The Soft touch
March 23, 2001
BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
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
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
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
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.