From Cambridge they came, in 1976: a brilliant songwriter leading a two-guitar band that revered the Byrds, the Beatles and, most of all, Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd. Some called it the start of a psychedelic revival; the Soft Boys’ verve and wild-eyed sincerity made it more of a post-psychedelic awakening.
Wading Through a Ventilator shows a promising weirdness that sets it apart from what most everyone else was doing in 1977, but reveals singer/guitarist Robyn Hitchcock as a still-embryonic songwriter. He got off a few good ones on A Can of Bees, by which time guitarist Kimberly Rew had joined the band, but the rest declines disappointingly into grating medium-metal power pop. (The album’s second reissue — like the 1992 Rykodisc edition — is somewhat revised from the original, adding “Anglepoise Lamp” from a 1978 single and other tracks.)
That same year (1979), the Soft Boys recorded an uncharacteristic all-acoustic live tape — later sold by mail to buyers of Invisible Hits as Live at the Portland Arms and subsequently reissued and generally distributed on disc — which contains the most bizarre assortment of cover versions imaginable. But then cover versions were always one of the band’s strong suits, from Hitchcock’s intense reading of John Lennon’s “Cold Turkey” on Can of Bees to his hilarious ravings on Portland Arms‘ “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin.” Also of historic interest are two Syd Barrett numbers: “Vegetable Man” on a British maxi-single (also included on the Canadian Attic issue of Underwater Moonlight) and “Astronomy Domine” on Two Halves for the Price of One. That album is actually two, with individually titled sides and cover art: Lope at the Hive was recorded at London’s Hope and Anchor, while Only the Stones Remain contains otherwise unreleased oddities mixed in both chronology and quality.
The core of the Soft Boys canon, however, are Invisible Hits (actually recorded in ’78 and ’79) and Underwater Moonlight. Some form of insanity prevented the timely release of the former; it shows Hitchcock at his best — maturely immature and crazily serious — as he races from hearty lust (“Let Me Put It Next to You”) to vulnerable harangue (“Empty Girl,” “Blues in the Dark”). Few other albums capture the humor, pathos, anger and grotesquerie of man/woman so well. (The reissues on Glass Fish and Rykodisc both include alternate takes or mixes of four of the album’s songs, along with a live performance of “Wey Wey Hep Uh Hole.”)
Unjustly underrated at the time, Underwater Moonlight is one of the new wave’s finest half-dozen albums. “I Wanna Destroy You” is a rant against war and intolerance; “Insanely Jealous” builds to a frenzy — twice; “I Got the Hots” contains some of the funniest erotic lines ever written. This album has everything — melody, power, wit, laughs and heart, not to mention a great guitar sound. (The Glass Fish and Rykodisc reissues both append eight studio tracks, half of which had appeared on Two Halves for the Price of One).
Hitchcock reunited with the original Soft Boys rhythm section of Andy Metcalfe (also in the reformed Squeeze) and Morris Windsor for some of his solo recordings; Rew went on to form Katrina and the Waves.
In conjunction with its reissue of the three principal Soft Boys albums, Rykodisc compiled 1976–1981, a two-CD collection of key studio tracks, rarities (among them the original 45 versions of “Give It to the Soft Boys” and “Anglepoise Lamp”), live recordings (including several memorable excerpts from Portland Arms and covers of Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” the Velvet Underground’s “Train ‘Round the Bend,” Lou Reed’s “Caroline Says II” and Syd Barrett’s “Gigolo Aunt”) and such previously unreleased songs as “It’s Not Just the Size of a Walnut” and a disco rendition of the Underwater Moonlight number “Kingdom of Love.” This set is an outstanding place for a newcomer to start — or would be if it were still in print.
In 2001, Matador repackaged Underwater Moonlight as a two-disc set. One disc combines the original album with the same bonus tracks that appeared on the two previous reissues, plus the Invisible Hits track “He’s a Reptile.” The other includes rehearsal takes of several of the original album’s songs (including four run-throughs of “I’m an Old Pervert”), covers of Lou Reed’s “Leave Me Alone” and Roxy Music’s “Over You,” and nine previously unreleased Hitchcock originals. A must for fans.
The Soft Boys regrouped for UK tours in 1994 and 2001. The latter reunion must have energized its participants’ creativity, since they stuck together to record a new studio album, Nextdoorland. Wisely, they didn’t try to recapture the surreal extremes of the earlier work. Given ten excellent new songs to record (eight by Hitchcock, plus two credited to the band as a whole), the musicians simply respond with sensitive performances, captured with plenty of breathing room by producer Pat Collier. Bassist Matthew Seligman and drummer Morris Windsor are still the most supple rhythm section Hitchcock’s ever had, and Kimberley Rew remains a marvelous foil to the singer’s psychedelic expositions. Rew challenges Hitchcock to raise his game on guitar, yielding interplay comparable to the tandem work of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. Throughout Nextdoorland, the guitarists always find just the right flourishes for each song — from the keening leads on the semi-instrumental opener “I Love Lucy” to the wah-wah kick on “Pulse of My Heart,” from the analog synth foundation and twin-guitar coda of the wonderful “Mr. Kennedy” to the tremolo underpinnings of “Unprotected Love,” from the mixture of fuzz, jangle-pop, funk and slide guitar hooks (it works better than it looks on paper) in “Japanese Captain” to the nervy, jittering riffs of “Lions and Tigers.”
Side Three is a “companion” EP of out-takes from the Nextdoorland sessions. Most of the songs — particularly “Narcissus” (who, we are told, “was a lawn boy”), “The Disconnection of the Ruling Class” and “Each of Her Silver Wands” — are up to the measure of its counterpart, although they don’t offer quite as much variety (unless you count the unlisted track of studio tomfoolery). Following a 2003 tour to support their new releases, the band members went their separate ways again. Hopefully, Nextdoorland and Side Three won’t be the last we hear from the Soft Boys.