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phantom of psychedelia

richard cook follows the robyn hitchcock guide to transport - physical, mechanical, mental & musical

new musical express 8/5/82

Robyn Hitchcock must be a fit man. He's racing round the London Transport Museum enthusing over the trams and prototype Route-masters like some possessed, gangly curator and a laggard like me is panting to keep up. "We bought this Hoover this morning - a great old one, big headlight on it like a Canadian Pacific locomotive."

I call time on this tour of LT relics and we retire to a nearby rendezvous for tea and bananas. The former Soft Boys leader seems in excellent spirits: a new group, a new LP called Groovy Decay and - hold on though, wasn't he going to be a kingpin of the new psychedelia? Disappointed over that, Robyn? "It was nothing to do with me!" he declaims with unquenchable energy. "People have always been sort of daring it to come out of its hole. I'm more of a psychedelic person than I am a soul singer, I suppose. I mean, I don't have any control over Mood Six - maybe I could go and turn their amplifiers off - but I can't trigger off revivals. I'm not in any way promoting drugs." What are all these songs about then? 'Midnight Fish'? 'Grooving On An Inner Plane'?

"'America' is about a doomed Noel Coward figure standing on the rooftops of Manhattan wondering why it's not raining and looking at what America's doing to us. There might be many strands going through different songs - you could divide yourself into sub-groups while singing them."

This sounds very much like the English eccentric at play.

"I don't mind that. There's Rastafarian eccentrics as well. It's just how I come out after absorbing all the things I have."

The Soft Boys, Hitchcock's first stab at stardom, finally folded last year after several tries at breaking their rushing guitar surrealism through. Last time I saw them they played a song called 'The Lonesome Death Of Ian Penman'.

"Yeah," remembers Hitchcock, "I dreamt about him last night - we went to sit in our van and he was in there - we were going to ask him to play saxophone on it. Well, we couldn't play any other way and people couldn't seem to react other than by not reacting enough. There didn't seem to be any other way for us to compromise even though we tried lots of different styles. If you looked close up there were all these interesting little bits. The Soft Boys is undead, anyway. We might play a barmitzvah."

Hitchcock's new work does seem to be something of a retreat: neater, stand-up structures, the frantic held in check.

"I got fed up with working with another guitarist. Often with the Soft Boys the onstage racket was so great that all the elaborate things we did came out wrong. Now with the sax and organ you get this bright, golden sound." He nods in sage approval. "There's no point in writing all these songs and not sounding good. If I'm bored with sounding good I'll go off with a ukelele or something."

But Groovy Decay unfortunately doesn't sound very good - a set of songs which suggest that Hitchcock has tuned his maverick writing to far greater effect, has been recorded in a very dull and slack manner. He's disappointed too.

"It wasn't made by me or Steve Hillage (the producer) - we were fed into the studio and they made it. Those aren't our mixes and they were put out in a real hurry. I much prefer Black Snake Diamond Role."

Surely working with Hillage would seal the psychedelic connection.

"He's really got nothing to do with Canterbury. He comes from Walthamstow. Anyway I'm recording another LP in this carpentry shop. It's going to cost L100 to make - you can do it that cheap if the engineers don't charge you for the tape. Definitely the revenge of the individual. I'm not very interested in the reality of something, it's more the idea that counts. A song is always a compromise between the original feeling and way it turns out. Sometimes the gap is enormous and it doesn't work. I've written about 250 songs I suppose."

You don't look back at most of them and cringe?

"No! As you get older you gain certain qualities and lose others. You might start being very genteel and end up sounding like a dustbin."

Do you feel like an old rockist lost in a pop wonderworld?

"Yeah!" he laughs in delight. "It's funny when you hear these groups starting to play a guitar solo and then realising they mustn't so they start to fuck it up. Or they have to play just one note. I reckon a lot of this stuff is 95% gravy and 5% meat substitute.

"It seems a pity," he reflects, "because it seemed rock would be an area where things wouldn't have to be defined. But people's attention is limited and they want everything to be catalogued. Glamour's always been there - I remember. I'm old."

Are you too old?

"Too old for one of these new pop groups. But there's Debbie Harry, David Bowie, Ian Dury - I'm a very slow learner. I never knew any guitar licks or even how to tune a guitar for ages. If I live to be 40 I want to buy a harpsichord and go and play by a lake and record that. My next 'production' record will be quite exotic, I expect." He riffles through a tatty notebook that lists some of his new songs. "There'll be a song about the Higsons - um, 'Living In A Severed Head', 'Egyptian Cream', 'Sleeping Knights Of Jesus', 'The Clockwork Spinster', 'Messages Of Dark' - that one's about being in love with a spider " Sounds far out, Robyn.

Positive Vibrations is a fanzine dedicated to news, discussion and whatnot regarding Robyn Hitchcock, The Soft Boys and Kimberley Rew published by Aidan Merrit.
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