The Soft Boys
This essay was originally written in September 2002 for inclusion in thesoftboys.com website
The Soft Boys by Kimberley Rew
Robyn Hitchcock arrived in the medium-sized college town of Cambridge, England in 1975 to look for musicians for his band- not an obvious choice of location as a hotbed of talent but none of this would apply if he hadn’t. I first heard him at some weekly informal musical get-togethers at the Great Northern Hotel run by a man called Sunshine Joe, with a backing band he later described as ‘people who were living in my house’. Robyn wore black leather trousers and jacket, long hair and beard, and either glowered at the audience or, then as now, launched into lightningly impromptu song introductions which took the subject matter on a season ticket to Unexpectedsville.
At the time I was renting a room in a terraced house whose basement contained Spaceward recording studio. Robyn arrived and recorded and we met in the kitchen where he stubbed his fag on the lino and was rebuked by recording engineer Mike Kemp. Mike subsequently invented the ‘Sadie’ hard disk recorder and retired to the Algarve.
Morris Windsor and Rob Lamb (and original Waves singer Rob Kelly) were in local rock outfit Mad Hatter whom I heard at a cricket pavilion on one of those balmy summer night college shindigs. Rob and Morris went on to form Sheboygan (which I thought for a long time was a quote from Surfin’ USA, but then found was a generic name for ‘Nowheresville’) and discovered pub-rock. The next year, 1976, in pursuit of a ‘white soul’ style, they teamed up with Robyn and Andy Metcalfe to form Dennis and the Experts and began to rehearse in Robyn’s front room. Uneasy about the way things were shaping, in December Rob quit (subsequently forming the respected Ducks on the Wall, whose Adrian ‘Hots’ Foster gave us the phrase ‘I’ve got the hots for you’). Except Robyn was in bed at the time so he had to shout his resignation thru the keyhole.
Dennis and the Experts were booked that month for a university Christmas ball- recruiting Alan Davies on guitar, Robyn arrived at the venue, which being an educational institution had a blackboard, that night being used to list the evening’s musical program. Erasing ‘Dennis and the Experts’, he chalked in ‘The Soft Boys’. Thus were they born.
Now began the group’s truly formative year. All the distinctive musical ingredients were brewed- incisive lyrics, unexpected twists (at least few expected twists), the twin guitar attack. There was a vague feeling among the local musos that it wasn’t ‘proper’ music- proper music at the time was more a swamp of ‘tasteful’ licks at the pinnacle of which, if swamps have pinnacles, was Steely Dan. Nobody of course ever actually could play like Steely Dan, but that distant peak was always in view. Certainly it was hard to hear the subtleties of the Soft Boys thru the group’s two four-by-twelve WEM columns. That all changed with the appearance of the EP Give it to the Soft Boys on Raw Records, run by local entrepreneur Lee Wood, that summer of 1977. There was Wading thru a Ventilator in all its glory, lyrics originally aimed at Robyn’s neighbour Vyrna Cole now turned in upon himself, the rising guitars of the middle eight raising hair on arms.
The Soft Boys began to get second-on-the-bill gigs in London, supporting among others the Pirates, Elvis Costello and the Vibrators where they met long-term producer Pat Collier. I joined in January 1978, having baby-sat and sat in the previous month. We signed to the short-lived Radar Records, who had Costello and Nick Lowe and were thus considered the last word in cool. (This is the only time in my life I have ever been cool and then only by association). We opened for the Damned- the only time in my life I have ever attended a punk gig.
Radar financed an album to be made over two weeks at the residential Rockfield studios on the Welsh border. But the coolness was already returning to room temperature and the album was mothballed, followed shortly by the rest of the record company. This was the time when the nation limped half-heartedly after punk- it was not the glittering golden age that it was later labelled. Gigs in Swansea, Leeds and elsewhere were attended by small numbers of punks who had a miserable time (but if you were a punk that of course meant you had a great time because the object was to be miserable). It was also the time of Supertramp’s Logical Song and Dire Straits’ Sultans of Swing, which were played incessantly at ear-melt volume in these joints, and which I never want to hear again. Bands such as Squeeze and the Police, who had been 50p on the door at the Hope and Anchor when we were charging 75p, whizzed past at 100mph.
Robyn put up the cash to record A Can of Bees independently at Spaceward on his own Two Crabs label. After the album’s quiet reception and some more recording of songs like When I Was a Kid and The Asking Tree, Andy left to team up with Telephone Bill and the Smooth Operators in summer 1979. Also taking the opportunity to quit were harmonica player Jim Melton, sound engineer Ivan Carling and lighting man Mungo Carstairs. This left the skeleton of Hitchcock, Windsor, Rew and new bass player Matthew Seligman. Matthew was a respected local player- my girlfriend Lee used to listen with her head in his bass cabinet.
Oddly at the time no one could drive. I passed my driving test and the day after ferried the gear down to London’s Rock Garden (the first place I saw the phrase ‘coffee-table album’) in a borrowed Volkswagen van. The handbrake didn’t work but if you took your foot off the gas it stalled. So if you stopped on a hill you had to either balance the van on the clutch or theoretically stay there for ever.
We returned to Spaceward and recorded I’ve got the Hots, He’s a Reptile, Song Number Four and You’ll Have to go Sideways. This last consisted simply of a guitar riff repeated over and over for three minutes. The studio owned a Mini Moog synthesiser, then costing some GBP600 (a vintage Stratocaster was GBP300). I prevailed on engineer Mike Kemp to let me plaster the multitrack with one-finger Moog (they’d just gone 16-track). This was the first and probably last time anything of the sort was attempted.
The Cambridge City Rowing Club Boathouse now became available for band rehearsals- the second Cambridge outfit to use it were the Dolly Mixtures, who later achieved fame backing Captain Sensible. It was an unloved building, curtains terminally adrift from their plastic rails, sandwiched between much swankier structures belonging to the historic colleges. Day after day we would meet there to work on the songs that eventually became the Underwater Moonlight album, plus efforts such as Goodbye Steve, whose words changed completely with every rendition, which were dug up for the 2001 bonus And How It Got There disk, before retiring to Hambis’ cafe where egg and chips were 40p. Hambis’ house rules were No Schoolboys and No Chips Alone. The Face of Death (who had inspired that song and was now indeed dead) had redecorated the joint and it was thought, rather cruelly, that one corner where the dado plunged alarmingly floorwards was where he had actually expired.
As the new decade began we ventured to Pat Collier’s 4-track Alaska studios, located in a dripping tunnel near London’s Waterloo station- still there, with the same cigarette burns on the same sofa. (It’s long since gone 24-track, stopped dripping and has been home to many hit recordings). This was a one-man operation in the truest sense- ie there were other employees but they didn’t actually do anything. Pat would frequently record the band in filthy overalls (Pat, not the band) having just installed a false ceiling or something. A welcome feature was the La Ronde across the street where one could get nourishing bread pudding- this was later demolished to make way for the Jubilee Line tube extension (the La Ronde not the bread pudding). We recorded Queen of Eyes, Kingdom of Love, I Wanna Destroy You (please note this last is a parody of punk, not punk itself).
The first stirring of suspicion of the group’s worth independently of the media hooha of two years previously came with the appearance in our career of the tiny Armageddon label, who put out the Kingdom of Love EP, which crept to about 25 in the New Musical Express ‘alternative’ charts. Increasing our crew to one with Howie Gilbert, we embarked on a tour of Scotland, staying in a ‘family room’ with five beds in an Edinburgh hotel. This was connected by intercom to the front desk. Being asked in the morning if there were still five of us, Robyn, whose bed was nearest the intercom, replied ‘no, one of us has had a baby’.
It was felt that the forthcoming album needed technical beefing and we switched to the 8-track James Morgan studio. It was in James Morgan’s house in a street in a South London neighbourhood which to this day I have never been able to find again. Here we put down Insanely Jealous, Underwater Moonlight, Positive Vibrations etc.
The Underwater Moonlight album appeared in summer 1980. By this time the band had already moved to London and Robyn had recorded The Man Who Invented Himself. Things were changing. Only the Stones Remain was probably our last solid studio effort, eventually appearing on the posthumous half-live Two Halves For The Price Of One budget-priced album, but we never really found a decent place to rehearse in North London. One attempt was in the basement of a house occupied by an emigre Scottish heavy metal band. This like that hotel room was connected by intercom to the living room upstairs. Morris played his usual kit but, during a break, was tempted over to the heavy band’s kit because it had 14 million tom-toms. He immediately received a protest on the intercom from an irate Scottish drummer.
The group was however yet to embark on its biggest single adventure- a trip to New York, staying at the Iroquois on 44th street, playing at such places as the Danceteria, the Mudd Club and Maxwells in Hoboken, the only place in the world where I’ve appeared with the old Soft Boys, the new Soft Boys, Katrina and the Waves, Robyn Hitchcock solo, and myself solo. We returned, as you often do from New York, at six in the morning, somehow bringing a New York band, the Method Actors, with us, sitting opposite them on the rattling tube. Once thru the front door I retired to bed due to lack of funds.
The group’s last show was at second-league pub venue the Golden Lion, Fulham, London in February 1981. Unknown to us we were already ‘influencing’ some younger American musicians.
Many adventures followed over the next nineteen years but what mainly happened to the Soft Boys was that the Underwater Moonlight album became ‘legendary’, reappearing on Rykodisc in 1992 with a host of extra tracks. Its subsequent unavailability perhaps fuelled the mystique until 2001 when Matador picked up the baton. Robyn was on his second post-Egyptians album; Morris was working with the Gliders, Matthew was finishing the first Snail offering and I had completed eighteen years with Katrina and the Waves. Several reunions happened at the Feghorn pub in Central London’s last surviving neighbourhood of Clekenwell, topped off by an appearance at Matthew’s wedding reception in Kensal Green. It felt like the next booking the week after the Golden Lion.
Kensal Green saw the debut of Sudden Town and it soon became clear that Hitchcock was not the man simply to dust off relics, always thinking in terms of the next new song. First, however, came the picking up of the transatlantic thread- a month in Spring 2001 across the USA, the natural extension to the 1980 New York trip, culminating at San Francisco’s Fillmore.
The group reconvened in Pat Collier’s new Gravity Shack studios in South London to record a contribution to a Tribute to Paul McCartney album, which developed into the Nextdoorland album sessions. The leftover songs were assigned to a CDEP called Side Three. The bread puddings were replaced by cheese and bean wraps and sushi, which always looked to me suspiciously like party nibbles. Punk metal dirges from the next studio were replaced by the dim thud of electronic beats thru the floor from a warren of ‘programming rooms’. To keep in shape there were gigs at Evershot village hall in Dorset, the Victoria and Albert museum (strangely) and, very satisyingly, opening for the Pretty Things on the South Bank, including a version of Astronomy Domine with stereo Barrett guitar from Robyn and Pretty Things’ special guest Dave Gilmour.
At the time of writing, September 2002, the Soft Boys are about to embark on a second American tour to celebrate Nextdoorland- ‘not bad for a reunion album’, commented Nigel Cross. Happy listening and thank you all for helping to make the Soft Boys a major experience of my life.