The Rhino Reissues
by Grant Alden
Black Snake Diamond Role
"They're just eggs that I laid many years ago; whether they ever hatched or not is questionable." -- Robyn Hitchcock
Early in 1980, The Soft Boys ceased to function -- quite gently, as such things go. The Cambridge quartet -- Robyn Hitchcock, Kimberley Rew, Andy Metcalfe (later Matthew Seligman), and Morris Windsor -- had gotten it right the third time out (recordings for their first album were so awful only small pieces have been released), with Underwater Moonlight. Just exactly right -- their peculiar, lilting, very British variation on Psychedelia a la Syd Barrett playing elegant sophistication against American antecedents like, say, The 13th Floor Elevators. And then they called it a day.
Oh, odd bits of tape were pressed to vinyl after, they still worked with each other (reuniting in Britain for a few shows in 1993), and Metcalfe and Windsor would later join Robyn as Egyptians. But The Soft Boys, having spawned a small, devoted cult of followers, were no more.
Which left Robyn where he had begun, back in 1974 when he'd moved from London to Cambridge: as a solo artist. In all fairness, Black Snake Diamond Role comes close to being the fourth Soft Boys album. Pat Collier engineered most of the sessions at Alaska Studios, where he had recorded much of Underwater Moonlight. Matthew Seligman began producing (or co-conspiring with) Robyn and played bass on some tracks. Morris and Kimberley were drawn into the record as well.
But, for the first time, this was to be Robyn Hitchcock's album. "I really enjoyed making Black Snake," he remembers, "because it was the first time I'd ever got to make a record by myself. It was the first time I'd got to pick who I was going to have on the individual songs, rather than having the band. And so I figured I'd use the strengths of the individual Soft Boys rather than the strengths -- and the weaknesses -- of the collective Soft Boys."
Sessions began simply, just Robyn and Morris on drums. "Morris is very nimble, and he picks things up very fast," Robyn says. "But, also, if there's nobody there except me and him, he tends to feel a bit more responsible for the track. So 'The Man Who Invented Himself' and 'Acid Bird' were just Morris and me. I think the first thing we did was 'Acid Bird' on a 4-track machine that Pat Collier had. Morris hadn't heard any of the songs, so I'd just go in and play bass or guitar. I remember playing something on 'Acid Bird' and realizing later that I'd had the wah-wah pedal pressed down into the extreme treble position for the whole take. But it sounded really good, so I double-tracked it. And then I was able to put eight harmonies on it because Pat Collier was brilliant at bumping tracks down. So although it was only an old 4-track machine, there's actually 12 or 16 tracks on it."
Robyn pauses. "A lot of these records were recorded in Alaska, so I should probably explain it. Right opposite Waterloo Station is this rehearsal studio called 'Alaska', which belonged to Pat Collier (but he sold it in 1987). And there's this smell in there which is a combination of....have you ever been in a very old church? It's a, kind of, European damp. A medieval Gothic damp. A compounded, sort of, fungus-glue-tobacco-and-possibly-alcohol smell. Mold, masses of it. Anyway, you can open up your guitar case in L.A., and -- assuming you've come from Alaska -- it'll smell of Alaska."
An alternate, longer ("rambling", Robyn says cheerfully) version of "I Watch The Cars" from that initial session appears here for the first time, though not without a few technical difficulties: "I had to find a machine that could actually translate it to mix the tape, because a lot of this was recorded on equipment which is now defunct," Robyn explains.
"I Watch The Cars" was recorded the day John Lennon was shot (it was the morning of December 9, 1980, in England; the evening of the 8th in the United States). "We all sat around -- Matthew and Vince [Ely] from The Psychedelic Furs and Kimberley and me. Kimberley didn't say anything. Matthew said, 'That's the price to pay for invading people's minds,' and Vince just said, 'Why couldn't they have shot Richard Butler?' Lennon singing with The Furs would have been quite interesting, though."
Most of the songs on Black Snake Diamond Role betray a happier, more casual time. "Do Policemen Sing?" fused two memories into one song. Cutting some early Soft Boys material, Robyn wandered into the studio next door, where finishing touches were being applied to a recording by The Welsh Police Male Voice Choir. Later, "Some friends of mine got busted, and they were given some cold beans. Not as a form of interrogation: they were given some lunch and the beans were cold. So I wrote, 'Don't complain if your beans aren't warm'." "The Man Who Invented Himself", a kind of rumination about legends like Syd Barrett, was written a few days after Robyn watched Monty Python's Life Of Brian and, Robyn admits, is vaguely modeled after that film's finale number "Bright Side Of Life".
Additional sessions took place on a barge, where Richard Branson had installed a 16-track studio. "Morris and I did 'The Man Who Invented Himself' in the middle of the night, on the barge," Robyn recalls. "Howie, our roadie, came along, and there was about an 18-inch gap between the barge and the quay just out by the bow. Otherwise the boat was absolutely flush by the river bank. Howie managed to fall in -- which was quite an achievement -- so he took his trousers off and dried them over the piano. I played 'The Man Who Invented Himself'. Then Matthew played on 'Love'. A lot of it was done in the middle of the night on the barge -- or in Alaska."
Robyn also experimented with a few musicians who didn't come with a Soft Boys pedigree, including Vince Ely and Thomas Dolby. Robyn: "Matthew dragged Thomas Dolby down at one point and said, 'This guy's going to be famous. You've got to use him.' So Dolby was stuck in front of a fairly conventional keyboard, which he played fairly conventionally. He hadn't got his worldview in front of him yet.
"We did some other songs with Vince playing drums. And Kimberley. Vince was a bit more heavy-handed than Morris, a bit more forceful. Kimberley was better off playing with Vince, I thought, because Kimberley's a very heavy guitarist. And Matthew played bass on that. The last thing was 'Brenda's Iron Sledge', which was done in a place called 'Music Works', just up the road from the Hope And Anchor."
When it came time to make an album of all these songs and sessions, there were nearly 20 pieces to choose from. "I spent ages stockpiling tracks and agonizing with Matthew and with Rosalind (my girlfriend at the time) about what tracks to use," Robyn says. Black Snake proper ended up with ten songs. "Dancing On God's Thumb" came out as the B-side of "The Man Who Invented Himself".
The rest of the songs came to life later on or died altogether, Robyn explains. "Things like 'Give Me A Spanner, Ralph', which ended up on Invisible Hitchcock, and 'My Favourite Buildings' [also on Invisible Hitchcock, but re-recorded for I Often Dream Of Trains] were just some things with acoustic guitar and vocals. Everything on Black Snake ended up having drums on it, but that wasn't the original intention. I wanted to vary it a bit. But for some reason we didn't use those songs. I guess I kept writing new ones."
There are four other bonus tracks (in addition to "Dancing On God's Thumb") included here, among them "Happy The Golden Prince", from the Eaten By Her Own Dinner 12-inch, and "It Was The Night" with Matthew and Morris (a song later re-recorded with the Groovy Decay/Decoy band), both from November, 1980.
"Anyway," Robyn finishes, "suffice to say, it was a really good record. I mean, it was really good fun to play. We sped it up slightly in the cut. I've had to do that again, because I've lost the production masters. So I had to go right back to the original masters to stick this thing together."
"I was just a man with a dirty white shirt." -- Robyn Hitchcock
It just won't do to savage the album you're holding in your hands, because, in all fairness, it has its moments. Experiments, even those gone awry, always have a certain charm. But, truth to tell, Robyn Hitchcock would prefer never to revisit the time and, by extension, most of the songs that became Groovy Decay/Decoy. After the joyous low-budget camaraderie of his first solo release, Black Snake Diamond Role, he found himself somehow tugged in quite the opposite direction. And so there he was, only a year later, in an unknown studio, surrounded by strangers, with Steve Hillage (late of Gong) for producer. The production budget ended up 24 times larger than what Hitchcock's previous band, The Soft Boys, had spent on their masterpiece, Underwater Moonlight.
It is an index of Robyn's dissatisfaction at the time that he chose to release the demos for the songs -- which had been produced by friend and former Soft Boy Matthew Seligman -- as Groovy Decoy. But, as he learned with the "lost" first Soft Boys record ("It was crap, it wasn't lost; we know exactly where it is and why it's there"), people always want what they haven't got. "If it didn't come out, everybody would say, 'Why?'" Robyn sighs. "People just love things that you don't release."
He begins the story, reluctantly: "Bluntly, Groovy Decay, to me, was a complete abortion. I hated making it, I've never listened to it. The demos were produced by Matthew, and then Matthew had enough of the whole thing and went off and joined Thompson Twins -- for which I don't really blame him. But he secured Sara Lee [Bassist with the B-52s and Gang Of Four] for me as a replacement. And I had these other guys: Anthony Thistlethwaite, whom I got out of Melody Maker; and a drummer called 'Rod Johnson'.
"Thistlethwaite was quite nice. In fact, he went on to be a mainstay of The Waterboys. He basically wanted to be in the Rolling Stones. But he's actually quite sensitive. He comes from Leicester, he's got very delicate hands, and he plays sax. Rod had worked with The Psychedelic Furs, but basically wanted to be a machine. I don't know what's become of him."
So there they all were in the summer of 1981, not at the comfortably low-rent Alaska Studios Robyn has made his home-away-from-home for the better part of two decades, but at the 24-track Advision Studios, recording deep into the middle of the night. At the time, it all seemed a logical progression.
"After working with Kimberley [Rew] and The Soft Boys, I figured that I didn't ever want to work with another guitarist again," Robyn says. "Kimberley was it. He was deafening, and I just didn't think I ever wanted to repeat the experience (nor did I want a milder form of it). I just thought, 'That's it with guitarists. It's been done as far as I'm concerned,' which I think was probably true (although I've worked with odd guitarists on and off since).
"I was trying to do something different, trying to get away from guitars and use a sax. And I'm not a very adventurous person. I've worked with the same two guys [The rhythm section of Andy Metcalfe and Morris Windsor] for about 18 years, very on and off. I just wanted a different sound, really. And to use sax instead of guitars, and emphasize more of a rhythm section. I wanted to do what other people were doing at the time, rather than doing what The Soft Boys had always been associated with, which was being Retrodelic. I wanted to try to do something that sounded like it was of 1981. But in the end, it was miserable.
"The awful truth is I don't really like sax that much. One of the plans I'd had was to get a violinist, rather than a sax player. And I think someone said, 'Oh, you don't want a violinist, they're boring. Get a sax player.' And I just copped out and got a sax player. I mean, Thistlethwaite was great. He played guitar, and he's a good guy to have in a band."
Groovy Decay has a depressing, alienated air to it, and sets up a mood similar to David Bowie's Low. (Or maybe it's just that Robyn's vocals are mic-ed so they sound a bit Bowiesque.) Small wonder, since Robyn was not enjoying life: "Steve Hillage is a nice guy. He was one of the first people to have computers. He used to sit there at the end of the night and type in everything that'd happened to him. I couldn't really see the point of it. Then he'd put in -- usually about 3:15 or 3:30 -- 'Breakdown', which was the point where I became too drunk to do anything and he would have to drive me home.
"I just used to get drunk every night, and I was obsessed with making sure that I could get to the pub before the pub shut. For a long time I thought that the pub was my mother, and if I didn't get to a pub before it closed then I wouldn't sleep at night -- and I'd go to Hell. But the truth was that I'd already gone to Hell," he laughs. "It's not one of those exciting things where you can say, 'Man, he's really out of it,' or you can imagine what sort of exotic drugs I was on. I wasn't. I was just drinking beer."
Still, it wasn't a total wash. "St. Petersburg" has a blunt depression to it reminiscent of Nebraska-vintage Springsteen, and "Nightride To Trinidad" sits right on the verge of being a great Pop song. Robyn is less charitable, though a pair of the songs do remain occasional parts of his repertoire.
"'Fifty Two Stations' was a good song. And 'America' was a good song," he says. "They were actually written during the rehearsals, so maybe the band was a bit fresher with them (because I was making them up as we went along). 'Fifty Two Stations' I think I wrote in the recording studio, in fact. Probably those two are the only ones I like: they haven't got any sax on them. I think the demos had some merit because they were done quickly, and Matthew was on them, and there was a, kind of, spirit in there."
Then there's the matter of "Nightride to Trinidad (Special Disco Mix)". "They got hold of it and chopped it up and made it go 'round and 'round and 'round and 'round forever. I had nothing to do with mixing that. I remember there was a guy mixing it who had dyed purple hair. He had what y'all call "eggplant hair", and he was quite posh. He wasn't a punk, but he fancied himself a modern guy. At one point I was trying to mix something, and he said, 'You don't really want the guitar in there loud, do you?' And I thought, 'Well, oh, no, all right, if you like. I'm only the artist. Far be it from me. I don't know anything about music, sonny.' So I just knocked off and went back to the pub."
In the end, Groovy Decay/Decoy was a tough lesson. An expensive project to chalk up to experience. "I just let too much be done for me by other people who were saying things like, 'You get a proper producer in a nice, 24-track studio; and some well-broken-in, well-trained session men. Get a proper sound, and you'll have a hit record.' But it wasn't true. I tend to flourish in much more perverse conditions."
Robyn Hitchcock didn't make another record for three years.
I Often Dream Of Trains
"I've always been obsessed with the idea of retirement." -- Robyn Hitchcock
Savaged, sickened, saddened by the debacle that became his second solo release, Groovy Decay/Decoy (1982), Robyn Hitchcock settled into retirement almost as if that had been the plan all along. "I was really crazy about Bob Dylan as a teenager, and subsequently about Syd Barrett," Robyn says. "One of the things they had in common [at that point] was that they didn't do anything. Dylan got to the top of the mountain and then vanished for seven years.
"I never wanted to be a Pop star. I wasn't too upset when The Soft Boys didn't take off. Or even when my solo albums didn't work. Because really all I wanted was to sit there like a middle-aged dreamer, staring out over the bridge into the valley and blowing smoke out of my mouth, reminiscing. When, in fact, there was nothing to reminisce about. I just wanted to cut out the middle-man. I thought, 'Why have a career? Why not just retire straight away?'"
And so he did retire -- or told himself that's what he was up to. Which isn't to say he utterly gave up music. It was more like a strategic retreat, largely financed by his friend Captain Sensible, from The Damned. "He had a couple of hits with 'Happy Talk', 'Glad It's All Over', and 'Captain's Rap' (as it was called in The States). I wrote the words for all the flops, all the fillers on the album, it seems. And Captain kept me going for quite a while. I did other odd bits and pieces as well, but nothing of note. I didn't do any gigs. And I decided it was all over, and I wasn't going to perform anymore."
Until, in May, 1983, he collected James A. Smith -- "The Great One", an old friend whose presence looms behind much of Robyn's work -- and headed for Simon Kunath's barn in the country to work out a batch of new songs. "I'd got increasingly frustrated with not doing anything of my own, not treading the boards. And I found myself stockpiling songs," he admits.
Songs like the a cappella "Uncorrected Personality Traits" began to write themselves, unannounced. "Uncorrected Personality Traits" owes a debt to English music hall traditions (Flanders & Swan, say) and Tom Lehrer ("It's more like something from Oklahoma!, probably," Robyn insists). "I found myself singing it one day and realized I'd better write it down," he recalls. "I'm not an active person. But I remember in that instance I was actually bending down to pick something up, and I started, kind of, muttering to myself and vibrating internally. And I realized that a song was coming through. I thought I was imagining it for a bit, and then I thought, 'Well, you're imagining this song. Why don't you just write it down? It'll become real."
Hitchcock, Smith, and Kunath took over the top floor of a house and began torturing the downstairs neighbor (something about a particularly loud drum kit and impromptu late-night rehearsals). The neighbor responded by calling the police and playing Motorhead records. It was all quite jolly and productive. ("Trash and "Pit of Souls" from those demos surfaced on Invisible Hitchcock).
"Eventually I'd stockpiled enough songs to go in and record a new album," Robyn says. "I wanted to make it for under £1,000. Groovy Decay cost £12,000, and it was a load of bland junk, basically. I thought I could make something reasonably lively for much less. So I went and made Trains in three or four days. It was great to be back in the studio after three years, and not sit there with a bunch of musicians (and all that). But I'd worked it all out on the portastudio, so I did know what I was doing. I was organized, and I wasn't drinking while we were recording."
Rather than luring old friends into the studio or breaking in another set of new players, Robyn chose to record most of his third album with the spare accompaniment of his own guitar and piano. He was also back in the familiar confines of Alaska Studios, where The Soft Boys' Underwater Moonlight and his own Black Snake Diamond Role had been hatched.
"By the time I got back to Alaska, three years had passed, and what had been an eight-track studio had become 24-track. And the studio was now big enough to get up to ten people in it," Robyn recalls. "The only distinctive thing about it - apart from the ever-present 'Alaska stench' -- is the fact that it's right under the Waterloo East railway arches. And every two or three minutes a train goes overhead. If you stand in certain directions you'll get this sound on your pickups. If you listen to I Often Dream Of Trains there's a, kind of, whine on it. And that's because I'm facing the wrong way under the current. So the trains were literally present."
The album title actually has little to do with those trains. Robyn had originaly intended the work to be called Crystal Branches, and was talked out of it. It's one of the few decisions on I Often Dream Of Trains he didn't make. "Trains is very much a result of Groovy Decay/Decoy. In a way, every time you make a record you are trying to correct the faults of the previous one. You could say that about a relationship, if you wanted to."
A few final songs were recorded in Clapham with Chris Cox -- another old friend from the Cambridge scene. "Chris Cox is a carpenter, among other things. He also plays double-bass, mandolin, and guitar. He's a very effortless musician. And he played with me on 'Ye Sleeping Knights Of Jesus'." That song makes a nice companion-piece to The Rolling Stones' "Faraway Eyes": a droll, uniquely British take on American Country music.
It all came off rather well in the end. We had hoped to cap this new issue of Trains with three songs from a late-1984 BBC session. But when the tapes were located, they had deteriorated too greatly to be of use. However, in the course of the search, Robyn turned up some forgotten three-track demos recorded variously in the attic of James A. Smith and the barn of Simon Kunath.
"I Often Dream Of Trains and Black Snake are the records I've enjoyed making the most. That's probably because they're the ones I've had the most control over. You bring other people in and you start to let them take over, and maybe that's not always such a good thing."
"We just, kind of, fell into the old routines -- like people who always grasp the same things with the same fingers." -- Robyn Hitchcock
With The Soft Boys safely in the rear view mirror and three solo records to his credit, Robyn Hitchcock had no intention of forming a band called "The Egyptians" when he set about recording Fegmania!. Actually, he was altogether free of intentions, having just completed work on I Often Dream Of Trains, and really proposed only to make a short film for fun.
Still, the legacy of The Soft Boys and their elegant, oddly sophisticated Psychedelia -- what Robyn today dryly calls "Retrodelic" -- proved inescapable. "Morris Windsor [drums], Andy Metcalfe [bass], and I had been on a radio show in Cambridge in late-1983, when a posthumous Soft Boys record came out," Robyn recalls. "And it was the first time we'd all been together for a long time. It was quite fun. I'd just made Trains on my own, and it was actually very innocent."
All of which was lurking about Robyn's brain a few days after. "I was walking down The Archway Road -- this dusty, dirty, horrible, kind of, vein that slides into the north of London," he remembers. "And I'd got two-thirds of the way home, and suddenly thought, 'Yes, "The Man With The Lightbulb Head".' So I went home and wrote 'The Man With The Lightbulb Head', and I thought there could be a film to go with it. I contacted my friend Tony Moon, who'd been in Motor Boys Motor [Who became The Screaming Blue Messiahs], and we decided to make a short film. The original plan was actually to make a series of videos and release them in a packet that looked as if it were soap powder -- but actually would hold six low-budget videos."
They finished one, a super-8 stop-motion short that featured Robyn's young daughter Maisie and, well, a man with a lightbulb head. "I bought an action man, cut his head off and stuck a little lightbulb in it. And then I wired him up from behind," Robyn says with relish. "We did stop-frame, so that he became the man with the lightbulb head, moving around. You move it a couple of millimeters, click the camera, and then do it again. Anyway, I hate explaining things."
The film required a soundtrack, so Robyn paid for a bit of studio time and recorded "The Man With The Lightbulb Head" with John Kingham, then-drummer with The Messiahs. And things simply escalated -- though by this point I Often Dream Of Trains hadn't yet been released. "This was the first stuff I'd done with drums for a few years, so I then had a couple of other songs [Including "Dwarfbeat", "Some Body", and "Another Bubble"], and I did those with Morris (with whom I hadn't recorded for some time). Then we did a session with Andy in the summer. And we certainly hadn't played together for five years (not the three of us).
"I had these songs -- 'My Wife And My Dead Wife', 'Goodnight I Say', 'Insect Mother', and 'I'm Only You' -- and I just, sort of, ran through them. I'd never played them on electric guitar, really. And we all got together in Alaska -- where else? [Much of Robyn's best work, solo and with The Soft Boys, has been recorded at Alaska Studios.] We just had one day's rehearsal. We recorded the next day, and it was fantastic. Working with Andy and Morris utterly transformed the songs. So that's about two-thirds of an album (or something). Anyway, it all sat there, and Trains was coming out, and I wasn't planning to do any gigs."
Having planned nothing, things just kept falling into place. "The Hope And Anchor, a club where The Soft Boys, and lots of other people, used to play -- The Stranglers, The Damned, Ian Dury, all that lot -- was in financial trouble, and asked me if I'd do a benefit," Robyn continues. "I hadn't done a gig for ages, but I quite fancied it because I was in touch with Andy and Morris again. So we got my friend [James] Fletcher to come and play sax, and Roger Jackson -- who'd been part of the Cambridge music mafia -- to play keyboards.
"At the Hope And Anchor they'd got behind with their payments and into a bad spiral. They'd had their electricity cut off, so they had their own generator. It was the first gig that I'd done in England for two-and-a-half years. We were thumping away when the fuel ran out, and the generator stopped. There were all these deranged Welsh hippies in front of me blowing smoke into my face. And when the PA went off they all chanted along. Fletcher was wailing away on sax, and Morris was playing the drums. It was a great gig. We raised some money for the Hope, but it closed down anyway."
Still, they'd needed a name for the show, and "The Egyptians" it was. "So, with a little help from the ghost of The Soft Boys," says Robyn, "we'd got The Egyptians going. The big difference was that this wasn't guitar-based. I played the guitar, but we had keyboards and sax. It wasn't going to be a guitar battle like The Soft Boys."
Other songs slowly fell into place. "'Insect Mother' goes back to 1981," Robyn says. "I first recorded it for I Often Dream Of Trains, but it was kind of sterile. So I did it again with Andy and Morris, and that put bubbles all over it." The demo version, presented here for the first time, was recorded in James Smith's flat in North London as part of the first Trains rehearsals. "I think you can hear a car changing gears outside," Robyn adds.
The original version of "Egyptian Cream", which also appears here for the first time, was recorded early in the process that became Groovy Decay, Robyn's second solo record, in 1982. "That was done at [ex-Soft Boy bassist] Matthew Seligman's place, on one of his machines," Robyn says. "I think he had a keyboard that you couldn't play chords with. You could only play one note at a time. Matthew was basically trying to adjust to what was happening in the early-'80s -- while I was taking no notice of it whatsoever. Matthew had bought all this Electropop gear, got his coif together, covered his demo room with plastic tubes, and glued lots of sexy bin-liners to the ceiling. Matthew very much moved with the times -- whereas I sank through them like a stone."
The final bonus track, the instrumental "The Pit Of Souls", came before the public in a more condensed form on Invisible Hitchcock. "This version was a re-recording in '84 with four extra movements: 'The Plateau', 'The Descent', 'The Spinal Dance', and 'Flight Of The Iron Lung'," Robyn says. "It was basically an attempt to get something like the flipside of Low or "Heroes". I'd been listening to a lot of [Brian] Eno in East Sussex. I was interested in seeing whether I could create soundscapes without words."
And then there is a bit of thematic underpinning: "A lot of the stuff from Fegmania! is basically quite sexual," Robyn says. "The topics are muted. It's not like Madonna: it's the reverse. I won't go to any lengths to point out, 'Look, this is sex, folks. Why don't you buy it?' But I think there was a lot of squirming sexual activity in Fegmania!." Lastly, there is the matter of the fegs. Robyn explains: "We had fegweevils, fegballs, fegmobile, fegism. Fegmania! is really like putting two wild adverbs together and watching them mate -- except neither of them are adverbs."
Gotta Let This Hen Out!
"I've always been a pretty timid person physically, and my big fear on stage, apart from that some goon in the audience will start lobbing flaming ingots of iron at us, is that I'll get the microphone smashing into my teeth (because stages are always unstable). I just would not give my teeth for Rock 'n' Roll." -- Robyn Hitchcock
Suddenly, and rather unexpectedly, Robyn Hitchcock found himself with an audience. In fairly short order (and after all-but-disappearing for two years) he'd released the brilliant I Often Dream Of Trains and, reunited with the original rhythm section from The Soft Boys, Fegmania!. Meanwhile, The Soft Boys -- who had barely dented the English music scene when they trod the boards -- had so gestated in memory as to become modest legends.
And so were born The Egyptians: Robyn Hitchcock (vocals/guitar), Roger Jackson (keyboards), Andy Metcalfe (bass), and Morris Windsor (drums). Robyn's longtime friend James Fletcher, who had played sax on Fegmania! (partly a matter of friendship, partly the final hangover from Robyn's second solo effort, Groovy Decay), had left before it came time to record Gotta Let This Hen Out!.
"Hen Out! was probably the most painless record to make of all," Robyn remembers. "Our manager at the time suggested that we record at a gig, and he was pals with whoever ran The Marquee [in London], so they suggested that we do a gig there. And we could record it fairly cheaply. We also filmed it. I never liked the film very much. I had a peculiarly naff hairstyle (even by my standards), and I'd just shaved. So I had this, sort of, sweaty dead varnished chicken look. It was terribly hot, they had all these lights on us, and I wore my suit and shirt. So I was really uncomfortable for the whole gig.
"And also, The Marquee was really full. I think we'd just been on television in Britain, and we were getting vaguely popular. We certainly sold out The Marquee -- which I suppose was about 600 people -- and they were all going wild. Especially these German kids up front. In fact our crowd generally is quite passive; they're a thinking crowd, rather than an acting crowd. They tend to take things in, rather than throw things out. Our crowd going wild usually is just like the gentle rustling of plants in the breeze. But we had a couple of German guys up front who were just spinning around like air conditioners. And I thought they were going to slice up our nice, well-meaning British fans. Not deliberately. But just by spinning around, they'd lacerate them in some way."
Accustomed to more intimate settings for his music, Robyn is still uncomfortable today with large audiences. "I still feel sick when I'm standing around the outside of a club and I see all these people going in. And I think, 'Jesus, I am what they're there for. I'm entertaining them.' It's just a frightening thought. You at least caused them to be there, and you've got to do what you can to them." That night at The Marquee, Robyn says, "I didn't even think once that we were recording. I was fizzing enough because there was a whole crowd of people in the room. It was unnerving. I don't know what part this has played in my career, but I've never liked really big audiences."
Still, Gotta Let This Hen Out! proved a simple, joyous release. "It was just a typical set," Robyn says. "The Egyptians had been going for not more than six months at that stage. We'd shed Fletcher, because the sax didn't really fit in, and Roger was solid enough that I could take my hands off the guitar and gesticulate a lot. We had a lot of the best of the Soft Boys-era songs, and the most action-friendly of the post-Soft Boys songs. So we were doing two songs from each album (or something)." It was the same setlist Robyn Hitchcock And The Egyptians would bring to America later that year.
Quite predictably, Robyn dug out a song or two that hadn't quite found an audience the first time around -- notably "Listening To The Higsons", which had been a particularly well-hidden B-side. "The Higsons were long-gone by then," he adds laconically, and then explains: "The Higsons came from Norwich. They were a White-Boy Jazz-Funk group in 1981-2 who were very popular on the indie circuit. And they were much beloved by John Peel (and people like that). I heard them playing this song one night, and I thought it was 'Gotta Let This Hen Out', when in fact it was 'Gotta Let This Heat Out'. It was like Spandau Ballet with a sense of humor played by students rather than meatheads. In fact, one of the Higsons, Terry, is now a friend of ours. And he's even played with us live a few times. I was in a flat in Norway when I realized what the correct title had been."
For the rest, well, let's just spell it out. "Sometimes I Wish I Was A Pretty Girl" comes from I Often Dream Of Trains. "Acid Bird" and "Brenda's Iron Sledge" come from Black Snake Diamond Role. Despite his antipathy toward the record, both "The Cars She Used To Drive" and "America" originated on Groovy Decay. "My Wife And My Dead Wife", "The Fly", "Egyptian Cream", and "Heaven" had just been released on Fegmania!. "Kingdom of Love" was a track from the Soft Boys' last masterpiece, Underwater Moonlight, while "Only The Stones Remain" was one of the final recordings from those sessions. "Leppo And The Jooves" originated on the Soft Boys' Can Of Bees ("It's a trimmed-down version. I think we lost a verse.") The final track, "The Face Of Death", was first recorded during sessions for the debut Soft Boys album, Give It To The Soft Boys.
In fairness, Hen Out! isn't strictly a live recording. "The drums and the guitar and nearly all the vocals are live," Robyn says. "Andy repaired a bit of bass, and Roger repaired bits of keyboard. I didn't repair any of the guitar solos or any of the rhythm guitar. Andy and Roger didn't really make any mistakes, to speak of. I think they were just a bit more particular about their parts than I was. And Morris couldn't change anything because drums get all over the place.
"We were firing on eight cylinders out of six. We had to dry-clean our shoes afterward -- the closest I ever got to Rock 'n' Roll."
Element Of Light
"One, two -- great to be here, sure is -- three, four ..." -- Robyn Hitchcock
After years as a limited sort of cult figure -- first in The Soft Boys, then as a solo artist -- Robyn Hitchcock approached Element Of Light with his new/old band The Egyptians (ex-Soft Boys Andy Metcalfe and Morris Windsor), the growing confidence of rising popularity, and an ensemble (in his own words) "firing on all eight cylinders". If one seeks signposts by which to navigate Hitchcock's storied career, Element of Light will do for a breaking point between his formative period and the more mature work he continues to produce.
"Things had started to happen," Robyn says, slightly taken aback by the notion of maturation. "I was a little bit more out of the, sort of, bubble I'd been in in the early-'80s. I started touring America. I was being exposed to different forces. And, in a way, I was probably starting to feel more like a real person -- although it's arguable whether a cult figure or a Rock star is anything like a real person," he laughs. "In a way it's an extroverted form of being a demented recluse. You're in public, rather than isolated and in private. So everybody can see you being out of touch."
Element Of Light is also the first record since The Soft Boys disbanded that Hitchcock had made with a road-tested band. While Fegmania! marked the debut of The Egyptians, the recording process more closely resembled the approach that served Robyn well on his first solo effort, Black Snake Diamond Role: selectively drag your friends into the studio and ask them to do what they do best.
"We'd started to learn things in terms of playing and recording," Robyn agrees. "Element Of Light was the first album that was made by The Egyptians as an ensemble right the way through. Although, in fact, we started to shed Roger [Jackson], the keyboard player. Roger was good live, but he tended to overplay. And I'd been experimenting with just playing with bass and drums a lot with Morris Windsor and Chris Cox. Just in little places. I think it occurred to all of us that The Egyptians could operate just as a three-piece, and that it might be more to the point.
"So in fact Roger only plays on half on Element. Andy plays keyboards on a few of the tracks. Roger was fine, but Andy had a stronger feel for the material."
And then, remembering back, Robyn settles onto what is probably most significant about Element Of Light. "From Element on, Andy played all the bass and all the keyboards. So he, sort of, became two players. Plus he was there for just about all the recording and overdubbing, the engineering. Andy can produce, Andy can engineer, Andy can play bass, he can play keyboards, he can do all those things very well. He can also, in a pinch, play guitar and drums. So there's probably an awful lot of Andy's influence on that record."
Recording sessions took place in the familiar confines of Alaska Studios (where Robyn and The Soft Boys had been resident for years), at The Green House, and at Berry Street. "'The President' and 'Lady Waters And The Hooded One' were done live," Robyn says. "We just couldn't get good versions of those. So, in the end we took a BBC recording, and we kept the bass and drums, and we dubbed on the guitar and vocals."
The profusion of studios reflects some of the difficulty Robyn had settling on songs for Element Of Light. "It was harder to assemble material for Element than it was for Fegmania!. I remember after the initial session there was a lot of stuff that didn't seem that strong, whereas with Fegmania! everything seemed good as it was added on, and there weren't hundreds of outtakes."
With the surviving tracks bracketed by "If You Were A Priest" and "Tell Me About Your Drugs" (originally a B-side), certainly Robyn was moving past what he laughingly refers to as the "squirming sexual activity in Fegmania!". Set amid that lot is "The President", one of the more explicitly political songs of the Hitchcock canon. "[Ronald] Reagan had given his famous speech in Bitburg about 'Beautiful Europe, how can you think we'd ever let you down?'" Robyn recalls. "He just sounded like someone trying to reassure an old person before they're shipped off to some terminal old people's home."
"Ted, Woody And Junior" was suggested by an old, pre-gay rights, soft-core porn magazine Robyn happened on in a Cambridge junk shop. "In the '60s you couldn't have gay mags as such -- they had to pose as bodybuilding magazines. There'd be a couple of musclemen on the front page -- and then you'd get inside and there were all these boys lying there with lobsters draped over their genitals. And there was one of a guy with nothing on but a Stetson hat, with his back to you. And there were these three guys covering each other with soap: Ted, Woody, and Junior. It claimed to have been shot during a water shortage in New York. About how they saved water by showering with each other." The song pre-dates Evan Dando's "Big Gay Heart" by nearly a decade.
Still, Robyn's favorite track remains "Airscape", because it concerns his favorite place. "'Airscape' is about the beach on The Isle Of Wight where I want to have my ashes scattered when I'm dead," he says, sounding not the least bit morbid. "That's my favorite beach in the world, and I've been going there every summer for years. And I can just feel time passing. You can see it in the cliffs: all the different rock strata over millions of years. Bits of rock with layers like cake. And what had once been the horizontal surface of the land is now jagged and tipped. Centuries and centuries of accumulations of earth and dust and sand, just tipped sideways like a slice of cake sinking into the colored sand.
"You can measure infinity on that beach, and your own little moth of an existence takes place in it. Every year I can walk along that beach, a little bit grayer, a little bit fatter, just walking through the same pools. And the thing is, the sand erodes. The soil is very soft there. It crumbles away: every year a few meters of that beach is just lost into the sea. So you can imagine that where people walked three centuries ago is now far out to sea. And their ghosts are literally walking over the sand dunes."
Recorded in the vinyl age, "The Black Crow Knows", "The Crawling", "The Leopard", and "Tell Me About Your Drugs" originally came to life as B-sides. "Drugs", like "Listening To The Higsons" on Gotta Let This Hen Out!, has The Egyptians swapping instruments; with Andy on drums, Robyn on bass, and Morris on guitar. "Someone actually came up to me the other night in a club and asked me about Morris's drug habits," Robyn says. "The reason I say, 'Tell me, Morris', is that Morris is playing guitar. I want him to tell me like it is with his guitar. Morris never had any unsavory habits, and he's got even fewer now." The spoken-word piece, "The Can Opener", was on the B-side of the If You Were A Priest EP.
Robyn returns to the whole notion of maturity. "You certainly get in deeper with time," he says. "There are a lot of songs on Element -- as usual -- to an absent person. I've always had that, I think. The songs were getting less aggressive -- and they were probably also getting less goofy."