Billy Childish

Have Love Will Travel cover

Have Love Will Travel

Thee Headcoatees
Heavens Journey cover

Heavens Journey

Billy Childish, The Chatham Singers
Devil in the Flesh cover

Devil in the Flesh

Billy Childish, Dan Melchior
Brimfull of Hate cover

Brimfull of Hate

Jack Ketch & the Crowmen
Talking 'Bout...Milkshakes! cover

Talking 'Bout...Milkshakes!

Micky Hampshire, The Milkshakes
Live at the Wild Western Room cover

Live at the Wild Western Room

Billy Childish, Thee Headcoatees, Thee Headcoats
The Cheeky Cheese cover

The Cheeky Cheese

Billy Childish, Sexton Ming
At the Bridge cover

At the Bridge

Billy Childish, The Singing Loins
Wiseblood cover

Wiseblood

Thee Mighty Caesars
The Kids Are All Square: This Is Hip! cover

The Kids Are All Square: This Is Hip!

Thee Headcoatees, Thee Headcoats
Acropolis Now cover

Acropolis Now

Thee Mighty Caesars
Beware the Ides of March cover

Beware the Ides of March

Thee Mighty Caesars
In Blood cover

In Blood

Billy Childish, Holly Golightly
Steady the Buffs cover

Steady the Buffs

Billy Childish, The Buff Medways
Thee Caesars Of Trash cover

Thee Caesars Of Trash

Thee Mighty Caesars
 Delmonas 5! cover

Delmonas 5!

The Delmonas

Steven John Hamper, better known as Billy Childish, was born in 1959 and has been in a sort of cold war with the British cultural establishment since the 1970s. His copious output (scores of paintings, dozens of books, and countless albums under a head-spinning array of band names) is created entirely independently, keeping all gatekeepers and self-appointed authorities at arm’s length and thereby preserving his unique artistic vision. 

Childish is an almost entirely self-taught painter; a poet and writer whose dyslexia went undiagnosed in childhood but has never hindered his ability to muster furious, heartfelt lyrics; and a rough, noisy guitarist and singer whose influences range from primitive country blues to cavemanlike garage rock. Though he’s licensed his music to a variety of labels over the years, including Sub Pop, Crypt, Ace (through their subsidiary Big Beat), Sympathy For The Record Industry and more, a lot of it has come out on his own Hangman imprint. In recent years, much of his back catalog has been reissued by the venerable UK punk label Damaged Goods.

Childish’s first band was TV21, who later changed their name to the Pop Rivets. Their debut album, 1977’s Greatest Hits, was the first truly independent UK punk LP. Their music was artier and more complex than almost anything he’d do afterward; “To Start, To Hesitate – To Stop!” prefigures postpunk before punk itself had even gotten off the ground. The Pop Rivets broke up in 1980, and Childish immediately formed his next group, the Milkshakes, who played in a consciously retro 1960s garage-rock style. He wasn’t yet the visionary/artistic dictator he’d eventually become; the Pop Rivets’ songs were mostly co-written with guitarist Will Power, and the Milkshakes found him sharing songwriting and lead vocal duties with Mickey Hampshire. Had the Milkshakes’ songs been released in 1964 instead of 1982, they might well have charted, but at the time their sound was a determined act of rebellion against the moment. 

Childish truly came into his own in 1985, when the Milkshakes dissolved and he formed Thee Mighty Caesars with bassist John Agnew and drummer Graham Day. Day was soon replaced, though, by longtime Childish confederate Bruce Brand, who’d been in the Pop Rivets and the Milkshakes. Thee Mighty Caesars made noisier, more primitive music than the Milkshakes had, albeit still in a ’60s-indebted garage rock style, and their albums featured witty titles like Beware The Ides Of March and Acropolis Now. After six albums in five years, they broke up, and Childish and Brand recruited bassist Alan Crockford from another, similarly inclined local band, the Prisoners, and formed Thee Headcoats. 

Thee Headcoats were Childish’s longest-running and most “successful” band. Visually recognizable thanks to their Sherlock Holmes-esque deerstalker caps, they made more than a dozen albums between 1989 and 2000, each one a short blast of high-energy, crudely recorded guitar-bass-drums garage rock, occasionally leavened by a dash of electric organ or some female backing vocals courtesy of Thee Headcoatees, a quartet (later a trio) of enthusiastic amateurs. Sometimes they’d take a slight stylistic detour; their debut album, Headcoats Down, included “Child’s Death Letter,” an acoustic blues wail. Thee Headcoats’ catalog included albums on Sub Pop (Heavens To Murgatroid, Even! It’s Thee Headcoats (Already)) and Crypt (Beach Bums Must Die), and enabled Childish to take his act on the road to the US and beyond. This period was arguably his peak of both output and prominence; the Sub Pop compilation I Am The Billy Childish, subtitled “50 Songs From 50 Records,” came out in 1991. (It still serves as an excellent starting point, with 2009’s Archive From 1959 — The Billy Childish Story a worthy sequel/companion.) He was writing so much material that he began putting together female vocal groups (the Delmonas, Thee Headcoatees) to sing them, with his current band — Thee Mighty Caesars or Thee Headcoats — serving as backing musicians.

While continuing to pump out garage rock records, Childish has diversified his output quite a bit over the years, recording spoken word albums, collections of country blues and English folk, duets with former Headcoatee Holly Golightly, collaborations with fellow poet Sexton Ming, and more. His latest groups, the Buff Medways (named for a breed of rooster), the Spartan Dreggs, and the CTMF (which stands for Chatham Forts) produce music of greater sophistication than his ’80s and ’90s output, largely due to the bass playing and backing vocals of his wife, Julie Hamper, but his unique, keening/ranting voice and working-class-blues lyrics — which manifest an almost Beckettian black humor at times — remain instantly recognizable. Billy Childish will likely continue to make art until he drops dead, and/but the more of it you investigate, the more varied and fascinating it reveals itself to be. Below, 20 albums to barely get you started. 

Phil Freeman

Have Love Will Travel

Thee Headcoatees
Have Love Will Travel cover

Although they were pictured holding guitars and drums on their album covers, Thee Headcoatees were, like the Delmonas before them, a four-woman group who did backing vocals on Headcoats albums and soon began releasing albums under their own name, performing songs by Billy Childish and well-chosen covers, with Thee Headcoats as their backing band. Each member sang lead on one or two songs on this, their second album, with the others backing her up. The original material on this record has a somewhat angrier, more ominous edge than that of the Delmonas; “You Know You Can’t Resist” is a manifesto of female sexual power delivered with total confidence and swagger by Holly Golightly (who also sings the blues classic “Big Boss Man” here), while “Don’t Try And Tell Me” is a stomping garage-rock anthem of jilted rage, delivered by Ludella Black (“Don’t try and tell me I didn’t see what I just saw/Don’t try and tell me lies like a thousand times before…Don’t try and tell me I’ve got it all wrong”).

Heavens Journey

Billy Childish, The Chatham Singers
Heavens Journey cover

This is a fascinating record that combines two sides of Billy Childish: the bluesman and the poet. The first side contains eight tracks of stark blues with Childish on guitar and vocals, his wife Julie on bass and vocals, Wolf Howard on drums, and Jim Riley on harmonica; it’s a cross between the White Stripes at their most haunted and Tom Waits. The second side features 14 poems, read into a buzzing recorder, bracketed by two more songs, the second of which is a version of Son House’s “Death Letter Blues.” The poems have the gimlet-eyed fatalism and sudden, almost slapstick violence, juxtaposed against sorrow and tenderness, of Samuel Beckett. This record has an extremely old-timey feel, from its pinhole camera cover photo to the primitive recording quality, but its earnestness makes it timeless.

Devil in the Flesh

Billy Childish, Dan Melchior
Devil in the Flesh cover

Originally released in 1998, Devil In The Flesh is a collaboration between Billy Childish and Dan Melchior, with Kyra of Thee Headcoatees on drum, singular. Melchior sings all the songs on the first side, while Childish takes over on the second. At times, their version of the blues is so distorted and noisy it sounds like a low-budget take on Tom Waits’ Bone Machine. The songs are mostly set to an ultra-minimal thwacking beat reminiscent of John Lee Hooker, who used to stomp his foot on a crate as he played, keeping idiosyncratic and hypnotic time. Five of the tracks are by Melchior; two are by Childish; one is co-credited to both men; and four others are versions of Muddy Waters songs: “Trouble No More,” “Deep Down In My Heart,” “Just To Be With You” and “Honey Bee.” The record’s got an explosive energy, even on slow songs — this is the blues as working-class purgation.

Brimfull of Hate

Jack Ketch & the Crowmen
Brimfull of Hate cover

This 1988 LP is easily one of the darkest releases in the vast Billy Childish corpus. He’s not even credited on it — nobody is, but the personnel are rumored to include drummer Bruce Brand and bassist Mark Gilbert (an early Milkshakes member). Childish’s vocals are, of course, instantly recognizable, but the music is a departure. The amped-up garage rock riffs of his best-known bands are often abandoned in favor of ultra-distorted, dirgelike postpunk and noise rock that owes more to Joy Division than the Kinks. The lyrics veer away from his usual tales of love, lust, headgear and rock ’n’ roll, too; this time out, he’s “got a brimfull of hate/to give to you” and strong critiques of life in grim, hollowed-out capitalist society, delivered in positively unhinged shrieks sometimes, disconsolate mutters others. This is a bleak, enervated record that even a closing rampage through the Buzzcocks’ “Boredom” can’t rev up. Tough going, but worth a listen.

Empty Sounds from Anarchy Ranch

The Pop Rivets
Empty Sounds from Anarchy Ranch cover

The Pop Rivets were Wild Billy Childish’s first band, and they didn’t last long. They formed in the late 1970s, and by the end of the decade, three of the four members (Childish and bassist “Big Russ” Wilkins and guitarist Bruce Brand) would go on to form the Milkshakes. But their debut (hilariously titled The Pop Rivets’ Greatest Hits) and this album, released in 1979 on Childish’s own Hipocrite Music label, are furious blasts of primitive punk energy. “Skip Off School,” “Empty Sounds,” and “2is2” offer the same clang and clatter of the first Clash singles, and Childish’s vocals possess an unhinged, Joe Strummer-esque fervor. But the album’s middle stretch betrays his true interests — a section simply titled “Mak Show!” consists of cavemanlike covers of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” the Troggs’ “Wild Thing,” and other garage rock anthems, performed in front of a small but enthusiastic crowd with lots of feedback and distortion. And the closing “Return to Anarchy Ranch” is a bizarre cowboy/doo-wop singalong that must be heard to be believed.

Talking 'Bout...Milkshakes!

Micky Hampshire, The Milkshakes
Talking 'Bout...Milkshakes! cover

The Milkshakes’ debut album, released in 1981, was one of the only times in Billy Childish’s career where he truly shared the spotlight with someone else. Check the album cover — they’re billed as Mickey & The Milkshakes, Mickey being Mickey Hampshire, who sings lead on about half the songs. The music on this 14-track, 29-minute disc is some of the most polished Childish would ever record, too. There are songs here with saxophone. There are songs with fade-outs! And the songs have a catchiness and a professional sheen in general that’s far beyond most of his work. The guitars and drums are clean and crisp, and Childish’s vocals are only slightly more unhinged than Hampshire’s. This album could easily have been recorded in the early 1960s by a label with the intention of getting the Milkshakes into the charts.

Live at the Wild Western Room

Billy Childish, Thee Headcoatees, Thee Headcoats
Live at the Wild Western Room cover

This live disc, recorded who knows when but released in 1994, is something of a split LP. The first side offers seven tracks by Thee Headcoats at their most raucous and raw, sounding like the music is coming through a subway PA horn. On the second side, Childish surrenders the microphone to the female vocal group Thee Headcoatees (usually three members strong, but this time numbering four) for seven more songs. Their voices blend together in a loose, energetic collective wail, but exuberance triumphs over anger even on songs like “Don’t Try and Tell Me.” The band plays with less distortion and fervor when backing Thee Headcoatees; the music simmers instead of boiling over. It all climaxes with “M.E.L.V.I.N.,” a rewrite of Van Morrison’s “Gloria” from a female POV.

Heavens to Murgatroyd, Even! It's Thee Headcoats! (Already)

Thee Headcoats
Heavens to Murgatroyd, Even! It's Thee Headcoats! (Already) cover

Billy Childish formed Thee Headcoats in roughly 1989, following the dissolution of Thee Mighty Caesars. Bruce Brand, his longtime anchor, was on drums, with a rotating array of bassists — on this, the group’s fourth album, Ollie Dolot does most of the work, but John Rowlands plays on three tracks. Heavens… was released on Sub Pop in 1990, getting Childish attention in the US for the first time. It’s a raucous, primitive garage rock album with occasional detours into acoustic blues, and on three tracks, Thee Headcoatees deliver snarky backing vocals; their insistence that they want to marry “a headcoat man” on the song of the same name is particularly hilarious. As always, things are stripped-down and over quickly — the original release had 12 tracks in a half hour, while a recent reissue adds two more, bringing it to just under 35 minutes.

The Cheeky Cheese

Billy Childish, Sexton Ming
The Cheeky Cheese cover

In addition to being a wildly prolific garage rocker, Billy Childish is a well-regarded painter and poet. He’s got an artsy side, in other words. But make no mistake, his “fine art” material has the same rough edges, grease stains and handmade feel as his music. This album, one of several collaborations with fellow poet and musical primitivist Sexton Ming, is a collection of seemingly tossed-off tracks that feature percussively strummed acoustic guitar, harmonium, and accordion, all backing Childish and Ming as they deliver half-sung, half-recited snatches of junkyard surrealism. You could compare this to Tom Waits, or to Jandek, or to Captain Beefheart’s “The Dust Blows Forward ‘n’ The Dust Blows Back,” or to improvised nursery rhymes one might make up to amuse an already half-asleep child. It’s worth a single listen, but is most notable as an example of Childish’s eclecticism.

At the Bridge

Billy Childish, The Singing Loins
At the Bridge cover

This album bears the subtitle “Folk Variations and New Songs,” and that’s what you get. The Singing Loins were an acoustic folk duo composed of multi-instrumentalist (guitar, banjo, mandolin, etc.) Chris Allen and percussionist/harmonica player Chris Broderick; they made a string of albums on their own and collaborated with Childish twice — this is the first of those, from 1993. In addition to a clutch of new material, you get versions of Childish classics like “You Make Me Die,” “Pocahontas Was Her Name,” “I Don’t Like The Man I Am,” and “Brimful of Hate,” all performed in an English folk/pub singalong style, with foot-stomping percussion, tambourine, acoustic guitar and/or banjo, and caterwauling, ragged all-male vocal harmony. “The Bitter Cup” and “Every Bit Of Me” paint a dark and harrowing portrait of Childish’s early life, while “Somebody Else” is a nihilistic eruption (“Somebody else is having all the fun…somebody else is making all the money…somebody else is always right”) in a laugh-so-you-don’t-scream spirit.

Wiseblood

Thee Mighty Caesars
Wiseblood cover

On this 1987 album, Thee Mighty Caesars strip their music down even more than usual. No female backing vocals, almost no organ (except on the instrumental “The Bay of Pigs”), and no covers of Sixties garage nuggets — the only song not to come from frontman Billy Childish’s own pen is an album-ending version of Alternative TV’s “Action Time Vision” that manages to make the 1977 original sound like Seals & Crofts by comparison. Childish’s vocals sound like they’re recorded over the phone; the guitars are wildly distorted; and the songs are all set to either a straight garage-rock stomp or a Bo Diddley beat (“Kinds of Women”). Like AC/DC or the Ramones, Thee Mighty Caesars only seem to be making the same album over and over. It’s the small, subtle variations that make each one worth hearing.

The Kids Are All Square: This Is Hip!

Thee Headcoatees, Thee Headcoats
The Kids Are All Square: This Is Hip! cover

Thee Headcoats’ second album of 1990 was released on Childish’s own Hangman label, and was hard to come by until a 2011 reissue. It’s more polished and musically ambitious than its better-known companion Heavens To Murgatroid, Even! It’s Thee Headcoats (Already), adding piano, keyboards, and even accordion to their tool kit and giving the songs muscular if still basically primitive production. Thee Headcoatees, Childish’s three-member female singing group, show up here and there. Lyrically, he exhibits a weird and somewhat un-PC obsession with cowboys, Indians, and Eskimos on multiple tracks (“Davey Crockett,” “Cowboys Are Square,” “Pocahontas Was Her Name,” “Nanook Of The North”), but Childish as wounded romantic is also strongly represented (“All My Feelings Denied,” “I Can Destroy All Your Love”). The key, as always, is the strength of the group’s jackhammer garage rock.

Last Punk Standing... And Other Hits!

Billy Childish, CTMF
Last Punk Standing... And Other Hits! cover

CTMF is short for Chatham Forts; this is basically the same group as the Chatham Singers — Billy Childish on guitar and vocals, his wife Julie Hamper on bass and vocals, and Wolf Howard on drums. The lyrics are heartfelt and at times surprisingly literate (“Journey to the End of the Night”), and the music is slashing garage rock, but with much more rhythmic fluidity than one might expect from a Childish band — Julie Hamper is a genuinely great bassist who improves both her husband’s and the drummer’s playing, and a sympathetic harmony vocalist who takes lead on a couple of songs. CTMF is Childish’s current main band, and easily one of his best.

Irregularis (The Great Hiatus)

Thee Headcoats
Irregularis (The Great Hiatus) cover

Billy Childish disbanded Thee Headcoats at the turn of the 21st century, but 22 years after their split, they surprised everyone (well, everyone who’d heard of them in the first place) by coming back with Irregularis (The Great Hiatus). The songs are the same as ever — a simple, head-cracking mix of blues and primitive garage rock played on guitar, bass, and drums, with enough distortion to make any stereo sound like an antique transistor radio — but advances in recording and mastering technology give them extra fullness and punch. The amps and microphones they’re using give their songs much more whomp than they had in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and it’s hard to say for sure whether that’s a good or a band thing. One thing that definitely makes this album feel like fan service is the sheer number of self-referential songs (“The Baker Street Irregulars,” “Thee Headcoatitude,” “Mr H Headcoat,” “The Leader of the Sect”), but it’s still a blast, and it’s good to hear the old crew crank it up one more time.

Acropolis Now

Thee Mighty Caesars
Acropolis Now cover

The fourth Mighty Caesars record wasn’t as glossy or musically ambitious as its predecessor, Thee Caesars Of Trash; it was bare-bones Sixties-style garage rock, with electric organ on a few tracks and the occasional female backing vocalist, but the focus was mostly on slashing guitars and clattering drums. Childish’s lyrics were particularly angry, with “(Miss America) Got To Get You Outside My Head” a standout, the song the Guess Who’s “American Woman” thought it was (“You think Jesus Christ was born in Hollywood”). There’s only one cover this time out, a version of Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs’ “Little Red Riding Hood” that’s honestly less lubricious than the original. The album’s highest peaks come at the end of each side; the 92-second “You Make Me Die” might be the one Billy Childish song everyone needs to hear, and the album closer, “I Was Led To Believe,” is pure garage-punk wrath.

Beware the Ides of March

Thee Mighty Caesars
Beware the Ides of March cover

Thee Mighty Caesars were Billy Childish’s third band, formed in 1984 after the dissolution of the Milkshakes. Milkshakes (and later Headcoats) drummer Bruce Brand was around at first, but left after their debut, replaced by Graham Day, with Milkshakes bassist John Agnew holding down the low end. On this, their second album, the band crank through nine Childish originals and covers of Bo Diddley’s “Road Runner” and “You Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover” and Link Wray’s “Rumble.” The sound is basic, distorted — but not deliberately noisy — garage rock; it’s obvious the band was influenced by the DIY ethos of punk, but the music harkens back to the mid-Sixties, not the late Seventies. Occasionally, an overdubbed guitar break will leap out of the mix. In addition to “Rumble,” “Cyclonic” and the amazingly titled “Young Man Afraid Of His Horses” are also instrumentals.

In Blood

Billy Childish, Holly Golightly
In Blood cover

Holly Golightly (her real first and middle name; her last name is Smith) started out as one of the singers in Thee Headcoatees, before breaking out on her own. The cover of this 1999 album bears the legend “One Chord! One Song! One Sound!” and indeed, the songs are bare-bones, stripped-down blues vamps over which Golightly and Childish chant straightforwardly declarative lyrics in something that’s not quite unison but not quite harmony, either. The rhythm section consists of bassist John Gibbs and, of course, Bruce Brand on drums, with occasional harmonica from Johnny Johnson, and they prove that what this music is all about is a bouncing beat, which they’ve got and then some. A relatively subdued record — Childish is practically crooning at times, and Golightly is a singularly pleasant presence — In Blood offers a dozen takes on what philosophers refer to as “the man-woman thing” that will keep your head nodding and your foot tapping.

Steady the Buffs

Billy Childish, The Buff Medways
Steady the Buffs cover

As soon as Thee Headcoats split up in 2000, Billy Childish formed the Buff Medways (full name: The Friends of the Buff Medway Fanciers Association) with bassist Johnny Barker and drummer Wolf Howard. The changeover was literally instantaneous; the first Buff Medways songs were recorded at the end of the final Headcoats session. Buff Medways were a 19th century breed of chicken, unique to the region of England where Childish grew up, and the band dressed in Victorian era military uniforms, in contrast to Thee Mighty Caesars’ 1960s suits and Thee Headcoats’ deerstalker caps. Songs like “A Strange Kind Of Happyness” and “Ivor” were closer to the early Who than the bluesy garage rock of Thee Headcoats, though the shambling acoustic number “Time’s Up” comes as a surprise, and “You Piss Me Off” is a classic blast of Childish bile.

Thee Caesars Of Trash

Thee Mighty Caesars
Thee Caesars Of Trash cover

The Mighty Caesars expanded their sonic palette somewhat on their third album, released in 1986. Leader Billy Childish’s vocals were as nasal and desperate as ever, his guitar full of the usual bite, but the primitive garage rock of their self-titled debut and 1985’s Beware The Ides Of March was augmented by harmonica, extra percussion, flute, organ, and even harp, almost all played by drummer Graham Day of the Prisoners, garage-rock peers who’d shared bills and a split LP with the Milkshakes. As always, the album is a mix of originals and cranked-up covers, this time including Bo Diddley’s “Oh Yeah,” Rufus Thomas’s “All Night Worker,” Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” Link Wray’s “Jack The Ripper” and the Sonics’ “Psycho.” The energy level never flags, and it feels like most of the performances were single takes; Childish cracks himself up midway through “All Night Worker” but barrels through.

Delmonas 5!

The Delmonas
 Delmonas 5! cover

The Delmonas were a “girl group” that existed under Wild Billy Childish’s umbrella in the late 1980s. They started out as backup singers on Milkshakes records; on record, the polarities were reversed and they sang lead on a mix of cover songs and originals by Billy Childish and/or Mickey Hampshire, backed by the Milkshakes. Delmonas 5 was their second album, released in 1988; it opens with a version of the absurd movie theme song “Dr. Goldfoot And The Bikini Machine” and also includes a version of “Hound Dog” that uses Big Mama Thornton’s lyrics, not Elvis Presley’s; the All Night Workers’ “Why Don’t You Smile Now” (written by John Cale and Lou Reed, pre-Velvet Underground); and Bo Diddley’s “Keep Your Big Mouth Shut,” among others. Their vocals are amateurish, to say the least — they’re better than the Shaggs, but nowhere near the Shangri-Las. This is fun, but not essential listening.