First things first: if there were such a thing as “justice” in our current cultural clime, Robyn Hitchcock would be a household name to you. Of course, the main hurdle within that disparity is the idea that whoever is popular and/or infamous among our celebrity spawn is somehow synonymous with originality or excellence, however which way you define those qualities. But we currently inhabit a hari-kari construct in which the mainstream media celebrates mediocrity at every turn—it’s all part of the vicious social engineering hoodwinkery being foisted upon us. The trick remains not buying into this claptrap and becoming “bent out of shape from society’s pliers,” as the bard Bob Dylan so eloquently put it in what may be his greatest song, the immortal “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” But there are true alternatives to the shuck-and-jive of the constant blather, and singer/songwriter/artist/conceptualist Robyn Hitchcock is one of them. If the middle of the road doesn’t suit your temperament, Hitchcock offers a refreshing shift in perspective where his vista of possibilities seems infinitely cosmic. Perhaps it’s a lack of refinement, or a full appreciation of life’s absurdities that explain why the words “Robyn Hitchcock” do not inspire the same sort of enthusiasm that is usually reserved in human beings for such exclamations as “free beer” or “here are your lottery winnings, sir!” But thank Gaia it takes all kinds, and on my particular fantasy island Mr. Hitchcock’s countenance would be as familiar to you and the great, unwashed masses as those Faustian faces you find each week leering back at you from the checkout stand of your local supermarket.
It doesn’t seem to matter how many renegade critics fawn over him, or how many fellow musicians and artists site him as an influence or an inspiration since he began hawking his wares in the marketplace circa ’78—Hitchcock endures as a niche commodity. Despite flirtations with the mainstream and corporations capable of promoting his work and likeness to the punters in the boonies, Hitchcock remains a twinkle on the twilight fringes of the musical landscape. It’s most likely by design, and is where he’s most comfortable—a world away from the red carpets and klieg lights. He is frequently referred to as a “cult” artist, which leaves one pondering: what would inspire a “cult” to play follow-the-leader? It’s only when the “leader” inspires and reflects the most significant aspects of his or her audience, so that a form of symbiosis occurs. That’s true of any artist—but it’s especially profound, perverse, and peculiar when the artist in question happens to be Robyn Rowan Hitchcock.
Hitchcock was born March 3, 1953, in Paddington, London, England. His late father, Raymond Hitchcock, was a novelist (Percy) and a painter with surrealist tendencies, traits that the younger Hitchcock picked up at an early age. When queried about his roots and his worldview Robyn says, “I’m from west of London, but based myself in Cambridge in the mid-1970s to look for musicians. My outlook, like the rest of me, comes from post-war middle-class southern England—[British author] Julian Barnes, to put it in two words.”
It was in Cambridge that Hitchcock joined forces with guitarist Kimberley Rew, bassist/keyboardist Andy Metcalfe, and drummer Morris Windsor to form the Soft Boys in 1976. Perpetually out of vogue, within a dense thicket of clanging guitars and frequently incomprehensible, dadaesque lyrics, the Soft Boys appeared at times as if they were teetering on the perpetual edge of implosion, which makes them rather exciting to listen to. “The Soft Boys evoked only one emotion,” says Hitchcock. “And that was psychosis. A lot of the earlier stuff was terribly psychotic.” They could also be a bit on the schizophrenic side, with barbershop, a cappella harmonies sharing the same sonic tool shed as buzzsaws, blowtorches, and bongos, often in the same song. Their saga is a book onto itself, with shifting lineups that morphed out of the group Dennis and the Experts and into the Soft Boys. Enough material was written and recorded to fill several albums during the Soft Boys’ five-year lifespan, but precious little of it was unleashed while they were still a working unit.
However, before disbanding in ’81 the Soft Boys recorded their second album proper with the psychedelic masterpiece Underwater Moonlight. Spearheaded by the vitriolic “I Wanna Destroy You” (aimed at Thatcher, Reagan, et al.) and the beautifully sublime “Queen of Eyes,” it was a style that was distinctly at odds with the pub and punk rock movements that were all the rage in England at the time. Synthesizing the sneer of punk with the boozy camaraderie of a gang of footballers down at the pub, the Soft Boys incorporated Music Hall, rockabilly, beat poetry, and whimsical folly into every stone (and die) that was cast into the stratosphere. As Hitchcock told Bill Holdship in the liner notes of the excellent two-disc Rykodisc anthology, the soft boys 1976–81: “When punk came along, it looked like it was going to knock all the turgid stuff out the window. Unfortunately, punk went the wrong way. If you look at Dylan and the Beatles, they both had a strong backlog of material by other artists. Their roots went really deep, and they drew on a lot of different things. I was learning my craft right then—I started writing songs in the early ’70s, and I drew on a tradition to create what I do. I’d never thought of being a songwriter before I started doing it, but I had learned hundreds of songs by other people.”
When Hitchcock embarked on a solo career he maintained many of the Soft Boys’ stylistic aspects, but added a traditional English folk twist—think Nick Drake star-crossed with Dylan, Fairport Convention, and the Incredible String Band, plus a hundred thousand other artistic influences, and you have a fairly good representation of the territory he has staked over the past 45 years as a singer/songwriter/guitarist/pianist. There also remains an undying love for early Pink Floyd and the Beatles, as Hitchcock told MOJO in 2009 that his “ambition, then and now, was to write the 15th song off of Revolver.”
Q: Many writers have described your lyrical/musical style as a cross between Bob Dylan, Syd Barrett, and John Lennon. Are those just lazy comparisons?
A: What do you think?
Q: Do you think of yourself as a Renaissance man?
A: This is no Renaissance.
Q: Are you still a vegetarian?
A: Pescatarian I am. Still stick it to the humble prawn and abuse the noble lobster.
Hitchcock’s visibility and marketability have gone up and down over the years, irrespective of trends. He started off his solo career relishing his creative independence from the Soft Boys, and it shows across the wide range of material explored on his first three albums, which in many ways establishes the template of what the rest of his career would look and sound like in one form of another.
1981’s Black Snake Diamond Role is a more refined collection of rock ‘n’ roll than anything the Soft Boys managed during their tenure, and Hitchcock is clearly enjoying his autonomy throughout this excellent set of songs. By contrast, 1982’s Groovy Decay was subsequently written off by its creator as a “load of bland junk,” due to the trappings of its times: namely the synth-pop, computer-driven production style of the early ’80s that made much of what passed for pop music in England at the time appear “incredibly wet” behind the ears.
But if Black Snake Diamond Role is a home run and Groovy Decay a foul ball up into the stands, 1984’s I Often Dream of Trains is a grand slam of understatement, a pastoral pleasure palace where less is truly more on Hitchcock’s third solo outing. Eschewing all the trappings of a rock ‘n’ roll band—namely the rhythm section of electric guitar, bass, and drums—Hitchcock has created a singular moody masterpiece that, 36 years on, doesn’t sound the slightest bit dated. In fact, it gets better with age, which was evident when he did a revival of the entire album in 2008, captured on I Often Dream of Trains Live in New York. It’s rich and textural, with songs and performances that have a timeless quality to them, not remotely dependent on fads or finicky technological gimmicks. Utilizing his buoyant skills on the acoustic guitar and piano, his trademark arpeggiated riffs are startling in their subtle beauty and the earlier anger has been drained away to reveal a wistful, nearly nostalgic look at a Great Britain that either never existed (except in his imagination) or is so buried in the past as to be only half-remembered by those with a long sense of history. The promotional video for the title track reinforces the notion that everything we perceive is in a dreamscape, floating through the ether on a sea of longing and occasional rapture. “I Often Dream of Trains” seems to imply that if you could only meet the angel of your desires in the buffet car of life, everything would be hunky dory. Or at least you’d have someone to chat up and explore your fantasies with.
1985 found Hitchcock bringing back the chiming Rickenbackers and three-part harmonies of his rock ‘n’ roll roots with Fegmania!, which reunited him with Andy Metcalfe and Morris Windsor, who were repurposed for the new age as Hitchcock’s backing group, the Egyptians. It’s an arrangement that lasted nearly ten years. For a year or so they were complemented by keyboardist Roger Jackson, and their energetic frenzy is captured in all its glory on the live CD/DVD of Gotta Let This Hen Out! 1986 found Hitchcock trawling through his archives for the first of several times with a compilation of outtakes (Invisible Hitchcock) before putting out his most realized record to date: Element of Light. With a cover featuring an Asian boy (or is it a girl? I still can’t work it out) holding up a crab to Hitchcock’s face—it’s the first of many visual images that aligns the artist with crustaceans and the infinite expanse of the sea. His publishing company is called Two Crabs Music after all, which leaves a lot of people scratching their heads at times and wondering: “What the hell is he on about?” Even Hitchcock admits that he’s not sure at times—he just lets the muse do its thing and he “asks questions later.”
In the 2009 Sundance documentary Sex, Food, Death…and Insects, Hitchcock is rather candid about his artistic process and how he views himself in the world: “Life is always a bit of a shock to me, I’m always taken by surprise. Most of my songs, if they’re about anything, are about the shock of existence. People say, ‘Wow, Hitchcock writes about food, sex, and death with a side order of fish and insects. As if I was being insanely whimsical. But food, sex, and death are all these sort of corridors to life, if you like. You need sex to get you here, food to keep you here, and death to get you out. They’re the entry and exit signs.”
After recording his first seven solo albums for a series of modest labels in the U.K., he received a big push in the marketplace when he signed a five-album deal with A&M Records in 1988. It was at this point he began a lengthy collaboration with R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, who began contributing to Hitchcock’s sound with 1988’s Globe of Frogs, and continued the association throughout the naughts with Scott McCaughey and Bill Rieflin in the group the Venus 3. They toured for over a year together and made a number of recordings, including the excellent Olé! Tarantula and Propellor Time.
While Hitchcock was on A&M he flirted with MTV and the airwaves of alternative college radio when “Balloon Man,” “Madonna of the Wasps,” “One Long Pair of Eyes,” and “So You Think You’re in Love,” all fell into heavy rotation. His artistic growth across Globe of Frogs (1988), Queen Elvis (1989), Perspex Island (1991), and Respect (1993) demonstrate a significant maturation, with Hitchcock demonstrating the ability to play the corporate game without losing his artistic soul.
In the midst of his A&M contract he had the artistic freedom to record a second acoustic album, Eye, which is arguably more beautiful than I Often Dream of Trains. It was as if he was making “conventional” rock albums for the major label (A&M) and choosing random side projects to make more personal statements. That has been the dichotomy throughout Hitchcock’s career: how to appeal to a mass audience while making intimate, subtle gestures through much of his songwriting—he’s not a grandstander.
“I first heard Underwater Moonlight when R.E.M. was forming,” Buck told MOJO. “The Soft Boys offered classic songwriting, with a twist; it was influential on us. We became really good friends, and he’d come and play at our shows. He reminds me of a more psychedelic Ray Davies. If he’d been born eight years earlier, he’d be really legendary. But he came along during punk and was never ‘cool.’”
It was, in fact, with R.E.M. that most people in San Diego first saw Robyn Hitchcock in 1989 when he opened for them on their Green tour at the Sports Arena. There haven’t been many opportunities to see him here in town over the past three decades—the Belly Up Tavern and Brick by Brick proving incompatible to his clientele. However, the last time he was in San Diego in June 2017, he had a fabulous turnout at the Casbah, where he will be returning on March 5th, two days after his 67th birthday.
Having traveled many times to Los Angeles to see him perform at Largo and the Coronet Theatre, I wonder what comes to mind when Hitchcock thinks of San Diego?
“Visiting Raymond Chandler’s two graves—which one is he under? Also, our van reversing gently into a tree on the La Jolla campus on our first visit in 1986 and seeing an old double-decker London bus outside the arena where we opened for R.E.M.”
In 1993 when Hitchcock’s tenure at A&M Records was up he enjoyed another high profile surge when his first seven albums were re-issued by Rhino Records in the U.S. and Sequel Records in the U.K., along with a second compendium titled You & Oblivion. However, my favorite album remains 1993’s Respect. It’s a perfect collection of songs and performances that can hold its head up proudly against anything produced over the last 50 years.
The ’90s saw Hitchcock spend a considerable amount of time and money with Warner Bros. Records where he put out several excellent LPs (Moss Elixir/Mossy Liquor, Jewels for Sophia/A Star for Bram), including the soundtrack to the 1998 Jonathan Demme concert film Storefront Hitchcock. Since the early naughts he has consistently put out quality work, including his latest EP with Andy Partridge (of XTC) called Planet England. Written and recorded at Partridge’s house in Swindon, Planet England sounds as vital and exciting as anything that either artist has done in their respective, illustrious pasts. And that’s saying something when both artists are nearing seven decades of existence. It’s sublime and beautiful, and you’re advised to investigate its splendor immediately. You’ll thank me later, I guarantee you.
Q: What books are you reading at the moment?
A: Irish writers mostly: Tana French, Sally Rooney, Kevin Barry, and, of course, Edna O’Brien.
Q: Are there any books that have had a profound effect on how you think and feel about the world?
A: Ridley Walker by Russell Hoban has really shaped my view of the future. Brave New World and 1984 got to me as a child. J.G. Ballard, H.G. Wells, and Mervyn Peake are less dystopian, more imaginative—I keep re-reading them.
Q: Will you be performing solo as you did last time in San Diego?
A: I usually do, yes. My partner Emma Swift often sings harmonies with me at the end of the show. Emma’s an immaculate singer—raises my voice and raises my game. Although I first toured with a band, for the last 30 years I’ve been mainly a solo performer, which is how I started, in the British folk clubs. I feel like I’ve raised my act to a new art form: some singing, some talking, some harmonies, and sometimes a piano. I’m happiest on stage alone, like Billy Bragg or Nick Lowe.
Q: What are your future plans or projects?
A: The more I talk about what I’m planning to do, the less likely I am to do it…so let’s just say I currently have projects taking me in every direction, and I hope to be around long enough to see them through.
Q: What is the name of the last song you wrote?
A: “The Feathery Serpent God.”
Q: What song are you working on at the moment?
A: “A Ghost in Sunlight.” I’ll probably never finish it: the end is a labyrinth that changes every time I sing it. It starts well, though..
Q: Do you remain optimistic about the future?
A: Optimistic, moi? I’ve never been optimistic about the future, and I’m even less so now. Is anybody?
Q: What are your hopes, both personally and for the planet?
A: I have very few hopes for the planet as long as humans remain the dominant species. We seem to be an experiment that has failed. A sudden evolutionary leap into empathic consciousness might save us—possibly through the merger with our smartphones? This merger, after all, is happening even more rapidly than global warming. Regardless, if human nature doesn’t evolve very fast, we won’t be going anywhere…
We have the worst possible leaders at the worst possible time. Is this a coincidence or do we, somewhere inside our urge to survive, also have a death wish buried inside us? Perhaps we want to destroy ourselves before we can contaminate other planets…but in the course of that, we would be destroying so much that is beautiful, that is not ours to destroy.
For myself, as I said, I hope to be spared to see my multiple projects through—which I know is solipsism: whose ass am I going to save when the kingdom crumbles?
See Robyn Hitchcok in concert on Thursday, March 5 @ the Casbah, 2501 Kettner Blvd., 8pm.