For casual fans of rock ‘n’ roll, Wreckless Eric is best remembered as some quirky, drunken oddball, a vestige of Stiff Records’ garage heyday in the late ’70s and early ’80s — that is, if they remember him at all. His only minor hit — 1977’s “(I’d Go the) Whole Wide World” — is influential, but also fairly obscure.
And that’s a damn shame. Not only did the singer and songwriter — born Eric Goulden — produce a trio of delightfully twisted albums for Stiff that took cues from pub rock, New Wave, power-pop and punk, but he’s been producing a stream of consistent and neglected albums ever since. A victim of the label’s more nefarious business practices, Eric spent some time in the ’80s defeating depression and alcoholism. But while fellow Stiff signees Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe have traded their early notoriety for considerable commercial success, much of Eric’s work has been left undiscovered and out of print.
What: Wreckless Eric
Where: Conundrum Music Hall, 626 Meeting St.
When: Saturday, June 21, 8 p.m.
With Josh Roberts
More Info: conundrum.us
Fortunately, that’s starting to change. For the last few years, Eric has worked with Fire Records to reissue his hard-to-find albums, giving new life to his impressive back catalog.
“We’re slowly reissuing everything I’ve ever done, really,” he reports in his thick Cockney accent from his home base in upstate New York. “Except the Stiff Records stuff. They have some weird idea that they still own it.”
The most recent re-release is 1989’s Le Beat Group Electrique, an album Eric recorded entirely at home with a few other musicians.
“The way things were at the time, the barometer and benchmark was Simple Minds, with that huge drum sound that drowned out everything else,” he recalls. “My album was about as far from that as you could get.”
Although it was released on a French label to poor reviews, its lo-fi sound seems prescient in 2014, as if predicting the rise of the richly appointed rock records that would emanate from the likes of Neutral Milk Hotel, Yo La Tengo and Elliott Smith — albums that are anything but obscure.
“We didn’t really know anything about lo-fi,” Eric confesses. “We were just trying to make the sound as good as we could with the limitations we had.” But even then he intuited the attractiveness of less-polished recording techniques. “By the end of the ‘80s, the component parts of the recording didn’t feel like they lived in the same space,” he adds. “I never liked shiny records anyway, with everything very crisp and present.”
Even setting aside the roughshod production, Le Beat Group Electrique demonstrates Eric’s powerful gifts as a songwriter. With a natural knack for indelible melodies and witty lyrics, this strong set of tunes belies the rough guitar work, dim drum sound and kitschy keyboards. And while his scratchy caterwauling predates the success of folks like Jeff Mangum and Alec Ounsworth of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, it’s used here in service of material that’s actually far more accessible than the works of those more successful artists.
Witness hook-driven ragers “Depression,” “The Sun is Pouring Down,” and “Sarah,” where dark subject matter begets some positively jubilant choruses. “Sarah” even appears to be a tongue-in-cheek rebuttal to the overly wrought Bob Dylan song with a slightly different spelling. Elsewhere, songs like “Just for You” and “I’m Not Going to Cry” predict the basement confessionals that The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg would unleash a decade later.
“I got an email from James McNew [of Yo La Tengo] yesterday, and he called [Le Beat] one of the greatest albums ever made,” he chuckles, basking in his overdue renown. “People said I was unhinged at the time, but it’s great to get the interest now. It just shows that you do your best stuff when no one gives a f#!k.”
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