Robyn Hitchcock - Biography
Born on March 3, 1953, Robyn Hitchcock is one of the oldest figures in alternative rock to still hold prominence. He was born in London, but experienced his musical beginnings about 50 miles north of that city in Cambridge, where he played folk songs as a solo artist. By 1976, he found himself fronting a band called Dennis and the Experts. They soon changed their name to The Soft Boys and began to explore a sound that they referred to as psychedelic punk. The Soft Boys are often lumped in with the punk explosion, even though their sound feels very far removed from that of the Sex Pistols. The Soft Boys debuted in 1979 with A Can of Bees (1979 Two Crabs Records). Their 1980 follow-up LP, which proved to be their masterpiece, was Underwater Moonlight (1980 Armageddon) — an album that has influenced R.E.M., The Replacements, and countless other bands. Underwater Moonlight served as a swan song for The Soft Boys, but Hitchcock was just getting started.
Hitchcock set about recording a solo album right after the breakup of The Soft Boys. He made his debut in 1981 with Black Diamond Snake Role (Rhino). The LP has a nice roster of guest musicians, including all three of his former band mates — drummer Morris Windsor, guitarist Kimberley Rew, and bassist Matthew Seligman. Other guests include Thomas Dolby (who had not yet released the star-making hit “She Blinded Me With Science”), Vince Ely (drummer for both The Psychedelic Furs and the Moors Murderers), and Ian “Knox” Carnochan of the Vibrators. The album doesn't find the artist attempting to be something he's not, but a desire to distance himself from The Soft Boys is detectable. Hitchcock is still his quirky, whimsical self throughout the LP, but the songs are more polished and the production is more slick.
A second album, Groovy Decay (1982 Combat), surfaced the following year. One could easily argue that Hitchcock would have been better off had he taken more time to create his follow-up. Although the song “The Cars She Used to Drive” is terrific, and certainly not the only good song on the album, it doesn't seem like Hitchcock's heart is in the proceedings. After the album’s release, he took a short break from music. When he returned two years later, it was with an acoustic guitar and a conviction that he could play just about every other instrument on the new album by himself. The result was I Often Dream of Trains (1984 Rhino), a 19-song set that plays host to Hitchcock's sprawling imagination and some of his greatest song inventions. Early on, there is the simple but effective (and funny) “Sometimes I Wish I Was a Pretty Girl.” Things quickly become even more interesting with the all-vocal barbershop-esque mania of “Uncorrected Personality Traits.” Elsewhere, he is tender and heartfelt, such as on “Winter Love.” Hitchcock seems best, though, when he blends his weird humor with sincerity, as displayed in “Mellow Together.”
Following the well-reviewed I Often Dream of Trains, Hitchcock assembled a backing band out of former Soft Boys. Both Andy Metcalfe and Morris Windsor joined him for 1985's Fegmania! (Rhino), as did keyboardist Roger Jackson. The album was credited to Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians. That same year, they released the wonderful live album Gotta Let This Hen Out! (1985 Rhino). Three years later, Hitchcock landed a major label contract with A&M. Along with the Egyptians, he made his US major label debut with Globe of Frogs (A&M) in 1988. Although it was not as popular with critics as previous albums, Globe of Frogs did what A&M wanted it to do and placed on the charts (although, at the modest position of 111). “Balloon Man” was a minor hit and one of Hitchcock’s most accessible songs to date.
Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians returned with 1989's Queen Elvis (A&M), a better album than its predecessor by far, but one that fell back in the charts to 139 despite “Madonna of the Wasps” reaching number two on the Modern Rock Tracks chart. Hitchcock entered the 1990s with Eye (1990 Rhino), a collection that most closely resembles I Often Dream of Trains. It is credited solely to Hitchcock, but he reunites with the Egyptians for 1991's Perspex Island (A&M) — an album that longtime fans frown upon, even though it gave Hitchcock his first number one single in the US with “So You Think You're in Love.” John Leckie was recruited as a producer for the more earthy Respect (1992 A&M), which yielded the Top 20 hit “Driving Aloud (Radio Storm).” A collection of rarities, You and Oblivion (Rhino), followed in 1995.
By 1996, it seemed that Hitchcock's shot at stardom had passed him by as Moss Elixir (1996 Warner Bros) failed to chart. On a subsequent tour, filmmaker Jonathan Demme documented Hitchcock's performances for the film Storefront Hitchcock. The soundtrack to that film was released in 1998 on Warner Bros. Another live album, Live at the Cambridge Folk Festival (1998 Varese), followed later that year. After the noticeably goofier Jewels For Sophia (1999 Warner Bros), Hitchcock reunited with The Soft Boys for a tour in 2001. The jaunt was so successful that they decided to record a brand new album, Nextdoorland (Matador), which released to critical acclaim in 2002. Just two months later, he was back to his solo career with Robyn Sings (2002 Editions PAF), a double-disc set of Bob Dylan covers from Dylan's mid-60s period.
As he approached his 50s, Hitchcock's recorded output didn't slow a bit. He did become more collaborative, however, and his work was strengthened in the process. After he went it alone with 2003's Luxor (Editions PAF), he teamed up with acclaimed folk artist Gillian Welch and her chief collaborator David Rawlings for Spooked (2004 Yep Roc). He went collaboration-crazy two years later, recruiting Chris Ballew of the Presidents of the United States of America, Sean Nelson of Harvey Danger, keyboardist Ian McLagan of the Faces, Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey, and Bill Rieflin (touted as “3/4s of The Minus 5 and half of R.E.M.”), as well as Soft Boys' Rew and Windsor, for Olè! Tarantula (2006 Yep Roc). A collection of mostly unreleased tracks called Shadow Cat (Sartorial) was released in 2008, and then the second effort from Hitchcock and his backing band of Rieflin, Buck, and McCaughey appeared with Goodnight Oslo (2009 Yep Roc) the following year, credited to Hitchcock & The Venus 3. In 2010, they released Propellor Time (Yep Roc), which also features contributions from John Paul Jones, Johnny Marr, Nick Lowe, and Windsor.