a boring midday chat with robyn hitchcock

nigel cross
forced exposure #13 (1987)

Has dear old Robyn Hitchcock reached saturationville in the press? After Creem magazine proclaimed "God walks amongst us", is there really much point in adding one more Hitchcock interview to the ever growing mountain of hyperbole? Well, the geezers here at FE obviously think there is. "You're the expert" crackled Coley's wily tones over the transatlantic fibre optics last October. "You interview him!" And, fool that I am, I agreed to go into battle one more time with rock's answer to Salvador Dali. Talk about eating my words. I swore blind I'd never push the pen in praise again at the King Prawn, figuring I shouldn't bother creating one more blob of publicity for that bald-headed cunt at Robyn's Bushey-based record label when the guy has never sent me one gratis (review) copy of anything Midnight has released since 'Eaten By Her Own Dinner' in 1982.

But still, I ate shit, picked up the phone some considerable time later and engaged myself in conversation. Robyn was in a "chummy" mood. A chance remark that I worked near the Museum of Mankind evoked the response "They've got some great death masks there!", and so we arranged to meet in the Madagascar exhibit the next day - "Great", I thought, "I'll get my girlfriend to come down to snap a few pics of him posing in a mud hut or maybe even exploding out of a rock egg - we'll be well away!"

Wrong! Robyn turned up alright, but he was tired, he claimed, plus he was fed up with people taking pictures of him on the spur of the moment/off the cuff then circulating them through the alternative press. A case of justifiable vanity? No photos then. "So let's get down to business" I urged. "Wheedle out lots of unknown facts," Coley had suggested. "OK" I'd agreed, ransacking the mental filing cabinet on the man (now marked "closed"). "Could be some goodies there" I mused, remembering an epic four hour conversation years back as we sped down the M1 returning from a less than illustrious Soft Boys appearance at the Leeds Futurama Festival, Robyn skilfully handling the Transit van through the early morning gloom, chain-smoking and commenting on everything from the SB's folk club sitar-ed out version of 'Sister Ray' to the escalating arms race whilst Kimberley, Matthew and Howard the Roadie slept on oblivious 'midst the 'quipment in the back.

Wrong! Robyn was polite enough, thoughtful even, but the conversation lacked the spark and wit of previous encounters (he didn't even call me Denzil once!) - only the occasional flickerings of that keen and wicked sense of humour. Interview over, Sue (who'd turned up for the abortive photo session), the Hitch and myself relocated to this sleaze hole of a hostelry a stone's throw from the Waddington Gallery where, ironically enough, Van Vliet had a retrospective exhibition of his paintings last year. We passed a pleasant half an hour, Robyn wryly recounting various anecdotes about a recent Egyptians tour of Spain and Italy. "There was one guy who was just like you," he delighted in telling me, "who obviously knew more than just the records and whenever we'd play something old and obscure, he'd start jumping up in the air and spinning 'round!"

In the cold light of day, the interview transcribed into something more exciting than my memory had supposed. After the fiasco following in the wake of the Larry Wallis interview a couple of issues ago (he's still not talking to me!), I dutifully dispatched Mr. R. a copy of the transcript for perusal and approval. A bad move Skilful tree surgeon that he is, Robyn pruned the script of its nest moments ("a few necessary amputations"!) and returned it in a state not unlike that of a neutered tomcat, but still insistent that there was enough good material there to merit publication.

So the bestest obscurest-est facts remain out of the public eye! My lips are sealed, Robyn, so long as I receive a complete of your waxings (released under the auspices of Nick Ralph) since 1982 and a complimentary Egyptians t-shirt (size: xtra large)!

- Nigel "China Cat" Cross

FE: You went to art college, didn't you?

Robyn: Yeah, but not for very long. I was at art college for a while in London, in a crummy little art college that I think Rolf Harris went to. That's its only claim to fame. What happened was a general kind of void, like anyone else in the early Seventies. My interests were fairly predictable - I was indistinguishable from the general post-hippie flotsam. I did my first gig at art school. We had this group called the Beetles and it compromised a friend of mine whom I was at school with, Rosalind's brother, Simon [Kunath], who crops up at various intervals, and this bloke who then went on to become a lord of something or other. A quite incredible mixture of people.

FE: What kind of things were you doing?

Robyn: The guy who was going to become this lord, he was Jim Morrison and my old school friend was Paul McCartney. I was either Syd Barrett or John Lennon. You'd get these bizarre hybrids of Syd, Jim Morrison and Paul McCartney crooning away and Simon played drums just like Moe Tucker and knew nothing about it. The best thing was that we played this drag ball in Oxford and all the glasses were broken, not over us, but every piece of glass went at some point during the evening. I lost the tape of it, but it was one of the original punk tapes.

FE: So what decided you to move to Cambridge? You're not from there are you?

Robyn: No. I was in Cambridge very briefly. I had contacts up there and it was a place I used to go and visit in the early Seventies. Then I met someone on a train and I thought this might be a good place to live because the band I'd been in in London was just folding up. I'd outgrown one set of friends and relationships and was moving into another circuit. I wasn't going the same way as the people I was with - they were going into Mayfair and Chelsea. I had a jam with a guy called Simon Boswell who used to be in Duke, Duke & the Dukes, you probably never heard of him. He was also in a group called Advertising with Tot Taylor. So I had a jam with Simon and thought that there must be lots of wonderful musicians in Cambridge, so I'll go up there. When I got there I burst upon the folk clubs and was very unpopular with the established people in the clubs. The musos like Andy and Morris were very askance at me because my attitude was pretty different.

FE: Was it then that you'd busk in the shopping precincts with your face painted silver and such?

Robyn: There was about three years of it - there was about two years between getting to Cambridge and the Soft Boys - it took about two years for the musos to unfreeze themselves enough to come sliding up to see what I was doing. Sometimes I used to go up and busk in Lion Yard and sing 'Hey Jude' - I sang 'Hey Jude' and 'Vicious', the Lou Reed song. I think I also sang 'Wey Wey Hep Uh Hole' a couple of times.

FE: Did you ever actually write anything for the Beetles?

Robyn: No. I think there was a song we had called 'Moisture' but that never survived, and one called 'I'm A Guy' which was quite funny. But the stuff we wrote - the guy I wrote it with was basically very melodic, but the stuff if you listen to it now sounds like Gilbert and Sullivan or Jake Thackery, strictly witty ditty stuff. And we were a couple of ex-public school kids who knew nothing about life. We were middle aged at eighteen. We came in at the fag end of the Sixties when all the laid back stuff was coming in. We had about all the attack of a couple of lobotomised spinsters in aspic at a lobster varnishing convention at Eastbourne - there wasn't a lot of guts in it. But the Beetles had its moments - "The Unpleasant Stain", I think we did that.

FE: One thing you did tell me about that period was that you tried to get going doing some sleeve designs for various albums and that you'd submitted one for the Mallard album In A Different Climate that never got used.

Robyn: Yeah, one of the titles I suggested was Another Big Difference - I met them a couple of times. I met the former Zoot Horn Rollo, who insisted on being called Bill Harkleroad, and a guy called John Thomas who played keyboards who was quite nice. But I never saw them - I think it was a classic case of the head leaving the body. People wanted them by association with Beefheart, and the two were just completely separate.

FE: So you never actually sat down and did anything, it was just talked about?

Robyn: I did a cover for Doctors of Madness which wasn't used either. I did the roughs and they did at least pay my expenses for that. It was the second one, Figments Of Emancipation. I lovingly did this colour cartoon, I've still got some of it. I went round to a few record companies and I think I would have got some interest in the end, but I didn't persist much. Then the Soft Boys were off the ground. I got loaned the Soft Boys during the drought of '76.

FE: So tell me about Maureen and the Meatpackers - were they a real group or just something you rehearsed in your front room?

Robyn: Maureen and the Meatpackers were the intermediary stage between me just walking on at the folk club with whoever I could find, literally, to come up and sing, and the Soft Boys. I'd get James A. Smith to come and dress up in shorts and put a black box over his head. Another time we got him to stand there naked except for a pair of combination trousers. And there were Paul and Anst, who were living in the house, and me and Rosalind. We did some of Paul's songs and some of mine and one they all wrote together which I didn't have a hand in called 'Keith Lives In Austria, He Wears Leather Shorts'! We did a few oldies

FE: Like 'Chapel Of Love'?

Robyn: We did 'Chapel Of Love', 'I Love You, Eddie'. What happened was Paul decided to go off and work in a theatre group in London and the Meatpackers didn't get anywhere - it wasn't even called Maureen and the Meatpackers, it was called Robyn Hitchcock's Worst Fears. I made a tape of it. I got through a few rhythm sections I borrowed from James A. Smith during the drought and I got the Soft Boys started. Anst and Rosalind did a few little bits together in the folk clubs; Anst would recite a Victorian poem and Rosalind would dress up in a guardsman's uniform and gallop around the stage. They did a great version of 'Born Too Late' with sandpaper and they got me and Andy to do the backups on 'Wish I Had My Baby'. Rosalind devised the name Maureen and the Meatpackers. The last gig they did was at a folk club in Ely where Rosalind won a birthday cake. It never happened again, but when we first met Pat Collier through Mike Alway, Pat had this deal whereby he'd play demo tapes for Stiff and I'd written 'Queen Of Eyes' and 'Have A Heart, Betty' which we changed to 'Have A Heart, Dennis'. Rosalind and Anst did the lead vocal. It was classic Pat Collier four-track jangly mixes with all the bass and drums on one channel and masses of guitar - with Rosalind and Anst really wailing away. Naturally Stiff couldn't take anything as good as that and probably plumped for some guy sticking his bottom out and wearing a porkpie hat! Nothing became of that. We were going to release it, but Armageddon just faded away. The rest is history. So I've got all this, but last time I played it for Rosalind she said "Oh God, we can't possibly put that out!" The whole thing is being held prisoner, waiting for her to do a record cover. So if she sees this in print it might shame her into doing it.

FE: So what will be on the Meatpackers record, should it ever see the light of day?

Robyn: Well, there's the original Spaceward demos with a guy called Charlie Swann playing bass, a guy called Hank playing guitar and a guy called Hugh playing drums. That's got 'Tonight I'm In The Mood For Love' - sung by the girls, which is an old song I wrote with Martin, my old colleague from the Beetles, as is a song called 'Rer Der Der Der Der' - a kind of Eurovision Song Contest pisstake, 'The Unpleasant Stain' - which has got me on lead vocals, 'I'm A Very Big House' - which I wrote with Paul that he does lead vocals on. It's all quite melodic stuff. Then there's the Pat Collier sessions: 'Queen Of Eyes', 'Have A Heart, Dennis', a dodgy version of 'Do Policemen Sing' and the James A. Smith classic 'Zip Zip' with guest vocalist Stella Barker. There are also sporadic plans for them to record 'Keith Lives In Austria' but I don't think they'll ever do it. And possibly 'Blacky Preston', which had James A. Smith in the posing pouch at the folk club, which was about this sixteen year old

FE: I swore that I wouldn't touch upon the Soft Boys but, very quickly, there was this song you used to do called 'The Lonesome Death Of Ian Penman' - whatever happened to that?

Robyn: Well, it was recorded - there's probably a quarter-inch version of it knocking around. We never used it - I think, to avoid libel, we phased out the vocal. Ian Penman was one of the people who put the knife into the Soft Boys' back [see PVs 1 & 2]. And I've never forgiven any of those people. I don't forgive easily. If they're still alive and I've finally made it when I'm ninety-three, they've got it coming. When NME nally comes to my door on its knees for a front cover feature I shall say "Only if you get Ian Penman out of whatever institution he's in, have him cleaned out and sent round to apologise for his crimes publicly!" I can understand people not liking Can Of Bees but it was defenceless. The Soft Boys were an easy target. We didn't have any allies, any support, we didn't have a record deal. We nanced the stuff ourselves. We had a small coterie of hardcore fans and the whole thing was demolished. I thought it was peculiarly cruel to pick on an act that was suffering from having been the flavour of the month. My bitterness knows no bounds My vocation in life is as a songwriter and my concern is to write better and better songs or at least maintain a standard. The Soft Boys' manifesto was one of taking bits and pieces, a bit like a collage, like if you gummed a tomato to a squirrel's head and then gaffer-taped a pigeon's wings to a cucumber. I would say that the Soft Boys were about arrangements rather than songs. After Andy left I was getting much more concerned with songs. There was coherence of approach because Kimberley was more interested in the pop side and so was Matthew, towards things like 'Queen Of Eyes'. But there was a legacy of doing funny stuff in funny time signatures so the short list for Underwater Moonlight was weird because there was material like 'Alien', 'Old Pervert' - which did make it on there, 'The Lonesome Death Of Ian Penman' - which still had the idea of skeletal guitar riffs and funny time signatures.

FE: Talking about songs, did you ever get Telephone Bill and the Smooth Operators to record one of your songs?

Robyn: I wrote 'My Favourite Buildings' for them - one of the versions has got Robb Appleton on it from Telephone Bill and one has got Chris Cox [Invisible Hitchcock and Trains versions respectively - Aidan].

FE: What do you think of the King of Luxembourg's version of 'Where Are The Prawns'?

Robyn: I'm always flattered when someone covers my stuff - I'm a bit surprised. I like the way he's mixed out everything that was in there. It's as if he's taken out all the middle and recorded the guitar in another room and lost the original track.

FE: Has anyone else recently recorded anything by you?

Robyn: Nah. Once a year somebody does something. I think there might be some bloke in San Francisco or Washington who did 'Underwater Moonlight'.

FE: I believe you were invited to be on the Syd Barrett tribute LP, Beyond The Wildwood.

Robyn: Yeah. I declined and in a way I'm glad, having listened to it. Not to knock Alan Duffy, who's a real devotee. In a funny way the whole thing, I think, is an attempt to attract Syd's attention. Nothing is going to attract Syd's attention! It's his silence that makes people so curious about him - I don't know why people hang around his house. I thought the actual stuff on it was interesting. It was an attempt to take somebody like that and treat them as a songwriter - I don't know whether you could do the same with me. The songs of Syd Barrett are much harder to interpret. There was one good track with a girl singer [SS20 - Nigel] and there's a good track which is a much more forceful and together version of what Syd himself did. But a lot of them sound like Roger Waters, they pick up on the weedy elements, the "having tea with mummy in the grass with the toadstools" bit, which a lot of Barrett freaks like. Not that I want to attract a macho-type audience - I certainly don't want to get nutted when I come off stage. I'd rather they handed me a cucumber sandwich and said "How's your squirrel, Binky?" But I think they over-emphasised the wet elements a bit. I like the Television Personalities track.

FE: On the phone yesterday you mentioned this Incredible String Band tribute album that Joe Boyd is thinking of doing.

Robyn: Yes. He's now got John Cale who's apparently keen on doing something. He's trying to nd some other people to contribute. Dave Stewart is a possibility and Kate Bush, but they're a bit up-market, we think. But Boyd is definitely planning to do it on Hannibal.

FE: Have you got as far as thinking about which songs you might do for it?

Robyn: Ummm. 'Nightfall' off Hangman's Beautiful Daughter and 'The Yellow Snake' off Wee Tam are the two I sing to myself a lot. I did get through 'Three Is A Green Crown' once, but I don't know a lot of the chords.

FE: And you don't have copies of the albums any more?

Robyn: Oh, I've got copies of the albums! Bloody hell, they'll be in my coffin, probably before me!

FE: So this will take place quite soon?

Robyn: I don't know as I've just signed with A&M. For years I would have been easily available, but now I've got to go and get permission.

FE: Do you think there's going to be opportunities for you to do other things like cartoons?

Robyn: Well there are plans for 'The Professor' to come out; it's about this guy who gets kidnapped by ghouls and they put him into a bath full of compost and try and turn him into a plant and the process gets about halfway through. He starts growing tubers like potatoes, then he gets freed by his nephew. There's a woman who has stiletto ngernails in it and she sticks out her tongue and on the end of her tongue is a tiny mouth and inside that is another mouth. It's a wholesome type of narrative and I'm going to do a coffee table version of it. We're still writing it. I'm doing some cartoons for the fanclub magazine.

FE: Are you going to be doing more videos?

Robyn: Did you see the one for 'Raymond Chandler Evening'?

FE: No.

Robyn: Oh. Well that was the last one we did, me and Tony Moon. It was just this hat oating around the South Bank in monochrome. There was a nice bit with Andy Metcalfe being a corpse. But nothing much happens. There's a few nice shots of a hat - there's a hat by itself with no body under it on the end of a shing rod. There are some good bits of footage of me and Fletcher rushing over Waterloo Bridge with this hat on a string between us like two tribesmen who've captured a wild pig, but that wasn't even used. It's shown on MTV though. Actually I watched it and it's appalling - we did it in a hurry. The footage was good but we mixed it in a hurry; Tony was happy with it but I wasn't. It's really dreadful, but it only cost us two hundred quid to make. MTV actually rang me up a couple of times and said (assumes American accent) "How come you did something so cheap?" It's the joys of low budget.

FE: Would you like to get a hit single now? Is that important to you?

Robyn: I'm sure A&M would like us to get a hit single, but I don't think I'm going to do anything silly like releasing singles without albums. I think there's a general acceptance of the fact that we're what used to be called an "album band". Also apparently, singles account for a diminishing part of the market. You might think this is the age of pop and without hit singles you're nowhere, but they're mainly seen by record companies as a way of ogging an album to people. As far as I'm concerned I cut out the middleman.

FE: Any reason why you signed to A&M - did they come up with the best offer?

Robyn: Oh, it's the same initials as the people I play with - Andy & Morris.

FE: So the band's down to a three-piece permanently now?

Robyn: Yeah, it's down to a three-piece as the main creative unit, but there are lots of people I'd like to get a hold of. I met a girl called Katherine Tickell the other day who's a Northumbrian piper. She's about nineteen - I'd quite like to use Northumbrian pipes. I was just talking to Joe Boyd about Mike Heron - he's putting me in touch with him. I'm going to try to get him to play some sitar. If I pay him enough he might do it! And I've always wanted to work with Martin Carthy. In fact, back in 1976 I used to pester him in folk clubs. I was a bit of a groupie. I asked him if I did a disco single whether he'd play on it and he said "Sure". I might take him up on it. I've got his number! But I'd quite like to use all these people in the wrong context; rather than using the sitar for a spaced out oating number or something like that, use it for a piece that's driving rock and use the bagpipes uptempo in a funny time signature, but Martin Carthy on the rock 'n roll tracks, not on the ballads. Just use them out of context. Joe Boyd might come along and lend an ear to the proceedings.

FE: But he won't actually produce anything?

Robyn: Well, no. Unless we did an experimental session together which was so wonderful that he felt he had to. His big thing is that he can't be bothered to do groups any more, he doesn't like spending hours getting sounds. He doesn't care about guitar sounds; he did a couple of American things and I think he was kind of disappointed by them. He's like a kind of humidity machine, he just effects things gradually.

FE: One final question; do you listen to much in the way of contemporary music?

Robyn: Ummm, none at all!

FE: You don't think there are any quintessential albums that have come out in the last five years that you rave about in the same way as those String Band records, say?

Robyn: Oh no. The last thing I really liked was Avalon by Roxy Music. I played that to death - it hasn't got the same kind of buzz that Blonde on Blonde or The 5000 Spirits or Safe as Milk had. But then, it's a different era and written by some thirty-eight year old, not some blossoming twenty-one year old. Of stuff that I can listen to, I see that David Bowie likes the Psychedelic Furs and the Screaming Blue Messiahs and so do I!. So, by the Socratic method, I'm David Bowie. The last thing I liked was Mirror Moves by the Furs, which I thought was a good album. I like some of Chrissie Hynde's stuff, but I think it's too erratic. She does have some great tracks and real dross; they have a good guitar sound. I like some of Kimberley's stuff. I quite like the Lou Reed records because the lyrics are very witty and it's nice to see that he's salvaged himself and hasn't fallen into the hole he was teetering on for so many years. Dylan is just an embarrassment. I think people are mainly getting a sound. Did I give you this lecture before?

FE: No.

Robyn: If you listen to U2, REM, the Smiths and the Jesus & Mary Chain, to take four popular groups, what you really get is the sound, not the songs. I don't think of these people as songwriters. You can put on a record and you identify that sound, it's slightly hypnotic. Someone's descended from the Byrds or the Velvet Underground, they say, but I don't think they're suf ciently new. I'm completely different, my influences are transparent - I'm like a big glass stomach, you can see them all in there being ground up and I'm hung up on the songs. I can't do it the same way they can, I have to have a middle eight - I've written a song with one chord all the way through it which I've never done before. It's not even a chord, you just hit one note and weave the melody around it. That's the difference. Sometimes I think there's a numbness to things, like cocaine, a benign stupidity that's permeating the music of these times-- anyway, here endeth the lesson!!!

Postscripts: As I was getting all this tripe bundled up for the post Robyn played a show at the Mean Fiddler in Harlesden. In "ever decreasing circles" Matt Seligman was back on bass. As a tip to any American press hack worth his salt: forget doing a Hitchcock interview the next time you're in London. Instead seek out Andy Metcalfe - now there's a man with a few stories up his sleeve (ie. ask him about how he spent his penultimate night as an original Soft Boy, etc). The next prick to refer to Mr. H. as Bob should have his/her arse kicked; you're missing the point, you're missing the point!