Another trip inside the British psych-rocker’s vault
In the early ’80s, a record-store clerk in a sleepy Southern college town discovered Robyn Hitchcock via the English singer/songwriter’s band The Soft Boys. While a product of the punk era, The Soft Boys trafficked in a deeply unfashionable blend of psychedelia and jangly ’60s-style pop. Hitchcock, the band’s lyricist, sidestepped both politics and rote boy/girl pop narratives, opting instead for cracked, surrealist metaphors that were equal parts Syd Barrett’s twee madness and Bob Dylan’s stream-of-consciousness wordplay—all delivered with a voice like a loopier John Lennon.
The Soft Boys’ overlooked classic, 1980’s Underwater Moonlighta revelation to the clerk at Athens, Ga.’s Wuxtry Records: R.E.M.
guitarist Peter Buck, whose young band would glean much from The Soft
Boys’ approach. By the time Hitchcock released 1988 solo album Globe Of
Frogs (which cemented his U.S. cult following), Buck was one of his
occasional sidemen-—a role he still plays.
In between The Soft Boys’ run and Hitchcock’s late-’80s
college-radio hit “Balloon Man,” the songwriter hit his stride as a
solo artist. After the largely acoustic I Often Dream Of Trains, he
partially reformed The Soft Boys, corralling bassist Andy Metcalfe and
drummer Morris Windsor to form The Egyptians. The group then recorded
Fegmania!, the live album Gotta Let This Hen Out! and Element Of Light
during a creatively fertile—and exclamation-mark-studded—two-year
stretch. This period is the focus of Luminous Groove, Yep Roc’s new
five-disc Hitchcock reissue box. In addition to the original three
discs, previously unreleased material forms more than half of the set’s
total running time.
In retrospect, the studio recordings were quite the balancing act.
During an era when many albums were hopelessly dated by heavy
synthesizer use and recording techniques like gated-reverb drums (think
Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight”), Hitchcock and crew used
cutting-edge techniques judiciously, almost always in service of the
songs, while keeping such elements as Rickenbacker 12-string guitars
strongly in the mix. As a result, while a listener can spot the decade
in which they were recorded, the songs have aged gracefully—even when a
digital synthesizer is prominent, as on “My Wife And My Dead Wife.”
Of course, the strong songs help. Many of the tracks here have
become Hitchcock live staples over the years. “Heaven” and “Somewhere
Apart” even sound like hits until you notice the overripe lyrics (“all
them see-through things are crawling from the sea”). And while
Hitchcock’s words exist in their own world of waking dreams, they’re
not just wacky imagery for imagery’s sake. They always point to an
emotional reality, which becomes more apparent with all of this
material collected in one place.
Of course, live recordings make production values less of an issue,
and Robyn and The Egyptians smoke onstage, trading the cerebral aura
for aggressive energy, as Gotta Let This Hen Out! and Bad Case of
History’s live “part 2” disc demonstrate. Hen—recorded in 1985 at
London’s Marquee—remains an essential snapshot of the band, covering a
catalog that stretches back to The Soft Boys. With the recording
quality varying widely, and without the cohesion of Hen, the other live
material is nice, but it’s definitely aimed at hardcore fans.
As for rarities, one of the marvels of this set is that so much
still remains in Hitchcock’s vaults, given the existence of 1995’s
odds-and-ends compendium You & Oblivion and previous reissues. As
with most vault-cleaning projects, it ranges from fun but
inconsequential (Byrds and Dylan covers, studio larks like “Sprinkling
Dots”) to completely disposable (an instrumental version of “The Man
With The Lightbulb Head”) to overlooked gems like “The Leopard.”
The only disappointment here is the packaging, which is heavy on
period photography, but light on contextual insight. Instead of a
critical essay, the Bad Case of History booklet features a creepy story
about talking, carnivorous fish, loosely related to Element Of Light
track “Bass.” Then again, with so much available online
(RobynHitchcock.com isn’t called “The Museum of Hitchcock” for
nothing), perhaps it’s time for reissue liners to abandon their
Unlike some of his generational peers, the now fiftysomething
Hitchcock has never suffered a period of diminishing returns. His most
recent work is as good of an introduction to newcomers as his “classic”
output. That said, fans—and Hitchcock’s are as cultish as they
come—will find this collection ?essential, while others willing to wade
through all five discs will glean new insights into one of England’s
most unique and enduring artists.