‘Be a clown, be a clown, All the world loves a clown,
Act the fool, play the calf, And you’ll always have the last laugh.’ (Cole Porter)
The subject of this post, Wreckless Eric (or as his mother knows him, Eric Goulden) has held a prominent place in my musical affections since I first heard his glorious, signature debut single (I’d Go The) Whole Wide World on the John Peel radio show in early 1977. The song exploded from my transistor radio speakers announcing the arrival of a plain speaking blue collar visionary – the antithesis of the ‘woe is me in forty verses’ singer-songwriter school of the early 1970s.
Whole Wide World benefiting from the instrumental and production chops of the ubiquitous Nick Lowe and drummer Steve Goulding is an irresistible anthem of adolescent male romantic fantasy and lust (which are inevitably yoked together in all males up to the age of 90 or so). Some of my favourite lines in all songwriting are in this song:
‘ There’s only one girl in the world for you and she probably lives in Tahiti(!)’
‘And then in a year or or maybe not quite We’ll be sharing the same next of kin’
The song though devastating simple in construction builds and builds through thrilling crescendo choruses until all but the dead must be up and dancing while singing along at the top of their voices. Eric’s vocal manages to be both deadpan and crazed – a trick he pulls off regularly in his career.
Eric got his break in the music business curtesy of Stiff Records which functioned from the late 70s through to the early 80s as a kind of guerilla operation mocking the bloated moribund goliaths of the existing recording industry. Formed by the hyperactive, loquacious Irishman Dave Robinson and the manically ambitious Jake Rivera it was launched through a £500 loan from Dr Feelgood lead singer Lee Brilleaux.
Based in Londons scruffy Bayswater Stiff Records became a big tent filled with a picaresque gallery of rogues, vagabonds and chancers who also happened in some cases to be electric and eccentric talents. Stiff was a mad party always dancing on the cliff of chaos and collapse yet for a few wonderful years somehow always staggering on through pulling another unexpected talent out of the hat.
The roster of artists on Stiff included Ian Dury with his patented Chaucerian wit and vulgarity, Elvis Costello exuding beligerant songwriting brilliance, Nick Lowe – the prince of impure pop for savvy listeners and Madness the custodians of cultural memories for their generation, who between them issued a magical series of instantly memorable hit singles.
Amongst the milling crowd Wreckless Eric stood out as the house clown. Yet as many an observer has noted the clown is the real heart of every circus. They are the ones, falling down and getting back up again and again, who form the deepest relationships with the audience. We may ooh and aah at the daring of trapeze artists and admire the skill of the jugglers but often it is the jack of all trades clown who we remember with most affection when the big top is rolled up at the end of the night.
So while I unreservedly admire the ‘big names’ from Stiff’s glory days it was always Wreckless Eric for me!
Listen to him here on another song no-one else could have written, ‘Reconnez Cherie’ – a deliriously enjoyable plebeian beat ballad which also functions as an an acute sociological survey of working class romantic encounters ‘neath the sodium glare of the city street lights. Also, of course, including some properly woozy saxophone and accordion in honour of the bohemian subject matter!
Though Eric was held in great affection at Stiff no-one saw him as a future star and moneyspinner. He was, ‘encouraged’ to play up his hapless drinking and to collaborate with other more conventional writers. Naturally, this did not go down well with the Wreckless one! His second record for Stiff contains two classics for my money – the beautifully crafted black humoured , ‘Final Taxi’ and the one I present to you below, ‘Take The Cash’ a song beloved by the late Lou Reed (something of a connoisseur of demotic songwriting).
The start of the 80s saw Eric on a downward spiral that threatened his talent and indeed his life. In the following decades I have followed his erratic progress and wished him well through his saga of alcoholism, bankruptcy, nervous breakdown, European exile, slow recovery, a blessed happy marriage to a fellow musician and many, many, musical incarnations. Eric records came out under a bewildering series of sobriquets: The Len Bright Combo, The Captains Of Industry, Le Beat Group Electrique and The Hitsvile House Band.
Yet, throughout all these vicissitudes he has written and recorded highly distinctive songs demonstrating that behind the shambolic appearance lay a sharply intelligent working man writing truthfully about everyday lives as they are lived on the mean streets and wrong side of the tracks in towns and cities all over the whole wide world.
As a maverick talent himself Eric was drawn to the story of the legendary producer Joe Meek who in the pre Beatles era recorded monster hits like, ‘Telstar’ in a ramshackle studio run out of his tiny second floor London flat. Here’s Eric’s heartfelt tribute, ‘Joe Meek’
It was in the wilds of rural France, during the 1990s that Eric got his life back together and began to connect with the world again. He was later fortunate to meet, fall in love with and marry Amy Rigby who shared his astringent and sinewy songwriting ability as shown in her own catalogue of highly recommended records.
If you are lucky you can see them in concert these days performing a very satisfying banquet of their combined oeuvres and some judiciously chosen covers. The clip below is a backstage snapshot complete with swearing and shaggy dog anecdote featuring Eric and Amy’s take on Johnny Cash’s, ‘I Still Miss Someone’.
There’s no sheen or sophistication here but what I see and hear is a togetherness, a truth and a tenderness that is rarely found. It seems that after all his trials and winding trails Wreckless Eric has found the safe harbour we all need if we are to travel bravely to the world beyond.
Long may he run!
Eric’s first two records are unreservedly recommended. After that until the joint records with Amy Rigby (which are wonderful) I would urge you to investigate his catalogue through the streaming sites and the video channels to discover which songs appeal.
Eric has written a typically forthright and unforgettable autobiography, ‘ A Dysfunctional Success – The Wreckless Eric Manual’.