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The Boston Phoenix Small Tales

Thee Headcoats

By Douglas Wolk

AUGUST 28, 2000:  Thee Headcoats were England's finest garage-punk-blues torchbearers for more than a decade, and they finally called it a day this spring after a couple dozen albums and twice as many singles. Led by singer/guitarist/songwriter/novelist/poet/painter/dyslexic genius Billy Childish (who released another ream of his own solo records in the same timespan, and that's not counting the records by Thee Headcoats' "ladies' auxiliary" Thee Headcoatees), they sometimes seemed to be trying to release a record on every label in the world. The easy joke to make is that Childish has written the same song 500 times; the easier joke is that that song is the Kinks' "All Day and All of the Night."

It's true that Childish has always stuck closely to the rawest garage-rock essentials -- guitar, bass, drums -- but the Headcoats' discography is sprawling in more than sheer bulk. It spans a remarkable range of songwriting and performance styles (though usually in the context of two-to-three-minute electric rock-and-roll songs), as well as an alarming range of quality. The I Am the Billy Childish anthology (1991) covered the first decade or so of Childish's recording career, but the new double-CD Elementary Headcoats: Thee Singles 1990-1999 (Damaged Goods) has a lot more high points. Childish usually saved his best songs for his singles, and though not all of these 50 brief songs are good, some are extraordinary. "When You Stop Loving Me" is a classic of its breed, three blistering, sneering minutes that missed out on the mid-'60s charts by only 30 years or so. "Every Bit of Me" is in the sex-loathing garage mode of the Syndicate of Sound's "Little Girl," but its lyrics are about being molested as a child.

Just how committed is Childish to the garage basics? Well, for Thee Headcoats' first Canadian single, he rewrote "Louie Louie" as "Louis Riel," with new words about a 19th-century French-Canadian revolutionary and a barely altered riff. Two years later, he recorded "Louie Louie" itself as another single, screaming it as if he were summoning up a demon to destroy his enemies -- and he backed it up with an "original" tune called "Louie Louie (Where Did She Roam)," which sounded exactly like guess what. The recording fidelity of Headcoats records actually went down over time; later singles appear to have been sung through a badly blown-out megaphone and recorded on a hand-held Walkman, sometimes to their detriment.

Garage rock is the angriest musical idiom there is, and there's a lot of rage in Childish's work, from his furious-but-proud lower-class English accent to the self-explanatory seven-inch dyad of "The Gun in My Father's Hand" and "The Day I Beat My Father Up." When the Headcoats got dissed by the British music newspaper New Music Express, they responded with a two-chord boilover called "(We Hate the Fuckin') NME." Elementary Headcoats ends with "Art or Arse?", an acid bomb that seems to be directed at Childish's old lover and artistic collaborator, Tracey Emin.

But there were also unpredictable streaks in the Headcoats' output, most notably the effete retro-whimsy with silly voices represented here by "My Dear Watson" and "Headcoat Lane." Elementary also includes a version of the Beatles' "Help!" done as Peter Sellers-inspired radio comedy, a couple of roaring Link Wray-inspired instrumentals, stumbling electric blues ("I've Been Fuckin' Your Daughters & Pissing on Your Lawns"), and some collaborations with Don Craine of genuine '60s garage types the Downliners Sect. Meanwhile, Childish has a new rock band with an even sillier name: Friends of the Buff Medway Fanciers Association (the Buff Medways, for short), after his favorite breed of chicken.

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