Graham Reid | | 2 min read
Robyn Hitchcock is one of those enjoyably intellectual, slightly eccentric English singer-songwriters who are either central to your life or barely come to your attention.
He first made his name in the punk era with the folkadelic punk band the Soft Boys, and there were few bands of that era which wrote songs with titles such as It's Not Just the Size of a Walnut, Where are the Prawns?, Have a Heart Betty (I'm Not Fireproof) or -- my personal favourite -- I Want to be an Anglepoise Lamp.
Yes, Hitchcock -- an art school dropout with a love of Syd Barrett and Bob Dylan -- was . . . different.
He once said, "I am different from my songs the way you're different from your dreams. I don't talk to your dreams. And we don't necessarily move in and out of each others dreams. As a songwriter all I'm doing is dreaming in public".
The Soft Boys lasted from the mid Seventies to the early Eighties and after that Hitchcock, after some period of thinking, emerged as a solo artist (and sometimes with a band The Egyptians).
He has released a fascinating string of albums, has been the subject of documentaries by Jonathan Demme (the live Storefront Hitchcock in '98) and John Edington (Robyn Hitchcock: Sex, Death Food and Insects, '07) and he has collaborated with Grant Lee Phillips, Gillian Welch, Nick Lowe, Peter Buck (who has repeatedly said REM were more influenced by the Soft Boys than the Byrds) and Andy Partridge of XTC, all of whom are admirers of his slightly surreal approach to lyrics and his often elegantly simple melodies.
He often performs solo but for this concert in New York -- where he played his much acclaimed '84 album I Often Dream of Trains in its entirety, and a couple of more recent songs as encores -- he was joined by multi-instrumentalist Terry Edwards ("of the Special Branch") and guitarist Tim Keegan. Singer Gaida Hinnawi joins in for a couple of pieces and trumpeter Amir El Saffar also appears alongside Hitch, who wears a polka dot short and matching guitar.
This concert too was filmed by Edginton who plays a straight bat, letting the music and the witty Hithcock speak for themsleves.
In concert Hitch can sound like a folksy John Lennon, Chris Knox (on the rocking This Could be the Day) or even the well enunciating David Bowie (you can understand every word). His sometimes oddball anecdotes and observations after or before songs are often hilariously bewildering, or pointed: "These songs are like subtitles that roll across the bottom while life goes on".
His Trains album was a rare one at the time: he'd taken time out to consider his next move (if there was to be one) and so simply wrote what he wanted, away from whatever else was happening in the music world (New Wave, post-punk).
They were stripped back songs and some had an Anglo-folk element, but also if a song required it he would adopt a country-folk feel (Ye Sleeping Knights of Jesus) or even a barbershop quartet style (the very funny Uncorrected Personality Traits).
His subjects are typcially Hitchcockian: nostalgia, the trams of old London, buildings, and love. Not just loss of love but a consideration long after the event of how that period felt. Complex stuff beautifully phrased and highly literate. Songs like Cathedral and Winter Love are achingly beautiful.
Between the songs there are also cutaways to an interview (conducted in a train) in which he articulates his ideas of songwriting and so on. It is fascinating.
Recorded with clarity, Hitchcock delivers the album with sensitivity and style, its quietness hushing the capacity audience.
There is also a strange and mildly surreal short film Beyond Basingstoke from his earlier years (shot on a train, naturally).
There is only one Robyn Hitchcock, he deserves your serious attention. And not so serious.
I believe this comes as a DVD and CD package (the concert CD) but I haven't seen that.