Robyn Hitchcock

Robyn Hitchcock From his first crab-drenched utterances with The Soft Boys, a band who stood alone in its finest psychedelic brocade amidst the gob-splattered punk and ailing pomp-rock musical landscape of the late Seventies, Robyn Hitchcock has emerged as the single most engaging talent this grey and septic isle has to offer. Across a dozen solo albums, he has proved himself to be a songwriter of infinite imagination, both in terms of lyric and of melody. Classic themes of love, death and emotions hang like pale riders over the lyrical proceedings, and above all else there stands a streak of mischievous and drily-played humour, an ability to conjure up a bizarre parade of characters, a unique inner world brimming with symbols and meaning populated by scaly, be-scarab'd creatures, strange and wilful like children whose mother is Alice in Wonderland and whose father is Reginald Perrin.

Ever since the brilliant and under-rated album 'Element of Light', Hitchcock's songs have also called upon the world around him. This is reflected in some apparently straightforward, yet no less magical, material being mixed in amongst his usual fayre. Various folk whose only interest is the cultishness and cultivation of their own tastes have attempted to link this facet of Hitchcock's craft to his signing to a major label, A&M Records, as if this were a sign of a deliberate commercialness on the part of Hitchcock. What utter and complete nonsense. The only thing Robyn Hitchcock does deliberately is pursue his own unique creativity, and there's not a single note on any of his recent albums that could suggest the merest hint of a ripple in the artistic integrity of the man.

The late journalist Steve Burgess once told me an anecdote that may have some relevance to the above. It seems that just after Robyn Hitchcock signed to A&M Records, he was called in to see the board of directors of the British arm, leg or whatever of the company. After dutifully sitting around listening to tracks from his new album amidst an uncomfortable silence and the offensive smell of various after-shaves, the Managing Director turned to our lad and said blandly, "There appear to be a lot of fish in your songs, Mr. Hitchcock". Hitchcock got up and left, and after that his albums appeared on A&M only in the States.

As a guitarist, Robyn Hitchcock is inventive and cutting - and severely under-rated, even by himself. Whilst he might not revel in the same wild and technically expansive paint-blistering skills as Captain Sensible, the howling feedback beauty of Nick Saloman or the mindbending genius of Richard Thompson, he is still a fabulous guitar player. Subtle and never inappropriate, always sympathetic and powerful when it's called for, he is able to hold his own with one of the best rhythm sections in the land - the faithful and constant Egyptians Andy Metcalf and Morris Windsor. The three of them are a deadly combination, especially live. It's this consistency of musicians which has been a further factor in ensuring that Hitchcock's output is consistently brilliant, the playing matched step by step by superb production, just brimming with multilayered psychedelic detail and biting dynamics.

And here I am, sitting in an underground kitchen at a venue in London surrounded by silver worktops and shimmering fridges. In front of me sits Robyn Hitchcock, looking well and relaxed pre-gig. Before I can speak, a door opens at the far end of the room and a gaunt, bronzed figure walks up to us. "Do you know the Man band, Mick?" asks Robyn Hitchcock, "Well, this is Ken Whaley - as in Help Yourself's 'Return of...' - he's selling the soft drinks tonight".

"Not at 80p a can, he isn't", I thought, instead stammering aloud something about Phil's love of the Helps.

"Oh, right" says Ken, "The Terrascope magazine. Phil's been a great help to us."

A good start. Robyn's looking friendly and helpful at this unsolicited affirmation of the magazine's good intentions. He doesn't suffer fools gladly, and tales of his sometimes unwarranted, but generally deserved, mangling of interviewers are legend. He seems to me to be a down-to-earth bloke, intelligent and witty as well as sensibly modest in his outlook. I like him. Whatever I want to know he'll answer for me, he states affably.

Ptolemaic Terrascope: What are your earliest musical memories, Robyn?
Robyn # 6

Robyn Hitchcock: The very first stuff that I heard was Bill Haley & The Comets doing 'Rock Around The Clock', and Lonnie Donegan doing things like 'Cumberland Gap' - skiffle. I don't know who listened to those records, it doesn't seem like the type of thing my mum would listen to, but they were there when I was small. I had these 45s, and then we had albums like 'My Fair Lady' - I remember I used to listen to that all the time. One day, the Queen was scheduled to be going past this place in Gloucestershire, near where my mother's family comes from. The Queen was going to be driven past this hedge on a certain day, and we knew all about it. I ran around sticking these Union Jacks we'd bought into this hedge and singing all these songs from 'My Fair Lady' at the top of my voice, 'Wouldn't It Be Luvverly' and 'Why Can't The English Learn To Speak'. I was four, I think. Eventually the Queen came by, and she just went by in her car in three seconds. Her hand just had time for a wave and a half. I turned to my mother and said, "Was that it?" and we took the Union Jacks out of the hedge. And that was that.

Do you reckon she did the Royal Wave for the whole of the journey then?

I reckon she continued past that - I saw her ten years later when they opened the Severn Bridge and she was still doing the same wave. She may not have even had time to change her clothes. So that was my earliest musical memory, and I still find sections of something like that will crop up in a song. I'll suddenly think, "Ah, I recognise that - it's from 'My Fair Lady'."

What are your earliest memories of the Beatles?

The Beatles, I guess I was ten and somebody at school had a New Musical Express and I thought, this is a silly name - The Beatles with an 'a', that's a stupid joke. Then I heard 'Please Please Me' once and I was hooked, like everybody else. The Beatles were something everyone had in common; this was thirty years ago, there was Dr. Who and everybody knew who the Daleks were and there was The Beatles and everybody knew who George Harrison was. It was a world where everybody understood the same reference points. Obviously it wasn't the same case for me later on, you realised that hardly anyone else actually knew who Mervyn Peake was. You couldn't just walk up to somebody in the street and talk to them about J.G. Ballard and most people wouldn't have a copy of 'Trout Mask Replica', but those days, at ten, the reference points were universal. So whenever I hear The Beatles I always feel I've got a lot in common with everybody else. It was good in that respect - it unified people.

Monty Python has that effect on me - a massive influence.

They would have been a great team to be in. When you think about great teams, The Beatles and the Pythons immediately spring to mind. The Pythons were as much a part of their time as The Beatles.

When you started buying records for yourself, what sort of things were you into?

The first record I bought was 'It's All Over Now' by the Rolling Stones, and I was so embarrassed by it because I was eleven and there were all these big tall guys in checked shirts and jeans in the shop - and they had hair styles. They were standing around, looking tall and talking about chicks and sideburns or something. Maybe they were talking about three-pin plugs and adaptors, I don't know, but it was something that I wasn't old enough to be part of. I sort of squeaked up to the counter and blurted out "CanIhaveIt'sAllOverNowbytheRollingStonesplease", and chucked down five bob. I was so embarrassed by it, I only ever played it twice.

How about later?
Robyn # 8

I was buying Bob Dylan mainly, everything I could get hold of by him. I was a complete Bob Dylan fiend. If I could have taken a pill that would have given me curly hair and sunglasses, I would have done it. I liked The Beatles and all the rest of them, but Dylan was the absolute guv'nor, he was the thing off the top of the pile. I got into him just at the time he was falling off his bike, so, as is often the case, I got into something as it was just over. But all that stuff was then happening; Love and The Byrds, the Doors, Country Joe and the Fish, The Incredible String Band and Traffic, Captain Beefheart. I wasn't that crazy about the Pink Floyd. Syd Barrett, I actually got to like his solo albums. I quite liked 'Candy And A Currant Bun', but I thought it was a bit posey, the early Floyd stuff. I thought it was a pop version of jazz or something, there was some vibe I didn't like. When Barrett himself really got into trouble you could feel this "help me...." coming off the grooves, like 'The Fly'. Have you seen the original of 'The Fly'? They turn round and there's this fly with a human head and arm just going "Help me...", and a spider's going to eat it, so they just drop a rock on it. It was like that, only more passive-aggressive. But the short answer to your question is Bob Dylan. He's the one responsible for all this.

There's a track on your last album, 'Serpent At The Gates of Wisdom', which is very Bob Dylan.

Well, it's got harmonica on it - all you've got to do is play a bit of naff harmonica and you immediately sound like Bob Dylan.

Some of the lyrical images in it are like Dylan's.

Hmmm... well, I would have been Bob Dylan, but he's American and I'm English so I really had to model myself of people like Syd Barrett instead, because that was the closest thing, that was English Home Counties. As an amorphous, shapeless kid that wanted to be a singer but didn't know how you went about it, that seemed like a starting place.

There's always been a tendency from the less imaginative corners of the press to stick you into the Syd Barrett pigeon-hole.

Well, I brought it on myself you know - we used to do Pink Floyd songs in the Soft Boys, and Barrett was a huge influence, probably more than I dared to admit at the time. It was quite obvious, and the press naturally picked up on it. I think my stuff now is very different from his, but the starting point was that sort of thing, so to the casual listener it might seem that way.

You recently did the Soft Boys reunion tour, giving you the chance to rake over the old material. How much of it held water with you?
Robyn # 9

I felt like an old actor squeezing himself into a corset to play Hamlet. My feelings have changed enormously since The Soft Boys. All those songs I wrote back then feel like they work in a very narrow emotional spectrum. On the other hand, the music is very 'up'; there's a high testosterone level. They're not songs I'd choose to do regularly þ it was like exhuming something really. Like restoring an old vehicle and driving around in it. You couldn't drive very far, but at least you could get it going before it conked out again for another ten years. I thought a few of the songs were quite good, 'The Pigworker' was fine. But you see me live now and I'm drawing on nearly twenty years worth of songs. The Soft Boys songs stop in 1980, that's only six years worth of stuff. My songwriting has changed since then, and so have my feelings. I think The Soft Boys was a kind of one and a half trick pony; I do think they were good, and it was nice playing to a pretty well packed Astoria when in their day, I don't think the band ever played to more than about 300 people.

Did you have a hand in compiling the double compilation on Rykodisc?

Andy, Morris and I got together and tidied up some old tapes and various bits and pieces. The only problem was that we decided to do it chronologically þ that was Rykodisc's suggestion, and maybe what we should have done is a separate 'Greatest Hits' collection and a 'Rarities' CD rather than expect people who'd already bought 'I Wanna Destroy You' five times to pay for it again. I think the double didn't really work as either thing.

After the Soft Boys you took up the role of lead guitarist. Was it a major decision for you to step out of the shadows and take over this side of your music?

After the Soft Boys I just didn't want to work with any more guitarists. Kimberley Rew was ear-splitting, and I've always felt tense with the other guitarists I've been with. In the Soft Boys, and prior to the Soft Boys, there was always another guitarist who I'd end up resenting, so I just decided I didn't want another guitarist. The problem is that live, if you've got a rhythm section you need something else besides one lead guitar. For a long time The Egyptians was a three-piece, and I think it relied too much on the bass to decorate things and keep it going because I couldn't really sing and play much at the same time.

I never had a problem with the three-piece band, I always found the sound intricate but with an edge to it. In fact I prefer it to when you had the keyboard player back in 1985, I thought he was irrelevant to be honest.

Well, that's how we felt in the end. That graft didn't stick, Roger (Jackson) fell off. He was good to start with, he threw in a lot of good ideas, but he became too twiddly. We got Sean in last year as a second guitarist, just so I could wave my arms about a bit more, and so you could thicken up the guitar riffs, otherwise it all tended to get a bit bass-heavy to be honest. The Soft Boys was very guitar-heavy, and so if I had a guitar riff there'd be two people playing it and you'd really know it, or if the other guitarist was competing with me you'd get that clash and you could really notice it. In a way I play harder when there's someone else to play with or play against.

How do you feel about live albums? I think that most bands underestimate how many live albums they should put out. The only live album you've made ('Got To Let This Hen Out') is a superb item, great sounds and great playing. I'm disappointed though that you haven't done two or three more after that capturing the different periods of your output.

I think 'Hen Out' is really good. The Egyptians hadn't been going for long at that stage, and we decided to tape it and it actually worked. The manager we had said, "Why don't we make a live album? There's a tape studio above the Marquee", and we did it. There's no guitar or drum overdubs, a couple of bits of bass dropped in and I repaired a couple of vocal parts towards the end because my voice was starting to go, but nearly all of it is live. I think the album's really good and whatever you may think of Roger the keyboard player, the early Egyptians was the most exciting one to be in. The tapes I've heard after Roger left sound a bit sparse, there's not enough consistently happening on the guitar. We were also excited to be playing together again after such a long interval, it was a novelty. So probably the Egyptians was the most fun in 1985, '86 really.

Can we talk about Captain Sensible...

I haven't seen him for a while. How is he?

He had a new album out a while back.

Oh yes, I've got that, 'Geoffrey Brown'. Has he played any live gigs?

He did a tour following the album. It was a bit disappointing though because while there were lots of people there to hear his own music, the Captain mainly pandered to the punks at the front who wanted to hear early Damned stuff and spent the whole time pogoing and flobbing at him.

That's been a problem which has really held him back for so long. It was the novelty of a punk doing 'Happy Talk' from 'South Pacific' that really appealed to people and got his career going, and then what he should have done is... he recorded 'Springtime For Hitler', the thing from the Mel Brooks film 'The Producers', and he should have released that because it would have been like a sudden shock going the other way, this horrible song. What's the punk who's gone pleasant suddenly doing this song for? But instead he got sort of cuddly, and became very taken for granted. He had this alcoholic manager who just gave him any work he could, and Sensible would just go out and do it, this sort of affable, cuddly, ex-punk, and the novelty wore off and that was that. He's never been able to establish himself as what he is now, which is a serious musician.

That's very true.
Robyn # 5

The Damned scoop him up every so often, and all he has to do is take his clothes off and get gobbed at and then pick up the money, which isn't really what he's about. That's the problem with being an 'historic figure'. It was really nice for me to be involved with the Sensible's early albums because I was doing absolutely nothing at the time. My own attempt at a career had just nose-dived into the sand, the wings were broken. Sensible said, "Do you want to write some lyrics, because I've just got a big deal with A&M". And so I wrote the lyrics to all of the flops. I actually went on 'Top Of The Pops' with him, wearing a fish head for 'Happy Talk'. It's the closest I've ever been to Top Of The Pops. But, he got sort of pulverised by it all. I don't think he enjoyed it as much as he should have done. Basically he's a serious musician, he's technically much better than I am. He's a great guitarist and he's often offered to play on one of my records. But the truth is I don't really want other guitarists, I don't play enough of my own guitar on my own records.

How did you first meet up with Captain Sensible?

The Soft Boys supported The Damned at their first farewell gig at The Rainbow, and then Sensible materialised at a Soft Boys gig towards the end of the band and said "Hello, I'm Captain Sensible", and I said "Oooh, fancy that" and then he turned up at about our third to last gig which was at the I.C.A. with the Thompson Twins supporting us on December 31st, 1980, and said "Can I come and sing with you on the encores?". I asked if he knew the words and he said he knew the words to 'Sandra's Having Her Brain Out'. He seemed alright so we said "Yeah, OK". So he got up on stage and I realised he was out of his tree, completely plastered. Sensible has this sort of wally factor that takes over when he's drunk, and he grabbed my hair, threw a glass of water over the audience and started shouting "Sandra's having her brain out, Sandra's having her brain out", taking no notice at all of any of the changes in the song. Then he fell over backwards and two of our roadies had to throw him out into the snow. He had to knock on the front door to get his beret back. But despite that our relationship flourished.

I read somewhere that you don't like the 'Groovy Decay' album.
Robyn # 7

No, I don't like it at all. I didn't like making it - it was horrible. It was done in the middle of the night on cheap time at Advision with hired musos. The guy who was managing me at the time got hold of Steve Hillage from somewhere to produce it. Every so often people would come up to me and say, "Well Robyn, if you had a proper producer, real musicians and a nice studio and you cleaned everything up a bit, you'd make a killing. Why don't you make a modern record? Go on..." - But it didn't work! I tried to get rid of the guitar, I just wanted to have something different to the Soft Boys. So I got a violinist and people said "Oh, you don't want a violin, you want a saxophone". So I thought right, I'll get a sax. It was a miserable mistake. I wanted to try something different but I didn't try hard enough. The whole thing was a disaster, so I just dropped out of music for a bit þ and Sensible kept me going by giving me lyrics to write. He's a good man, really nice. We used to stay up all night at his parents' home in Selhurst, and just sit in his room drinking Ruddles.

Let's jump ahead now to one of my favourite albums, 'Element of Light'. I think there's a definite change between that and your previous output in terms of its subtlety, that's the wrong word but it's commercial without pandering to the commercial. Because it's done subconsciously you've done it right. It's subversive in its straightforwardness, and it's got more craft about it than earlier albums.

It would be nice if that were the case, but I wouldn't know to what I should attribute that if it's true. Maybe we'd been selling more records so the songs I wrote were more commercial as a result of that. Or maybe I'd spent more time in the outside world, touring America and things, so maybe the songs were less to do with the private world. But I don't even know if that's true.

Let's talk about your painting, because I think it's an important facet of your creative life.

Well, I've been painting for years. I just started doing a lot more in the last couple. When we were mixing 'Perspex Island' in Los Angeles I had a little studio to myself, and I just sat there painting while Andy would go in and out and check the mix. I painted a lot while I was living in Washington, and I've almost got to the stage when I can exhibit. I've got tentative offers from somewhere in San Francisco and somewhere in Seattle, so I think the first exhibition will be on the West Coast. My father used to paint, it's always good to paint although I'm much better at drawing actually. Painting is always a struggle, it's much harder to do - the brush always feels like it's about to go out of control.

When you do the record covers do you look around and say, "this is the painting I want to use", or do you paint especially for the cover?

Funnily enough on that recent Soft Boys compilation the painting was done deliberately for it. Originally that album was going to be called 'One In The Distance', and then for some reason I bottled out of calling it that. And 'Red Lemon Days' was the original title for 'Respect' as depicted on the cover.

So, what have we got to look forward to?
Robyn # 4

What I'm doing now is stock-piling my short stories, and I'm editing them and reading them onto tape, in some cases with music, and I'm hoping to release those as spoken-word CDs. I've been telling stories on stage for ages, and I've always enjoyed writing. Likewise I've been painting and drawing for years, and apart from using them on covers and things I haven't really tried to make an effort with them. I became a musician because that's really what I wanted to do when I was fifteen, but I had other abilities. I was better with words and with pictures, and I couldn't really play a note. I just so desperately wanted to be a Bob Dylan or whoever; like lots of other kids I was magnetised by the pose. I thought I'd become some sort of Superman if I made albums and did gigs, that I'd be immune to the problems that beset everyone else in everyday life. I've been able to make a good living as a musician, but now it's time to do all the other stuff. When I've got a really strong collection of songs, and got the right record company, then I'll put out a new record. I've been recording recently. Also, with Rhino we're doing all the Hitchcock albums from 'Black Snake' through to 'Element of Light', so we'll have to sort all that out. There's just mounds of stuff all over the place that I have to keep moving from one pile to another. Most of my time is spent trying to work out what order to do things in rather than what I should be doing - it's pathetic!

I'd like to talk about the songwriting process; when did you start writing songs, how long does it take to write a song?

I started trying to write songs in about 1969, but as I understood words far better than music the early stuff was just poems with chords stuck in every so often: F sharp, A minor, C7, E major A... I had no idea how melody worked. My tunes could have been stuck together by a donkey on a trampoline. The first song I actually completed by myself was a George Formby take-off called 'Standing by The Public Conveniences'. My understanding of music came slowly. Initially I was helped by an old school friend, Martin - we were big dreamers in the early Seventies and used to play at The Troubador in the Brompton Road. Basically, I've learned by playing other peoples' songs and writing my own. Like any habit, or any form of exercise, you just have to go on endlessly like a snail in a tunnel. When I first began to write songs I started with words. These days I usually need a title and a tune. It's like uncovering an old mosaic; definitely archaeological. You have to be careful with words, there's always a better way of saying something. Then again, if you're too self-conscious you've had it. By the third verse I usually have demons on my shoulder with little fishing rods from which dangle miniature dentists' mirrors. I see myself and freeze. I still love words, but I prefer to write stories these days. Lyrics are a pain, I'm more interested in tunes. As for how long it takes, well 'Globe Of Frogs' was sung directly into a tape recorder, then I played it back afterwards and transcribed it. 'So You Think You're In Love' took three minutes, although Kimberley Rew helped with the middle bit. 'The Yip Song' took about three months, I revised the words a lot...

There are some recurring themes in many of your songs, can you tell us a little about those?

Most songs are somewhere between love and death, and mine are no exception. I love the sea and I'm fascinated by the creatures in it, but neither from a symbolic nor a goofy viewpoint. I tend to let the songs 'come through' and steer them into some kind of coherence, that's why a title helps. An un-named song is like an un-named child, it has no identity. I never sit down and try to write about anything specifically, any more than I'd decide what to dream before I go to sleep. But I think my work could have done with more reviewing, if not actual editing. There's some pretty naff lines in some of my songs.

Looking back, how do you feel about some of your older songs?

When it comes to singing them now, I find them hard to re-interpret. Songs like 'Raining Twilight' and 'It Was The Night' seem to have been written for the future me to sing, they're much easier to sing at 40 than they were at 28. But stuff like 'How Do You Work This Thing?' and 'Point It At Gran' seem a bit childish. 'My Wife And My Dead Wife' just seems like a cover version. Did I really write that?

A consistent quality with all your albums is the detail of production, indeed you've worked with some brilliant producers such as John Leckie and Paul Fox.

Production is something I've never come to terms with. Most records with the Egyptians are produced as much by Andy Metcalf as they are by Fox, Leckie or whoever. But, although I know that a record isn't the same as a live gig, I do think that people who like my songs and who like the Egyptians' playing always find our recordings a bit subdued. I know I do; maybe there's too much anxiety. You can't turn people on just by default, i.e. 'this is a great record, it's got no mistakes on it'. But it has been interesting working with Paul Fox, John Leckie and Andy - I've learned a lot from it.

You were talking earlier about your idea of recording an acoustic version of the Roxy Music album 'Avalon'.
Robyn # 3

My obsession with Avalon, the last Roxy Music album, spurred my interest in production, but lately I've begun to wonder what the whole thing would sound like on an acoustic guitar with occasional piano in the background. A great song doesn't need dressing up. Well-produced records always get played in clothes shops; in fact I heard 'So You Think You're In Love' in just such surroundings when I was in the States. Bryan Ferry's stuff was simultaneously sophisticated and tacky. I've sung 'More Than This' for some time as an encore - I'd love to hear him do 'Madonna Of The Wasps'. At the same time I wouldn't criticise a record for being "radio friendly". That's the way songs get heard.

Robyn tuning up his guitar and looking around for the Set List Cup (a styrene vessel of the type beloved by British Rail, in this instance adorned with Hitchcock drawings and song titles) seemed to indicate that the interview was over, so spotting a door I took my cue and left. On the other side was a church crypt full of an expectant audience, and I found myself sitting beside Nick Ralph, former editor of the late lamented 'Dark Star' magazine, a strange coincidence as earlier on Robyn and I had been talking about Steve Burgess, writer for that selfsame publication. And then Robyn Hitchcock's on stage, plunging through a whole slew of new songs, spewing out his remarkable between-track banter into a wildly appreciative audience and generally having a lot of fun.

So there you have it, Robyn Hitchcock: writer, musician and artist, caught at a turning point in his creative life, but still as vital and honest as he's ever been. A couple of weeks later, walking past The London Palladium with my two daughters, fate conspired to give me a chance meeting with Robyn. He was shy, friendly and quite charming to the girls, and from that moment of serendipity came the promise of a track to adorn the EP with this issue. Hitchcock indeed seemed quite excited by the prospect; "It's been ages since I've had anything out on plastic", he smiled.

"I liked him", Amelia said afterwards. "So did I", I replied.

With gracious thanks to Mr. Hitchcock and to Mushy at Sincere Management. Merchandising and news is available direct, send an SAE along to Mrs. Waffle-Head, PO Box 1854, London W10 4ZA.

Written and directed by Mick Dillingham with post-production mangling by Phil.

Go Back to the Table of Contents