Whole Wide World picture sleeve (BUY 16)
Few labels put together as interesting a roster of artists as Stiff Records did in the late 1970’s; this applied not only to the more enduring legends associated with the company such as Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello, but also to those whose success was more ephemeral. Wreckless Eric was an example of the latter: he never had a real hit single, and his peak period was relatively brief, but the records he released during his tenure with Stiff made him a cult figure. Wreckless Eric was the stage name of Eric Goulden, a former art student who moved to London in 1976 to become a musician. He made a tape of some songs, sent it to Stiff Records’ Jake Rivera, and soon, Wreckless Eric was signed to Stiff. His first Stiff single, “Whole Wide World” b/w “Semaphore Signals” is the featured single of the day.
The lineup for this song included Eric (guitar, vocals, drums), Davey Payne (saxophone), and Barry Payne (bass guitar). One probably wouldn’t expect much from the first single released by an art student cum musician, and yet Wreckless Eric succeeds massively here. “Whole Wide World” wasn’t really a hit single, but it did reach #1 on the U.K. alternative chart and has enjoyed something of a revival as a result of its inclusion in the Will Ferrell movie “Stranger Than Fiction”. The ultimate in simplicity, it uses only guitar chords E and A. The lyrics are also relatively Spartan, contributing to the song’s “urchin charm”: “When I was a young boy/My mama said to me/There’s only one girl in the world for you/And she probably lives in Tahiti/I’d go the whole wide world/I’d go the whole wide world/Just to find her”. The song is played in 4/4 time, with the only difference being a somewhat more spirited strum during the chorus. Unlike many of the other songs covered in this blog, I can’t really rave about the skilled musicianship of the band. Eric does a good job on guitar, and the rhythm section fills out the sound pretty well, but the simple fact is that the song doesn’t require a virtuoso to perform it, and Wreckless Eric himself can’t sing on key. But that is part of the appeal of the song; here, to say that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts isn’t just a cliche. In a way, “Whole Wide World” is an exemplar of the zeitgeist of the punk era, in which the spirit of the music often transcended the limited skill set of many of the musicians. And it didn’t hurt that Nick Lowe produced the song, either.
For the B-side, “Semaphore Signals”, Wreckless Eric employed a slightly different lineup. Denise Roudette (Ian Dury’s girlfriend) played bass guitar, and Dury himself produced the single. Once again, the song is about a girl, but unlike “Whole Wide World”, the girl isn’t an imagined ideal woman, but is a real girl whose parents disapprove of the protagonist’s intentions: “I live up here on this hill/She lives down there in the green belt/Her parents don’t like me cos I’m come from this hill/There little girls future is in doubt”. As a result, all he can do is send “semaphore signals to the girl I love.” The melody is almost as simple as the one in “Whole Wide World”, but the rhythm section – especially the bass guitar – plays a much more prominent role. On this track, it seems as if Eric abandons even the pretense of trying to sing in tune, and his singing gets more and more over the top and tuneless (especially on the chorus) – and amazingly enough, it works. His guitar playing seems sloppy (Roudette’s bass is competent, but not especially impressive), and the song is all the better for it. The song ends abruptly after 2 minutes and 58 seconds. A live version of this song can be heard on the album “Live Stiffs”, recorded during the 1978 Live Stiffs tour.
At least in the U.K., the single was issued with a laminated picture sleeve featuring a black-and-white picture of Wreckless Eric and the Wreckless Eric logo across the top. The catalog number was BUY 16, and although I’m not sure, I assume it was issued with the black-and-white Stiff Records label.
Wreckless Eric performing Whole Wide World on TV
Wreckless Eric performing Semaphore Signals (2005)