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Billy Childish - Interview

  by Mark Rowland

published: 23 / 7 / 2007

Billy Childish - Interview


At a concert in London, Mark Rowland speaks to controversial singer-songwriter Billy Childish about his new album 'Punk Rock at the British Legion Hall', his rejection of technology, his interest in painting and a recent show at the Royal Albert Hall

The basement of The Dirty Water Club lives up to its name – a dingy, damp-infested room beneath the stage, walls covered with the graffiti of bands past, broken furniture piled on either side of the room. A wonky old round table is set up in the middle, surrounded by old chairs, on which the members of the Musicians of the British Empire are sitting. Billy Childish walks over to join them and gestures with a twitch of his expertly-waxed moustache. His wife and bass player Julie gives him a smile as he greets them. Drummer Wolf Howard nods his greeting. As we sit down at the table, they both get up; Howard heads upstairs, while Julie makes Childish a green tea before leaving the room as well. There is something vaguely intimidating about meeting Childish for the first time. Perhaps it is merely his larger than life character – Childish has made a point of shunning technological advances such as television and cars in favour of a simpler, pre-50's lifestyle, and can be quiet vitriolic about the aspects of modern life he tries to avoid. As someone who has bought into modern clothes, mobiles and digi-boxes, you cannot shake the feeling that you’re being judged. Childish also has a particularly piercing look, as if he sees right through you, which does not help you feel any easier for the first time. On new album ‘Punk Rock at the British Legion Hall’ Childish shows that he sees straight through modern society, with three tracks; ‘Snack Crack’, ‘Bugger the Buffs’ and the brilliant ‘Joe Strummer's Grave’ taking apart our celebrity-obsessed society with eloquence, humour and a barely reconstructed garage rock riff. Childish has made a career for himself out of his own hobbies, and has resisted all attempts at bringing him to a wider audience. Instead, he lives in his home-town of Chatham, Kent, collects his dole money, paints, writes books and makes music. In the 80's he was romantically linked with Tracey Emin, before she became famous, put his name in a tent, and proceeded to slag him off for the rest of the decade. Since 1977 he’s put together several bands, all taking their influences from punk, rock 'n' roll, blues and 60's beat music, although each is slightly different from the other. He is basically the last punk standing, sticking resolutely to its original ideals while other figures of the time got famous, got dead or moved on. As well as this, he is also a teetotal yoga fanatic and a member of Greenpeace for the past twenty-five years. He has also had a string of celebrity admirers including Kurt Cobain, Kylie Minogue and Jack White, who fell out with Childish in 2006 over Childish’s cutting remarks about the duo’s music in an article for the US GQ magazine. A brief spat ensued via open letters published on the White Stripes' website and in the NME, prompting the Aquarium Gallery to put together a spoof boxing poster for a fight between Jack ‘Whingy’ White and Billy ‘Bitter’ Childish (the poster was later withdrawn after contact from White’s lawyers. A subsequent cartoon version of the poster was sold at £110 a piece). In the same year as this feud, Childish was asked to appear on 'Celebrity Big Brother'. He refused. Childish’s way with a sound-bite means that he is often used by the press to pass comment on different things. On the night of the gig at the Dirty Water Club, he had appeared in the Guardian in an article about The Beatles’ ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ in which he was quoted as calling it “middle-of-the-road rock music for plumbers” PB : One of the stand-out tracks on your new album is ‘Joe Strummer's Grave’. It’s quite a biting look at modern society. Is it inspired by anything that’s happened recently ? BC : Not really, it’s just a gradual build up of being pissed off by mobile phones, television and human idiocy. We thought it was bad enough in '77 and it’s so much worse now. I think that a lot of the technologies ruin decent music and it ruins decent life. Then you’ve got Richard Branson who wants to blast himself into space, run an airline, save the planet and open casinos off the Chinese Mainland. So there’s a lot of contradictions as to what people think are good ideas and I’m just pointing out that they’re not that smart. PB : Is that a running theme on the album? BC : There’s no theme. It’s definitely on ‘Snack Crack’ I talk about that. (to his wife) What’s that song about Mallory? JC : 'Bottomless Pit'. BC : Yeah, George Mallory. Climbed to the top of Mount Everest in '28 or '32 ? He lead a famous British expedition to Everest and never came back. That song’s about George, so that’s a bit of a change. One of the songs is about a picture of a jewish girl’s hand in formaldehyde that I saw once in France that someone had on their fridge. It’s the second to last song, it’s a really weird song, about Nazis abducting a girl and cutting off her hand. I can’t remember what it’s called now - ’A Few Smart Men’. That’s about the Gestapo and people in black coats. We’ve got ‘Comb Over Mod’. It acknowledges Link Wray’s influence on modern music and the emergence of the comb-over, into popular music. Then we’ve got ’Dandelion Clock’ which is all about being a kid and waiting for your friend to come out and play, and I think that’s quite a nice little song. What else is there? PB : There’s the one that your wife sings. BC : That’s by Alternative Television. We got slagged off for this album for ripping off the Kinks, but the only song that directly rips off the Kinks is that song, which was written by Mark Perry in the early eighties, which is about Martha from the Brady Bunch being hit in the nose by a football and not being able to go on her date with Doug, which I think is based on a real episode of the Brady Bunch, but you’d have to ask Mark Perry that. Then we’ve got "We Four Beatles of Liverpool are/one in a taxi, one in a car/one on a scooter, bipping his hooter/following Ringo Starr’ that’s school lyrics to ’We Three Kings' - we’d sing We Four Beatles instead, and all the other choruses are school lyrics as well, like (sings) "Say what you will/School dinners make you ill/Davey Crockett died of Shepherd’s Pie/All School din dins come from pig bins/ that’s no lie." and "Georgy Best superstar/walks like a woman/ wears a bra." That’s about the misery of going of going to a mildly violent secondary modern school in the early 70's. PB : You were quoted in an article in the Guardian about ‘Sgt Pepper’s…’ today… BC : Oh yeah, I wanted to see that, have you read it? PB : No, a friend of mine did. It said that you didn’t like it because it was music for plumbers. What do you have against plumbers? BC : I didn’t say that, it just goes to show how much they’ll misquote you. I didn’t say plumbers like ’Sgt Pepper’s…’, I said plumbers like Oasis and Oasis base themselves on the worst aspects of the Beatles. And the worst aspects of the Beatles aren’t even on ’Sergeant Pepper’s…’, it’s more the ‘Abbey Road’ type stuff. It just goes to show you that you can’t trust anything you read in the press. I actually said that ’Sergeant Pepper’s…’ is a vaudeville monstrosity and Paul McCartney’s obsession with himself, his own importance and Dickensian misery, ie ‘Eleanor Rigby’, the ’Long and Winding Road’ and ’Yesterday’ are just depressing dirge and enough to make anyone want to slash their wrists. PB : ‘Mull of Kintyre’ makes me want to slash my wrists, personally. BC : Well that’s quite upbeat compared to some of them mate. PB : It’s the way he uses bagpipes in that song, I think. BC : I’ve got nothing against pipes. I’ve got nothing against plumbers either, except that they charge too much and don’t do what they say they’re going to do. Same goes for dentists and musicians really. PB : You shun some forms of technology. BC : I don’t shun technology, I’m just not a slave to it. PB : Okay, you ride a bike rather than take cars…. BC : I tend to walk these days actually, because bikes are too technological for me as well. They keep going wrong. PB : Well, I was wondering what you thought about the current talk about climate change and the urge to get people to stop using as much electricity. BC : That’s all old hat. I’ve been a member of Greenpeace for 25 years and they no nothing that they didn’t already know 25 years ago. They’re not going to do anything about it now and they weren’t going to do anything about it then. I’ve always been up on ecological issues and I prefer trees and places for animals to live than building houses on flood plains. PB : They live like that in Finland. It’s nice there. BC : Too many mosquitoes there though. PB : Is there? I didn’t see any. BC : You probably went during the wrong time of year. It’s nice in northern Europe but there are too many mosquitoes. PB : Speaking of building and expanding towns, what do you think of the work that is being done in Chatham at the moment? BC : They’re just continuing to get it wrong and worse, like they do in most towns. The town is built to hold quite a lot of people. They've put all the shopping centres outside the town and a lot of people in it, so you end up with no countryside and a lot of shit. Other than that it’s perfect. PB : You made a bunch of films on an old super 8 in and around Chatham that were shown on the BBC. Are you still making films? BC : No, you get bored after a while. I’ve got some film that I need to use up but I don’t know when I’ll do that. I paint and write and I have to work on my music a bit, so filming ends up lower down the list of priorities. PB : Speaking of your writing, are you working on any novels at the moment? BC : I’ve just finished a new one set in secondary school called ’The Idiocy of Ideas’. PB : What’s it about? BC : Secondary school. The Idiocy of Ideas. It’s based on the school that I went to. PB : What painting projects are you working on? BC : Just normal things, I’m working on a few larger canvasses, about six foot, and I’m trying to work on some pictures of San Francisco because they’ve got some good cliffs, so I’m doing some landscapes with little people in them, and I’m doing some of Iceland as well, just because I like a bit of mist and cliff. I like making people smaller in a landscape like the Chinese used to do, rather than just having big birds’ heads with hats on.That’s what I specialised in in the past. PB : You did a support slot at the Royal Albert Hall recently. How did that go? BC : It was alright. We made some jokes at the audience, brought our 100 watt PA. It was a group called Modest Mouse who asked us to play there. I met a bloke who used to be in the Smiths. He was nice. And then we went home. PB : How did your 100 watt PA sound in there? BC : I dunno. You would have to ask the audience. Some people thought we were good and some people thought it was pretty crap, I reckon. We’re not scared of the Royal Albert Hall. The Royal Albert Hall were scared of us. PB : Your previous band the Buff Medways came to an end recently. Why did you decide to split up that band? BC : Our bass player couldn’t do any more shows. He’s a fireman as well, and he couldn’t balance playing the shows with being a fireman, so I thought rather than continue with another bass player we’d change the group. It’s what we do. It’s part of the job. PB : Is that what usually happens when you change bands? BC : It’s usually when we get to that point, yeah. Usually it’s not that they don’t want to play> They are just finding it hard to for whatever reason. PB : You had the Chatham Singers as well for a bit. BC : We’re still doing that. That’s still ongoing. We don’t play much but we are planning another album. That’s an ongoing thing. It’s what we do in between. The conversation comes to and end at this point, with a pause that threatens to bring the interview to a close. To keep the momentum, PB mentions that we’re fans of Childish’s work. Remembering something that Paul McCartney said (possibly because we spoke of him earlier) PB adds that the word ’fan’ is short for fanatic and suggests slightly scary obsession. At the mention of this Childish suddenly perks up: BC : It is, isn’t it ? I never thought of that. Fan comes from fanatic. I never wondered and I never knew. Now I still don’t wonder, but now I know. I had a feeling that it was at the back of my mind probably. It makes sense that it would come from fanatic. PB : When it became a popular term around the 60's it was referring to fanatical behavior. BC : I think it was earlier than that actually, I think it appeared in the 30s', with films and stuff. PB : You’re probably right. BC : I’ll have to do some research. I reckon 1930. You say 60's. PB : I think you’ll be right. BC : Things are usually older than you think they are. The first record of it is probably going to be twenty years too late as well, because by the time they’re recorded they’ve probably been in use for a while and have taken some time to spread out. It’s like chav> We’ve been using the word chav for years. We used to call each other chav sometimes, because in Chatham it was used all the time. Chav must be a few hundred years old, but now it’s used as if it’s just been invented. PB : ‘Chor’ is another word like that. They’re Romany Gypsy words. BC : Chor, mush, all those words, they’re all Romany Gypsy. I can’t remember any others, though. At my school it was a common language. Loads of the words they used came from Romany. Kushty, that’s another one, and you used to have mush and mushty. PB : Do you have an interest in the origin of language? BC : I find it interesting, I don’t research it or anything, but it is interesting. I always like to know the origins of slang. I’d say I was curious about it. I’m curious about when and how they came in and what people spoke like in other times, like how much slang they used and stuff. I am interested in it, but I wouldn’t be interested in studying it. That would be boring. It’s all very well looking at a book in the library, but going to school to do it would be too much. PB : I can see why you’re interested though. BC : You know the phrase ’chip on the shoulder’ don’t you, well that’s from Chatham. It’s Chathamese for stealing wood from the dockyards, as far as I’m aware anyway. It’s because they were allowed to take chips of wood from the dockyards, and some people started taking really big bits of wood and you’d say "don’t speak to him ! He’s got a big chip on his shoulder’ meaning that he might turn around and hit you with it, because they were stealing a plank rather than a chip. PB : Wow, I didn’t know that. BC : I don’t know that it’s definitely right, but that’s what I heard. You know about Chathamese don’t you? Kent Cockney, which is because of the shipbuilders in Chatham and the talk from the country. Just as the conversation gains momentum (we talk briefly about Kentish schools), Julie comes back into the room and in an instant it’s gone. Julie tells Childish about the similarities between his style and the support band playing upstairs. I chat briefly to them about the spat with Jack White, which they both seem to find baffling. As they start getting changed to go onstage, PB wishes them luck and heads back upstairs. Their set is blinding and very funny – Childish is a real showman and has very good comic timing, launching into amusing rants and cutting down hecklers in unusual and ingenius ways. While talking about the article in the Guardian, he calls PB a gentleman, which is most appreciated. It is clear as he jokes and laughs with the audience that Childish is far from bitter about his situation as the Aquarium’s poster suggested. He certainly has a few quibbles with the state of the nation, but as far as his life is concerned, he seems pretty pleased with his lot. And really, it’s not that surprising – who wouldn’t want to turn their hobbies into their life’s work?

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