A Dysfunctional Success
There’s thunder in the air, I could waste myself
I don’t feel too concerned about my state of health
It’s too bloody hot for self denial
I won’t resist, I couldn’t if I tried
—“I Wish It Would Rain” (1978)
When it was originally released in 1980, Big Smash came packaged with a second album, the US-only (at the time) greatest hits package, Whole Wide World. Three years on from his defining moment, the single of that same name, the alcoholic and self-destructive Eric Goulden was already at the very end of his record label’s tether, and Big Smash came across like a last wry roll of the dice. Sadly, only a couple of the Big Smash songs—“Broken Doll” and “Good Conversation”—were good enough to stand the shrink-wrapped comparison with the best of Eric’s previous work and the singer promptly disappeared for the next five years.
Since this new re-issue of Big Smash is similarly packaged, the same applies today. Fortunately, however, this time no-one expects Eric to disappear.
“In the early days of Stiff Records, Jake Riviera asked everybody what they wanted to be: rich or famous. I thought the answer was easy. I wanted to be famous because that was what was expected of me and, surely, if I had some hits, I’d be rich anyway. But ‘famous’ was the wrong answer. Elvis Costello, for instance, said ‘rich’.”
—A Dysfunctional Success: The Wreckless Eric Manual by Eric Goulden (The Do Not Press - 1998)
With hindsight, the Wreckless Eric story serves as a nice metaphor for the record label. Stiff, for example, started well, went rapidly downhill, and tends to be remembered for its few conspicuous successes and a couple of good jokes rather than as the home of some of the worst sub-pub rock nonsense and embarrassing novelty shit ever to see the light of the day. Similarly, we remember Wreckless Eric for the distinctive downtrodden yearning of “Whole Wide World”, the marvelous comic pathos of “Reconnez Cherie”, and the oppressive minimalism of “I Wish It Would Rain”. And not for the cavalier waste of vinyl that accompanied these moments of greatness.
On a convenient seat by the lavatories
In the sodium glare
We used to wait for the bus in a passionate clutch
And go as far as we dared
—“Reconnez Cherie” (1978)
Five years after his split with Stiff, Eric Goulden resurfaced, releasing A Roomful of Monkeys with a new band, Captains of Industry, which featured two of Ian Dury’s best Blockheads—Norman Watt-Roy and Mickey Gallagher. Shortly after, he recorded two further albums with a couple of ex-Milkshakes under the name The Len Bright Combo. Needless to say, Len Bright was conspicuous only by his absence. All three records easily surpassed all but the very best of Goulden’s Wreckless output—my personal favorite was “Young, Upwardly Mobile… And Stupid”—and it was easy therefore to assume he’d spent the intervening years cleaning up his once bedraggled act. But really, how could I know? Either way, Eric has been steadily productive ever since. He lived in France for nigh on a decade, where he recorded as Le Beat Group Electrique, and toured regularly in order, I assume, to supplement his royalties and humor his muse. Towards the fag end of the last millennium, he returned to Blighty and published a most excellent autobiography, before recording and releasing another new album Bungalow Hi; this time, for the first time in almost 25 years, under the name Wreckless Eric.
Curiously, just as Wreckless Eric returns, so too does Stiff Records, presumably with both eyes on the main chance. I’m not quite sure why Stiff has chosen to re-release Big Smash and four other equally second tier records from its vaults in order to announce its re-emergence. Maybe because the likes of Costello, MacGowan, and Suggs can afford better lawyers? Whatever, while Big Smash itself includes two or three decent songs sung reasonably well, and Whole Wide World contains everything else you could possibly need to hear from Eric Goulden’s 1970s incarnation, there’s really very little need to buy it while the superior Greatest Stiffs is still available on a well-known website near you.
Don’t get me wrong. I strongly encourage the curious or the clued-up to check out Wreckless Eric. After all, it’s just possible he’s a genius. And he’s certainly one of the very few songwriters to have been covered by Cliff Richard and Die Toten Hosen, the Monkees, and Yo La Tengo. Oh, and Will Ferrell. I just don’t recommend starting here.