Robyn Hitchcock started his recording career with the psychedelic new wave band The Soft Boys. They formed in Cambridge, England, and were originally known as Dennis and the Experts.
The lineup that recorded their 1978 debut A Can of Bees featured Hitchcock on guitar and vocals. He was supported by drummer Morris Windsor, bassist Andy Metcalfe, and guitarist Kimberly Rew. Metcalfe left the band before 1980’s Underwater Moonlight, and was replaced by Matthew Seligman. The band broke up just as they’d found their own style – their early work is surprisingly bluesy, with Rew playing guitar hero. But they’d developed significantly by the time they’d recorded Underwater Moonlight – a cult classic, influential on emerging 1980s bands like R.E.M. and The Replacements.
Windsor and Metcalfe would later rejoin Hitchcock as The Egyptians in the mid-1980s, while Rew went on to mainstream success with Kimberly and the Wave’s ‘Walking on Sunshine’. The band reformed for 2002’s Nextdoorland. Seligman passed away during the first Covid-19 pandemic, presumably ending the potential for another Soft Boys reunion.
The Soft Boys Album Reviews
A Can of Bees
The Soft Boys’ debut presents a different facet of Hitchcock’s work than their subsequent output. Compared to their new wave contemporaries, their approach here is surprisingly traditional – while Hitchcock’s vocals bristle with some post-punk aggression, Rew’s guitar is bluesy and virtuoso, like he’s auditioning for Cream. There are certainly moments that could have only come from Hitchcock’s twisted mind – ‘Sandra’s Having Her Brain Out’ is a case in point. But his songwriting isn’t fully developed, and Rew’s guitar heroics work to fill out the sound.
There are different versions of the record circulating, with different tracks at the end of side two. But every version features the most significant tracks – the bluesy ‘Leppo and the Jooves’ was featured on Hitchcock’s acclaimed live album Gotta Let This Hen Out. The best track is a cover – John Lennon’s ‘Cold Turkey’ has a brooding intensity that Hitchcock doesn’t quite capture in his own compositions.
A Can of Bees has potential but Hitchcock’s songwriting would develop exponentially before their next effort.
The Soft Boys’ second album is a significant step forward. Hitchcock’s songwriting was inconsistent up to this point – his music often sounded derivative, and relied on his skewed lyrical perspective to provide interest. But here he’s writing fresh tunes, drawing from 1960s influences like Syd Barrett and The Byrds, and marrying them to a punk edge. The result is one of Hitchcock’s strongest records. Metcalfe was replaced by Matthew Seligman by the time The Soft Boys recorded this.
Opening track ‘I Wanna Destroy You’ is one of Hitchcock’s strongest, and it’s a great example of Hitchcock blending 1960s sounds with punk. There’s a vicious edge to the lyrics, but it’s beautifully harmonised. Hitchcock contrasts well-written tunes like ‘Positive Vibrations’ and the Byrds-like ‘Queen of Eyes’ with more personality-driven pieces. Songs like ‘Old Pervert’ and ‘I Got the Hots’ put Hitchcock’s weirdness on full display. The title track is a triumphant closer, displaying the band’s psychedelic leanings. I have the two-CD deluxe edition and it’s always been a bit much for me, but there are great bonus tracks like ‘Only the Stones Remain’.
Underwater Moonlight is a unanimous career peak for The Soft Boys, and a signal of Robyn Hitchcock’s arrival. The band
Invisible Hits isn’t a studio album, but a collection of outtakes. And it’s no longer in print – these tracks have instead been allocated to bonus tracks on expanded editions of their first two studio albums. It’s a shame – it’s works together as a record, and it’s strong enough that it deserves to be appreciated as its own entity. It’s surprising to learn that these recordings predate A Can of Bees – Hitchcock’s songwriting voice feels more original and developed than it does on the debut.
In particular ‘Wey Wey Hep Uh Hole’ sounds far more like an original Hitchcock song than anything on A Can of Bees, with its surreal lyrics and singalong chorus. There’s a foray into British folk on ‘Muriel’s Hoof / Rout of the Clones’ – Hitchcock and Rew were both fans of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. It’s arguably a little derivative in places, but it’s still far more interesting than the band’s official debut. ‘He’s a Reptile’ sounds like a mutant cross between ‘He’s a Rebel’ and ABBA’s ‘Mamma Mia’, while ‘Rock and Roll Toilet’ recalls the bluesy riffing of The Rolling Stones.
Invisible Hits has suffered from its lack of availability on streaming and CD, but it hangs together as the band’s second-best album.
The Soft Boys toured in 1994, to celebrate a boxset, a five-piece lineup with both Seligman and Metcalfe. They reconvened in 2001, without Metcalfe, to commemorate a two-disc edition of Underwater Moonlight. This latter tour led to a new album. Reunion albums are often fraught with difficulty, a band releasing a record that falls embarrassingly short of past triumphs. But Nextdoorland is different – it’s not an obvious sequel to Underwater Moonlight, but instead steps sideways. It emphasises the guitar interplay of Rew and Hitchcock, sounding not unlike Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd in Television. It’s an unexpected move, but it works, delivering a respectable album that’s not overshadowed by past triumphs.
Hitchcock’s love of unpredictable language is at the forefront of ‘Unprotected Love’ – “You are as hard as a diamond/You could be used as a cutting tool”. It’s an odd mix of tenderness and quirkiness. The six-minute guitar jam of ‘Strings’ is reminiscent of Television, even if there’s more blues than Verlaine and Lloyd would allow. Hitchcock delivers some memorably oddball lines like “Take your partner by the middle/Like a burger on a griddle”. ‘Mr. Kennedy’ is a great melody – the chorus “maybe it’ll rain tonight” is quintessentially Hitchcock. The record does run of steam at the end – the last few tracks are unremarkable, meaning that Nextdoorland isn’t a serious rival to Underwater Moonlight as their best record.
Nonetheless, Nextdoorland is an impressive comeback, a welcome addition to the band’s slender legacy.
10 Best Soft Boys Songs
I Wanna Destroy You
Only The Stones Remain
Wey Wey Hep Uh Hole
Queen of Eyes
Kingdom of Love
Rock and Roll Toilet
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