Last Saturday, The Guardian contained a pull-out supplement with Part 1 of their 1000 Albums To Hear Before You Die. Of course, I didn’t read the introduction properly, so didn’t bother to buy the paper during the week to collect the subsequent parts, thinking that they were going to be published on consecutive Saturdays. Stupid, I know.
So, I have no idea whether Robyn Hitchcock’s classics I Often Dream Of Trains or Eye made it in there. I do know, though, that you can get both, plus his first solo album, Black Snake Diamond Role, and a host of bonus demo tracks, in a new boxed set called I Wanna Go Backwards. You wouldn’t be disappointed.
I like a lot of Hitchcock’s albums with The Egyptians, but those first two I mentioned, I Often Dream Of Trains and Eye, are on another level. Both feature nothing more than his (often multi-tracked) voice, plus his own acoustic guitar and piano accompaniment. On Eye, in particular, his finger-picking is stunning, mixing folkiness with a peculiarly English psychedelic flavour. Both albums, I should add, are very immediate, catchy even, and although the influences of Syd Barrett, John Lennon and Bob Dylan are always apparent, they’re never overpowering, Hitchcock being too much his own man to let that happen.
A lot of the time that’s down to the lyrics. Admittedly, sometimes Robyn gets a bit self-consciously weird and tries a bit too hard, but most of the time he sets out a highly individual vision that’s often unsettling, often funny, occasionally heartbreaking (especially the very Dylanesque Linctus House, on Eye) and always thought-provoking.
Another album that might have made it in there is Graham Parker and The Rumour's Squeezing Out Sparks. I bought it on CD the other day, having long ago lost my old tape of it, and it still stands up well. Parker got sick, in the late 70s, of being tagged as an angry young man along with Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson, but you can see (or hear, rather) why it happened. He sounds like a man with a lot to get off his chest, and on this album, the musical backing is stripped back to a pretty raw, guitar-heavy sound. There are one or two weak tracks, but Discovering Japan, Passion Is No Ordinary Word and Local Girls hit the spot, and You Can’t Be Too Strong almost qualifies as sensitive. There are two bonus tracks, with his old brass section back on board, one a fairly straight but decent stab at the Jackson 5’s I Want You Back, and the other called Mercury Poisoning, a bile-filled but upbeat kiss-off to his old reord company.
He never quite hit the commercial heights that Costello and Jackson did, but arguably he stayed truer to his original vision.