THE MAN WHO
Robyn Hitchcock is the Soft Boy who fell to Earth,
the Soft Boy who never grew up, the Man Who Would Be Syd
– the once and future Syd Barrett. Or a fruitcake.
But with the patronage of REM and his strongest album yet –
‘RESPECT’ (1993), he’s on the brink of even greater notoriety.
Andrew Darlington watches him soundcheck,
discusses Axe Murderers, Tree Surgeons, and
the Food Blender Theory of Song Composition,
LSD, Mother Fixation, and the
(insensitive soul) behind the Freak Show…
Hung on Derby’s South Orbital road, ‘Mickleover College Of Higher Education’ has the still calm ambience of deep space. The lawns are kept neatly clipped for an (apparently) absentee student body. Over the slow hill from the Car Park you can see Nissans and Fiestas shuttle dumbly like silent coloured beads up and down the M-way threads. We go across those lawns, down through the halls. Asphalt and grass to concrete and glass. Robyn Hitchcock lopes as if he’s in free fall. You can make up your own version of Robyn Hitchcock, ‘cos they’re all true.
Former Soft Boy, then front-person with the Egyptians, then Soft Boy again, he’s either ‘a flower in the field of English eccentricity’ (Dave Thomas, ‘New Musical Express’ 30 March 1985), or ‘a fruitcase’ (Paul Strange, ‘Melody Maker’ 23 March 1985). He lopes as if he’s lighter than air. Lopes as if he’s Eight Miles Higher on janglipop fantasia, scratch ‘n’ sniff guitars, and lyrics that take you for a loop. Lopes as if he’s attached to gravity and normality by the slenderest umbilical lifeline of physical necessity.
Is that the version you want? And how does it accord with Hitchcock’s own self-view?
Robyn, why is your band ‘The Egyptians’, and not – say, ‘The Italians’?
‘Do you feel particularly strongly that it SHOULD be ‘The Italians’?’
No. I just wondered why, out of all the races of the world, you chose the Egyptians.
‘How did YOU acquire YOUR name? Did YOU have any choice in the matter?’
No, but then you weren’t BORN ‘Egyptian’, it was the result of conscious choice.
‘Not quite, because I’M Robyn Hitchcock – THEY’RE the Egyptians!’
At soundcheck he’s speaking in tongues. A recitation. He’s stood at the mike while they find his sound-level, hands clasped in the Catholic attitude of prayer, reeling off this pious dramatic monologue heavily accented in pidgin Spanish. A young Catalan boy ees adrift at sea, wonders where hees Momma, where hees Poppa, the ocean swells, the clouds storm… then he hears the voices of Angels, and the Egyptians peal off acapella bell-tones around him as they’re miked up.
So far he’s playing the date for laughs, but underlying it all, this is serious ‘ting. Robyn and the band – including Softs Morris Windsor on drums, and Andy Metcalfe, bass/ keyboards, are now receiving much critical respiration, gaining media momentum through a series of manically inventive records and the resuscitation of what Margaret Thatcher deemed ‘the oxygen of publicity’. They have an extensive back-catalogue of oddly-titled albums to draw from. The most recent include the acoustic ‘Queen Elvis’ (1989), ‘Eye’ (1990) and last year’s thirty-eight-track ‘Soft Boys: 1976-‘81’, and ‘Respect’ – possibly his most perfectly-realised album yet, crammed with titles such as “When I Was Dead”, “The Wreck Of The Arthur Lee” and his Vera Lynne tribute “The Yip Song”.
Recorded in the kitchen and the living room of his Isle of Wight home, around the time of the Autumn Equinox, ‘Respect’ is further evidence, as if further evidence were REALLY needed, that Hitchcock is the most exhilaratingly deranged mind to operate within the tacky parameters of Pop since… um… Syd Barrett? The analogy is hard to avoid. Has been made with brain-numbing regularity in every print-piece he’s ever been subjected to. So once we’re sat face-to-face in interview-space, I try not to mention the ex-Pink Floyd acid casualty.
Instead, we talk about Robyn’s work with REM – who cover ‘Respect’s “Arms Of Love” on the ‘B’-side of “Man On The Moon”, while both Peter Buck and Michael Stipe guest on his ‘Perspex Island’ (1991) album. We talk about co-writing with Captain Sensible, and Hitchcock’s ‘Groovy Decay’ (1982) sessions produced by sometime Shamen collaborator Steve Hillage (‘I like him, but we don’t have the same metabolic rate at all’). And we talk about the current album, produced by John Leckie whose track-record includes the Fall, Verve and the Stone Roses… but it seems we’re predestined to the subject of Syd.
‘He was one of those rare things, the genuine article’ Robyn opines carefully. ‘Don’t forget, I’m quite old. I’m well over thirty. Barrett was very young when he started. And poor old Syd just believed it all, y’know. He also believed in GETTING FAMOUS – which is a dangerous thing to a kind of immature personality. He believed, literally, in what he did and said, whereas most people realize that whatever level you’re on, this is Show Business, this is a Performance. Bob Dylan believed in what HE was doing, and got completely fucked because of it. I’m not saying that it has to be a SHAM, but you have to KNOW that you are providing some form of entertainment for people. You are not an Axe Murderer. You are not a Tree Surgeon. You are not Bruce Forsyth. But you ARE providing something for people, an alternative world for them to watch. Anyone who wants to keep their head in Show Business has to realize this. You can be as near to your own personal self, or as far as you like. But poor old Syd just believed it all.’ A quirky Hitchcockian grin beneath a spray of black hair. ‘It was just the incredible unreality of LSD, the incredible unreality of fame, the incredible unreality of growing up – combined with a bit of Mother fixation, and you’re gone!’ A moment’s pause, then ‘but I never met him. I wasn’t in the Pink Floyd. It’s all just theory.’
Anyway, we should be ‘talking up’ the albums and the recent Soft Boys re-union tour, instead of hanging luster on the language of antique legend. And Robyn’s product deserves all the press inches it can garner. I mean, who but Hitchcock, like some latter-day tripped-out Lewis Carroll, could rhyme ‘Norwich’ with ‘porridge’ (on “Listening To The Higsons”), follow it with “When I Was Dead” – his own obituary spun out into the haunting script for Luis Buñuel’s next movie (‘the Devil asked me to supper, he said ‘Careful with the spoons’, and god said ‘oh ignore him, I’ve got all your albums’, I said ‘yes, but whose got all the tunes?’’), then crown it with a gloriously demented “Wafflehead” with cheese-grater instrumentation and lyrics worthy of a Govt Health Warning? That’s all PURE Hitchcock.
Writing? ‘The important thing is to DO it without being aware of yourself at all. It’s like speaking in tongues. TS Eliot, I think, said ‘You should concentrate on the words, on the technique of writing, and let the substance take care of itself.’ So it’s almost like automatic writing. You just have to, sort of, find a flow. As if it’s a kind of lava. Once the lava is streaming down the mountainside, you can do this to it, you can do that to it, and then it congeals, and then you’ve got this lump which is a song.’
Is there an internal logic to the apparently random elements in the lyrics? ‘I wouldn’t know. From my experience of me I would have thought there wasn’t much internal logic. There’s certainly no logic I can think of now. I mean, someone was once interviewing me and saying basically ‘how does your brain work?’ Y’know, as if I could lift it out and put it on the table in front of him and say ‘well, I think there’s a meridian here, unscrew this bit and see – would you like to try it? Shall we swap brains?’ You can’t. You can identify other people in the songs, you can see styles coming up, you can say ‘oh-oh, here come the Byrds again’. But I can’t tell you where songs come from. ‘Cos it’s just like probing a jellyfish, it can’t be done. Or it’s like trying to freeze a rainbow…’
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‘Ev’ry eve’nin, put on my dish-worker’s suit…’ voice slurred, distorted, nudged out of shape, moving octaves lower down into jazzy cadences. Hitchcock bends into the mic for a word-perfect run-through of “Yeh Yeh”. Neat little Roland synth masquerading as Hammond organ stitching in improvisationally around the exaggeratedly smooth vocals pouring down like silver. Then, as the last notes die in the unfocussed speakers, ‘is that alright?’
‘Great’ from the sound-mixer, adding irreverently ‘that’s the best one of your songs that you do.’ A Hitchcock grin, a pout of his lower lip in mock-Jaggeresque petulance, ‘that’s Georgie Fame, 1964 – one of HIS hits. Another was “Sitting In The Park”…’
…And another was “In The Meantime”. I’m watching the soundcheck from across an empty dance-hall that’s masquerading as an off-duty gymnasium. Small high oblong windows slant spots of dusty light across the scuffed parquet floor. A couple of Students Union Entertainment Officials hang around to view the proceedings, their attention spinning between the stage and a girl with tight faded Levi’s, a full T-shirt, and long blonde hair. She purposefully ignores them out of existence. And I’m watching the stage with a grin that’s difficult to suppress. Soundchecks are supposed to be boring affairs of repetitions up and down the fret. But not with Robyn Hitchcock it ain’t. ‘What do you want us to do now?’ enquires Robyn helpfully.
‘Oh, nothing in particular’ from the sound-desk. Hitchcock runs a reflective Blues line from his Fender, meandering this way and that, then tentatively sings ‘no – thing in par – tic-u-lar’ so it fits into the loose twelve-bar structure, tasting it for its line-length lyric quality. He repeats the guitar phrase, tagging ‘nothing in particular, that’s what my Baby said to me. Nothing in particular, that’s all she wants from me’ onto it. The bass picks up on the chord progression and feeds gently in behind him a second before the keyboard begins developing and shaping the idea. Hitchcock’s now in full flood, pulling a matching middle-eight spontaneously from the air, before returning lethally to what’s now become the chorus, the band powering it to a mock-dramatic crescendo, ‘I sometimes swear… I sometimes swear they know EXACTLY what I’m gonna play before I do’ he sings, as they taper down in perfect unison to a classic Blues finish. A complete four-minute song created out of a throw-away phrase, then forgotten.
No-one applauds. In the corner, by the disconnected Fantasy Gaming machine, a portable colour TV is tuned soundlessly to… I think… a Channel Four Rock Show. Moving masses of shapeless Heavy Metal hair, leather-bands of studs, bulging cod-pieces and Flying-V guitars in phallic poses. A group like that’d strive a month hewing out leaden riffs of a song not half as crafted ‘n’ concise as the one Hitchcock makes up and trashes on a whim and the spur of a moment.
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‘What I like is obvious in what I play’ Hitchcock concedes. ‘You’ll always find traces of my influences. That’s how it should be, unless you disintegrate into your component parts, like – say, Love’s Arthur Lee. Or even John Lennon, in some ways he disintegrated into his component parts. I think you never completely outgrow whatever your roots are, you don’t REALLY transcend them, but you DO develop them, you do tend to synthesise them. You get your own voice, it just takes a while. I remember Dylan saying ‘you’ve gotta listen to all these guys, Sonny Boy Williamson, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly,’ and he’d just reel out all these names. Then the Beatles would reel out THEIR names. And now I can reel out all of my people like Bob Dylan, Syd Barrett, Gerry & The Pacemakers, Brian Poole & The Tremeloes (snigger)…! It’s like a Food Blender where at first the nuts haven’t been chopped up properly and you can still identify bits of mushroom and bits of red pepper. And then, in the end, it all ends up as a sort of purée. So I suppose you could say I’ve been through the blender, and…’ he pauses. Runs his fingers through his permanently disheveled hair. ‘I don’t know what your question was, but I’m sure that’s the answer.’
I resume – it’s like, in your song “The Man Who Invented Himself”, have you invented ‘Robyn Hitchcock’?
He looks bemused. ‘Oh, I’m not an invention. I’m the genuine article.’
But you are, on your own admission, in ‘Show Business’, a ‘Performer’. Surely there’s a temptation to exaggerate the Hitchcock persona into product – ‘near your own personal self’ perhaps, but also – to an extent, an invention?
But ‘no. People are invented by their parents. They give you the car and you just have to drive it. Inevitably, how you steer it once you’re given it is up to you. Maybe that’s what maturity is – knowing you can control it? In which case I’m still not particularly mature. But I mean, you’re handed the apparatus. I didn’t invent me, I’m simply steering him. I WILL have co-invented my children, and then they can shake THAT off!’
That’s evasion, surely? The wacky eccentric Hitchcock has got to be a deliberate creation, a conscious decision he assiduously (acid-uously) promotes? I remind him of a long-lost BBC-TV ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ appearance on which there’s a fifteen-second interview space he devotes to a dialogue on the wearing or not wearing of socks. He told a confused Richard Skinner that the Soft Boys had ‘a lot of problems because of the kind of socks we wore. But I don’t hold any grudges. I still wear the same socks,’ and so on and so forth.
‘Well, that’s as important as anything else’ he explains guilelessly. ‘In fifteen seconds what SHOULD you say? I am 6ft 2” and I think I’m god! I’m just about to bash my head through this wall? I have got fifteen seconds to say I disagree with American policy in Nicaragua? What IS the most important thing you can say… or do you just discuss socks?’
In a later Radio One ‘Saturday Live’ he was asked ‘why the lyrical bizzaro?’ On ‘Respect’ he sings ‘heartburn and chemistry and lung disease, make mincemeat of your passion on days like these… Good Morning Mr Seagrove, have you met my dead friend, Seth?’ (on “Driving Aloud”). So why the Lightbulb Heads, the Yodelling Hoover, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Toilets – why not Moon ‘n’ June lurve songs? To which came – perhaps bitter, ‘Saturday Live’ riposte, ‘I’ve written dozens of songs about falling in love, it’s just that nobody ever plays them. They always play the ones I write about Lightbulb Heads.’
How about that, then? ‘Ah, you mean that expectations are imposed on me?’ he grins, catching my drift. ‘You mean I’m having to act out a Freak Show while inside there’s a sensitive individual? Well, yeah – I know what you mean. Sometimes there is an insensitive… er, a SENSITIVE individual inside, sometimes there isn’t.’ He breaks up laughing over the mis(?)placed prefix. Then ‘no, I DID write quite a lot of love songs, that’s true. They’re lying around somewhere. The LP I did with Steve Hillage has got a few of that sort of stuff.’
But does Hitchcock ever resent the expectations imposed on him? The necessity to be forever brained-out? ‘Perhaps their view of me is accurate?’ he counters. ‘They’re probably right to see me that way, I can’t really comment. I know you have to have a certain profile. Think of pro snooker-payer Steve ‘Interesting’ Davis (the ‘Spitting Images’ caricature), he’s looking for something to ‘hype him up’, they say ‘but you’re so DULL, what CAN we call you?’, so he thinks a bit and says ‘alright (in gnarly accent), you can call me ‘Interesting’. So he becomes Steve ‘Interesting’ Davis.’ It’s anything for a certain amount of visibility. But you need to have no fear on my behalf, I’m not putting myself out at all to do any of this. I’m aware of what people think of me, but there’s no gross exaggeration at all.’
A reflective pause. Then Robyn ‘Interesting’ Hitchcock, the man who did (or perhaps didn’t) invent himself, confesses ‘I always wanted to enact this character on a public scale. Not a VAST public scale, but public enough to be able to live on. Just enough to exist on. Money just to live, or is it to live for money…? no, not to live FOR money! You know what I mean…?’
Well, yes, no, I dunno – I’m still not sure who’s zooming who, who’s inventing who, which came first, fact or fruitcake, chicken or omelette, but it’s sho nuff fun finding out.
Robyn Hitchcock: ‘Respect’ is overdue.
ORIGINAL STUDIO ALBUMS
Black Snake Diamond Röle, 1981
Groovy Decay, 1982
I Often Dream of Trains, 1984
Fegmania!, 1985 (with the Egyptians)
Element of Light, 1986 (with the Egyptians)
Globe of Frogs, 1988 (with the Egyptians)
Queen Elvis, 1989 (with the Egyptians)
Perspex Island, 1991 (with the Egyptians)
Respect, 1993 (with the Egyptians)
Moss Elixir, 1996
Jewels for Sophia, 1999
Olé! Tarantula, 2006 (with the Venus 3)
Goodnight Oslo, 2009 (with the Venus 3)
Propellor Time, 2010 (with the Venus 3)
Tromsø, Kaptein, 2011
Love From London, 2013
The Man Upstairs, 2014
COMPILATIONS OF RARITIES, DEMOS,
ALTERNATE TAKES AND OUT-TAKES
Groovy Decoy (A re-worked version of Groovy Decay, featuring demo versions of many of that album’s songs), 1985
Invisible Hitchcock (Outtakes and rarities, 1980–1986), 1986
Gravy Deco (A compilation of the Groovy Decay and Groovy Decoy sessions), 1995
You And Oblivion (Outtakes and rarities, 1981–1987), 1995
Mossy Liquor (‘Outtakes and prototypes’ from Moss Elixir), 1996
A Star for Bram (Outtakes from Jewels for Sophia), 2000
A Middle-Class Hero (Italian-English authorised interview book written by Luca Ferrari with three outtakes CD included), 2000
Obliteration Pie (Japan-only collection of live tracks, rarities, and new studio re-recordings), 2005
I Wanna Go Backwards (Boxed set of reissued albums, with many previously unreleased outtakes and rarities), 2007
Shadow Cat (Outtakes and rarities, 1993–1999), 2008
Luminous Groove (Boxed set of reissued albums, with many previously unreleased live performances, outtakes and rarities), 2008
There Goes The Ice (Vinyl-only collection of rarities, most previously issued as digital-only tracks between 2010-2014), 2014
Gotta Let This Hen Out!, 1985 (with the Egyptians)
Give It To The Thoth Boys: Live Oddities, 1993 (Cassette only release sold on tour 1993) (with the Egyptians)
The Kershaw Sessions, 1994 (with the Egyptians)
Storefront Hitchcock, 1998 Storefront Hitchcock L.P., 1998
Live at the Cambridge Folk Festival, 1998 (with the Egyptians)
Robyn Sings, 2002 (Double live album of Bob Dylan cover songs)
This is the BBC, 2006
Sex, Food, Death... and Tarantulas (Live EP), 2007
I Often Dream of Trains in New York, (CD+DVD), 2009
Robyn Hitchcock, 1995
Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians: Greatest Hits, 1996 (with the Egyptians)
Uncorrected Personality Traits (Rhino Records best-of compilation of solo material), 1997
Time Between: A Tribute to The Byrds (Imaginary Records), 1989
Pave The Earth (A&M Records), 1990
More Oar: A Tribute to the Skip Spence Album (Birdman Records), 1999
Ernie: Songs of Ernest Noyes Brookings (Gadfly Records), 2001
Listen To What The Man Said: Popular Artists Pay Tribute to the Music of Paul McCartney (Oglio Records), 2001
Wig in a Box (Off Records), 2003
Terry Edwards Presents Queer Street (Sartorial Records), 2004
Abbey Road Now! (Mojo Magazine Free CD), Oct 2009 – ‘I Want You (She's So Heavy)’
The Madcap Laughs Again! (Mojo Magazine Free CD), Mar 2010 ‘Dark Globe’
Son of Rogues Gallery (ANTI- Records), 2013 ‘Sam’s Gone Away’