ROBYN HITCHCOCK'S career, for want of a better term, shows a man as squarely out of time as it's possible to be outside of a Bill & Ted movie. In the Nineties, when everything up to and including The Human League has already been rehabilitated or is rubbing its palms in anticipation, he might have done quite well for himself. But his band, The Soft Boys, made their first recordings in 1976. Plying your trade as a psychedelic visionary at the exact onset of Punk could be seen as an act of almost suicidal synchronicity. Never let it be said of Hitchcock that he blew with the breeze.
“We were all a bunch of very non-confrontational, uptight, middle-class kids,” Hitchcock would later say of The Soft Boys. “When everyone else was throwing beer glasses at the stage and putting safety pins through their noses, all we wanted to do was eat cucumber sandwiches.”
Not that Hitchcock's music bore any but the most superficial of resemblances to the overstretched dawdles of the late-Sixties/early Seventies drug bores, who meandered like the woolly mastadons they were into the graveyards of prog. Hitchcock was more Syd Barrett than Pink Floyd - indeed, more Syd Barrett than anything, albeit possessed of a lucidity that sadly escaped Barrett some time around 1968. His songs were always taut, tart and tuneful, and rarely had the time to spin 'round and blink, let alone meander.
The Soft Boys weren't that far adrift from the punks. They grew (as did many Punk outifts) out of a pub-rocking covers band with the raw garage feel that usually had little to do with hip forebears (The Stooges, The New York Dolls) and a lot to do with less-than-total instrumental proficiency. Without Hitchock, that's all they ever would have been: another Cambridge pub band, too stuffy and fussed about musicianship to be punks, too uninspired to be anything else.
But Hitchcock was a gifted songwriter, pre-empting the Sixties-tinged revivals in both Britain and the US during the Eighties - and surpassing most of them, at that. Peter Buck has gone on record as claiming that R.E.M. were more influenced by The Soft Boys than by The Byrds. By the time R.E.M. released Radio Free Europe in 1981, The Soft Boys were defunct.
It's one thing to be influential, another to stand the test of time. Often, “influential” is a word applied to bands too affectionately remembered to be described as, “Dated, dreary, and quickly superseded by those who improved upon their ideas.” Fortunately for The Soft Boys, they made Underwater Moonlight, an album which could hardly date as it wasn't in the least bit of its time, or any other. The familiar assertion that a record, “Could have been made any time in the last 30 years” simply doesn't apply. It's not fey enough to have come from 1965. It's too knowing to have originated in 1968, too concise to have trundled out of 1973. It sounds too little like a brain haemorrhage recorded on a dictaphone for 1977; is nowhere near angsty, arty or overcoated enough for 1980 (when it was made); nor is it sloppy or lazy enough for the 1989-91 Jangle epidemic. It's very, very odd.
Of course, Hitchcock was fairly odd himself, in that reassuring, English, non-sequiturial way frequently and mistakenly labelled “surreal”. This kind of eccentricity, which so often seems to be practised by geography teachers and the like who fancy themselves as the missing member of the Monty Python team is ordinarily worthy of derision and - should these people attempt to make records - violence. It's cruel, but necessary. To go by one Hitchcock quote, his own father might possibly belong to the type: “He once wrote a book in which Stonehnge was stolen by the British version of the CIA. They removed it, and anyone who saw what they did was rounded up. And then Merlin the magician suddenly shows up as a stoned-out hippie.” Not having read the book, it's impossible to know; but fairly or otherwise, you have to suspect it is one among thousands of identical but mercifully unpublished opuses.
The reporter of the quote, one Bill Holdship, observes that Hitchcock pere's ideas, “Sound as if they'd be at home in one of Hitchcock's later songs.” Maybe. But certainly not on Underwater Moonlight, wherein Hitchcock displays wit, imagination, and something not far off genius in his songwriting.
Moonlight was the second of two proper Soft Boys LPs, and was recorded for £600. Again, Hitchcock's timing was perfectly wrong. By now, punk's blast-on-a-budget was fading and Britain was soon to suffer from arterioscleroris of the charts - a clogging-up of vital passageways with bombastic, echo-laden nonsense created via the studio technique of spending large sums of money. The Soft Boys were on the cusp of a moment; unfortunately, the moment was several years away, by which time Hitchcock would be a contented American cult, draped in a cloak of Rickenbacker and schmoozing around with R.E.M.. So the record has a harsh, raggedy, rehearsal-studio feel. This is just one reason why it now sounds so good.
Hitchcock describes his songwriting as “dreaming in public”, and indeed his songs often have the illogical quality of oblique dreams in which even the most devout Freudian would be pushed to find meaning. But Underwater Moonlight seems riddled with significance. The songs may try to escape it, but it hunts them out. Although everything is suggested rather than stated, you sense the residue of emotional and psychosexual nightmares which mean just a tad too much - the kind of dreams that waken you with a start and leave you wondering just what kind of sick individual you are to have that going through your mind. The same kind of sick individual as everybody else, of course. But try telling yourself that at 4:30 a.m. when this little scenario has just skipped into your reverie: “You've been laying eggs under my skin/Now they're hatching out under my chin/Now there's tiny insects shwoing through/All those tiny insects look like you.” The song is called Kingdom Of Love, which gives you some idea of Hitchcock's view of romance.
Underwater Moonlight is full of fetid obsessions masquerading as love songs - perhaps “masquerading” is the wrong word, as love can be the most fetid of obsessions; still, you get the idea that young Robyn was not perfectly fulfilled in his interpersonal relationships. “All I want to do is be your creature,” he avows in the same song, which must be something only the best-balanced of us have never wanted to say to a wished-for significant other. Or is it just me? Anyway, as a catchphrase it has an equally arresting effect if used at random on passers-by.
The album opens with an uncharacteristic Hitchcock number, I Wanna Destroy You, which could be taken as a nod to Punk, or at least a slight inclination of the head, but probably wasn't. It's more an exercise in harmonic screaming, a howl of hate augmented by howls of counterpoint. Plus it's full of couplets that even the more astute punks would never have dreamt up. “A pox upon the media and everyting you read,” Hitchcock growls. “They tell you your opinions and they're very good indeed.” Alone among the punks, Lydon might have understood, being the only one with a talent for sarcasm. “And when I have destroyed you I'll come picking at your bones/And you won't have a single atom left to call your own.” Now that's a pretty good threat, as threats go.
Positive Vibrations is another oddity, in as much as it's not in truth that odd. It's as upbeat as its title, and suffers from the obvious political sentiments that might hamstring I Wanna Destroy You if the latter weren't such a good song. Positive Vibrations isn't such a good song, although it's brisk and pretty, with some textbook raga-rip-off guitar. But don't give up, because it's around now that things really get interesting.
I Got The Hots is lustful. I mean lustful. It drips. It sweats. It reeks of secretions. And the fact that it is written in Gobbledegook (Hitchcock's first language) makes it no less filthy. It rides on the back of a slow, insistent, and lascivious guitar line, breaking off to survey the scene from above, circling and returning. It's like being seduced by a vulture. It's not nice. But what use is nice, anyway? And how they managed to get the guitars to sound like that on £600 is a continuing mystery. Those guitars are everywhere. No orifice goes unprobed. A girl I knew once got so dizzy on drink and hallucinogens that she could hardly remember being molested by the two grinning f***pigs who had come to call. It must have felt something like this, only she couldn't turn it off. I hope they burn in the lowest circle of hell. I hope she still can't recall the details.
The album's centrepiece is the best thing Hitchcock ever did. Insanely Jealous follows the wriggling path from resentment to psychosis with such grisly accuracy that even the humour in it serves only to tighten the cord. The track is nothing but a low, loping pulse across which pierced or scratched guitars break out like intermittent gunfire before the whole thing finally goes ballistic. The menace in it is such that it's impossible to guess whether it stems from an ardent lover or a deranged stalker - bearing in mind that in his own head, the latter sees himself as the former. It's the sort of song that makes you feel uneasy to realise how well you understand it.
The same theme is repeated on Tonight, which follows an explicitly voyeuristic, insinuating presence: “I'm not just here for anyone's sake. . . I'll be with you wherever you are tonight.” Tonight is sinister, but clear-cut. It's almost as good as Insanely Jealous, but lacks that knife-edge ambiguity. The person who's, “Insanely jealous of the people that you see/Insanely jealous of the people that aren't me,” sounds too close for comfort, as does the song's bleak view of love affairs: “I don't know why the people want to meet when they know that they'll breed like rabbits in the end. . . All I hear when they embrace is just the kiss of skulls.”
Skipping over the surplus instrumental, You'll Have To Go Sideways (a waste of a great title), we find yet further abnormal goings-on in Old Pervert - Underwater Moonlight being as direct in its titles as it is abstruse in its lyrics. This off-kilter aural icepick has the rare distinction of being a comic song that is actually funny, something that took Hitchcock a while to master. Of course, you might argue that there's nothing humorous about an old pervert enticing children home to inspect the contents of his fridge. But you'd be a purse-lipped sanctimonious dolt with no appreciation of the distinction between art and reality if you did. Up to you, really.
Queen Of Eyes is two minutes of bejewelled joy, easily the equal of any Sixties West Coast snippet or Eighties Northern imitation. The closing title track may well be an ode to the tidal pull of lunar madness, or it may simply be a delightful pile of gibberish. It doesn't pay to worry too much about these things. All you need to know is that it places the full stop on an under-regarded psychedelic - and psychotic - classic. (Unless you own the CD reissue, which contains eight bonus tracks, most of which the LP was perfectly well-off without.)
What became of The Soft Boys? Bassist Matthew Seligman became a successful session player and need concern us no longer. Guitarist Kimberley Rew formed Katrina & The Waves, and had a hit with the sprightly Walking On Sunshine, and need concern us no longer, either. Former bassist Andy Metcalfe and drummer Morris Windsor comprise Hitchcock's backing band, The Egyptians. Hitchcock's fate is much as described as above, although he went on to a solo career some moments of which rank with Moonlight for skewed brilliance: Black Snake Diamond Röle comes highly recommended. These days he seems to be regarded as a cult musical comedian, a little harsh for a man who made one of the great British rock albums of the last 15 years. But then, he probably doesn't mind in the least.