The Soft Boys Albums
Robyn Hitchcock is one of the most prolific and entertaining eccentrics of Rock music. He has albums that rival the best of 1960’s psychedelic songwriting idols and lyrics that are as often as entertaining as anyone in the business has ever has been. His sense of humor is certifiably insane but also meaningful and often hilarious. He is a great synthesizer, as his influences simultaneously define him and do not limit him at all. He started off his career in the late 1970’s as the lead singer and songwriter for The Soft Boys, and it displayed his love of Syd Barrett, John Lennon, and pretty much every important artist of the first fifteen years of rock music. The band ended on a high note, with their second album Underwater Moonlight being a true psychedelic rock music milestone and just gets better with age. After the bands dissolvement in 1981, Hitchcock went on to make numerous records but he never forgot his roots in this band.
Robyn Hitchcock – Lead Vocals, Guitar
Kimberly Rew – Lead Guitar
Rob Lamb – Guitar
Andy Metcalfe – bass (1978)
Matthew Seligman – bass (1979-1980)
Morris Windsor – drums
Syd Barrett, John Lennon, The Bryds, The Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, Big Star, Captain Beefheart
Can of Bees – (4 / 5)
This record only fits into the sounds of the era because of its abrasive nature. The key to listening to the record is to be excited by the unexpected and to wait for each song to reveal a new layer. Opener “Give It to the Soft Boys” attempts to explain the band’s odd name (or does it?) by simply wailing and screaming over a blues riff played very sarcastically. The influence of Frank Zappa can be heard in this way, though the bands lyrics are much more obsessed with the insect family courtesy of lead singer Robyn Hitchcock. Hitchcock is truly a unique talent, as proven by the odd hard rock of “The Pigworker” (which sounds like a Beatles song that has been reworked by Yes or King Crimson) and the charming tale of “Sandra Having Her Brain Out”, which is as exciting as it sounds. To call these songs an acquired taste my in fact be an understatement, as the band seems to be trying to trip up the listener with the odd poetry of “Human Music” and the blistering psych rock guitar workout of “Do the Chisel”.
The band succeeds in being charming for the most part, and perhaps the best the album has to offer is in the punky chug of “Leppo and the Jooves”, which is nonsensical lyrically and danceable enough to enjoy regardless, as is the catchy “Return of the Sacred Crab”. Some songs are meant to be a challenge though, and the difficult “The Rat’s Prayer” and “School Dinner Blues” don’t add too much to the groups haphazard mix of eclecticism and paranoid grooves. A cover of John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey” is a welcome respite to all of the rather abrasive guitar squeals, as three different guitarists competing to see who can be heard the most promotes a kind of sound that is an acquired taste to say the least. Still, the level of musicianship present is impressive and the willingness to take daring risks is found all over the album showcasing a promising group who could excel at playing normal rock n roll, but show very little interest in anything “normal”.
Greatest Songs: Leppo and the Jooves, The Pigworker, Return of the Sacred Crab, Human Music
Underwater Moonlight – (5 / 5)+
Underwater Moonlight is the second and final proper Soft Boys album, and it is a vast improvement over the debut. To say it’s not even on the same planet is an understatement, as it sounds like it was recorded on Neptune. As different from the debut as it is from any other album of its time, the band stands out for their originality and simultaneously for their ability to harness the 1960’s psychedelic masters like Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix. Focusing on a single type of jangling and shimmering sound works for the band, but does not limit their ability to attempt explore every kind of aura available.
The album begins with “I Wanna Destroy You” a blistering anthem that links them to the punk bands of the era as well as the arena rock of power pop greats such as Cheap Trick. There are many memorable lyrics including: “a pox upon the media and everything you read” and “when I have destroyed you I’ll come snipping at your bones / and you won’t have a single atom left to call your own.” Another highlight in the cannon of great, psychedelic rock is the luminous “Positive Vibrations” and the instrumental “You’ll Have to go Sideways” featuring cascades of soothing guitar bliss. The Byrds’ twelve string-guitar influence can be heard in a huge way on “Queen of Eyes”, but that only adds to the songs timeless quality as it is one of the best melodies ever written. Just when one thinks they are getting the gist of how Robyn Hitchcock writes songs or Kimberly Rew plays guitar, the album derails itself with the spoken word creepy talk of “I Got the Hots” and the demented, Captain Beefheart inspired guitar squall of “Old Pervert”, which is a song one might hear in an insane asylum.
The albums two greatest songs are absolutely indispensable: “Kingdom of Love” starts with one of the greatest bass lines of all time, played eloquently by Matthew Seligman, and continues Hitchcock’s obsession with tales of comparing insects to humans. “Now there’s tiny insects showing through / all those tiny insects look like you”. The album closes with the “Underwater Moonlight”, the longest song on the album and a true epic of psychedelic rock. The soaring chorus and sound effects that permeate the Dylan-esque verses demonstrate an underwater atmosphere that is a great culmination of every blip and bloop that came before. The song is unpredictable in structure but it makes since in context of everything that came before.
The years have been nothing but kind to Underwater Moonlight since its release in 1980. It is an album that sneaks up on you, that burrows its way into your skull and keeps you coming back for more. It covers almost every rock genre that came before but in a more encyclopedic way than anyone had dare previously attempted; an example might be if a 1970’s version of Tom Petty if took lots and lots of acid. It had a huge impact on everything that followed, even if the impact started small and it took time for this sound to blossom. Hitchcock proves on this record, and his entire subsequent solo career of twenty plus albums (to be reviewed on this site someday soon!), that he is a songwriter for the ages and is capable of crafting magnificent songs with his own unique voice. There are few albums that in capsulize all that is great about 1960’s and 70’s rock as well as Underwater Moonlight, as well as pointing to a brighter (and janglier) future.
Greatest Songs: Kingdom of Love, Underwater Moonlight, Queen of Eyes, Positive Vibrations, Old Pervert
Invisible Hits – (4.5 / 5)
With only two albums to their name, The Soft Boys had quite a bit of unreleased material. Much of it never got released except on the rather strange live album from 1982 Live at the Portland Arms, and also bonus tracks to the reissues of Underwater Moonlight (many which are truly exceptional and should be sought out for the die hard fan). This official B-sides of the band came out several years after the official breakup of the group, and though Hitchcock had plenty of great solo records around this time, any new sounds from the late 1970’s session between the band’s two album is worth a listen. Many of these tracks rival the songs on Can of Bees, as the production is crisper (the gorgeous “Blues in the Dark” comes to mind) and the sound is more confident. “Rock n Roll Toilet” might be their take on the Rolling Stones classic sound, but it is a nice detour and one of their best songs. “Asking Tree” is perhaps the best blues song the band ever did, and proves though the band is known as a psychedelic touchstone by many, a lot of their sound is that of their idol’s idols and firmly rooted in said blues music.
The progressive rock nature of the band is again represented in “Muriel’s Hoof” to pleasing results, and the storytelling of Hitchcock, influenced by Leonard Cohen and especially Bob Dylan is showcased on the wordy “Love Poisoning” and the laid back, demented tale “When I was a Kid”. Oddly, the first two songs are perhaps my least favorite, and “Wey Wey Hep Uh Hole” is a bit to repetitive for my tastes and “Have a Heart Betty” is rather bland in general. “He is a Reptile” is a rather famous tune for a b-side, and it does have a certain kind of laid back charm though its not a favorite Hitchcock tune for me (a little Hitch-by-numbers). “Empty Girl” is a better take on the type of songs Hitchcock would create for the remainder of his career: entertaining blasts of guitar noise with galloping rhythms and lyrics that make the listener laugh. With any kind of compilation, a bit of skipping a round is necessary, and it is doubtful that Invisable Hits will win over non-converts of the band via the first two albums. For the initiated, here are a bunch more well played songs about insanity and insects that you are bound to enjoy!
Greatest Tracks: Blues in the Dark, Rock n Roll Toilet, Asking Tree, Empty Girl
***complete Robyn Hitchcock Solo discography coming soon!