Sunday, April 30, 2017

The 80's return! Of Robyn Hitchcock, the Psychedelic Furs, and some very fun spring listening


Vintage shot of the Psychedelic Furs in Vancouver, Oct. 13, 1980 at the Commodore Ballroom, by bev davies, not to be reused without permission


First up, a riddle: how is Robyn Hitchcock like Motörhead?

He isn't, really - BUT:

Maybe the most unfortunate thing about being a prolific, long-running artist is that there is a good chance that the people who loved you when they were in their teens and early 20's will stop following you by the time they hit thirty, and then continue for 20 years to evaluate you and appreciate you based SOLELY on the albums you put out when they were in their teens and early 20's, which is where they formed the deepest connection to your work. It's natural and inevitable - because maybe you only need two or three albums by a given artist in your collection; following someone through their entire catalogue is expensive and time consuming, and later albums by the same band sometimes lack the freshness and vitality of their early work. But it CAN be really unfortunate and unfair, when the artist in question continues to put out incredible albums, some very fresh and surprising, that only a slim portion of their demographic notices.

Of course, Motörhead is the archetype here: their reputation rests, even with proclaimed fans, on the albums up to Iron Fist and the departure of Fast Eddie. Which takes us up to 1982, when they still had seventeen studio albums to record. People who have delved have different takes on which are the best of those seventeen - I vote for Another Perfect Day, Bastards, Inferno, Kiss of Death and Motörizer. They're all incredible albums, and I think I would rank them above any of the "classic trio" recordings, which to me, despite a few favourites ("Stone Dead Forever," "We Are the Road Crew," "America") sound like a rough draft of the band they became. Stunning that people can go around proclaiming their love of the band without having ever even having heard their later records, though. It speaks of how iconic those first few albums are, but also of how conservative and limited people's musical explorations can be (I include myself in this, by the way - up until I had an interview scheduled with Lemmy, I hadn't gotten much past Iron Fist myself).


And then there's Robyn Hitchcock. My "peak" years of listening to him involved, first and foremost, Invisible Hitchcock - my first discovery of his catalogue, bought one day out of sheer curiosity, based on the cover art alone, at Odyssey Imports. It's still in a way my favourite of his releases, even though it's "only" a compilation of outtakes from his actual studio albums of the day. Most of the material on it, maybe all, came out as part of that Yep Roc box set, as a series of five LPs called While Thatcher Mauled Britain, but it's spread out among other tracks (many of which are brilliant, but lack that glow of familiarity). Every song on Invisible Hitchcock is a winner (well, a few are tossed-off experiments, but very fun and funny) - but especially "All I Wanna Do Is Fall in Love," which I've heard Hitchcock introduce (on a live fan recording I happened across) by explaining that he left it off his first solo album because it sounded too much like a hit. That's exactly what I always thought. It's one of those tunes the utter catchiness of which totally proves that there is nothing of a meritocracy in radio programming, because - even as an outtake - it should easily have risen to the surface of pop rock radio if the waters there weren't so sludgy with pollution.

"Vegetable Friend" is pretty delightful, too.

Anyhow, having started there, my "baby duck" years with Robyn Hitchcock included I Often Dream of Trains, Fegmania!, Element of Light, Globe of Frogs, Queen Elvis, and Eye - which takes us up to 1990. It was on the Eye tour that I saw him live, the only time I have, at the Town Pump with NO FUN opening (my first time seeing them live, too). I am not sure why I set him aside after that; I enjoyed the show, and loved at least bits of all those albums - Globe of Frogs especially - but I also saw him, around that time, say something on Much Music to VJ Christopher Ward that kind of hurt my feelings, since I enjoyed Ward most of the VJ's on that channel. As I recall it, he said that Ward smiled like someone you would offer a bribe to, and Ward visibly winced, stung; it seemed a cruel and gratuitous comment. Who knows what the interaction between the two had been like off the air, but I felt some sort of nationalistic defensiveness ("comes here and insults our TV personalities, bah!"). Plus around that time, I was getting into TAD and Soundgarden and grunge, craving music that was heavy and slightly nihilistic. At some point, I sold off my Hitchcocks and forgot about him - until he came through Vancouver a year or so ago, playing the Biltmore. I re-purchased Globe of Frogs and re-discovered how great it was: equal parts textural folk, almost approaching the fragility and beauty of Nick Drake, mixed with Syd Barrett and at least an awareness, on songs like "Sleeping With Your Devil Mask," of punk, albet a snarky surrealist's version of the same.

I didn't make it to that show. It was doomed on a couple of fronts: first, it was on the same night as a Reverend Horton Heat show at the Rickshaw, which I also wanted to see. As I hemmed and hawed, having to choose between them was taken out of my hands by my weird spell, last March, of infection and arthritis and swollen arms and feet. I saw neither show, but having productively re-explored Globe of Frogs led me on to harder things - like the Soft Boys' Underwater Moonlight, which I'd never owned (I'd had Invisible Hits once upon a time, briefly). With a little help from file-sharing, I discovered that hey, a lot of the albums I used to like, I still liked!

But I'm as frail and baby-duckish as anyone, because it's over a year later, and though I've probably listened more to Robyn Hitchcock than any other single songwriter out there in that time, I've only just started exploring albums from the period I had completely ignored. Or at least two of them: 2004's Spooked, which is a very spare, pretty, haunting album, maybe his most Nick Drake-ish, for all you "Vegetable Friend" fans; and now his new self-titled one.


That new album is pretty good! It's a bit surprising, though. While Spooked is very much what you might expect Robyn Hitchcock to have sounded like in 2004 - a natural extension of what he was doing tweny years prior, that might lend itself to intimate acoustic shows, which maybe is what his audience had been reduced to come 2004 - there isn't any way to have guessed he'd sound like he does on the eponymous new one. It's like he's re-inventing himself as a rock band, with elements of psych and garage and a rather bold, assertive personality, like it could suddenly break through some wall he'd been previously content to shelter himself behind, ALMOST like a calculated move to capture a new, young audience, who don't give the slightest damn about "Ye Sleeping Knights of Jesus" but are hungrily looking backwards for time-tested "authenticity." It's kind of surprising a move for him to be making (to me, anyhow, who has ignored all his other recent output), though it's respectable enough, no sell out, even admirably smart. And one of the rock songs (the opener, "I Want to Tell You About What I Want") is instantly catchy and infectious, almost anthemic. (It would be an excellent lead up to "All I Wanna Do is Fall in Love," too, which has been on some of his recent setlists). The quirkiest "novelty" tune on the album, "I Pray When I'm Drinking," will start a lively discussion around your living room as to whether it owes more to Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, or Merle Haggard. Nothing else has quite hooked me yet, two listens in - it's not the sort of album that is a fast favourite, will take some time to digest and enter - but it's a very ambitious, confident album, kinda akin in relationship to his back catalogue to REM's Monster, which at the time seemed like a pretty big, bold rock album for so self-conscious, even self-effacing, a band to be making. I'm keen to hear him return to Vancouver, for an upcoming Commodore show, July 19th, where he'll be opening for the Psychedelic Furs. The material will be perfect for that venue - assuming he's bringing a full band with him.


And speaking of the Psychedelic Furs, they're another band I'm also listening to lately. My departed friend Thomas Ziorjen used to argue for their debut album, and I agree - with songs like "Fall" and "Sister Europe" - that it is a great record, an adventurous, spiky New Wave album that has at least some debt to vintage Roxy Music. Even people who don't have much of a taste for their (later, more radio friendly) hits - "Love My Way," "Heaven," "Pretty in Pink" and so forth - will be able to get into the first album.

Here's the thing, though: FINALLY a band is coming that perfectly fits my nostalgia for the 1980's. Because I feel it, too, now: even though I ignored most of the popular music of the time, heard 20 years on, there's a warm fond glow around it, and it's very easy to be generous to how creative and clever some of it is. Even stuff that actively annoyed me when it was a hit in the 1980's - Eddy Grant's "Electric Avenue," say - seems kind of brilliant to me, now that I'm older, to the extent that I'm almost embarrassed by my coming around, being swayed by the tides of aging to embrace things I had once rejected wholesale. It's not even a matter of nostalgia for music that you loved in your youth, regardless of how it might fit with the rest of a band's output. THAT makes a kind of sense; I mean, the Kinks' Give The People What They Want will always rank as my personal favourite Kinks album, no matter how small it seems objectively beside The Village Green Preservation Society or Muswell Hillbillies, because it was the Kinks album that introduced me to the band (AND the album I got to see toured). You can't get away from that. But nostalgia for stuff that you found annoying and substandard the first time around...? How does that work, exactly?

However - while that sort of "change-of-heart" nostalgia does exist for me, where songs that once irritated me now kind of charm me, the truth is, I kind of ALWAYS enjoyed the "hits" of the Psychedelic Furs. I recognized quality in stuff like "Love My Way," I was just embarrassed by it, because it was girlish (maybe gayish!) and commercially safe, and nothing at all like HARDCORE PUNK, which was my staple food back then. I liked it - I just didn't have the guts to embrace it. It does help the cause that the Psychedelic Furs were kind of forgotten by 80's-nostalgia radio, so that, unlike Soft Cell or Simple Minds or such, the songs that I was embarrassed to find myself enjoying back then haven't been drilled into my head every time I'm in proximity to an FM broadcast. They retain, along with the sheen of backwards-looking fondness, a bit of freshness - which makes them fair game for nostalgia. The only thing that is changed is that I no longer give much of a damn, as an adult, that what I like be cool or tough or edgy or whatever. I have much more space for beautifully crafted pop now...

...which is all over this Best of the Psychedelic Furs CD I picked up, which has a range of material from throughout their career, which sounds all remarkably of a piece now (where it would have sounded, I dunno, "pre-and-post sellout" to me back in the mid-1980's). The differences between "Love My Way" and "Fall" are slim enough now to me that both sound great, in slightly different ways. People with a similar guilty fondness for 1980's pop, looking for a show to go to, could probably fare worse than seeing Robyn Hitchcock OPEN for the Psychedelic Furs at the Commodore this summer. It's actually a perfect lineup - especially given Hitchcock's new material, which will, I suspect, fill the Commodore's space in ways people simply won't be expecting, this should be one hell of a concert, whether you are old enough to feel 80's nostalgia or not...

By the by, I believe at the very least the drummer of the Psychedelic Furs plays on "All I Want to Do is Fall in Love" - Robyn Hitchcock is friendly with the P-Furs, I gather, and has been for some time. Should only add to the concert...


The Psychedelic Furs live at the Commdore, Oct. 13 1980, by bev davies, not to be reused without permission

I was going to continue this by expressing my delight with this funky, rocking Muddy Waters album I found for $2 at a Dollarama - Electric Mud; and to say a bit about Richard Thompson, coming in May to Salt Spring Island, whose last album with Linda Thompson, Shoot Out the Lights, has really grabbed me of late - but I have things to do. But that's what I'm listening to this spring: Robyn Hitchcock, the Psychedelic Furs, Richard Thompson, and Electric Mud. I'm digressing occasionally too into bands some of these people have been in, like the Soft Boys or Fairport Convention. When I need a change, I put on a John Renbourn (or Pentangle) album. It's all pretty lively, exciting, positive music to fill a spring with, maybe even a summer. Pretty delighted that I'm going to be able to reinforce some of these pleasures with live shows...

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