|Thee Milkshakes, ca. 1984|
The Milkshakes formed in 1980 in Chatham, Kent, England, after Billy Childish's band Pop Rivets disbanded. Childish teamed up with local former roadie Mickey Hampshire, who'd been fronting Mickey and the Milkshakes, and as the Milkshakes the two set out, while enduring shifting rhythm sections, to write, record, and release as many records as was humanly possible. By the time I'd caught up to them in late 1984 they'd already issued seven albums and a few singles, over three years. In addition to their humor, and basic, rocking synthesis of Bo Diddley, Link Wray, and early Kinks, what intrigued me about the band was their other-ness—not simply as an obscurity from the U.K. but as a band that would never set foot in the U.S. (In '85 or so I heard a rumor, unfounded, that they'd played a one-off gig at the World in New York City.) Their inaccessibility only deepened my hunger to find everything they released; given their retro sound and vintage look, I felt as if I was chasing cobwebs in a time machine, which only added to the fun. I'd scour the newly-arrived bins at Yesterday and Today for a new Milkshakes album: I never knew when one would come in, but the odds were always good. This was the record-shopping era well before the Internet, when news and gossip about your favorite under-the-radar bands moved slowly, arriving sparingly in fanzines and major trade magazines, the latter monthly, the former sporadically. If you were lucky, you had a friend or a friend of a friend in England who could buy and ship records, or at least slide you news before it "broke" weeks later in Rolling Stone or SPIN. I worked in the undergraduate library while a student at the University of Maryland, and on slow nights I'd run downstairs to the periodicals floor and raid the stacks of months-old New Musical Express and Melody Maker issues, getting off on ads for clubs and record stores with pound signs, and absorbing commentary on the UK, and often the U.S., scenes.
I followed Childish's bands into the late 1980s—Thee Mighty Caesars and Thee Headcoats had some great moments—then turned away; he grew a bit too strident, Emo-ish, and lo-fi/Crypt for me. At times his painful autobiographical songs were gripping, and three cheers for going to work every day, but I was never a great fan of his "untutored" voice. He missed Hampshire's flair, I thought. I'd hear from U.K. friends that Hampshire had retired, then unretired, and was doing occasional shows in various outfits. He formed the Masonics in the late 1990s, and has released several albums with them. The Milkshakes have reformed once or twice, cut an album, done some shows, re-released several of their albums on Childish's Hangman Books and Records imprint as well a best-of compilation in 1990 on Big Beat. It's interesting to me that I really never went away from the Milkshakes. Nearly thirty years after first hearing them, they pop up on my iPod's random play to my delight, and I'll still have intense bursts of sessions listening to them, much as I did in college, when I'd spend days driving around Maryland and D.C. listening to nothing but the Milkshakes. Their intense commitment to writing, recording, and releasing records during their brief career always signaled something beyond derivation; like the best rock & roll, when the Milkshakes were good, they got into the music namelessly, unburdened by categories, and worked their way out, laughing.
How much can one really say about a retro band? Just this: they were a blast, they loved what they did, and their authenticity was born not out of slavishly copying, but of hard work. I'd only see rare black and white photographs of them throughout 1980s—good-looking guys playing rock & roll. Because I'd never see them in person, it didn't matter, finally, if they existed in the present or the past. Their songs are with me now.