Billy Childish

by Monday, July 17, 2017

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Billy Childish is known for his introspective, autobiographical, and deeply emotional paintings, writing, and music. After leaving secondary school at age 16, Childish worked at the Naval Dockyard in Chatham as an apprentice stonemason. Initially denied an interview to the local art school, he produced hundreds of drawings that gained him entry to London’s Saint Martin’s School of Art. Childish’s defiance of authority led to his eventual expulsion from art school in 1981. Since then, Childish has gained something of a cult status worldwide, writing and publishing five novels and more than 40 volumes of confessional poetry, recording more than 150 LPs, and painting several hundred works. Through all of these disciplines, Childish addresses social, political, and personal issues such as war, protest, his turbulent childhood, and his struggles with addiction. While his confessional poetry and music explore these issues with startling honesty, Childish’s paintings are more subtle. His subjects are often drawn from his environment or are people he knows or admires: birch forests, self-portraits, a lone figure in a pastoral English landscape, and his wife as a reclining female nude. Childish works quickly and intuitively, making spare marks on raw canvas that leave much of it visible. He identifies with artists who worked outside a group or movement, intrigued by their outsider roles in society, such as Vincent van Gogh, Kurt Schwitters, and Edvard Munch. Labeling himself a “radical traditionalist,” Childish has a reverence for traditional oil painting yet has resolutely resisted any connection with a particular group or artistic movement.

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Never veering far from the path of homemade punk rock, blues and rock ‘n’ roll, Childish is the epitome of the homemade ethic, never signing to a label or using a producer. Childish’s bands have been championed by a succession of fashionable artists: Kurt Cobain, Beck, Jack White (who appeared on TOTP with Billy’s name scrawled on his forearm in homage), and even Kylie Minogue who named an LP after one of Billy’s poetry collections.

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Billy formed his first band, The Pop Rivets, in response to the Punk Rock explosion of 1977. The Pop Rivets were Bruce (gtr), Big Russ (bass) & Little Russ (drums). Unable to play an instrument, Childish took the vocal duties. They soon established a modus operandi; small gigs for little or no money, then borrowed 300 quid from a friend’s Social Security back pay & set about recording their now legendary Greatest Hits LP. The band played self promoted gigs in Switzerland & Germany & recorded a secondLP, Empty Sounds From Anarchy Ranch + two EPs before splitting up in 1980.

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Next Billy learned a few chords and joined up with his mate Mickey to form The Milkshakes. After releasing nine full length albums they split in late 1984. The Milkshakes were shortly followed by a new three piece band called Thee Mighty Caesars, with Graham Day (Guitarist of The Prisoners) on drums and John Agnew on Bass. Together they released eight albums. They are now acknowledged as the seed that influenced a lot of the first wave of Grunge and new Garage bands, including, Mudhoney, Nirvana & the Mummies. Thee Mighty Caesars stopped playing 1989, though never officially disbanded.

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Childish immediately formed Thee Headcoats along with old cohort Bruce Brand (Pop Rivets, gtr / Milkshakes, drums). They were later joined by Johnny Johnson. Thee Headcoats were Billy’s most prolific band, releasing some 19 albums and 40+ singles on around 20 labels including Sub Pop, Amphetamine Reptile, Damaged Goods & Sympathy For The Record Industry. Thee Headcoats toured the world, again without a manager or agent, and earned the reputation as one of the must-see bands of the ’90s. During this time Thee Headcoatees were also born featuring Ludella Black, Holly Golightly, Kyra Rubella & Bongo Debbie. Thee Headcoatees toured with the boys in the UK, USA and Japan. Thee Headcoats called it a day in 1999, and were quickly followed by the catchily named Wild Billy Childish & The Friends of the Buff Medway Fanciers Association, or The Buff Medways for short. Members comprised of Billy, Wolf Howard and Ex-Caesar/Prisoners Graham Day. It was probably the most commercially successful of Billy’s bands having been championed by Blur’s Graham Coxon who released two LPs on his Transcopic label in 2002. Again unsigned they released their final album Medway Wheelers on Damaged Goods before disbanding.

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Alongside this frantic activity lookout for collaborations with Sexton Ming. Billy and Sexton have been working together since 1979, on poetry, music and paintings. Their work is documented on five LPs and over 25 small press publications. They are inspired by the early Dadaists, Edward Lear, Captain Beefheart and the literature of the absurd. The Guardian described their material as ‘An authentic output of creative play’. Billy and Sexton describe it as ‘A smoking chimney stack that falls over and crushes your wife and kids’. Curiously both are true. Next up was Wild Billy Childish & The Musicians Of The British Empire, or The MBEs for short. Formed in 2006 they released three albums which included classic tracks such as ‘Thatchers Children’ ‘Joe Strummer’s Grave’ & ‘Christmas 1979’. This band featured ex-Buffs Wolf Howard on drums & Nurse Julie, Billy’s wife on bass.

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In 2010 The MBEs teamed up with Neil Palmer who was in one of Billy’s favourite bands The Fire Dept. who often supported Thee Headcoats back in the ’90s. They became The Vermin Poets, releasing one album before morphing into The Spartan Dreggs. The Dreggs released a series of five 7” singles in 2012 and a three album set in 2012. The group’s stated aim is “to describe the shape of the things sufficiently well so that others too may understand and explore, – or view more effectively the universe and the bounty within it – for themselves.” The MBE’s line up also carried forward into their latest incarnation, CTMF, or The Chatham Forts. (The Chatham Forts was the name Billy came up with for a group in 1976 when he only imagined the possibility of forming one). So far CTMF have released two albums and are about release a third, Acorn Man in December 2014 on Damaged Goods.

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Childish attended Medway College of Design, Kent in 1977 and Saint Martin’s School of Art, London in 1978. Solo exhibitions of his work have been organized at Rochester Art Gallery, Kent, United Kingdom (2016); Opelvillen Rüsselsheim, Frankfurt, Germany (2016); White Columns, New York (2010); and the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London (2010). Select group exhibitions featuring his work include BILLY CHILDISH, HARRY ADAMS and EDGEWORTH JOHNSTONE: Our Friend Larionov, Pushkin House, London (2014); Paintings Sweet Paintings, Neuer Aachener Kunstverein, Aache, Germany (2014); and British Art Show 5, City Art Centre, Edinburgh (2000).

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