A mate called it punk's Trout Mask Replica. I don't know if that's true, but if it makes people draw connections like that one, you know that it's an essential if challenging record.
The Back Catalogue of Robyn Hitchcock
My, what a task. I can't claim to be a completist, not by any means, but I think I have enough material to write about here, certainly enough to set anyone interested in Hitchcock, (but never knew where to start) on some kind of path of discovery. As usual I'm writing this from a fan's perspective.
Of course, I shall be biased, in stating both my disappointments and criticisms as well as my praise. Ultimately though, despite my best descriptive efforts, Robyn Hitchcock is such a unique and so special an artist, any appraisal of his work is meaningless if you don't listen to the recordings themselves. So, I entreat you, read this then go and buy them all (or all of them except Groovy Decay). Then you'll realised why I'm getting so excited.
May I also extend thanks to the great learning and assistance showed by Mark Polaroid (known hereafter in this review as MP). I couldn't have covered all bases without the help of this guiding light of the pop scene.
Part the first - The Soft Boys
Robyn made his reputation with this, well, (and there have been many attempts to describe them) "retrodelic" four-piece in the aftermath of punk. Or rather, he made his and the band's reputation after the band split, because the Britain of 1978-1980 wasn't really equipped to deal with the sonic questions the Soft Boys posed. I remember re-listening to them in the mid-nineties and finding their sound startlingly fresh and contemporary. So, it's safe to say, they were a wee bit ahead of the times.
You are never going to find the Soft Boys ep, even the re-issue which came out about 1986, (unless you have money and determination in bucket loads) The albums the Soft Boys produced however, are readily available.
Wading Through a Ventilator EP (1977, released 1984)
MP: This is a gap I can fill for you. Six wildly literate, surreal songs with titles like The Yodelling Hoover. As hard and energetic as punk but much more dense with complex duelling guitar arrangements and vocal harmonies. Hitchcock and Rew's guitars ascend in tightly coiled ascending metallic spirals, like The Byrds meet Beefheart.
The first sign of Hitchock's boundless verbal/melodic creativity is that there are two songs here with the same manic backing track (Vyrna Knowl is a Headbanger/Wading Through a Ventilator) with totally different lyrics/hooks. A scarily talented guy,I saw Hitchcock cover She is Beyond Good and Evil by the Pop Group a couple of years back and, to me, it flowed naturally from where he was at during this period, though a lot of people lazily dismiss him as some sort of twee xerox of Syd Barrett.
Can of Bees (1978)
An incredible listen, even in today's musically saturated times. It's got a real thick scaly hide, but once you get over the shock (or maybe irritation) of listening to stuff like Sandra's Having Her Brain Out you will, I promise, find it incredibly catchy. Witness Human Music. And the playing, it's so intense. A driving rhythm section makes the album thump along, just listen to in Leppo and the Jooves for proof. The guitar thrashes around, always, it seems, up for a fight with the listener. As for the lyrics, I often wonder what kind of creative dam burst when Hitchcock set these words to the music.
A mate called it punk's Trout Mask Replica. I don't know if that's true, but if it makes people draw connections like that one, you know that it's an essential if challenging record. No wonder no-one got it at the time. Oh, and before I forget the version of Cold Turkey is better than John Lennon's. Fact.
MP: In a lot of ways, Hitchcock is the natural heir to Lennon's crown as his generation's leading acerbic, surreal wit of English pop. I think he was maybe dropping a hint with the Cold Turkey cover. As an aside, last year I saw Hitch and various Soft Boys cohorts including Ed Harcourt cover the entirety of the White Album in order at the Three Kings pub for Medecins Sans Frontieres and it sounded utterly inspired throughout, often actually surpassing the original Beatles recordings for emotional impact. Seriously that good.
Still can't work out why true UK success has eluded him while the USA welcomes him with open arms into their highest cultural circles (REM patronage, recent guest starring role in Hollywood "The Manchurian Candidate" remake, obsessive fan base queuing for hours at any record store PAs). I understand how the USA gets the Monty Python aspect of his work and can bypass the inverse class snobbery of the UK indie scene but you would have thought that, as a quintessentially English artist, there would at least have been a South Bank Special or Lifetime (Under)Achievement Award by now somewhere along the line. Future generations will catch up, I'm sure!
Invisible Hits (1983)
Released first long after the demise of the band, these were recording sessions pre-dating to the classic Underwater Moonlight album. Stylistically the Soft Boys undergo a change, Andy Metcalfe passing over the stewardship of the bass guitar to Matthew Siegelman means the band begin to chart poppier waters (as seen by tracks like Empty Girl and She's a Reptile). It's a lot less jerky and armour-plated than Can of Bees, may one say groovier?
Still, there's plenty of time for visceral psychedelic diatribes such as When I was a Kid and The Asking Tree. There's a lot more space and movement here too. A big favourite is Rock and Roll Toilet when the band swap instruments and record a track that is a big improvement the "straight" version.
Underwater Moonlight (1980)
A sure-fire classic by anyone's standards. Quite why this lp isn't common currency amongst music afficionados is astonishing. I think it's possibly one of the most brilliant albums of the 1980s, paving the way (or rather lighting the beacon) for the Post Modern movement. That's my guess, anyway. Enough! Let's talk about the songs. Right from the beginning the album is wrapped sonically in a kind of shiny silver and pink material, the songs glitter and sparkle. Yet the music and the messages in the lyrics, never lose their focus. Themes of war, destruction and death (I Wanna Destroy You, Insanely Jealous) are counter-balanced with brilliant sucker-punches concerning the rejuvenating and recreative power of love (Positive Vibrations and Kingdom of Love). Then there's the fact that this has to be the greatest pop album that never made it; how can you refuse to cut some rug to Underwater Moonlight or Queen of Eyes? Perversity is there still, in bucket-loads, Old Pervert leading the way, closely followed by I've Got the Hots. A classic.
Plus, if you get the Rykodisc re-issue, you get a bonus cd of the Moonlight sessions. Fantastic. Amazingly the band recorded the album for about 50p, and then split up directly afterwards.
Live at the Portland Arms (1988)
Bugger! I wish I had this! There are bits sprinkled around other cds, but If anyone's got this, can I buy it?
MP: I have one of the original 1983 tapes and I remember it literally took about 2 years of my adolescence to arrive after I ordered it off an inner sleeve or something. It eventually arrived once we came back from family hols. I'd totally given up on it ever being delivered but fantastically there was a typical Hitchcock-ian letter apologising for the cock up with badges etc. It's a lovely playful acoustic set, a real dusty 1950's doo wop feel in places. In amongst the Soft Boys material, there are all manner of weird covers which sound like Hitchcock originals eg I like Bananas Because they have no Bones, like those Songs the Cramps Taught Us compilations. Recorded in 1978 with the band sheltering from the punk storms sweeping the UK in the safe harbour of a Cambridge folk club, Hitchcock regales the friendly audience with elaborate streams of unconsciousness, Gnomic poetry, relativity theory and tales from the punk front line.
Very joyous and witty, like a musical Radio 4 panel game featuring Eddie Izzard and Peter Cook. You're either going to love it or hate it. I love it but I must admit when I re-listened to it for this piece, immediately afterwards even I had to follow it by blasting out a tape of Black Flag 7" singles to counteract the atmosphere of cucumber sandwiches and footlights reviews this conjures up. Nothing like a bit of honest to goodness US proto-hardcore when you've been vertiginously teetering around the abyss of Henry Cow for 45 minutes. But I would thoroughly recommend it if you ever see it. Surely someone has uploaded it onto the Net somewhere...?
The Soft Boys 1976 -1981 (1994)
Two cd set with lots of rare stuff that everyone should own. It's a great introduction to the band, containing much standard fare mixed in with very early stuff (Soft Boys ep and snippet from the "lost"album) and rarities (alternative versions of Insanely Jealous and Underwater Moonlight) plus the usual live outings. I remember forking out a fair penny for it at the time, and I've not seen it around for a while. Keep your eyes peeled.
Part the Second - Robyn Hitchcock; Solo Material & The Egyptians
Black Snake Diamond Role (1981)
And I told you Underwater Moonlight was good. A belter of a debut album, somewhat looser in delivery than the Soft Boys, more pastoral in parts (The Lizard, Acid Bird), its psychedelic influences are plain to see. The strength of the songwriting means that Hitchcock glides effortlessly between styles; witness the opening three tracks. The breezy piano-led Man Who Invented Himself lulls you in a false sense of woozy camaraderie, which lasts for about two seconds once the jerky psychic knees up of Brenda's Iron Sledge has started. Follow that with (personal fave) odd-ball rant Do Policemen Sing, and you're struggling to keep up. The re-issue has the bananas Happy the Golden Prince (the best un-used intro music of all time?) and a great rambling version of I Watch the Cars. This is an absolutely fantastic album. The Libertines would have killed for songs of this quality.
Groovy Decay/ Gravy Decoy (1982/1986)
After the rise, came the fall. To be blunt, this album is lacking in anything remotely Hitchcock-ian and I wouldn't waste money on it. It looks like a Hitchcock LP, the songs were written by him, that's for sure, but it sounds terrible, leaden where it should be sprightly, thin where it should be opulent. It's a bore. Hitchcock disowned it. The complicated history behind its recording goes some way to alleviating the blame from him, but even so, the songs don't stick in the mind the way the ones from the other albums do. A demo version Gravy Decoy, was released in 1986, and you can buy both LPs on one cd now, but don't bother.
MP: I have to say I totally disagree with you on this one, Mr Foster. Despite production problems, I think it's a creative leap on from Black Snake Diamond Role. A new seam of concise dark pop gems beginning to be mined, anticipating the full rebirth ahead the Egyptians and Fegmania a couple of years on. My version was Groovy Decoy, so that might explain it.
I Often Dream of Trains (1984)
"The fight back starts here", as they say. If I was a little harsh in my condemnation of Groovy Decay, then I shall be completely over the top in my praise of this (for me) his crowning achievement. A stripped back sound, often allowing only for piano and acoustic guitar, allows the true strength of the songwriting to shine through. It also means that the album has much more of a timeless quality than later releases. The lightness of touch means that tracks that would normally rankle elsewhere such as Uncorrected Personality Traits are a fantastic listen here. There is an air of menace, sarcasm and melancholy too, just listen to Sleeping Knights of Jesus or I Often Dream of Trains if you want proof of that. Sometimes the simplest songs can be so affecting. Someone I know cried when they first heard Trams of Old London. Again, get the re-issue with the fabulous bonus tracks if you can. Highly recommended.
After the restorative and healing process of Trains, Hitchcock assembled a band comprising of Soft Boys veterans, the Egyptians, and set about recording this LP; ostensibly (or so I believe) as a film soundtrack (at least Man with the Lightbulb Head was recorded with this in mind). The results were the most poppy album of his career and a refreshing psychedelic tonic that was like nothing else around. It is an album brimful of fun and sexiness, and of course, fantastic songs. Egyptian Cream and Another Bubble are such a sparkling opening duo, you cannot fail to be cheered by their sentiments. As for one of his greatest songs I'm Only You, well, if you find nothing that grabs you in this song, you must have a hard heart. There's plenty of wackiness too; Lightbulb Head is, well pretty self-explanatory, and My Wife and My Dead Wife explores marital fidelity in three dimensions. The extra tracks range from nutty instrumentals to great live performances. One to purchase, I'd say.
Gotta Let This Hen Out (1985)
Fresh from the acclaim of Fegmania, the Egyptians released a frankly astonishing live album which, if anything, is better than their studio recording. The track listing encompasses Robyn's career up to that date; with tracks ranging from Leppo and the Jooves through to Heaven. Such is the band's confidence, there's even space for The Cars She Used to Drive and America off the terrible Groovy Decay. Plus the definitive recording of Kingdom of Love. This is also the first time a new fan will get the measure of the Hitchcock live experience, the gig is chock-full of asides and auto-suggestive ramblings. There's also a welcome outing for Listening to the Higsons. Fucking brilliant.
MP: If anyone is still reading by this point, let me just take the opportunity to wholeheartedly echo Mr Foster's exhortations – this is the best of the lot. The best selection of material (except the tedious Acid Bird which you can skip), played in a looser, more distorted style giving a slight punk pop edge to the tracks, missing from some of the studio albums which can feature overly prissy production.
There is NOT ONE SINGLE SONG of the New-Retro-Post-Punk era imaginative enough to live in this company. It's hard to communicate now that this sort of thing only really had an audience in the Eighties due to the artistic spaces opened up by Post Punk when people now associate Post Punk with "sounding like Gang of Four". Read Simon Reynolds' book as an intro. Though even he ignores Robyn!
Element of Light (1986)
A brilliant, mature work by a band at the top of their powers. There. I think that is an apt summary for Element of Light. It has a mite more timbre than Fegmania, gloomier too, as If You Were A Priest and Never Stop Bleeding will testify to. The wackiness is still there in Bass and Ted, Woody and Junior, as is the crystalline space-pop of Airscape. My fave tracks are on the extra list the visceral Tell Me About Your Drugs (never, ever, did a song so accurately portray the inherent chaos of drug use as Tell Me About Your Drugs did), and the beautiful The Black Crow Knows. An absolutely essential record for your collection.
Invisible Hitchcock (1986)
The best cover by far, and one I (for my part) have tried often to imitate in real life. Robyn, fetchingly attired in broad brimmed hat and neckerchief, holds up some radishes for general inspection. It's a brilliant cover in fact. It's also a brilliant album, comprising of out-takes and previously unreleased material that, if released by anyone else, would normally sound patchy. Not so with Mr. H. The fact that these songs cover a six year period gives a breadth and a quality to this collection that makes it my most played Hitchcock LP of all. From the more whimsical out-takes from the Black Snake era (It's a Mystic Trip) through the beauty of Messages of Dark to the complete bedroom lunacy of Let There Be More Darkness, it's got absolutely everything.
And can you find a more sympathetic, more intelligent, funnier and sharper portrayal of the plight of pensioners than Point It At Gran? No, you can't. Genius personified.
Globe of Frogs (1988)
A very underrated LP, due mainly to the fact that no one I know (apart from me and one close friend) has got this album. Of course it's a brilliant piece of work, pop music that other artists can only dream of making, and, (this is my theory that will doubtless get me sued) a real influence on REM's Green LP of the following year. Tracks like Balloon Man, Vibrating and Beatle Dennis are a joy, whilst the wistful melancholy of tracks like Luminous Rose and The Shapes Between Us Turn Us Into Animals are very very affecting pieces. Globe of Frogs and Chinese Bones are the stand out tracks though, full of sexy menace and about ten years ahead of their time, as usual. Marvellous.
MP: Great point about the foreshadowing of REM's Green. A hallucinatory translucent quality to the material, but this time the seemingly inevitable production flaw is a big late eighties US college radio sound which is pretty unlistenable nowadays. Hopefully made them some money at least (at last).
Queen Elvis (1989)
The first chink in the armour I'm afraid! I don't own it and I know no-one who has got it!
MP: Neither do I. Strange that we all lost interest at this point...must have been all those Acid House raves we were going to. I'll leave you to tidy up the rest of the albums. Loads of great songs to discover in amongst the flotsam and jetsam.
A return to the sparser textures on Trains, Eye is brimful of beautiful, waywardly reflective songs (Queen Elvis and Cynthia Mask) and incredibly frank but sensitively portrayed songs about love and lust (Flesh Cartoons and Linctus House). It's a very sensual album, perfect for a rainy summers' evening after you've been beachcombing on Cromer beach. The cd version has loads of extra goodies such as the Agony of Pleasure, and the booklet is a marvellous read. Great stuff.
Perspex Island (1991)
After Eye's quiet reflection, Perspex Island sees Robyn get the band together (with the help of Michael Stipe) and put together a pretty mainstream set of songs. Its not my most played Hitchcock album, it feels a bit too mainstream, though there are some wonderful moments, Oceansize, and She Doesn't Exist (feat. Stipe) being clear highlights for me.
The LP I play the least, it's not bad, rather it's not striking, apart from that masterpiece of cynicism, the Yip Song. There is a bloody brilliant tale about a moose in the booklet though.
You and Oblivion (1995)
An utterly FANTASTIC compilation of out-takes and rarities, topped off by a brilliant cover. How could you not own it? It has such ridiculous gems as Birdshead, Victorian Squid and Take the Knife Out Of My Back. In some ways a perfect summary of Hitchcock's muse, it is actually quite a challenging listen, never really lulling you into a false sense of security that other albums can. In fact I have to go and listen to Fiend Before the Shrine and Stranded in the Future right now. Back in a mo.
Moss Elixir (1996)
You still there? Good. Well, if youthought Oblivion was a bit wayward then think again. I think the most overlooked of his releases, which is a shame, cos there's great pop on here; Alright Yeah and Beautiful Queen being good examples. There's some stuff that (in the words of Telegraph's James Dellingpole) could clear a room, (actually in Dellingpole's defence, he meant that he could rid his house of pseuds with this LP, so we can assume
it's high praise) but an essential purchase I think. I wish I could get me paws on Mossy Liquour (1996), the vinyl companion to this release seeing it has a version of Alright Yeah in Swedish. Anyone got a copy going spare?
Live at the Cambridge Folk Festival (1998)
Again, I don't possess this. It looks a Bobby Dazzler, as it contains many classic Egyptians tracks, Egyptian Cream and the Yip Song being examples. If anyone wants to add to this review with thoughts of their own about this LP, please, go ahead.
Storefront Hitchcock (1998)
The second live release of the year, and brought out to coincide with the Jonathan Demme film of the same name. I think this is the best place for newcomers to the Hitchcock oeuvre to start; not only do you the listener get a great overview of his musical career, but you also get all the wacky asides (the minotaur story is a belter). Musical highlights are Glass Hotel and 1974 with close second prizes going to Where Do You Go When You Die? a superb commentary on belief, and the Hendrix cover The Wind Cries Mary. Even
my dad likes this LP. Fan-bloody-tastic, that's what this album is.
Jewels For Sophia (1999)
If Moss Elixir and Storefront saw Robyn H regain some of his creative puff, then the next two albums stand as the summation of this part of his career. What I mean by that rather oblique sentence is that both Jewels and Star for Bram feel like full stops, closed doors, defining and final statements. That's not to say they are bad, far far from it; actually they are cracking albums. Rather, you get the feeling that this is as far as Mr H can go in this particular direction. That said, there's plenty to enjoy on both lps. Starting with Jewels, NASA Clapping is a riot, whilst I Don't Remember Guildford has to be one of his most beautiful songs ever. There's the usual silliness on Cheese Alarm and Ant Woman, but you wouldn't have it any other way.
A Star For Bram (2000)
The better album of this twin-set, boasting incredibly strong songs in I Saw Nick Drake and Daisy Bomb. 1974 is an absolute delight, chiming and poppy. The rich musical textures that adorn both albums work slightly better on Bram, the songs themselves don't feel so coagulated, maybe it's because the writing's a bit more sprightly. I also get a great deal of vicarious pleasure in I Wish I Liked You, a song that contains a perfect summation of my feelings towards some 'acquaintances' of mine. Get this LP.
Robyn Sings (2002)
No, I didn't get this one either (that's four so far). It's a collection of Dylan songs covered by the Hitch, and as such, you'd have thought an essential purchase. Thing is I've never seen it in Holland, so I can't pigging buy it. So I can't help you. Though, as commendations go, its hardly going to be like a set of Beatles covers by Busted, now is it?
Collaborating with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings has possibly given RH the inspiration for his best album in at least 15 years. You'll find a gushing review of it elsewhere in this magazine. Suffice to say the beautiful opening trio of songs will bring you into rapid and full agreement with me. Truly, Television, If You Know Time and Everybody Needs Love are the best three songs he's written in years. There's also a return to the gentle, Globe of Frogs style pop as seen with We're Gonna Live in the Trees. An utterly marvellous album and an essential purchase.
Part the third - Soft Boys reunion
A low key release enlivened by a few good songs most notably the cracking Lions and Tigers and the opener, I Love Lucy. In other places it drags a touch, but it's a quality release.
Words: Richard Foster with help from Mr Mark Polaroid.