Back in high school I had this cassette I loved. Not really a mix tape, but definitely a homemade jobbie — it had half of Robyn Hitchcock’s debut album on it, two (Hitchcock-fronted) Soft Boys songs and a load of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. No idea where I got it. Probably stole it.
Anyway, I never took to Nick Cave. Still haven’t, even though that’s a cool-kid crime. I’m supposed to love him but I don’t — except for his cover of Tower Of Song and the Dig, Lazarus Dig!!! album.
The Soft Boys stuff I already knew and owned. I also owned Hitchcock’s 1991 album Perspex Island, which I got off of somebody who picked it as a record club selection but didn’t like it. Nobody told me I should be a fan of Hitchcock. I told myself because he was always being compared to one of my favourite artists, Roger “Syd” Barrett. The Soft Boys even covered Vegetable Man.
Perspex Island was OK, but I didn’t love it. The Soft Boys were hit and miss. But this solo stuff of Hitchcock on my mystery cassette was all kinds of great. It took me years to figure out what it was, and today I finally got a copy for $15. I’ve been keeping an eye out for this gem for 30 years.
The Barrett/Hitchcock comparison was an important thing for 17-year-old me. For starters, they sound similar, though Hitchcock also has elements of John Lennon and David Bowie in his very English voice. Hitchcock, who now calls Nashville home, is from London. But he recorded two Soft Boys albums in a studio in Cambridge, which is Barrett’s hometown. He has also covered Barrett’s songs many times: The aforementioned Vegetable Man, Dark Globe and more than a dozen others. He even name-checked Syd in his song 1974:
“But it feels like 1974
Syd Barrett’s last session
He can’t sing anymore
He’s gonna have to be Roger now for the rest of his life.”
Hitchcock’s late daughter Maisie shares a name with a Syd song. And 1981’s Black Snake Diamond Röle kicks off with a song all about Barrett — The Man Who Invented Himself. It’s a sunny, upbeat track. Catchy and a lovely tribute without being excessive or similar to other tributes by those who actually knew Barrett like Kevin Ayers’ Oh Wot A Dream or Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond.
“Well, that loneliness is nothing
Just imagine how he feels
He’s the only person in the world
Who still believes he’s real
He’s the fella
The man who invented himself.”
The song, issued as a single, features Gary Barnacle on sax, who you may know from his various outings with The Clash (among many, many others).
Next up is Brenda’s Iron Sledge, a song which sounds instantly familiar yet totally unique. The same sort of thing you get when you listen to XTC side project The Dukes of Stratosphear. You’re certain it reminds you of something, but good luck — it doesn’t exist. The genius of this song is the arrangement. The drum performance is rhythmic and clever, sort of like the one in Elvis Costello’s Green Shirt. And I love songs with loud tambourine. Bo Diddley made his songs HEAVY with it.
Do Policemen Sing? is considered a goofy or funny track, but I’ve never considered it one. For starters, the chorus is epic, and the guitar tone is like blood-spattered cat paws. The Lizard is next, one which wasn’t on my cassette. It’s a pslightly psychedelic one, with one of my favourite drum fills at the two-minute mark. Simple, effective. The drummer on this and the previous two tracks is Vince Ely of The Psychedelic Furs.
Side 1 closes with the new wave, post-punk rocker Meat. You could also imagine someone like Costello (in that era) coming up with a song like this, except with vastly different lyrics and perhaps a slightly different melody… and more organ. One other big difference: Meat features Vibrators founder Knox on guitar.
Acid Bird starts the second side, at once reminiscent of Heart Of Glass and also not at all. This is the drum beat I have the hardest time with. This song doesn’t quite do it for me. I think it’s too slow, or the arrangement is off. Two members of The Soft Boys back Hitchcock on this.
Next up is I Watch The Cars, which is so much better. I like to pretend he’s singing about the band The Cars. Compared to the previous track, one striking difference is this features Ely on drums rather than former Soft Boy Morris Windsor. Windsor was creative, but nowhere near as powerful. It could also be that the production given to his performance was not as good as the Ely tracks. Windsor is on the next track, Out Of The Picture. I suppose this is the record’s “deep cut,” but I really like it. For me, this should have opened the side, not Acid Bird.
It’s A Mystic Trip comes next and is also quite good for a tucked-away track. It’s a confident, thudding mid-tempo banger. It has a very ’80s new wave la-la-la-la chorus.
Finally, we get to the big finale, album-closer Love. It’s a looser, upbeat ballad with known commodities Tom (Thomas) Dolby on keys and ocean sounds, as well as his bass player — former Soft Boy and future Thompson Twin Matthew Seligman. One great couplet from the song:
“We eat Weetabix and sing
About the joys that love can bring.”
This is my second-least favourite on the record. Dolby or no Dolby, I’d have rather had Dancing On God’s Thumb, which was the flipside to The Man Who Invented Himself single. Rather than Acid Bird, the eventually released outtake All I Wanna Do Is Fall In Love would have been preferable.
Still, more than a solid first solo outing. Clever, original, refreshing and distinctive. A handful of songs that stay with you forever. What’s better than that?
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Area Resident is an Ottawa-based journalist, recording artist, music collector and re-seller. Hear (and buy) his music on Bandcamp, email him HERE, follow him on Instagram and check him out on Discogs.