As Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby the pair has been performing since 2006, touring Europe and the US and releasing critically adored albums “about once every two years,” according to Rigby. The music on those records is the kind of timeless, song-based pop that, in today’s Auto-Tuned apocalypse, seems like an endangered species. The duo’s newest effort, A Working Museum, which was funded by a recent Kickstarter campaign and comes out this month on Goulden’s own Southern Domestic imprint, is a classic in waiting that takes the pair’s already impeccable track record to the top shelf. Its 11 diamond tunes wrap Rigby’s sweet-honey tone and Goulden’s endearing whine in richly ringing ’60s melodies, glammy guitar hooks, and heartbreaking, country-twanged harmonies. The album’s title is a reference to another seemingly vanishing breed: the working musician. Gallows humor aside, however, it was recorded at home with guest Chris Butler of the Waitresses and Tin Huey and sure sounds like it was fun to make, what with all the twosome’s newfound psychedelic flourishes. More than anything, though, it sounds like the two truly love what they do, and know how to do it far better than most. Which makes sense, because each of them was already doing it very well long before they met.
Goulden grew up in the seaport town of Newhaven, East Sussex, in 1954. “There were still bombsites around from World War II, an old Victorian railway bridge that had to be cranked open by hand to let ships into the harbor,” he says. “Besides the car ferry to France, the big thing was the Parker Pen Company, where my dad worked for 37 years.” An aunt gave him a Chubby Checker LP, but the first record Goulden remembers being truly fascinated with was “Globetrotter,” a 1963 hit single by the instrumental group the Tornados (of “Telstar” fame). The record’s compressed, futuristic production, by the troubled studio genius Joe Meek, sparked an ongoing interest in the recording process; Beatlemania and its attendant Beat boom came next for the young Goulden. But by 1976, between his studies at art school, the closet songwriter was trapped in a go-nowhere job as a quality control inspector at a lemonade factory. “I read about this new label that was just starting up called Stiff Records and then I heard [the label’s first release] Nick Lowe’s single of ‘Heart of the City’ and ‘So It Goes’ on the radio,” he recounts. “I quit my job and made a tape of me playing all of my songs into my girlfriend’s cassette recorder. I got the address for Stiff and it turned out to be this record shop. I was really nervous but I left the tape with this nice American guy working there, who I later found out was Huey Lewis [the ’80s MTV schlockster’s pre-News band, Clover, lived in London and backed Elvis Costello on his early Stiff sides]. Then I read that Stiff had signed the Damned, who at that time were fabulously entertaining live but just awful as musicians. I thought, ‘If they signed that lot, maybe they’d sign me.’”
A few days later Goulden got a call on his hallway payphone from Stiff chief Jake Riviera asking him to come down for a chat, and he inked a deal with the soon-to-be-seminal label. Where did the “Wreckless” moniker come from? “In those days everybody was using a different name every week,” he says with a shrug. “It’s just the one that stuck.” With Lowe as producer and another recent signee, Ian Dury, sitting in on drums, he cut “(I’d Go the) Whole Wide World” and another original, “Semaphore Signals.” Released as catalog number BUY 16, the 45 became a UK hit and was followed by more great singles—“Reconnez Cherie,” “Take the Cash (K.A.S.H.),” “Broken Doll”— two similarly fine albums, The Wonderful World of Wreckless Eric (1979) and Big Smash! (1980), and a slot alongside Costello, Dury, Lowe, and others on the infamously debauched Live Stiffs tour, which took place in the heady punk year of 1977. “At first, with Stiff it’d felt like we’d all gotten into the basement of this building called the music industry and were finally disassembling it,” says Goulden. “But on that tour things started to get nasty—fights, managers arguing, everybody doing lots of speed and drinking bottles and bottles of vodka.” In the early 1980s, after no bigger hits materialized and depression and disillusionment set in, Goulden dropped out.
Born into the “American Dream” of suburban Pittsburgh as Amelia McMahon, Rigby had a dad in the steel industry and a stay-at-home mom. She took piano lessons while young but hated to practice, being much more interested in her Elton John records and her big brother’s Who and Led Zeppelin albums. “I talked my parents into letting me go to public high school instead of the Catholic school they wanted me to go to, ostensibly because [the former] had a good art program,” Rigby says. “But really it was because there were boys there.” Besides an emerging interest in art and the opposite sex, there was a budding obsession with all things New York. “Somehow, the [local chain supermarket] Giant Eagle started carrying [Gotham-oriented music magazine] Rock Scene,” she explains. “So I’d read about all of these cool people and new bands in New York.” In 1976 she enrolled at the city’s Parsons School of Design, which was located, conveniently enough, mere blocks from CBGB, where she started going to see bands “almost every night.”
It wasn’t too long before she at last had a band of her own: Stare Kits, a noisy No Wave outfit in which she played drums and her younger brother, Michael McMahon, played bass. Stare Kits never recorded and only performed twice (“a debut gig and a reunion gig”), but it was a start—and a good way to meet boys. One of them was dB’s drummer Will Rigby, who she married in the early 1980s. Later that decade she and Michael started the pioneering cow punk quartet Last Roundup, which put out one album before heading out to pasture. Next came folk-pop harmony trio the Shams, which released a single on Bob Mould’s S.O.L. label, an album produced by Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye, and an EP for Matador Records before that band, as well as the singer and her first husband, split up.
While Rigby was finding her footing Goulden was undergoing a renaissance that began with Captains of Industry and the garagier Len Bright Combo, which in 1986 bashed out two rollicking longplayers before imploding. After a move to France, he released two Wreckless Eric albums, Le Beat Group Electrique (1989, New Rose Records) and The Donovan of Trash (1991, Sympathy for the Record Industry), and a 1997 EP as good ol’ Eric Goulden. Meanwhile, back in the States, Rigby had waxed a stunning solo debut, 1996’s Diary of a Mod Housewife (Koch Records), with Cars guitarist Elliot Easton in the producer’s chair. With its poignant, anguished, and humorous slice-of-life glimpses into single motherhood that pulled from ’60s pop and girl groups, country, and folk, the set elicited heaping praise from the press. 1999’s Middlescence (whose “All I Want” was covered by Ronnie Spector) and 2000’s The Sugar Tree (both Koch) were similarly well received; 18 Again, an anthology of cuts from the first three albums, appeared on Koch in 2000. Not long before the latter’s release, Rigby relocated to Nashville with the aim of becoming a professional songsmith, but after two years had had her fill of Music City business. She met Goulden around this time and the two, although both involved in other relationships, stayed in touch.
In 2004, the two rockers shared the stage once again, this time at one of Yo La Tengo’s coveted Hanukkah bills at Hoboken, New Jersey, club Maxwell’s. Family developments, however, brought Rigby to Cleveland, from where she continued to tour and released Til the Wheels Fall Off (Koch, 2003), another collection of transcendently crafted tunes. But, as one lengthy late-night phone conversation lead to the next, the inevitable finally happened. Goulden came to Cleveland for a spell before the couple married and immigrated to France to live in the country house he owned there. Rigby unveiled 2005’s Little Fugitive on the Signature Sounds imprint—appropriately, it would turn out, as the typically superlative disc contains the composition that would become her signature song: “Dancing with Joey Ramone,” a handclapping, heartfelt, and dizzyingly sweet ode to the now-gone vocalist. “I pretty much wrote it in the morning, after a dream, just like it says [in the lyrics],” Rigby explains. If this were a just world, the irresistible pop gem would be blasting out of iPods everywhere.
The husband-and-wife team unveiled its eponymously titled first album in 2008 for the revived Stiff Records, which was hailed as a masterpiece and a return to Goulden’s glory days with the label. Its follow-up, the sparkling covers collection Two-Way Family Favourites, came out, as per Rigby’s above observation, two years later on Southern Domestic. “I’ve been a fan of [both singers] for decades, but seeing them together brings out something new in their work,” says Phoenicia music book author Holly George-Warren, who was profiled in the March 2011 issue of Chronogram. “Their voices really compliment each other—they’re like the Ian & Sylvia of punk rock!”
Since its 1977 release “(I’d Go the) Whole Wide World” has become something of a modern folk song, being performed by artists as divergent as the Monkees and the Proclaimers and even actor-comedian Will Farrell in the 2006 film Stranger Than Fiction. Is its author tired of the tune at this point? “No, it’s great,” he says. “People get all teary eyed and tell me how much the song has meant to them, which is really fantastic. My mum really did say [the song’s] opening line to me. I was a kid and I was depressed because I didn’t have a girlfriend and she said, ‘There’s only one girl in the world for you, and she probably lives in Tahiti.’ So I guess I owe her some royalties for that. Seriously, though, everyone in England thinks I’m rich because of ‘Whole Wide World,’ but the label just totally fucked up on the publishing stuff and I haven’t made nearly what I should’ve from it. But, then, think about ‘Gloria’ by Them, which is just three chords and played by almost every garage band, everywhere. Since ‘Whole Wide World’ is only two, maybe it’ll get played by even more bands someday.”
“It’s definitely a special song,” says Rigby. “I’ve always thought that.”
“Well, besides being the song that got me known it’s the song that got me my wife,” says Goulden.
It’s a beautiful thing, the way music can bring people together.
A Working Museum is out this month on Southern Domestic Records. Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby will play at Bowery Electric in New York on September 7 and the Take Me to River Festival in Hastings on Hudson on September 8. Wrecklesseric.com. Amyrigby.com.