Though England’s The Soft Boys weren’t a hugely popular band when they first made records in the late 1970s, their jangly, psychedelic rock songs stood out among the punk that was considered the vanguard at the time. Eventually, they proved to be almost as influential, especially on 1980s guitar bands like R.E.M. and The Replacements.
Robyn Hitchcock, who sang and wrote most of The Soft Boys’ songs, launched a solo career after the band broke up in 1981. Thanks to latent interest in his old band, especially in the United States where their albums remained staples on college radio, he garnered a following that was small but solid; a true cult that has stuck with him for 25 years.
The demands of the road and the mellowing of age have turned Hitchcock into a troubadour whose most recent projects include a double-CD of Bob Dylan covers and an album of originals recorded in Nashville with singer Gillian Welch and her partner David Rawlings, both of whom were fans of Hitchcock in their youth. But Hitchcock’s Wildean English urbanity and penchant for the bizarre still hold sway. A man who once spent an entire concert literally trying to escape his shadow on stage is now more likely to deliver a dry comic monologue on his karmic similarities to Frank Sinatra, which is included on a new Japan-only compilation album, along with a spry version of Lipps Inc’s R&B hit “Funkytown.”
“A year or two ago I was recording a bunch of old songs from the ’70s, disco-ey pop songs, the antithesis of what I used to do with The Soft Boys,” Hitchcock explains in a gravelly, jet-lagged voice from his home in London. “They were popular on the radio at the same time, so while I was writing ‘Do the Chisel,’ hits like ‘Love Don’t Live Here Any More’ [by Rose Royce] and ‘Funkytown’ were all over the radio.”
What makes the song stick out on the compilation, titled “Obliteration Pie,” is not so much the disco beat but rather that it features an actual band. “These are the guys who usually back me up if I’m playing a benefit or a small gig in a club around London. We did some charity concerts for Medecins Sans Frontieres [an international humanitarian aid organization], including an evening of songs from The Beatles’ White Album at a small pub in East London.”
Dylan, The Beatles, Lipps Inc. — it would seem Hitchcock is determined to revisit his youth and take his fans with him. He once told an interviewer that he stopped absorbing new music after he turned 40 because his brain was full. “The crucible of music I came out of was the 1960s, when I was a teenager,” he explains. “Even when punk started I was resistant to it. I wanted harmonies and guitar solos — not so much to re-create the sounds I knew, but just to work within those rules. A lot of musical styles have come and gone since then, but in terms of white music, The Beatles and the Stones and Dylan have never gone away.” After a pause he says, “I’m not sure what it is I feed on. It’s self-vampirism, surviving on your own blood. You just have to keep yourself fascinated and anxious.”
In a sense, the singer-with-acoustic-guitar mode that Hitchcock currently favors is wish fulfillment. When he first heard Bob Dylan at English boarding school at the age of 13 his life changed. “I had wanted to become a time traveler,” he says, “and then I heard Dylan and decided to become a folk singer. It was a more realistic goal.” Like many boys, Hitchcock was a fan of science fiction, and while he says he doesn’t read that much of it any more, he admits that his love of sci-fi’s “visual element” is fully evident in his songs.
“To me a song should paint a little picture,” he says. “I remember vividly an H.G. Wells story about these transparent monsters who come out of the water and feed on Victorians. And J.G. Ballard’s ‘The Garden of Time,’ with these aristocrats living on a hill and a mob slowly advancing toward them. The aristocrats halt time by breaking off flowers — the aroma of the flowers stops time for a while, but the mob keeps advancing and the garden gets smaller. By the time the mob reaches the palace the count and his wife are just statues. Those stories affected me enormously. People like Bob Dylan were good at that as well. He’s a very pictorial songwriter. You can see the world through his songs, which are full of images that are blended and edited together, like a kaleidoscope.”
Kaleidoscopic is a good way to describe “Obliteration Pie,” which surveys Hitchcock’s post-Soft Boys career with new and live versions of some of his most beloved songs in acoustic form, including “Madonna of the Wasps,” “Queen Elvis” and “My Wife and My Dead Wife,” as well as some unreleased songs, like “A Man’s Gotta Know His Limitations, Briggs,” whose title and lyrical content were taken from one of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry movies.
“I tried not to re-release anything,” he says when asked why he didn’t include any of the Dylan covers or Welch collaborations. “Artists put out a greatest hits and they have 10 songs that people already own and then a few songs they haven’t got so that the same people will go out and buy it. I wanted to make something new out of what I had lying around.”
Hitchcock’s lying-around stuff is often more exciting then other singer-songwriter’s top-shelf material, as evidenced by his 2002 reunion with The Soft Boys, which produced an album, “Nextdoorland,” that was one of 2002’s best, filled with bright, witty, irresistible pop songs.
“At the time ‘Underwater Moonlight’ was out of print,” he explains, “It didn’t sell a lot [when it came out in 1980], but most people consider it the Soft Boys album, and I thought it would be worth re-releasing, so I contacted Matador Records and asked if they wanted to put it out again, and they said they would. At the same time we talked about putting The Soft Boys back together for a reunion tour.”
Unlike a lot of veteran bands that decide to reunite, The Soft Boys had no difficulty doing so. “We were always in touch,” he says. “It wasn’t a big effort to get everybody back in the room again, though it was a big effort to keep a band together. The songs on ‘Nextdoorland’ were mostly mine. Again, they were just songs I had lying around. I always have songs lying around.”
As much as some people might prefer Hitchcock with a full complement of musicians, it appears he prefers the solitary life. “I think I’m better now as a live performer than I was 20 years ago,” he says. “I’m certainly better live now than I was at my early solo gigs. Because I’ve played mostly alone for the last 10 years, I’ve become much better at accompanying myself. And if my voice isn’t too dry from being on planes I think my singing is better than it’s ever been.
“You know radio-controlled aircraft? To me, singing is a bit like that. Sort of make your voice take off and do loop-the-loops and fly around different corners of the sky and then make it land without crashing. I’ve got a good remote control voice now.”