Wild Billy Childish
12 Bar Club, London, UK • March 10, 2002
The Dirty Water Club, London, UK • March 29, 2002
Shut your mouth child, you’re in the presence of genius. One chord purity. The celebration of failure. Rock and roll even — gasp. One of my big goals during my stay here in London was to see garage rock auteur/wildman Billy Childish of Thee Milkshakes, Thee Mighty Caesars, Thee Headcoats fame/godhood in full-on live glory. And it’s only on a random Sunday evening, in the cramped subterranean confines of the 12 Bar Club, that I am finally able to come face to face with the man.
“Wild” Billy Childish is his name tonight, it’s his bluesman alter-ego y’see. The avatar of punk/d.i.y. cool, touted as an inspiration by such zeitgeist hoppers as Kurt Cobain and Jack White, takes the stage quietly, looking like a cross between Sherlock Holmes and General Custer, clad in old British army dress fatigues and a flannel hunting coat with Dick Tracy•s lost snap-brim fedora, and proceeds to — swoon — set up his own equipment. He’s presently joined by his Buff Medways drumming compatriot, Wolf Howard, also looking like a slightly drunken officer slumming it, shuffles through the lyrics sheets at his feet and launches into a rambling monologue about the origins behind The Friends of the Buff Medway Fancier Association, continuing even when it’s apparent that he’s lost the audience at a far-distant stream of consciousness trip, and he never stops the monologues. Don’t matter, we’re smitten.
He reverse-heckles the famous musicians in the audience, asking them how to tune a guitar, chiding them about using too many chords, and giving florid descriptions of the old blues numbers that he covers tonight, along with a clutch of Buff Medways originals. It’s an electrifying performance, either literally with Childish howling into his microphone and thrashing away at a guitar — both plugged into the same amp, all a distorted visceral and mystical channeling of the true satanic roots of the blues, or organically as in chills and shocks in my fingertips as Wild Billy takes off his fedora and soulfully sings his way through a cappella versions of songs like Leadbelly’s “John The Revelator.” Of course we get the soon-to-be hit single, “Troubled Mind,” pounded out in bleeding-fingers-primal fashion and he even nails the Roger Daltry stutter goddamn perfectly. Such is the measure of a man that when the club owner tells him that the police have booted his car, he simply passes the hat/fedora around the club and keeps playing. No fuss. The gig even ends on a suitably shambolic note when he announces that he’s out of songs to play, so we’d better find something else to do.
So if, in fact, the Wild Billy Childish live experience is the visual and musical equivalent of British officers out on the melancholy piss, then the Buff Medways are that exact same group of blokes two days before, alert, spit-shined and bayonets at the ready. Gentlemen killing machines at your service, ma’am. Authentic military garb, neatly trimmed hair, hobnailed boots, only Childish’s Van Gough-channeling handlebar mustache suggest any hint of madness. We’re formally welcomed to tonight’s meeting of the Buff Medways Fanciers Association and they’re off in a blaze of Who-shredding, Link Wray-regurgitating punk/tuneful noise stomp. Oh man, each of the fellas in this classic power trio lineup has been in punk or garage bands for years and years and they rock with the joyful pure abandon of teenagers, pre-teens even. Childish is on his like 90th album of potent garage overload and it still sounds fresh and inspired. I recognize a lot of the songs from the 12 Bar Club show, but they’re reinvented as chrome-plated screamers. The crowd is in a froth, and Childish still breaks up his bullet-like momentum with hilarious anecdotes and THAT footstompin’ a cappella version of “John The Revelator” (hotly requested, as it turns out). It’s instinct music — one chord, two chords, three chords hey! All executed with such a skewed flair. They encore with a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” with the solo breaks revisited as one-note abstractions. Wow. It’s only fitting that the evening ends with the Buff Medways donning their military overcoats and giving us a crisp military salute. This is the kind of band that makes rock and roll worth taking seriously AND life worth living.