Eric Goulden (a.k.a. Wreckless Eric) is a pioneer of the British Punk and New Wave movements, though he would deny that. He has been active and touring since the mid-1970’s and broke onto the scene with his self-titled debut album in 1978, which was fronted by his hit single “Whole Wide World”. The song has become the definitive rowdy, punk tinged love song of the British New Wave era and experienced a resurgence in 2006 when it was used in a standout scene from the Will Ferrell film Stranger than Fiction. Eric started out as a staple member of Stiff Records, a renowned British label that included Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, and The Damned among others. He eventually left Stiff in the mid-1980’s and has since released three albums under his “Wreckless Eric” moniker and frequently collaborates and tours with his wife, American singer-songwriter Amy Rigby.
Wreckless Eric and many others will be performing at the Savannah Stopover Music Festival in Savannah, Georgia on March 9-11, 2017.
This interview took place on January 28, 2017.
Alex Peeples: What can people expect from one of your shows on this tour?
Wreckless Eric: I’ve been playing solo, sometimes with electric guitars sometimes it’s with acoustic guitars, it sometimes changes from show to show. I find that you either communicate with the public or you communicate with your band, and I prefer to communicate with the public. I’ve been playing a lot of the AmERICa album lately, but I never really know what to play. I feel like I’m obliged to play certain things sometimes.
AP: Do you ever get tired of playing “Whole Wide World”?
WE: No, I got beyond that because it’s a hit. And that’s every kid’s dream is to have a hit, well I had a hit! It would be stupid to be like “oh there’s that one again,” I mean it’s great. I can be buoyed up by the audience’s enthusiasm, so no I don’t get tired of playing it. You shouldn’t hate your biggest hit. I was touring in ‘78 and there was this sound engineer who was working with us before the show and we had been playing all the stuff from the newest album and this guy says “Where’s ‘Whole Wide World’?”. I said, “No one wants to hear that, that’s last year” and he said “Oh, people do!” He said “Play some of your old stuff and be proud of it.” So I do now, I play things like “Reconnez Cherie” these days. The rule for me is, if it doesn’t mean something to me I don’t play it. Some make sense to me more. I don’t feel like the person who wrote certain songs anymore and if I can’t believe in it then I won’t do it. Like there’s a song called “Veronica” that people often want me to do but I just don’t want to play it anymore. There’s songs that I’ve started doing more recently like “Duvet Fever” off The Donovan of Trash which I started playing on a tour that I did with my wife and I thought, “Why did I never play this before?” Stuff comes and goes, but there are some people who only do their old stuff and some who are only interested in their new stuff. I saw Television recently and they were just playing together, it wasn’t a nostalgia show they were just a band playing together, it was great. They’re probably better than ever.
AP: You’ve got a song on The Donovan of Trash about the producer Joe Meek and the band The Tornadoes and I know you’re big fan of them. Who are some other early influences that people may not immediately pick up on from listening to you?
WE: Well Joe Meek produced an awful lot of stuff. He also produced a band called The Honeycombs who put out an album called All Systems – Go! and the guitar playing on that record is spectacular. And there was a pub group called Chas & Dave who had a lot of hits in the late seventies, they were considered to be a bit of a novelty act. But they could swing like fuck. I think the sort of later wave of British punk people really liked Chas & Dave. But you know I was growing up in Britain in the fifties and sixties, so I was about nine when The Beatles came along.
AP: Speaking of British punk, you tend to be grouped into that British New Wave/Pre-Punk scene in the late 1970’s.
WE: Yeah it’s complicated because I tend to get labeled as having something to do with pop rock and I have nothing to do with it. My only connection to it is that the A-side of my first single was produced by Nick Lowe and the B-side was produced by Ian Dury, both of whom were in pop rock bands. I never played in any of those kind of clubs, I kind of started above it and worked my way down [laughs].
AP: I’ve read that Ian Dury was the only guy from the Stiff Records era that you really kept up with after you left.
WE: Well he wasn’t part of Stiff, Ian was just with Ian. I was on Stiff Records when I met him in 1976 and we became friends. This one time he just said “Come over to my place Tuesday night ‘round seven” and that was the most weird time because The Sex Pistols were on Bill Grundy that night. I got to his place a little and I didn’t want to be too early so I went into this pub and had a drink. So I sat there, and there was a TV and The Sex Pistols came on. So of course that ended up being the famous “fuck off you old cunt” interview. That was one of the three great moments of great pop TV. There was The Who smashing their instruments on Ready, Steady, Go!, Jimi Hendrix on The Lulu Show when they did “Sunshine of Your Love”. On that you can almost see the crew getting held back from pulling the plug. And then the Sex Pistols were the third. And I saw them all, so I could die after that [laughs]. But Ian had a magnificent charisma, and he wanted to be Gene Vincent but his voice was too deep. And he was a terrific drummer, which is astounding when only half your body works. He actually played drums for me once but everyone kept watching him at the shows instead of me! I had a silver record, my album was near the top five but everyone was looking past me at the drummer [laughs]. He was a wise man, a wonderful man, he was a cunt but he was brilliant. I had a nervous breakdown in the late eighties and he was the first person who came to see me. The day after I was admitted he was there. And he gave me a mile long lecture and he said the best thing that anyone ever said to me at that time. He said “if you look after your talent, your talent will look after you.” And he was right! And I just started to value it and listen to it and thanks to that I’m still going! It’s really kept me afloat so he was right.
AP: Have you ever identified your sound as “punk”?
WE: It was kind of difficult because, it was hard to tell what was going on that time. I think punk did an awful lot of bad.
AP: Why’s that?
WE: By the time they had labeled what punk was, which they never really did they just gave it a name, it was “this is called punk”. They decided what it was based on that. And I think they never really got it right because no one fully understood what was happening, there was something very interesting happening but once they publicised it, the Neanderthals got a hold of it. It was just kind of exploited by these dumb bands that didn’t really have much to say except that they were unemployed and they were really pretty thick, there was no wit in it. Because especially in England, punk was never really a working class rebellion, it was the middle classes. We were the first generation whose parents got divorced. There had never been “teenagers” before, that came in the fifties. And then in the seventies we were teenagers who were having this thing forced on us where our parents had been through the war. My mother was supposed to be out and enjoying herself and dating men but she was hiding under the staircase of her house while bombs dropped. It got to where when I was like eight or nine, she took me to where she grew up and it was this street of row houses and across the street there was a gap in the houses all propped up with wood, and the house that had been there was right across the way from my mother’s house and it had suffered a direct hit. I asked her “where were you” and she said “right under the stairs”. It was heavy. Until the end of the seventies there were still bombed out houses. So I think our parents were heavily traumatized. And they wanted everything for us that they hadn’t had for themselves. But that don’t work with kids. We were like, “I don’t fucking want it, I don’t want to go to university, I don’t want to be a teacher, I don’t want to marry a nice girl.” One day my dad said, “so what do you want to do?” and I said, “I want to travel”. So he was like, “what are you going to do are you gonna sleep in ditches” and I said “…yeah”. I did all them things, ya know? It was like disaffected youth where you’re frustrated. Because there was money and student grants, we had the wherewithal to experiment, it was unbelievable. Now they’re saying life under Reagan was pretty good, which uh… [laughs]. But back then we were just finding stuff out. There wasn’t real money to start a band though, the bands were all made out of saved up money or it was stolen. Everything was kind of gummed together and it was like a celebration of a certain kind of inability. The problem is when it became “punk” and it was known as that, the rules came in. People are very good at making rules, they come in and say “we’re breaking all the rules!” and then say, “well we’ve always done it like that.” It’s kind of childish. A lot of things got outlawed, I tried to record a Syd Barrett song in 1978 and punk people were furious. There was this bigotry that creeped into things. Like sometimes I listen to disco and I think it’s pretty great, but back then you couldn’t listen to that kind of thing. We tend to hate a lot of things just by association, because they remind us of a certain kind of people. Like my wife wouldn’t listen to Traffic because that was what Republican bikers were into back then, but I played them for her one day and she really liked it. You know just because a kind of music reminds you of a certain time or person doesn’t mean it isn’t good, sometimes you have to peel back layers and layers of association and prejudice from these things.
AP: So at the time that you were making your first album, what did you make of Punk and New Wave? Like before they really became exploited?
WE: I couldn’t really see it because I was in it. Radio stations would be like “are you Punk or New Wave?” and I just be like… “well I don’t know” and I never knew. I know that at the beginning of my career I was kind of celebrated by the label as being odd, but as they got more successful they realized that odd wasn’t selling. They tried to make me just sort of do the pop thing like Morrissey and stuff, they thought they could get a hit with that. They were like “well you’ve got a drummer with polio and a girl who can only play three notes, it might be better if we got some ‘professionals’.” It was less good, it was more normal and eventually I felt that it wasn’t me anymore. That was when I left Stiff, which was shame really. But anyway, I don’t know if I was punk or new wave or what. I remember one time I saw Brian James from The Damned, who were on Stiff. And I had a talk with him, and he said “The thing is that we like you because you were doing it your way. And everyone wanted to help you but you weren’t having any of it.” That was difficult position to be in, you know they talk about someone “plowing a lonely furrow” and that may have been what I did but that’s what you have to do.
AP: So do you think that people put too many labels on music?
WE: Oh of course they do. I got thrown out of a radio station in England once because the DJ said “So tell me, how would you describe your music?” which is the most stupid question. Because you play it and it describes itself. But in a world where you have to sell tickets you’re supposed to describe shit like it’s on a restaurant menu. And I’ve never set out to do something that’s never been done before. Because you end up sitting there most of your life trying to come up with something, but it’s good to do something that you haven’t done before. Lately I’ve been writing songs on an electric piano, which I can’t play very well but the sounds and chords on a piano suggest something very different than if I wrote them on a guitar which I’m very used to, and because of that it’s gets repetitive since I’ve been writing on guitar for fifty years. And sometimes that’s how it has to be. And I know there are some artists who feel like they have to stick to their branding, they have to stick with that certain thing that they’re known for. And I just think, “what are they making another record for?” It’s just another one of what they do. I know that I do have a certain sound and I’ll have continuing viewpoints but I try to always do something a little different with it.
AP: Then how do you think music journalism should be done? If it’s not going to be just slapping on all of those labels?
WE: There are people who write about music who are really trying to make the reader want to listen to the music. And then there are people who are just trying to earn fifty dollars for putting their review out, as the artist you work really hard on this record and then someone just tries to establish themselves as a writer by putting something nasty out there. That’s not at all informative. The bad reviews say more about the reviewer than the artist. But music journalism’s difficult, I once interviewed Wayne Kramer from the MC5 for a German magazine, just out of the blue. And he had been to prison, so I asked him “can you tell me why you went to prison?” and he was surprised and I said “well everyone knows you were in prison, so why did you go?” He said, “No one’s asked me that the whole time I’ve been out.” Yet he had been on a big interview tour just after he was released. And he told me his story about selling half a pound of cocaine to a federal agent and after he was done explaining the backstory I said, “I’ve got one more question. What was it like in prison?”. He didn’t stop talking about it for an hour. I had all the stuff on tape and I hardly said a word. It was like a six page interview and it was all about him. That one article did more for his career in Germany than everything else he ever did because I didn’t get in his way. That was the one time I’ve done anything journalistic. So I find that sometimes journalists ask a question and find out what the answer’s going to be so their asking it just becomes a formality and that happens quite a lot. To be a journalist you have to want to know stuff, which is why I did so well with that Wayne Kramer interview because I really wanted to know stuff.
AP: Even though you think that punk lost its edge when it got big, do you still think that politically charged music can survive in this kind of political climate?
WE: I think that that sociopolitical aspect is inherent to music, that’s just art. The arts, literature, music, they are linked to human necessity. Now, humanity is linked in that same way to socialism. You’ll find that most artists, actors, writers, musicians, are socialist in their thinking. It’s to do with humanity. So, there has always been that and people will always find ways to let you know that. Like, I never subscribed to the Billy Bragg school of ramming shit down your throat because most people who are gonna listen know that already. You’re preaching to the choir, with all of that “Which Side Are You On” stuff, they’re on the same side. I thought “Rock Against Racism” was a great thing, some friends of mine in England are trying to start it up again. That made people aware. People would go out to meet girls and then they’d be like “The band is saying this, and the girls are saying this, well I’d never thought about it like that before.” You can insert a certain amount of influence as an artist, now I don’t think I’m going to turn someone around. If you’re a white supremacist or a misogynist, I don’t think a band is going to turn you around. We’re just trying to heighten awareness bit by bit. When I went across America on tour I saw the Trump signs, and at the shows I asked the audience “are you registered to vote?”. Because you may think that voting is like pissing into the sea and seeing if the water rises, but your vote is your say in the running of this country. I thought that if I got a hundred people engaged in voting, that wouldn’t do a whole lot of good, but if there were fifty other guys going out like me than that could do a whole lot of good. For the most part it is preaching to the choir, but if you can get the choir motivated, then the choirs might all get together.
AP: Did you go to any of the women’s marches?
WE: I did go to the one in New York. I didn’t expect it to make me feel that much better, or that I feel like I’ve got some kind of power or autonomy. I’ve felt a little powerless lately to be honest, and I don’t really know what I can do at the moment. But the march I thought was empowering, it was healing as well. That was a very good start. I don’t know what happens next though. There was a retired a senator who said, “if you want to get to a senator or congressman, you bother them while they’re eating. An email won’t do any good, a phone call that they won’t ever hear about won’t do any good, but if you bother them while they’re eating or going about their personal life, you’ll get to them.” You’ve got to get them in person, if he’s buying perfume, if he’s in the stall in the men’s room, he’s sitting down to dinner, no one’s gonna listen to a voicemail. It’s perfectly legal and this is the advice of a retired senator.
AP: What’s changed between making an album in the late Seventies and making one now?
WE: Back then I don’t think I really knew what I was doing. Sometimes I go into the studio with a bunch of people and a song that I’ve written, sometimes I do things on my own. I like going into it every day and not knowing what’s gonna come out. Some days feel like a complete waste of time but you can find something to use from it.
AP: Do you still have the Rickenbacker from your first album?
WE: Oh that Rickenbacker, well that photo is kind of a curse to me. Because the press were saying it was pop music so I thought, “that’s like Herman’s Hermits” so I just dressed up. But that Rickenbacker was a piece of shit. It was stolen from Cyril Jordan which I didn’t know and I bought it for a very cheap price and then it was stolen from me. Which is probably for the best because if moved your hand on the neck the thing would go out of tune.
AP: What about the old green guitar that seems to always shows up in your press photos?
WE: When I bought that it was in a warehouse. It was made in 1969 and when I found it it had been in that warehouse for ten years and it was in perfect condition. I played it for years, I don’t know if I’ll be playing it at Savannah Stopover because lately I’ve been using a Telecaster, which is modified. I’ve been using an Alvarez acoustic with a hole in the top too.
AP: So why should people care about Wreckless Eric?
WE: Oh man, that’s a horribly difficult question [laughs]. I think for some people I’m kind of like a portal to another time. I’ve been doing this for forty years so they think that maybe I’ll open a portal to take them to some other time. And I don’t know if I can do that. But you get to a point when you’re completely okay with knowing what you’re doing and having utter confidence and no fear of falling to bits in front of everybody. You’re like “Is this working? Is this okay? Oh fuck it I’m doing it anyway.” You don’t really know how it’s gonna land but when it does, I’ll be there to do it. And you don’t get that from a twenty-year old. Someone once said to me, “You achieve a hundred percent more with a hundred percent less energy expended than you used to.” A huge thing about doing stuff is that if you’re thinking about what your girlfriend will think about it, or what the record company will think about it, or what the audience you played in front of last week will think about it, then you’re getting in your own way. Because the first thing you have to do is to actually create.