say about their time and place, the people who live in their country? Complicated production and fancy visuals are all well and good, but doesn’t rock still need its poets, people who dispense with the pretense and bullshit? It’s an old-fashioned, almost embarrassing idea, and it’s doubtful anyone other than Childish could pull it off with such aplomb. Songs like “Hurt Me” and “Troubled Mind” encapsulate everything that was wonderful about the Troggs and the Kinks, the raw guitars and frenetic sense of emotional confusion, romantic bitterness crossed with a kind of youthful optimism. Many garage bands misunderstand that if you’re going to tip your hat to a band, you’d better make sure that the song you’re playing is at least as good as the one you’re referencing. And in fact, Childish manages to bite the chords from the Kinks’ “’Til the End of the Day” no less than three times during the course of this album. Like Stephen Merritt, when he steals something, he makes damn sure you know it, and he also makes sure that the song can stand on its own.

I wasn’t a believer myself until I saw him and his most recent band, The Buff Medways, open for Fugazi last November. After suffering through Winnebago Deal, London’s mediocre answer to Bleach-era Nirvana, I was feeling a little woozy with the over-driven metal guitar and the shrieking vocals. Sucking down a beer at the interval, I was surprised to hear an old-fashioned rock song booming from the stage, sounding a bit like Buddy Holly with loud guitars. Intrigued, I went closer, and was surprised to find it was the Medways, with Childish at the front, sporting a fierce handlebar moustache. The band performed in matching military uniforms, and played a mix of originals and vintage Who and Hendrix covers. For half an hour, the theatre was in thrall to the band, who blasted song after song, revisiting a sound with such skill that it felt like the first time anyone had played such music.

For Childish, rock and roll is not something that has to be developed or expanded upon. It emerged fully formed, to his mind, and doesn’t need changing. This is, of course, only one opinion, one way of doing things, but it does provide a healthy perspective on the ever-shifting fads of rock’s progression. This is a strange time for Childish, as the style of music he plays has become momentarily fashionable again. In part, this must be a good thing, as White Stripes fans could conceivably stumble onto a Childish record and discover a rich history of garage music. This sense of being current, however, is anathema to Childish’s purpose, and there are always risks involved with fashion. But Childish has been there before, and once again, the already-fading garage rock boom won’t make him famous. And once it subsides, he’ll continue to make his records, quietly and steadily creating a body of work that will stand, simply, as great rock and roll.

By Jason Dungan

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