In May 1974 the 20 year-old Eric Goulden wrote (I’d Go The) Whole Wide World. A decade later, and despite the enduring appeal of his most famous song (released in 1977 on Stiff Records under his bathetic stage name of Wreckless Eric), Goulden found himself without a deal and unsure of which way to turn. Having recorded an ill-fated album with the Captains Of Industry for Go! Discs, Goulden moved to Chatham, Kent, in 1984. There he fell into the orbit of the fecund Medway scene led by The Prisoners and The Milkshakes (the latter featuring Billy Childish, drummer Bruce Brand and bassist Russ Wilkins).
Childish and co. were in thrall to the purity of ’60s beat music as well as punk’s DIY spirit. The result was a sound and an attitude that Eric could readily identify with. Having seen The Milkshakes play the Medway Indian Club, Goulden ran into Wilkins in late ’85 and asked the bassist whether he fancied forming a band. Wilkins agreed, suggesting Brand as a suitable drummer.
A man with a rapier-like wit, Brand named the fledgling outfit The Len Bright Combo – a moniker based on a non-existent character around which Goulden felt duty-bound to elaborate.
“They sounded like a cross between The Kinks, the Velvets, early Who and Joe Meek’s wildest productions.”
The Combo’s ‘fan club’, for instance, was dubbed Les Bright People and began with 14 ‘members’ who signed up at a gig to receive a monthly newsletter. Typed and hand-drawn using magic markers by Len’s ‘brother’ Les (aka Goulden himself), it featured “paragraphs of puerile dross” alongside the band’s tour dates listed in the Klub Kallender.
The band’s distinctly DIY approach was typified by their debut album, The Len Bright Combo Present… The Len Bright Combo… By The Len Bright Combo. Recorded in two days in Upchurch Village Hall on a Tascam 8-track machine using a 12 channel mixer, the entire affair cost them £86 and was released on the band’s own Empire label with the newly sober Goulden mailing out copies to people he knew in the press. Soaked in reverb and sounding like a cross between The Kinks, the Velvets, early Who and Joe Meek’s wildest productions, the album framed Goulden’s wry lyricism perfectly, stand-out tracks including the maniacal thrust of You’re Gonna Screw My Head Off, the sarky drive of The Golden Hour Of Harry Secombe, and the yuppie-baiting Young, Upwardly Mobile… And Stupid.
Even though their debut sold “less than 2,000 copies”, a second album, Combo Time!, followed in 1986. Eric maintains to this day that this offering had “posher production” although recorded evidence suggests otherwise. Nevertheless, his acerbic songwriting remained firmly intact on the likes of (Swimming Against) The Tide Of Reason, The House Burned Down and the mordant Club 18-30. Furthermore, the band’s self-sabotaging approach to playing gigs in largely unfashionable venues was actually starting to pay dividends as they began to attract an audience who’d just discovered ’60s garage punk through the slew of compilations that had emerged in the wake of Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets. And then came a moment that sealed the band’s fate…
Following a show on September 13 at Bristol’s Moon Club the band were involved in a horrific accident on the M25 when their van hit a pedestrian walking down the motorway, killing him instantly. Suffering from shock, Eric, Bruce and Russ saw their relationships begin to splinter.
The Les Bright People communiqué of January 1987 announced their split and stated: “And that’s it – no reunions, ‘unofficial get-togethers’ or ‘comebacks’.” And, by and large, that was it, bar a short stint backing The Pretty Things’ Phil May and Dick Taylor for a few shows in 1991.
Then, last month, Fire Records announced that they were reissuing both Len Bright Combo albums in December. This was followed by the news of a one-off LBC show at The Lexington in London on December 6. This unlikely return to past glories prompted MOJO to speak to Eric, who joined us on the phone from his home in upstate New York where he now lives with his wife, musical partner and self-styled ‘mod housewife’ Amy Rigby. As ever, Eric was full of vim, vigour and his own distinct turn of phrase…
How did you end up reforming The Len Bright Combo after all this time?
Fire have my publishing and they really wanted to do the Len Bright Combo albums. I said ‘I don’t know about that’ because it involves other people, and then in the end I just thought ‘Fuck it! Go on!’ I felt terrible because I did it with no debate or discussion. And then I got in touch with everyone very tentatively and I said ‘We could… maybe… you know…. play…’ and they were like ‘Yes’. Even before I’d stopped being tentative about it everyone was in and we had a date booked.
When you cast your mind back to the period during which the band was a going concern and the trauma with which it ended, how do you feel now?
It’s quite a mixed set of feelings. On the one hand it was great because it was the point where I got sober. I realized that if you weren’t off your face, or looking to get off your face in some way, you could actually have quite a nice time. So there was that aspect.
Then there was the fact that we were deep in the throws of the Thatcher thing. I don’t know whether there was a general recession going on but around me in the ‘80s there was definitely a recession going on. I have photos of the Len Bright Combo on stage in places where there are women with huge hair standing in front of us looking perplexed.
I did quite like it because I knew we had found a level. It was never going to be like the old days of Stiff Records but I felt as if I belonged to something personally and the pressure was off. At the same time, it was very frustrating because we were actually quite good but literally no one cared.
Then again, we used to tell record companies to fuck off so there was no chance of us getting signed, but I’d been through all that and I hated record companies, so the Combo was a complete DIY operation from start to finish.
I thought we were quite a joyful band to be honest but, in the context of the ‘80s, everyone else thought we were an appalling racket. It might even sound modern now, though! But in the ‘80s it probably sounded horrible to people because in those days every snare drum hit was an event in itself.
Prior to the Combo, you were scarred by your previous life as a pop star…
Yes. I just went on tour a lot and when I came home I didn’t have any friends. Then people were telling you ‘You should do this’ and then you think ‘Yeah, maybe I should’. Then you realize that you don’t know where you fit in to this great plan that’s been drawn up for you. When everyone had finished having their idea about what I should do and who I should be, I didn’t have a clue about who I was or what I wanted to do.
When I got together with Russ and Bruce it was a complete accident, really. I wasn’t going to play anymore. I had some gigs that I had to do. I think there was one at the Edinburgh Festival. I didn’t want to carry on, really, and when we got together I thought we were awful, but it reminded me of being in a real group – the three of us. There was something magical about it. But, like you said, I was very scarred by the fall-out of Stiff Records. I used to make cassette demos and go in and see labels and they’d tell me the cassette was bad quality. Or they’d say ‘I can’t hear another Whole Wide World in there’ which was stupid. Why would you want another Whole Wild World when you’ve already got one?
To be honest, though, that song does still get played all the time.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m very proud of it. It’s a hit and it’s an absolute classic. You can’t exist on that, though (pauses for a couple of seconds). Actually, you can. I could have gone away and it would have been perfect. Better still, if only I’d died in a bicycle crash! It would have been a three-speed Humber that I would have been riding…
Wishful thinking aside, how difficult will it be to step back into the Combo after 26 years?
We’ll, I don’t know. We’ve all talked about it on the phone and it’s not just me who has trouble remembering how we did things. Russ said ‘Do you know what key we used to play the songs in?’ A good question. Then there’s the question of what guitars to use. I’m lucky, I’ve still got my green Microfret which I used to use a lot at the time and I’ve still got the same old amplifier. Bruce has found us a bass amp that will work. Russ has taken the bass out of his cupboard but the neck is hopelessly bent so he’s having to get a new neck fitted this weekend. Other than that, I do think we’ve agreed on the key signatures for a lot of the songs so we should be OK.
Bruce has warned us that the bass amp may not have the bumps, squeaks and rattles of the old one but we’ll have to make do. But, being honest, we never used to rehearse. We did a couple of one-hour rehearsals under the Rochester Road Bridge over the Medway and this was a disgusting place. You couldn’t hardly stand up straight in it, all the power came out of the light socket and it was the kind of place where you expected a sewage leak to occur. It has all The Prisoners’ cast-off equipment in there. We did think we should make it a regular Wednesday night thing, but in the end we just ended doing gigs instead, so it’s not in the Combo tradition to over-rehearse. I think we tried rehearsing somewhere else once but we didn’t like it so we just went home.
Thinking about it, we did about four hours rehearsal in the whole of the band’s career. But we’re all still playing and I still play some of the songs. Occasionally I whip out The Golden Hour Of Harry Secombe at some of my solo shows. When we do the show I hope everything doesn’t seem too fast and I can’t keep up anymore! (laughs).
You’ve developed your DIY approach more recently in the US by playing shows at your home…
Yeah. They’re billed as the Home-Made Aeroplane shows. We live in a house in upstate New York in a slightly run-down residential neighbourhood but we’ve got quite a bit of garden around the house so we’re not too close to anybody. We’ve also got a room that’s 25 foot long by 11 foot wide, so that’s the aeroplane. We put chairs in there and we have an audience who book on line and you get a boarding card and when you turn up there’s an air hostess who greets you who thanks you for flying Eric and Amy Airlines. She bustles about, ticks them off on a clipboard and puts meaningless, gratuitous staples into the boarding passes and ushers people through into the departure lounge… which is the kitchen. Apart from buying a ticket, you have to bring something to share. We always think it will be funny when someone turns up with a gram of coke or something or a big bag of marijuana but no one has yet. Someone did turn up with a big bag of oranges once. A lot of people turn up with alcoholic preparations of some sort but they leave most of it so we offer it to visitors when they turn up. They also bring the most wonderful food too.
“We did about four hours rehearsal in the whole of the band’s career”
So, these people end up becoming your friends?
I suppose they do. It’s quite nice really. Me and Amy play. We play two sets. The second set has a special guest who may or may not be someone famous. You do tend to think that famous people would go ‘Oh, don’t worry about it, I’ve got thousands of millions of pounds and I’d love to come and play’ but it’s odd because they’re not really like that. They often want paying a lot. We have had [Duplex Planet creator] David Greenberger. He lives up the road from us and he’s a frequent guest. We had our friend Frank who is a singer-songwriter who owns a lot of property round here and we’ve had Clay Harper from Atlanta with whom I’ve recorded before. We’re always on a lookout for someone who wants to do it.
You’ve also got your own radio show at the moment…
Yes but my records have been in storage for a while from when we moved. Then I did a few shows and someone went and sat on my record player so I had to declare a hiatus. The show is limping along, it’s safe to say, but people do seem to like it. I have even started a new website for it to make it easier for me and everybody else. It has been popular.
Crikey! It’s almost as if you’ve become a multi-media personality.
I am really. I make myself sick. I make myself absolutely fucking sick! It sounds horrible. I’ve got a volume of poetry and a couple of films coming too! (bursts into laughter) No, not really. Don’t worry. It’s all nonsense.
The last three albums I’ve done, I’ve done with Amy my wife, and we want to keep on playing together but she’s writing a book at the moment so that’s why I’ve busied myself, because when that comes out I don’t want to end up trotting around like Dennis Thatcher or the Duke Of Edinburgh. That would be embarrassing. Making unfortunate remarks and wondering where the next gin and tonic might be coming from. But she’s going to make a new record and I’m going to make a new record, and she’s going to help me finish all my songs because I’m terrible at finishing things. I’m like a deer in the headlights. I have half a song and I don’t know what to do.
Says the man who wrote the Whole Wide World…
Yeah. But people ask me how to write a song and I have to tell them that I wish I knew.
So, coming back to the Combo, what can people expect?
I will imagine it will be the same as it always was. We always liked each other but there was always a certain slight tension in the group. There was greatness. It was rough, we were rough and we used to play up to that. I used to discreetly tune my guitar to a pitchfork but I might use a guitar tuner this time around. I’m sure we’re bound to take the piss out of each other onstage. But it will be glorious because we were always glorious, it was just that sometimes we fell to bits.
It did go wrong some times when we’d play Knock Three Times On The Ceiling or Green Door which we always said was by Shakin’ Stevens. Our ‘official’ favourite band was always Manfred Mann’s Earth Band and we didn’t like The Housemartins. That was an official policy. I don’t know why, but we felt we should have policies. This time, though, we haven’t had a chance to talk about our official policies yet, so that’s still to come.
I don’t think we’ll sound very different to the way we did but obviously there’s my newfound African influences. Russ’s also been making a detailed study of medieval music, and Bruce done such a lot of great work with children over the years, so that will have a bearing on what we do... so you won’t want to miss us. And, who knows, after all this time we might be better at doing it.
The Len Bright Combo Presents… The Len Bright Combo… By The Len Bright Combo and Combo Time! are reissued by Fire Records on December 9.
The Len Bright Combo play The Lexington in London on December 6. Tickets are available here.
Wreckless Eric plays the following solo shows: Worcester Marr’s Bar December 8, Glasgow Woodend Bowling And Lawn Tennis Club (12), Edinburgh The Citrus Club (13), Gateshead The Central (14) and Leicester The Musician (15). Visit wrecklesseric.com for more information.