The son of novelist Raymond Hitchcock, Robyn Hitchcock has enjoyed an acclaimed career as an eccentric alt-rock and folk artist. He started his career with the new wave band The Soft Boys, best known for their 1980 album Underwater Moonlight.
The title of the documentary Robyn Hitchcock: Sex, Food, Death… and Insects gives a good indication of his preoccupations. Hitchcock came in with the stripped-down sound of new wave, and he’s clearly enamoured with the psychedelic 1960s. The trippy weirdness of Syd Barrett is the clearest touchstone, but the jangle of The Byrds and John Lennon’s more sardonic moments in The Beatles are also good references. In turn, The Soft Boys’ Underwater Moonlight influenced R.E.M. and The Replacements.
Hitchcock has released a lot of albums – I’m planning to cover him in smaller chunks. I’m starting with his six albums with his backing band The Egyptians, released between 1985 and 1993.
Robyn Hitchcock Album Reviews
Black Snake Diamond Role
Hitchcock struck out solo in 1981, although former Soft Boys Kimberly Rew, Matthew Seligman, and Morris Windsor all guest on this solo debut. According to Wikipedia, “the inner sleeve of the LP featured an original, cosmic Hitchcock pen-and-ink comic titled The Enchanted Sewer“.
Hitchcock’s second solo album is much less admired than the string of classic and near-classic albums around it.
I Often Dream of Trains
I’m pretty sure this is my favourite Hitchcock record. It was recorded after Hitchcock spent time away from music, working as a gardener and a journalist. It’s completely solo, with Hitchcock accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and piano.
Following I Often Dream of Trains, Hitchcock recruited the backing band The Egyptians. He reconnected with former Soft Boys Morris Windsor and Andy Metcalfe, as well as keyboard player Roger Jackson. Hitchcock told Magnet Magazine in 2008 that “Morris Windsor, Andy Metcalfe and I had played in the Soft Boys in the late 1970s, and after a break reconvened in the mid-1980s. By then we were more in control of our playing, I was more in control of my songwriting, and the musical climate was ready to receive us. This lasted until Nevermind came out, at which point “alternative” rock went one way and we went the other. Then I became a folk singer, which was where I’d come in two decades before.” Along with I Often Dream of Trains, Fegmania! captures Hitchcock’s peak as a songwriter, but it’s different in presentation; punchy pop/rock songs instead of a completely solo recording.
There are a ton of Hitchcock classics on Fegmania!. Some of the most memorable pieces emphasise his eccentricity – ‘My Wife and My Dead Wife’, and the psychedelic spoken parts of ‘The Man With the Lightbulb Head’. I don’t know that Hitchcock has ever written anything else as uplifting and anthemic as ‘Heaven’, even if the key chorus line is typically idiosyncratic – “You’ve got arms and you’ve got legs and you’ve got heaven”. There’s also a great run at the start of the record with ‘Egyptian Cream’, ‘Another Bubble’, and ‘I’m Only You’, and even the minor material like ‘Strawberry Mind’ is energetic and tuneful.
Fegmania! is a gem, even in the context of Hitchcock’s impressive catalogue.
Gotta Let This Hen Out
I don’t always bother covering live albums on this site, but Gotta Let This Hen Out! is among the more entertaining. Recorded shortly after the release of Fegmania!, at The Marquee in London, it’s an energetic run through an already stellar catalogue. It’s named for a line from the 1981 b-side, ‘Listening to the Higsons’, which is featured here – in the song, Hitchcock repeats his misheard line, originally “gotta let this heat out”.
Hitchock had already released seven studio records by this point, if you count The Soft Boys’ Invisible Hits, so there was plenty of great material to draw from. Songs like ‘The Cars She Used To Drive’, from Groove Decay, benefit from a more urgent live treatment. Metcalfe’s bass propels ‘Brenda’s Iron Sledge’, while it’s fun to hear ‘Sometimes I Wish I Was a Pretty Girl’ get the full band treatment. Later versions have come with more tracks – there’s a Yep Roc reissue with some 1989 tracks at the end, like ‘Freeze’ and ‘If You Were a Priest’.
Like most live albums Gotta Let This Hen Out isn’t essential, but it’s often worthwhile.
Element of Light
Element of Light continues Hitchcock’s hot streak in the mid-1980s. It’s a different record from Fegmania! – it’s more studio-based, with an atmospheric sound and slower tempos, with more room for Metcalfe’s bass. It features some of Hitchcock’s wildest flights of imagination – ‘Ted, Woody and Junior’ was inspired by a gay nudist magazine that he found in a junk shop, while the standout track ‘Airscape’ is about Hitchcock’s favourite beach, Compton Beach on the Isle of Wight. According to Wikipedia, Hitchcock was inspired by learning about the erosion of the cliffs, and imagining the ghosts of people who had walked the cliffs centuries ago now suspended over the water.”
‘Airscape’ is my favourite here, but most of these songs are strong. ‘Winchester’ is pretty and stately, while ‘Bass’ is built around a terrific Metcalfe bass line and has some of Hitchcock’s silliest wordplay – “The looming mullet and the wily bream/Are at the window with a quiet scream.” The swirling organ and group harmonies in ‘Ted, Woody and Junior’ are lovely.
The mid-1980s was clearly a creative time for Hitchcock and CD editions of Element of Light feature quality bonus tracks. Notable in particular are the most largest deviations from the album’s sound – the b-side ‘Tell Me About Your Drugs’ is a catchy rocker, where the members swap instruments, while there’s also the theatrical silliness of ‘The Can Opener’.
Globe of Frogs
Hitchcock’s first major label record is glossier than its predecessors. But it’s also arguably less accessible – the songs are often dissonant and Hitchcock’s relies more on novelty than before. I enjoy ‘Balloon Man’, a minor hit that Hitchcock has largely disowned, but other songs like ‘Sleeping With Your Devil Mask’ and ‘The Shapes Between Us Turn Into Animals’ largely rely on their quirky titles for hooks. Roger Jackson had departed The Egyptians by this point, leaving them as a three-piece, but they are augmented by R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and Squeeze’s Glenn Tilbrook.
Tilbrook provides harmonies on the excellent ‘Flesh Number One (Beatle Dennis)’, while ‘Chinese Bones’ has remained one of Hitchcock’s most popular live songs. But otherwise, it’s a record of weird odds and ends. Hitchcock dabbles with extremely slow tempos and minimal psychedelia on ‘Luminous Rose’ and the title track.
There’s enough good material to make it worthwhile, but Globe of Frogs is a bizarre major label debut, perhaps his least approachable album to date.
After the weirdness of Globe of Frogs, Queen Elvis is more like what you’d expect from a major-label Hitchcock record. There’s a strong lead single in ‘Madonna of the Wasps’, and Hitchcock strikes the right balance between solid songcraft and eccentricity. It’s not as consistent as his first two records with the Egyptians, but it’s solid. The track ‘Queen Elvis’ doesn’t actually appear on the album – it was instead used on Hitchcock’s 1990 solo album Eye.
Peter Buck is back to guest on ‘Madonna of the Wasps’, the closest-sounding the Egyptians came to a hit single. The side two opener, ‘One Long Pair of Eyes’, is almost as good, with fluid piano from Metcalfe. The second side is stronger than the first – there’s the agreeably eccentric royal fantasies of ‘Veins of the Queen’. The acerbic bridge of ‘Freeze’ is also a highlight, with Hitchcock spitting out “I know who wrote the book of love/It was an idiot, it was a fool/A slobbering fool with a speech defect and a shakin’ hand.”
Queen Elvis would have made a better major-label debut for Hitchcock, more tuneful and accessible than Globe of Frogs.
Perspex Island is another move toward the mainstream from Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians, although it’s worth noting that it was preceded by a solo Hitchcock album, 1990’s stripped-back Eye. Perspex Island was produced by Paul Fox, who gave a bunch of alternative acts a more glossy sound around this time, like 10,000 Maniacs and XTC. Fox takes the mainstream sound too far, taking the edge off a perfectly serviceable bunch of songs. Like the previous two records, Peter Buck guests on guitar – he’s joined by Michael Stipe, who harmonises with Hitchcock on ‘She Doesn’t Exist’.
The most mainstream songs are the most memorable – Hitchcock plays it straight with the tuneful power pop of ‘So You Think You’re In Love’, a #1 modern rock hit. There’s also ‘Ultra-Unbelievable Love’, a buoyant riff-rocker that’s hard to take seriously from the usually cynical Hitchcock. But if you can get past the production, there are a bunch of impressive deep tracks – ‘Oceanside’ is a great opener, ‘She Doesn’t Exist’ is delicately pretty, while ‘Child of the Universe’ is psychedelic and fun.
Perspex Island is a promising bunch of songs, let down by overly mainstream production.
Respect is Hitchcock’s final album with the Egyptians. It’s less band-focused and more acoustic and folk-based – it probably wouldn’t sound radically different if Hitchcock had used session musicians rather than Windsor and Metcalfe. Hitchcock told MTV’s 120 Minutes – “we very much played the corporate game on the last few records…. It wasn’t us who was presented, it was like being in drag.” Hitchcock’s disowned the record, but it sounds fine to me – John Leckie’s production job has aged gracefully.
Respect is a sombre affair, influenced by the death of HItchcock’s father. There’s a bunch of low-key folk tunes, bookended by two oddities. These are ‘The Yip Song’, a stream-of-consciousness with a nagging chorus, and the weirdness of ‘Wafflehead’, ending the Egyptians’ career on a decidedly offbeat note. In between, there’s a series of well-written tunes – more sombre and death-focused than usual. Often the most minimal arrangements are most successful – ‘Arms of Love’ and ‘Serpent at the Gates of Wisdom’ are gorgeous.
Respect might have worked better as a Hitchcock solo record, but it’s a respectable end to the Egyptians’ career.
10 Best Songs by Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians
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