Thursday, 31 January 2008

The Man With The Lightbulb Head

Having read Martin Stannard's post the other day about Robyn Hitchcock's gig at the Rescue Rooms in Nottingham (and having missed said gig thanks to the dreaded norovirus, which has now left me with a kidney infection – happy days), I’ve been playing Hitchcock’s back catalogue non-stop in the car. As the post says, he’s been so prolific over the years that I’ve got nothing like every album he’s made, but I still have a fair few.

Chronologically, I suppose the best place to start is with The Soft Boys’ classic 1980 album Underwater Moonlight (Hitchcock was their main songwriter and singer). The main influences are definitely psychedelic, but there’s more than a little post-punk flavour too, especially on the glorious guitar roar of opener I Wanna Destroy You. I’d guess that the longer pieces, such as the title track, got them eyed with suspicion by punk fundamentalists at the time, but it’s an album that stands the test of time very well, I think. The reissue from a few years back, with several bonus tracks from the sessions and a 2nd CD of demos, is worth having.

One of the most bizarre things about The Soft Boys, of course, was that alongside Hitchcock was Kimberley Rew, who evidently decided he’d had enough of being critically praised but unsuccessful and went on to form Katrina and the Waves, who had a huge hit with Walking On Sunshine and then, many years later, won the Eurovision Song Contest.

I’ve written before about Hitchcock’s two superb solo albums, I Often Dream Of Trains (1984) and Eye (1990). I can’t recommend either highly enough – Eye would probably be narrowly my favourite.

The other two I’ve been listening to this week are Fegmania (1985) and Element Of Light (1986), Hitchcock’s first two studio albums backed by the Egyptians. The first is actually fairly upbeat (musically, that is; lyrically it’s as dark and twisted as ever), with lots of neat little guitar-pop songs like Another Bubble and Insect Mother – you can hear why Hitchcock became a big favourite with REM-ish college bands. There’s also The Man With The Lightbulb Head and My Wife And My Dead Wife, which have remained Hitchcock favourites to the present day. I like the understated, moody Glass, too.

Element Of Light is, I think, one of his most underrated albums (it’s quite difficult to get hold of, unfortunately). Bass is a great song, with its stream of fish (get it?) and bird references, and its propulsive bassline, and both Winchester and Raymond Chandler Evening are fine too. But the highlight has to be the absolutely sublime Airscape, all genuinely poetic lyrics, backwards guitar, harmonies and glass harmonica, the latter giving it an almost ethereal feel. It’s probably my favourite Hitchcock song, and that’s against some pretty stiff competition.

There are loads more albums, but I’ll have to get round to them some other time. Suffice it to say that, as Martin Stannard suggested, Hitchcock is a must for anyone with an interest in words (OK, he can be self-consciously weird at times, but it’s worth sticking with him), saying nothing of the music. He’s a real national treasure.


Rob said...

On the Katrina and the Waves / Kimberley Rew thing - it would be interesting to trace the odd things alternative/punk musicians got up to later in their careers. One classic example is the Frantic Elevators - the singer, of course, being (later) Simply Red's Mick Hucknall.

I'll have to check out Robyn Hitchcock's stuff. Strangely, I've never paid it much attention.

Matt Merritt said...

Yeah, I'd be interested to hear of any other examples. There must be loads.
I first saw Hitchcock in, I think, 1991, supporting Billy Bragg. He had his most poppy, US college radio-friendly album out, and it all just sounded like REM-lite with a few surreal and weird lyrics thrown in. I was really put off, and didn't buy any of his records until about five years later, but that time, I was hooked.

PJ Nolan said...

Hi Matt - I hope you enjoyed Hitchcock on Jools Holland's 200th episode on friday? Agree he can be selfconsciously weird - doolally is the word that springs to mind ;) But a nice counterpoint in that context. I think I'd have to nominate Julian Cope as my choice of english psychedelic laureate, but Hitchcock has his charms too. BTW I got your chapbook from happenstance - really good stuff! Gave you a wee mention over on my blog - feel free to check it out. Cheers, PJ.

Matt Merritt said...

Thanks very much for plugging me and HappenStance, PJ. Glad you liked the chapbook.
I've taped Friday's programme but not watched it yet, so I look forward to that. Julian Cope is a close second to RH in my book. Bit uneven in his recording career, but writer of two great autobiographies, as well as the wonderful Modern Antiquarian.