“Whole Wide World existed before Stiff Records, and exists after Stiff Records, and it’s a thrill to play,” Wreckless Eric reflects on the power-punk single from ’77 which remains his most famous song.
Though a veteran of the infamous Stiff Tours with labelmates Elvis Costello and The Damned, his rackety, observational records since leaving the label are better – several made with his American wife, singer-songwriter Amy Rigby, who declared at the 100 Club last year that “I married punk rock”. They live in Catskill, New York, midway between antique-shopping yuppies and mountain rednecks – a good spot to make Eric’s new album, amERICa.
There are two sides to amERICa on your new record – prejudice in the song White Bread, and the wonderful music you list in Have A Great Day.
When you tour in the bit in the middle of America, then you start to understand. You see all this stuff: ‘No Food Or Comfort To The Enemy.’ ‘Uncle Sam Wants You To Speak English.’ But I’ve also met the most enlightened people there. The worst waffle house in the world is in Alabama, where when this old whore said, “Oh, that guy, he’s so useless, he couldn’t even get the butt-plug in,” we were the only people that turned round [laughs]. But Huntsville, Alabama is the home of NASA. I was talking to this guy after a show who’s got software orbiting Venus. And look at the south, which has given so much musically, and is so misunderstood. You get that with Lynyrd Skynyrd, who are despised by people who can’t actually hear what it is that’s there. They just go, “Oh, that’s southern rock. It’s all cocaine and machismo.” Maybe there is a certain amount of that, but it’s not the fucking point. The point of Lynyrd Skynyrd is they came from nothing and had to crawl out of it.
There’s a line in the new song Transitory Things:_ ‘No one knows how hard it is for someone else just to exist.’_ Is part of songwriting for you looking at people with that element of sympathy?
I wrote it for Amy, really, because I think I must be very difficult to live with. But that’s a good thing about getting older – you kind of see how it might be for other people. It’s very funny, I was playing at the wedding of Alabama Shakes’ producer Andrija Tokic, down in Tennessee. I was all on my own. And because I’m all shy and not that confident, I thought, “I have to be self-possessed. I’ll do self-possessed.” I thought, “My God, I must be doing a good job,” because no one spoke to me. I’m looking at all these young, groovy people in suits who don’t look like they usually wear suits, with hair down over their shoulders and bandanas, and they just look great, and I feel so old. Then I got set up to play and this groovy band came up, all stammering and nervous, and said, “I just wanna say, it’s such an honour to play on a bill with you.” And bit by bit, everyone I spoke to was going, “Oh my God…” And I thought, “They’re not stand-offish, they’re in awe of me.” And I thought, “Yeah, that’s quite good, really!” [Laughs] So sometimes people are defensive, and they’re insecure. Instead of thinking, “What are they thinking of me?” you have to think, “How do they feel?” That’s the wisdom of being older.
Touring America, have you had to keep your mouth shut sometimes?
Yes, and I wasn’t very good at it. I used to get a lot of guns pointed at me. Like when we arrived at this motel at about 11pm and I had to phone someone in England. And so I pick up the phone in my room, dial downstairs and it rings and it rings. Then eventually a guy says [gruff American voice], “Yeah? What?” “Oh, I’d like to put through a call to England.” And he says, “You can’t do that now.” And I said, “Well, if I can’t do that now, what the fuck did you answer the phone for?” He said, “What did you say?” “I think I said, ‘What the fuck did you answer the phone for?’ It seems a sensible question – you could’ve just turned the ringer off, then your sleep wouldn’t have been disturbed, would it? But then, I’m not stupid.” This guy said, “You get your Limey ass out of my motel right now!” and storms up the stairs with a big gun! [Laughs] Now, I can pull the genial old buffer card. Then I was a red rag to a bull.
There are some great guitar sounds on amERICa. Do you still get a lot of pleasure from that?
Oh, shit, yeah. I still get a thrill from an amplifier warming up. The sound you can get, that’s all we’ve got. People dress it up and say you’ve got to have solid songs, but a lyric is just a noise.
Whose electric guitar first really walloped you?
I can remember we got onto The Beatles right at the front of it and had all the 45s. Twist And Shout particularly – I couldn’t believe that sound. Eventually I found out it was something in the compression, but I didn’t know for years what I was hearing. And then when I knew more about guitars, Are You Experienced by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. And by that point I’d go to the Brighton Dome, and then later on to a Brighton blues club called Jimmy’s. You see, by ’68 I could see a man strangling a guitar with his bare hands three times a week. I’d always get up to the front and figure out what they were doing. Allan Jones in _Melody Maker _said my guitar playing was the most psychotic he’d heard since Syd Barrett. But on Stiff I was derided for it.
The Stiff days are always described as a series of hilarious japes and scams. Was it like that when it was your life, not just a yarn?
It was hilarious at the start. Jake [Riviera, Stiff co-founder and Elvis Costello manager] would always say, “Just insult them. They don’t need any more than insulting.” But suddenly the people we’d been taking the piss out of were working for the company and it just went bland. When Jake left, there was no real vision at Stiff. And then there was Madness. Their music says to you politely, “Oh yeah, that’s like when I was growing up,” but it doesn’t grab at you, it doesn’t shake you up and go, “Listen. This is what it’s like.” It’s not a cry from the heart. The sound is genteel. Like Crawford’s Custard Creams.
Did you feel you were just hanging around on Stiff after a while?
I started off there with Whole Wide World, and Nick [Lowe] took charge of that. But by the second album it was, “This is your producer, and this is the studio Pink Floyd use.” I wasn’t allowed to play guitar on it because I was told I couldn’t play, and that I couldn’t really sing, so, “Why don’t you talk your way through it like your mate Ian Dury? And how crippled is he, actually? Can he fuck?” I thought, “Fucking hell, this cunt is producing my record.” And by the third record, I’d do anything they wanted. It’s like being a prisoner of war. Will the torture stop if I do this? Maybe I’ll have a hit and they’ll get off my fucking case.
I believe you’ve been flicking through Elvis Costello’s new autobiography?
Oh, yeah. Apparently he called me a horrible little git, which I thought was a bit unnecessary. I thought he had more class than that. I suppose it’s hurtful to me, for five minutes. I’ve been called a belligerent alcoholic dwarf and all kinds of fucking things in the press and it’s horrible. You don’t need that from one of your own. But he’s not one of my own, is he?
What did you think punk was, back when it started?
I thought punk was one of the worst things that happened to music. Not the actual thing, but after they’d given it a name, which just gave rise to another set of rules: “Nah, if it’s got more than three chords we ain’t playing it… oh, and you mustn’t know anything about music.” I mean, there was stuff that was getting out of hand, like later Yes – and Kiss, for fuck’s sake. But Captain Sensible said to me a few years ago, “I’m still catching up. They told me it was all crap and I believed them.” I love it that there’s now a generation like the Mississippi band Hartle Road, who I’m friends with, who go, “You might not like this, but we’re into Phil Collins.” “What?!” They’ve said, “Will you listen to him again?” And I’ve promised them I will. But Phil Collins was ruined for me by hearing him endlessly on dire pub and cafe sound systems. Like right now in the pub we’re in, your Kate Bush is on and it sounds like gas escaping from a pipe to me. But I don’t want to malign anyone – which is one thing we’re better at than Americans.
There are other differences too, like picking Peter Capaldi to be Dr. Who. I bet no one in America’s ever seen teeth like that on TV before…
I’m resisting getting mine replaced. When there was the anti-British thing over the second Gulf War, Republican Americans were saying, “Yeah, we hate them, with their horrible little teeth.” [Laughs] I’m proud of my crooked yellow teeth. And by the way, I wanted to be the next Dr. Who. But I’m not on their radar, am I? I thought James Bond, but I’m probably more a James Bond villain now, controlling the world through a small room in the Catskills full of rubbish! Yeah, I like that idea. But I could be Dr. Who. I’d be good at it.