The Soft touch


March 23, 2001



From the current vantage point a little more than two decades after the release of 1980's classic "Underwater Moonlight," it's clear that England's Soft Boys were not only one of the all-time great psychedelic pop bands, but also a post-punk supergroup, with each member being integral to the wonderful weirdness of the music.

The inimitable Robyn Hitchcock was the front man, of course, and songs such as the hippie-punk anthems "Positive Vibrations," "Kingdom of Love" and "I Wanna Destroy You" rank among his finest. His flair for Lennonesque melodies is in ample evidence on the album, as is the witty, surrealistic cast of lyrics that explore old perverts, jealous madmen, ghosts that emerge from the sea and all manner of disturbing insect imagery.

Matthew Seligman's liquid bass and Morris Windsor's sensitive drumming propel the music in unexpected directions. After the Soft Boys, Seligman would go on to play with the Thompson Twins, Thomas Dolby (on "Blinded by Science"), David Bowie (at Live Aid) and Morrissey, while Windsor would remain at Hitchcock's side through the next 15 years, playing on his solo albums and as a member of the Egyptians.

Then there was mop-topped Kimberly Rew. His serpentine guitar parts inspired Hitchcock to rock harder than at any other point in his career, and the two seemed to be fighting one long, psychedelic six-string duel--as if Television were covering Pink Floyd's "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" or the Beatles' "Revolver."

Hitchcock said the Soft Boys "just sort of petered out" in 1981, after "Underwater Moonlight" failed to knock Haircut 100 and its ilk off the pop charts. The band's leader began a consistently fascinating solo career, but Rew wasn't idle: After recording 1982's "Bible of Bop" with the backing of the dB's, he formed Katrina & the Waves and scored two major hits with "Walking on Sunshine" and "Going Down to Liverpool," which was covered by the Bangles.

Last year, Rew released his long-awaited second solo album, "Tunnel Into Summer," and he once again toured with Hitchcock, paving the way for the current Soft Boys reunion. I spoke with him from his home in England before the start of the U.S. tour celebrating the reissue of "Underwater Moonlight" on Matador Records.


Q.It was great to see you coming back last year with your solo album. What had you been up to after Katrina & the Waves?


A. Let's see, Katrina & the Waves formed in 1981, and then more or less broke up in 1999. It was obviously not operating on the level of "Walking on Sunshine," but as the sort of band that tours and makes records in Germany and places like that. Everybody in America thought we'd disappeared completely, but it just ran its natural course until Katrina [Leskanich] got a very good opportunity to go solo. We won the Eurovision song contest in 1997, which is a sort of mainstream pop thing, and that gave Katrina the opportunity to become a DJ and then to star in "Leader of the Pack," a musical based on the songs of Ellie Greenwich. That kind of put the end to the band.


Q. "Walking on Sunshine" peaked at No. 9 in 1985. I've read of songwriters being set for life after a hit like that.


A. [Laughs.] I can't retire. I can't say, "Oh, good, I don't have to do this anymore. I don't have to tour with Robyn." But the thing is, I want to do that anyway.

Having said that, it's nice to feel as if you've really communicated. It's nice to be like the Soft Boys--"Here we are, and we're appealing to the people who like us." But it's also nice to know that the only real difference between that and appealing to the world generally is just a question of pressing a very small button.

I think "Walking on Sunshine" spoke to the Motown fans more than anything else. Technically, that's where I got my ideas. Then again, nobody would dispute that that was all-time, first-league, classic rock 'n' roll territory to be borrowing from.


Q. For all of the wonderful songs he's written, Robyn never scored a hit like that. Was there a sense of competition between him and the Waves after the Soft Boys?


A. I don't know. The thing is, I wasn't around in 1985 with Robyn, so I don't really know if he thought much about it. I'd expect probably not because he was really just getting his first sort of chance then with the Egyptians. I suspect he was a bit too busy playing gigs and making records to really think about it. And of course he has been extremely consistent; his record speaks for itself.


Q. When you toured with Robyn last year, there seemed to be some of that old tension that powered the Soft Boys, as if you were pushing him to rock harder.


A. I think there is a natural cycle happening with Robyn. He had the Egyptians, and they were a rocking band, though they kind of went acoustic in about 1991. Morris started using a reduced kit and brushes, and Andy [Metcalfe] had his sort of acoustic bass. Then there was Robyn completely solo--that's always been a sidelight, but it became central. Then I think there was more of a kind of upward phase of the cycle, back toward the electric sound. He was adding more stuff, first with Tim [Keegan], then with me and then finally the "Underwater Moonlight" revival. Having the album reissued does kind of come into it. People seem to be saying to me, "What about this tension?" more than I'm actually feeling tension now or that I felt it 20 years ago.


Q. Well, Robyn has been giving interviews for the last two decades talking about how you two were always wrestling musically!


A. I suspect it was more because he wasn't doing the Soft Boys at that time. People expect an explanation. But I'd like to think there was a chemistry. You have a writer and a front person who's also a guitarist, and then another guitarist comes along, and it's just a case of my doing the right thing. It can vary from being very unobtrusive in the background to sort of suddenly jumping into the spotlight. But that's the beauty of the electric guitar--it's a very versatile instrument that way.


Q. What do you remember about recording "Underwater Moonlight"?


A. It was mostly eight-track; it wasn't like top-notch studios at the time. It had to be made with the money that there was.


Q. Still, the album has a sort of consistency that many of your favorite records have, whether it's "Revolver" or Captain Beefheart's "Trout Mask Replica." It takes the listener on a voyage.


A. Good, yes! Yes! My favorite records are like that. It's nice to be able to sit down at the beginning and just go to the end and get a kind of complete journey. Those are the sort of albums that I like to listen to myself.


Q. How do you see the Soft Boys fitting into the continuum of psychedelic rock?


A. I think because of the age we are and the nationality, that's really where we're coming from--pretty much the late '60s. I suspect it's more in the mainstream than people think. Obviously, not becoming a hugely successful commercial group at the time, the Soft Boys had to go into one of these subcategories, and people have had trouble with that. You've had things like the ska revival and what have you, and that's very simple; you belong to that and then you stay there. The psychedelic revival was mentioned in 1979--that was actually just when the first things were starting to be revived; up until then everything had been happening for the first time. But as far as we were concerned, what we were doing was very much in the present.


Q. Is there a future for the Soft Boys?


A. We have actually recorded a song for a tribute to Paul McCartney. Robyn was originally asked to do it, and because the Soft Boys were rehearsing at the time, we ended up doing the recording. Long term--dig it, as you've probably gathered, it depends on what's right for Robyn. He may feel it will be time to do something different, or he may want to continue. From the evidence that he's still here, he tends to have an instinctive nose for making the right move.