Hitchcock, Soft Boys Still Rock Hard
The much-anticipated Soft Boys reunion tour kicked off during last month’s SXSW, Austin’s mammoth film and music industry conference, and hit the Paradise in Boston March 26. The British band played a string of shows exclusively in the U.S. to promote the re-release of their 1980 masterpiece Underwater Moonlight. As anyone who’s heard the album can attest, the British band’s melodious, jangling assault produces thrills that could only be explosive live. Unfortunately, the Soft Boys’ third full-length album was also their last, and many have waited decades to hear it performed. For some reason, what is now generally regarded as a work of genius was then barely given a glance, and the band parted ways within a year of Underwater Moonlight’s release. In the U.S., the band never toured the material beyond an eight-day run in metropolitan New York. Following Matador’s reissue of Moonlight, lead vocalist and guitar player Robyn Hitchcock, guitarist Kimberley Rew, bass player Matthew Seligman and drummer Morris Windsor revisited the States as a group for the first time in 20 years, giving many long-time fans the opportunity to hear the material, live and in-person, for the first time ever. The Harvard Crimson recently had the opportunity to speak with Hitchcock and Rew about Underwater Moonlight, the reunion, the Soft Boys and subsequent and future projects.
Despite its brevity, the band’s history was somewhat complicated. After moving to Cambridge, UK in 1974, playing the folk clubs for a few years and eventually joining up with Rob Lamb, Andy Metcalfe and Windsor as Dennis and the Experts, Hitchcock found himself announcing the band as the Soft Boys to a crowd at a Nov. 1976 show. Alan Davies soon replaced Lamb, and the EP Give it to the Soft Boys was released in 1977. Rew replaced Davies, and the 1979 psychedelic Can of Bees LP—clearly influenced by the Bs: Sid Barrett, Captain Beefheart, the Beatles, the Byrds, and William Burroughs—was recorded (Hitchcock has previously described “the Soft Boys” as a Burroughs amalgam of Soft Machine and the Wild Boys). After one more switch (Seligman replaced Metcalfe on bass), the Soft Boys sound that would go on to influence the likes of the Replacements, R.E.M. and the L.A. Paisley Underground scene was solidifying.
“[Underwater Moonlight producer Pat Collier] sidled up to me at a gig in about 1977, and he’d just got hold of this studio called Alaska, which has sort of its own special fungus and is under one of the bridges in Waterloo Station [in London]. He said, you might like to come try my studio, and a mere two years later we did,” says Hitchcock. Most of Moonlight (working title “That’s My Fish You’re Holding”) was recorded at Alaska for under £600, plus about £200 for outtakes and rehearsals now available on the second disc of the Moonlight re-release. These lo-fi relics, recorded on boom box and two-track, capture the momentum that would carry into the album. Scattered pieces of “Old Pervert” shimmer with an energetic squeal still barely held at bay, fading in and out with Hitchcock’s humorously acidic ramble. The title track “Underwater Moonlight” crawls forth like the giant squid that surprises its protagonists—a little slower than the final cut, but tipsy with the same effervescent guitar-coaxed glow. “Alien” lurches forth with snarling blues licks, sneering the same themes of social alienation and sexual obsession that shake the album. Though not included on the original release, its lyrics easily rank among the Moonlight’s most caustic: “And if I see you snooping ’round my farm / I’ll give you a mug of cocoa, then I’ll break your arm / And if I tortured you upon a rack / You wouldn’t say half what you say behind my back / I’m an alien, baby / I’m an outsider, yeah.”
Says Hitchcock, “We just raided the vault to see what was left, or [what] I did…just to make it into the definitive Underwater Moonlight and put it in the context that it was in… And perhaps there’s that inevitable feeling that the further things are in history, the more important it is to excavate them. Back in 1990, only 10 years on, the first time we re-released it on disc in Britain [on Rykodisc], it didn’t seem that important to dig up all the rest of the archives; they weren’t that far away. As you see us getting younger in the photographs, compared to our present-day selves, to the point where we wouldn’t even recognize ourselves from those pictures…it becomes more important to hold onto it, to make it visible, because pretty soon history turns around the bend and disappears.”
At the time of Moonlight, the Soft Boys had no idea they’d made a piece of history. Rew, who seems exceedingly modest of his own musical career but pleased with Hitchcock’s organization of the band and the album’s reception, says, “In 1980, I made the album blindly, really, without any thought as to how many people would like it or not like it.” Now he describes the Soft Boys as “the great love of my life.” As to whether it was difficult to return to the same material two decades later, he remarks, “Everybody in the group had played with somebody else in the group at some point. It wasn’t as if nobody had seen each other for 20 years. Any sort of apprehension was quickly dispelled when we started to play.”
Hitchcock and Rew have played on each other’s solo albums, and Metcalfe and Windsor later joined Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians. But Hitchcock feels there is an important difference between the Soft Boys and his collaborations with former Soft Boys as a solo artist. “[As the Soft Boys] they broadened the emotional spectrum, if you like, and that’s one of those cases where a group can enhance the work of the songwriter to the point where you say this is actually a performance by the group, rather than ‘this is a performance by Robin Hitchcock and his merry men.’” According to Hitchcock, while it is difficult to recollect the original experience of playing together and compare that to the recent reunion, he has gained perspective regarding the Soft Boys’ sound on Underwater Moonlight.
“There is probably a limited emotional range in [the songs], but at the same time, I think that the way Morris, Kim and Matthew played them put a very different dimension to what I’d intended, which is something I didn’t completely appreciate at the time. I just remember listening to Moonlight over the years and thinking, well that’s a nice boppy record. I think I was feeling pretty dark, and what they did was take the darkness and didn’t make it so oppressive. That’s the best word for it, really. They kind of put some light into it, they put some bubbles, some oxygen into it and translated what was quite a grim state of mind and made it into something that was quite fun, in a way, without being silly.”
Indeed, the album both bubbles with light and raises blisters on an electrified, shifting surface of streamlined, skittering guitars, snide vocals and soaring vocal harmonies. Hitchcock’s lyrical ruminations range from love to war, from playful nips to vicious gnawing. “Kingdom of Love” begins with a bouncing groove and positively rings with light, though the lyrics are a surreal treatment of overwhelming sexual fixation: “You’ve been laying eggs under my skin / Now they’re hatching out under my chin / Now there’s tiny insects showing through / And all them tiny insects look like you.” Along the same musical and topical lines, “Insanely Jealous” starts with an urgent but subdued bass throb, agitated hi-hat and the slender and raw tremolo of a violin. It gradually works into a deliberately guided frenzy of dipping and weaving bass and guitar squall—and, of course, the spit and muttered skewering of love: “But all I hear when they embrace is just the kiss of skulls.”
One can only wonder what could possibly be next for the Soft Boys. Hitchcock himself is not sure. “I hope that we can keep the Soft Boys going, but on a part-time basis, if you know what I mean. Once you get into your 40s, you don’t want to be shackled to another bunch of men. Young people hunt in packs, especially guys. By the time you get into your 30s, you really don’t want to do things in formation. By the time you’ve reached your 40s, it’s definitely out as far as I’m concerned… It’s a good enough band that we should keep it going, even if its more like a vintage car—you take it out every so often, but you wouldn’t go to work in it every day.”