Joe Bonomo on the Milkshakes
Sometime in the mid 1980s I was in 45 annex store of Yesterday and Today Records in Rockville, MD, when an employee played me a single from the U.K.. Within the opening moments of "It's You"—with it cheap guitars, crude barre chords, raw, hoarse vocals, stomping rhythm—I knew I was going to love this song. I'd been driving around town for months looking for a copy of the Kinks' "I Need You" 45, and here was a something that sounded nearly as good, by a contemporary band no less. I assumed that they were contemporary, anyway. The single read "1982" on the back sleeve, but everything else signalled "1962"—the front photo was a grainy black and white of the band members holding vintage gear, posing stiffly alongside a river; I was certain that post-War bomb craters, unfilled, would come to dominate the image if the photographer panned out. The font and graphic design were retro, the music and Derek Taylor-styled text decidedly so. No matter. I spun the record to death, soon annoying my girlfriend and my patient buddies, one whom dismissed the band as sounding as if someone gave the early Beatles a hundred bucks to try and play harDCore. Meanwhile, I set out to buy everything I could by the Milkshakes. An unwitting education in authenticity commenced.
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.
But news about the Milkshakes was hard to come by. Who were they? What and where is "Medway"? (And is there really a "Medway Sound"?) How can the band release so many records? Does the band even exist? When I scored a copy of the live album Stomping at the Klub Foot, which featured the Milkshakes and other Medway bands, it was odd to see pictures of the Milkshakes onstage: oh, they're real men who actually live now. It felt at times as if the Milkshakes were a toy band, or a fake group. They seemed unrealistic to me in their Beatle-Hamburg-era dress code and U.K. provinciality, and yet the records would keep coming: Talking 'Bout...Milkshakes; Fourteen Rhythm & Beat Greats; After School Sessions; The Milkshakes IV—The Men with Golden Guitars; The Milkshakes Sing and Play 20 Rock & Roll Hits of the 50's & 60's; The Milkshakes in Germany; Nothing Can Stop These Men; Showcase; They Came They Saw They Conquered; Thee Knights of Trashe...all released within three years, including five in 1984 alone. Around the time I first heard of them, they'd changed their name to Thee Milkshakes, a funny send-up of the Roman Era ethos they played with, mock-serious and timeless, all togas and guitars and laurel crowns. They were over by 1985. Billy Childish was off to form Thee Mighty Caesars and chase an insanely productive, manic solo career—in and out of different bands, and as a writer and a painter. Hampshire was off into obscurity.
Mickey Hampshire was the reason I loved, and the reason I still love, the Milkshakes. For all of the band's retro posturing and locked-in-time songwriting, Hampshire was a fantastic, expressive rock & roll singer, underrated to this day. He rocked hard but also wrote desperate, mid-tempo ballads that contrasted with Childish's lo-fi stomping and Link Wray idolatry, and a handful of these tunes—"Don't Love Another," "You Did Her Wrong," "Thinking 'Bout That Girl," and "Despite The Danger"—are affecting stuff, melodramatic and worshipful, yeah, but Hampshire's singing—his howling, really—always felt sincere to me, well past derivative into emotionally sound. He sang "you" as "you-wuh," an inexplicable UK-ism that I loved, and while I dug Childish's workmanlike khakis and sport-coat look, Hampshire was responsible for the sartorial style I tried doggedly, if mostly unsuccessfully, to cultivate while in college (he's on the far right in the above photo, from the back of Thee Knights of Trashe). He sang with a half-grin. And he was a great screamer, too (listen to "Brand New Cadillac.") He always sounded drunk. I had a non-sexual crush on the guy.
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 signalled 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.