A GUEST POSTING by THE SWEDE
The brains behind the wonderful Unthought of Though Somehow blog
In New York on one of my occasional Stateside trips to visit relatives, I was walking on The Bowery one balmy evening in 2005, zigzagging across the street between the gridlocked traffic. ‘Hey man…’ a voice called out from an open car window, ‘..hey…Robyn Hitchcock…I love your music…’
At the time my greying hair was fairly unkempt and I was wearing a black & white polka dot shirt. I’m also quite tall, so I guess it’s a plausible mistake, not to mention a flattering one. I half-smiled in the guy’s direction as the traffic moved on, then noticed a small spring in my step. It was the first time I’d ever been mistaken for someone even slightly well-known, let alone someone whose music I’ve been a huge fan of since The Soft Boys‘ debut LP ‘A Can of Bees’ way back in 1979. Incidentally, I’d actually met Robyn Hitchcock ten years before my New York moment, in a room above a pub in Cambridge and neither he, I, nor anyone else in the room, remarked upon any physical similarities between the two of us!
Here are ten choice cuts from the great man.
If you want to dip your toe in with just one Soft Boys record, make it their second LP ‘Underwater Moonlight’ – influenced by equal parts Syd Barrett & Roger McGuinn and in turn hugely influential on the host of jangly US bands that emerged throughout the early 1980s. Out-takes and otherwise unreleased material have stretched and contorted the re-issued album over the years, but the original 10 song running order is virtually impeccable. Robyn still performs ‘Kingdom of Love’ onstage to this day. If he just so happens to be performing it somewhere in the East of England, then there’s a fighting chance that original Soft Boys guitar-slinger (later to become one of Katrina’s Waves) Kimberly Rew will join him on stage…and that’s when real magic happens.
‘…I would ramble all through time and space, just to have a butcher’s at your face…’
1) Kingdom of Love (1980)
Robyn’s debut solo LP actually featured contributions from all of his former Soft Boys band-mates in addition to saxophonist Gary Barnacle, Thomas Dolby plus members of The Vibrators and Psychedelic Furs.
‘Acid Bird’ became a live favourite following the formation of Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians and 4 years later an equally terrific version appeared their live LP ‘Gotta Let This Hen Out’.
‘…cutting out a silhouette between, everything is older than it seems…’
2) Acid Bird (1981)
In a just and proper world, ‘Heaven’ would’ve been a massive hit single and seen Robyn appearing on Top of the Pops for weeks on end. Of course, the world is neither just nor proper, but Robyn and The Egyptians did give a memorable live performance of the song during an appearance on the Old Grey Whistle Test in support of the ‘Fegmania’ LP.
‘…and when you seek for it you peak for it all day, and when you choose for it you’ll ooze for it, I’ll say…’
3) Heaven (1985)
Hitchcock has long hailed ‘Visions of Johanna’ as being a key inspiration – ‘…the reason I started writing songs…’. He’s covered Dylan‘s masterpiece in concert many times over the years and there are two separate recordings of the song on his 2002 album ‘Robyn Sings’ alone.
‘Ghost Ship’, bafflingly tucked away on the b-side of the US ‘Balloon Man’ single, is where Robyn truly channels his inner Bob – with utterly magnificent results. A slightly inferior version of ‘Ghost Ship’ turned up on the 1995 odds & sods compilation ‘You & Oblivion’, but this is the one to seek out.
‘…across the wrinkled sea so vast…’
4) Ghost Ship (1988)
In the midst of his tenure fronting The Egyptians, Robyn released the almost totally solo ‘Eye’.
‘Queen Elvis’ appeared in two separate versions on the extended CD version of the album and is still performed regularly in concert, these days often as a duet with his partner, the singer/songwriter Emma Swift.
‘…people get what they deserve, time is round and space is curved…’
5) Queen Elvis (1990)
Sometimes Robyn wraps his songs in delightfully dense lyrical conundrums and other times he gives it to you so straight that it hurts. ‘She Doesn’t Exist’ is a beautiful example of the latter.
‘…I let her go like the fool that I was, thought I’d get over her soon, I smell her perfume when my eyes are closed, and I see her face in the moon…’
6) She Doesn’t Exist (1991)
1991’s ‘Perspex Island’ was released in the UK on Go! Discs and features guest performances from Peter Buck and Michael Stipe. Robyn & the Egyptians toured extensively to promote the LP, including a major trek supporting Billy Bragg. This period was as close as Robyn ever came to crossing over to the mainstream.
‘…I take off my clothes with you, but I’m not naked underneath, I was born with trousers on, just about like everyone…’
7) Birds In Perspex (1991)
His father, the author Raymond Hitchcock, died in 1992 and Robyn’s previously prodigious work rate ceased completely for a full three years. When he returned with 1996’s ‘Moss Elixir’, it was without The Egyptians. ‘
The Speed of Things’ ruminates on the passage of time and contains lyrics as moving as any I’ve heard in popular music.
‘…you held my hand when I was crying, you were allergic to bee stings, I threw some earth onto your coffin, and thought about the speed of things…’
8) The Speed of Things (1996)
In 2006 Robyn formally teamed up with Peter Buck of R.E.M., Scott McCaughey of Young Fresh Fellows, and Bill Rieflin of Ministry, recording three albums and touring for the next four years as Robyn Hitchcock and The Venus 3. Other collaborators during this period included former Soft Boys Morris Windsor and Kimberley Rew, John Paul Jones, Johnny Marr, Nick Lowe and, on the fun-packed ‘Saturday Groovers’, Colin Meloy of The Decemberists.
‘…I heard you cleaned your act up you old trout…’
9) Saturday Groovers (2009)
The first glimpse of ‘Be Still’ came courtesy of an informal pub rehearsal video that appeared online towards the end of 2012, where Robyn was backed by the likes of Terry Edwards, Stephen Irvine from The Commotions, Green Gartside of Scritti Politti, Bedders from Madness and a host of other friends. Here though, is the finished studio recording that appeared on ‘Love From London’ the following year. A really wonderful song, as strong as any from throughout his career.
‘…to where the night is falling on a lover or a friend, somebody’s beginning is just someone else’s end…’
10) Be Still (2013)
I’ve merely scratched the surface here. I feel a Volume 2 coming on.