Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
Chalk it up to human nature, but people have an innate need to categorize things. So critics, fans, and other curious onlookers wasted little time painting punk rock in broad strokes when the then-nascent genre invaded mainstream culture circa 1976-77. Threatened by the overt political dissent of the Sex Pistols and The Clash and the sophomoric simplicity of the Ramones, many tried to brush punk rock off as little more than a crude trend underpinned by childish noise.
Of course, a closer look at the bands and scenes that grew around the inaugural punk movement proves that that kind of blanket assessment doesn’t quite hold water. Easy as it was to make sweeping generalizations about what punk stood for based on its three biggest musical exports, skirting closer to the margins were bands and labels carving out niches for themselves within punk rock’s general framework. One of those labels was Stiff Records. Founded in 1976 by Jake Riviera and Dave Robinson, the London-based label’s roster cast a bit of a wider net. The Damned’s darker take on punk rock was one of the earliest influences on goth, while new wave and pub rock acts such as Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, and Nick Lowe were indebted to the spirit of punk rock more than necessarily the music itself. Stiff also laid claim to the debut release from Eric Goulden, which 38 years later still stands as one of the most accomplished exports from punk’s first wave.
The simplistic cover of Wreckless Eric’s 1978 self-titled debut, boasting little more than Goulden decked out in a gaudy leopard-print suit and a shit-eating grin, spoke of a guy plenty ready to play the punk rock part. The pin on Goulden’s jacket proudly proclaims, “I’m a mess.” He might be halfway dressing the part of Johnny Rotten, but he could have just as easily been referring the shagginess of his songs. His scrappy, English affectation canvasses the record’s 10 tracks, giving the debut the kind of brash, untended surliness that defined early English punk. But there’s a lot of charming adolescence beneath Goulden’s sneer. Humor has always had an important role to play in punk, and Wreckless Eric revels in tales of asshole kids from the wrong side of the tracks (“Rough Kids”), young love (“Reconnez Cherie”), shady imposters (“Brain Thieves”), and the squalor of fringe English life with snide humor (“Garnish your bottom with powder, wipe it with paper,” he says helpfully on “Personal Hygiene”).
There’s a part of Wreckless Eric that is undeniably a product of its specific place and time, but musically, Goulden wasn’t keen on being boxed in completely by genre. Forgetting for a moment that “Whole Wide World” has grown in stature over the years to become a punk rock anthem, Wreckless Eric’s best moments are defined not by crunchy power chords (there are actually few of those moments to be found), but songs that slither their way through garage rock (“Telephoning Home,” “Waxworks”), ’50s-inspired greaser rock (“Rags And Tatters”), and other styles that begat the punk movement. With Dury and Lowe behind the boards as producers and others such as Glyn Johns logging time in the Wreckless Eric sessions, it’s not hard to figure out where the record got its sophisticated lean. When Davey Payne’s languid sax solo chimes in in the middle of opening track “Reconnez Cherie,” it’s a move that even more accomplished punks like The Clash were still a good year or two away from pulling off themselves. In a genre where most bands outwardly rejected the conventions of mainstream rock music, Goulden embraced tradition.
Goulden released a few more records for Stiff, including The Wonderful World Of Wreckless Eric later in 1978 and Big Smash in 1980. He’s since maintained a decidedly underground profile, recording and touring prolifically with many bands under different monikers. But his debut remains his biggest strike, securing him a favorably cultish niche in the years since its release. Defined as much by what it isn’t as what it actually is, Wreckless Eric was a punk rock record in philosophy much more than it was in sound. It wasn’t what fans pegged for punk in 1978, but its willful subversion of a genre already defined by not playing by the rules made for a catchy, quirky celebration of the devil-may-care punk rock ethos.