Photo of Billy Childish and the Heatcoates (below) taken by V. Vale
–VALE: It doesn’t seem like recording has gotten much “better” since that 1957 monaural one-take 78rpm recording of The Phantom singing “Love Me”–how many records can match that passion?
–BILLY CHILDISH: Yeah! I think trying to get feeling into what you’re doing means that you have to shy away from technology. The more technology that’s involved, the more money you spend, and the bigger distance there is between you and your reality. I’m not a career artist; I’m an amateur. I don’t have anything at stake, so I don’t have to go into expensive recording studios worrying about my “career”–‘cuz I don’t want one!
–V:If you think of punk as folk music, then it should have a catchy tune you can easily remember and sing along with. Initially, I was attracted to punk because the lyrics were political and dealt with “real” concerns.
–BC: Yes, but paradoxically, when they’re sort of crap and don’t really mean anything, I like that as well. Like the nonsense ones. Johnny Moped & the Mopeds was one of my favorite groups. The group were friends with the Damned; they were also from Croydon. Johnny Moped was totally, absolutely, naturally strange. His mother would dress him, and he’d go to gigs where he was supposed to play and wouldn’t be able to get in because nobody would believe he was in the band.
–V: If he were doing paintings, you’d call him a “naive artist”–
–BC: Yeah, and he wasn’t even trying to be. The Mopeds were absolutely the funniest group to see. They were brilliant, them and the Damned–talk about people who write a load of nonsense! I mean, bands like the Clash were really exciting, but after seeing the Damned or the Mopeds I’d go home with an aching jaw because they’d just make you laugh with childish delight.
–V: The Mopeds are a legendary early punk group that never got famous.
–BC: But they left behind a really good album and a couple of good singles. You know, I don’t like playing too often. You don’t want to become too serious. You don’t want to be a professional in anything you do because professionals destroy everything.
–V: Especially in art.
–BC: Right, because professionalism has nothing to do with creativity. I’m not talking about things like showing up on time–that’s just being decent. I mean people who’ve got this notion of controlling a whole scene and excluding amateurs–and of course amateurs are the ones who are truly creative. Take fanzines, for instance. I did a fanzine in ’77 before I was in a group–that’s how I started doing stuff; I didn’t have a clue. The first one was titled “Chatham’s Burning” [pun on “London’s Burning”], then “Bostik Haze,” [pun on “Purple Haze”], then “Fab 69,” and then “The Kray Twins’ Summer Special”–I did that one every summer. My friend Sexton Ming and I started Phyroid Press , which became Hangman Books around 1982. We put out at least 30 little booklets with titles like “The Old Onion of the Mountain,” “The Wild Breed Is Here,” “Bizarre Oxen,” and “The Cheesy Bug Gazette.”
–V: Why do you think you did all this? So many people don’t do much of anything, or they just go to jobs.
–BC: I can’t understand that. All I could do was paint pictures, so I painted, and then I went into–
–V: Right–haven’t you done about 1,000 paintings?
–BC: Oh christ, those are just figures people make up, but I’ve easily done more than that. I paint every week–THAT’S my main thing. I’ve painted since I was a kid and never stopped. It was only when I was 17 I started getting into music and writing poetry.
–V: And never quit, unlike most people.
–BC: Right. And it’s really good our band didn’t became famous, because if someone had “discovered” the Pop Rivets, that could have destroyed our creativity. Kids are stupid–you get a load of money and you can’t keep your head together. Everyone wants to be a millionaire, even if they pretend they don’t, and they’ll end up doing all sorts of undignified things.
–V: Not to mention repeating themselves creatively.
–BC: Well, supposedly I repeat myself creatively all the time–but I’m not so sure about that. I think some people don’t understand the sophistication in simplicity.
–V: Yes; it’s deceptively difficult to come up with a simple song that is “original”–
–BC: Actually, the quest for originality stops people moving, so I just don’t bother with originality. You can strive for originality but there will always be someone who did something similar. So you use whatever’s there; besides, you can never repeat anything exactly the same. And even if you try to do something similar, somehow it will strangely turn out to be different. Ray Davies [Kinks] said that “You Really Got Me” was meant to be a copy of “Louie Louie”–yet it couldn’t sound more different! If you’re going through a period where you’re working in a mechanical mode trying to sort out some problem, the next part tends to appear all on its own, just by dint of doggedly working.
–V: I’m glad you attacked the concept of originality, because that constipates so many people: “Am I really being original?”
–BC: In Japanese the word for “copy” is the same as the word for “learn”–I really like that. Van Gogh couldn’t draw, so he forced himself to copy other people’s drawings for five or six years. All that heritage is there to provide inspiration; it wasn’t copying, it was learning.
Sometimes I help young writers put a book together and then someone says, “Oh, that writing’s just like Billy Childish’s.” I say, “Sure. But if you work at it long enough, it won’t be. Everyone takes a bit from here and a bit from there.”
Someone’s always saying, “You can’t do that–it’s like so-and-so” just to stop people. We had a group called Thee Headcoatees, featuring my old girlfriend and other girls who had never sung before, and we recorded an album. My girlfriend took the album to play for her mother who, before she even heard it, said, “But YOU can’t sing.”
–V: That’s so typical!
–BC: You know, parents and teachers are the ones who always tell kids they can’t do things; I wasn’t allowed to sing at school because I’m tone-deaf. I think that’s a reason to allow me to sing; children should be encouraged, not stopped. They don’t stop you studying math because you can’t do it. I’m somebody who likes projects; I do these things to entertain myself–as far as I’m concerned, art and music are all children’s games anyway!
Everyone’s got ability to some degree, and if you don’t use whatever you’ve got, you’re never going to develop anything. And why not do something, even if you’re bad at doing it? When punk rock happened, suddenly all these crappy groups started up and miraculously produced all these brilliant singles–they’ve all got one great song in them. People believed the idea, so they made the punk scene exist; they made songs exist. A bunch of people got together, picked up instruments, and all of a sudden they were making great music because they didn’t know how to do it. If the punk thing hadn’t happened, these people might never have done it.