Rychard Carrington reports on Robyn Hitchcock & Friends – The Junction, Cambridge 17 February 2009

Robyn Hitchcock
Robyn Hitchcock & Friends


For those who don’t know Robyn Hitchcock, he was the leader of Cambridge’s greatest-ever rock band, The Soft Boys (1976-1981). A former undergraduate of Trinity College, he has since sustained a solo career that has earned him many devoted admirers and an esteemed status in some histories of rock and roll (mainly those that also revere Syd Barrett and REM, between whom Hitchcock stands at a helpful midpoint).


For those who don’t know Robyn Hitchcock, he writes lyrics like this.

She was sinister but she was happy
And you can’t say that of everybody can you?
Sinister but she was happy
Like a chandelier festooned with leeches
And she came alive
At about half past five and she said:

“Alright you are, and your promises
just are promises -- but a sinister little
Wave of a hand goes a long, long way
In these troubled times.”


Hitchcock is a consummate artist who knows what he’s doing. To some, this renders his eccentricity too affected, but there’s a healthy, mature relationship between artist and audience that relates through consciously–crafted art, rather than the compelling ‘authenticity’ of the ‘lost in the woods’ self-expression of a tragic naturals like Syd Barrett or Arthur Lee.


The Soft Boys did share a direct energy with the new wave, but really they were so unlike punk, in which energy was inextricably intertwined with hostility and rejection. Their spiritual era was the late 1960s: Hitchcock took the poetic sensibility of Dylan, the musical intelligence of The Beatles and the liberating absurdity of Monty Python beyond the Woodstock era of millenarian vision. The implicit strategy was that of the Romantics and the Surrealists: experience life’s richness and inherent exhilaration through utilising the imagination. Triumph over the quotidian and the oppressive not through escape or confrontation but through an expanded perspective that renders all fascinating and peculiar. Hitchcock had an extraordinary fertile imaginative wit (somewhat in the vein of those of Peter Cook and Vic Reeves) and the combination of influences to carry this project off par excellence. Thus he became a hero.


But now it’s thirty years later.


Were either rock and roll or surrealism ever supposed to be so long term? Weren’t they supposed to climax, triumph and dissolve? Instead they’ve just stayed around with us. We’ve all grown older, but Robyn Hitchcock’s art is still here to entertain us. In fact it’s changed remarkably little. In 2009 Robyn remains as creative as ever, in the same sort of way as ever. Even his taste in shirts is unchanged: polka dots. He hasn’t grown out of rock, nor grown away from it. Of course there’s also a post-Dylan acoustic strand to his music, but then there always was (even when considered New Wave, The Soft Boys would play Cambridge Folk Club). It was an all-seated audience tonight, and there was more of a sense of we’ve a travelled along way since Underwater Moonlight than I’ve felt at any of the previous thirty-odd Hitchcock gigs I’ve attended, but in both musical and personal style we’re just where we were, for one evening. It’s still fresh and authentic, and there’s no sense of the older songs being better than the newer ones or vice versa, although the oldest (I Got The Hots For You, Insanely Jealous, America, I Often Dream Of Trains) carry that nice sentiment of ‘we’ve lived with these old friends for decades’ with them. Robyn’s banter and introductory monologues are unique. The extent to which he delivers these varies form gig to gig: I think it can be taken as a sign that he’s enjoying himself that tonight we are treated to a generous portion, and certainly it’s a thrill to see his creative wit in spontaneous action.


Although he had a new album, Goodnight Oslo, released last week, Robyn, typically, doesn’t feel constrained to promote it very strongly. We get just four numbers from it, which cut the mustard in a familiar way, and there is a completely different musical line-up: Paul Noble on bass, Rob Ellis on drums, Jenny Adejayan on cello. The cello adds to the texture nicely, as unusual additions to the standard rock guitar-bass-drums format usually do. And, to nobody’s surprise and everyone’s pleasure, long-term Hitchcock collaborator and Cambridge resident Kimberley Rew joined on guitar halfway through. Kimberley is another alumnus of our University, but he emits a very uncomplicated, boylike, unegotistical pleasure in playing rock, which contrasts refreshingly with Robyn’s idiosyncratic angularity.


There were three numbers from the 1996 album Moss Elixir – Sinister But She Was Happy, You And Oblivion, Beautiful Queen, Then there was NASA Clapping, I’m Only You, Museum Of Sex. While I Got The Hots For You from the essential Soft Boys psychedelic rock album Underwater Moonlight was performed solo and acoustic, It Feels Great When You’re Dead from the classic acoustic solo album I Often Dream Of Trains was given full rock treatment.


All in all, it’s good to know that Robyn’s unique planet is still turning healthily. It would make an interesting ‘Second Life’–style virtual world. As a take on the actual world we inhabit, its still a very smart one, and an ultimately enriching one.


Writer: Rychard Carrington