Born in London, England, in 1953. Education: Attended Cambridge University. Addresses: Record company-- A&M Records, 1416 North La Brea Avenue, Hollywood, CA 90028. Management-- (U.S.) Triad Artists, 16th Floor, 10100 Santa Monica St., Los Angeles, CA 90067; (England) Bugle Group, Bugle House, 21A, Noel Street, London W1V3PD, England.
"I wished for the impossible when I was a kid," British rocker Robyn Hitchcock once told Rolling Stone. "When I couldn't realize it, I retreated into fantasy." Thirty-some years and 11 albums later, the eccentric Hitchcock has yet to fully emerge. With his witty lyrics and surrealist imagery, the singer and songwriter has created an elaborate fantasyscape populated by bizarre life forms--slimy amphibians, antennaed insects, and creepy crustaceans. And in the psychedelic ooze these inventions trail is a devoted cult following; Hitchcock's fans have developed quite a taste for his peculiar brand of primordial soup.
Born in London in 1953, Hitchcock developed an "intense contempt for normalcy in all its forms" at an early age, he told the San Francisco Chronicle. Inspired by Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," he gravitated toward music as a means of expressing that contempt. At 16 Hitchcock discovered William Shakespeare and avant-garde rock figure Captain Beefheart, the two influences that would establish the foundation for his unique musical perspective. In the early 1970s his interest in Shakespeare led him to study English at Cambridge University, while the allure of Beefheart propelled Hitchcock to the coffeehouse folk scene, where he explored his burgeoning musical style as a solo guitarist.
On the coffeehouse circuit Hitchcock developed the distinctive right-hand picking style that Guitar Player called "a kind of finicky folk that's not sentimental enough for the coffeehouses, and too acerbic and sharply poetic for most rock audiences." Hitchcock explained: "There weren't chorus pedals in the early '70s, and it was hard to make a nice noise, so I innately started picking, which makes you sound like [folk-rocker] Roger McGuinn or something. Everybody else was trying to play like Eric Clapton, but when I did leads I tried to play like Barry Melton from Country Joe and the Fish."
Following the demise of his short-lived acoustic quartet, Maureen and the Meatpackers, Hitchcock formed his first recording group with bassist and keyboardist Andy Metcalf and drummer Morris Windsor in 1976. Dubbed the Soft Boys, the art-punk rock band derived its title from two William Burroughs novels, The Soft Machine and The Wild Boys. Its mission: to "avoid cliche whenever possible." That was "our manifesto," Hitchcock told the Chronicle.
It was with the Soft Boys that Hitchcock perfected his signature surrealist style. Although characterized by a psychedelic quality typical of the musicians of his generation, his was a method, he insisted, that was not drug-induced. "I was influenced by people who had taken LSD," he told the Chicago Tribune, but "I didn't take very much acid. I don't think I needed to, really, because I'd already thought myself into that state." The effect of that condition was captured on the single "Kingdom of Love," recorded in the late 1970s. Offering a classic Hitchcockian juxtaposition of the familiar and the bizarre, it laments: "You've been laying eggs under my skin/ Now they're hatching out under my chin/ Now there's tiny insects showing through/ All them tiny insects look like you." Although labeled a "classic paranoid delusion" by a psychologist, Hitchcock explained to Rolling Stone, the song was "intended to describe the way people have an effect on each other and sometimes have kids."
Although the Soft Boys developed a consistent following after the release of the band's first recordings in 1977 and '78, their irreverent pop sound was ultimately drowned out by angrier young men like the Sex Pistols; unable to withstand the punk-rock tide, the group disbanded in 1981.
Three years later the Soft Boys were reborn as the Egyptians; in addition to Hitchcock, Metcalf, and Windsor, the group counted two new members, Otis Horns Fletcher and Roger Jackson. The band fared well stateside in its new incarnation. The albums Fegmania!, Gotta Let This Hen Out!, and Elements of Light, on the alternative Slash and Relativity labels, rated high on college radio playlists. The band's reputation was enhanced by the enthusiastic endorsement of R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, with whom they began a lasting musical collaboration. In 1988 the Egyptians recorded Globe of Frogs, their first album on the major label A&M. Queen Elvis and Perspex Island followed in 1989 and '91, respectively.
Perspex Island, Hitchcock's first recording with an outside producer, Paul Fox, was "mixed on a car stereo in L.A. because it's designed to be listened to in traffic," reported the Chicago Tribune. Here the artist emerged for the first time from behind his well-fortified wall of crustaceans and alien vegetation. "There's a side of me I've been hesitant to reveal in the past," he told Pitch magazine. "I've always avoided being too vulnerable, too open, afraid of coming off maudlin."
The emotional openness reflected on Perspex Island could be credited to Hitchcock's new-found contentment. "I haven't had therapy or anything," he explained to the Chicago Tribune, "I just have a great girlfriend." Peter Buck and R.E.M. vocalist Michael Stipe also had something to do with the new confessional mode. Hitchcock told Pitch, "They're very into that sort of thing." Buck played guitar and mandolin on eight of the album's 11 tracks, and Stipe contributed vocals to the cut "She Doesn't Exist."
Despite its sincerity, Perspex Island did not sacrifice the surreal imagery so dear to Hitchcock's diehard fans. The album's title, in fact, was inspired by an acrylic material that's used to make souvenir paperweights; trinkets are suspended in the substance, creating a fossilized Jello effect. "Birds in Perspex," one of the singles off the album, "is basically about wanting something that's dead or frozen to suddenly reanimate," Hitchcock explained in an A&M Records press release. In fact, that "something" does come alive on the album's cover, a creature-filled composition of Hitchcock's own making.
Critics were overwhelmingly positive about Perspex Island' s accessible love songs, assuring Hitchcock that his fear of "coming off maudlin" was unfounded. Quickly becoming a college favorite, the album was praised not only for its exacting rhythms and three-part harmonies but also for its disarming candor. The first single, "So You Think You're in Love," rose to the top of the CMJ Album Network, Gavin Report, and Radio and Records Alternative charts.
Fittingly, Perspex Island' s popularity mirrors Hitchcock's feelings about his shift in musical style. "For a long time, I would rather have been ?1960s Pink Floyd guitarist? Syd Barrett or Bob Dylan than me," he told Spin. "It's taken about half my life to actually stagger into accepting being Robyn Hitchcock. My aim now is to write songs that have emotion."
by Marcia Militello
Robyn Hitchcock's Career
Member of acoustic quartet Maureen and the Meatpackers, early 1970s; with bassist-keyboardist Andy Metcalf and drummer Morris Windsor, formed band the Soft Boys, 1976; group disbanded, 1981; group reformed as the Egyptians, 1984; signed with A&M Records, and released Globe of Frogs, 1988.
- Selective Works
- With the Soft Boys Underwater Moonlight (import), Armageddon, 1980.
- With the Egyptians Fegmania! Slash, 1985.
- Gotta Let This Hen Out! Relativity, 1985.
- Element of Light Relativity, 1986.
- Globe of Frogs A&M, 1988.
- Queen Elvis A&M, 1989.
- Perspex Island A&M, 1991.
- Respect A&M, 1993.
- Solo releases I Often Dream of Trains Relativity, 1984.
- Eye Twin/Tone, 1990.
- Chicago Tribune, February 23, 1992.
- Guitar Player, April 1992.
- High Fidelity, May 1988.
- Lincoln Journal (Lincoln, NE), September 1991.
- Los Angeles Reader, September 13, 1991.
- Musician, September 1991; April 1992.
- Pitch (Kansas City, MO), August 21, 1991.
- Pulse!, September 1991.
- Rolling Stone, January 29, 1987; November 4, 1991.
- San Antonio Light, August 18, 1991.
- San Francisco Chronicle, September 22, 1991.
- Spin, September 1991; October 1991.
- Washington Post, January 31, 1992.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from an A&M Records press release, 1991.