THERE AREN'T MANY front-to-back perfect rock and roll albums. The Soft Boys' 1980 recording Underwater Moonlight is one of the few—up there with Loveless, Marquee Moon, The Who Sell Out, Double Nickels, Riot Goin' On, Out of Step, and Astral Weeks. Each of these albums is its own world, an alternate universe you can visit just by listening. Moonlight is the kind of record where you discover something new each time you listen to it, the kind of record that has something to offer no matter what you're going through, that sounds as great today as the day it was released. Its creators—singer-songwriter-guitarist Robyn Hitchcock, bassist Matthew Seligman, drummer-vocalist Morris Windsor, and guitarist-vocalist-keyboardist Kimberley Rew—have reformed to perform songs from it in celebration of its drinking-age anniversary reissue. (It's a wonderfully bloated double-disc on Matador: 26 outtakes and rehearsal versions on top of the 10 originals.)
Crocodile, Wednesday, April 4
Formed in Cambridge in 1976, the Soft Boys were anachronistic; at the start of punk rock, they were making weird psychedelic garage-band blues-pop. Their first record, 1979's A Can of Bees, had its moments of glorious dada whimsy ("Sandra's Having Her Brain Out") and revved-up rock ("Pigworker"), but the band came into their own with their second and final album, Moonlight. "We knew it was good, definitely," Hitchcock allows over the phone. "We also knew that whatever we did wasn't going to make much difference at the time. We were very much making the record for ourselves."
This is a guitar album. Rew and Hitchcock's guitars fabulously chime, rattle, and intertwine like DNA strands only to unravel again while never losing sight of the song—because they weren't hippies, even if their hair was a little shaggy. The songs occupy an ideal space between aggro weirdness and melodic confection, between the Beefheart of Lick My Decals and the Byrds circa Fifth Dimension. The vocals are intricate and intense. Check the insanely great Beach-Boys-with-razor-blades opening cut "I Wanna Destroy You"—it's no great leap from this album to R.E.M., who clearly spent a lot of time studying the LP between art classes in Athens.
Then 26-year-old Hitchcock's lyrics cleverly tackled social injustice ("They feed your pride with boredom/And they lead you on to war") and the media ("They tell you your opinions/And they're very good indeed"). But the record's best known for its acidic, extreme, obsessive visions of interpersonal relations: "You've been laying eggs under my skin/Now they're hatching out under my chin/Now there's tiny insects showing through/And all them tiny insects look like you." The title song is about lovers drowning in the ocean; it's beautiful, and hilarious too. (Thankfully, Hitchcock tempered his Syd Barrett- like kookiness with the eccentric British humor of the Bonzo Dog Band, et al.)
The band were largely ignored in their day. "We were popular in Cambridge; that was it really," Hitchcock recalls. "We were very low on image, never had an aptitude for it. We just played. Attitude is always three-fifths of the game in Britain: They review your attitude or what they think it is, and then there are a few comments about the music afterwards. [In the United States] people are much more interested in the music, oddly enough."
REUNION GIGS ARE a weird beast. Whether it's Television, Duran Duran, or the Who you're gearing up to see, there's an inevitable collision of nostalgic yearning and the realities of the aging process. These shows almost invariably disappoint, no matter how rosy one tints one's glasses. Mr. Hitchcock agrees: "I wouldn't go and see a reunion show on the whole; I don't think I've ever seen any. I didn't want to see the Velvet Underground, though I'm glad they did it because Sterling Morrison died not long afterwards—it was good he got to see it all vindicated."
So why should anyone go see the Soft Boys reunion? "That's a good question, really. In a lot of ways we've never been that far apart," Hitchcock explains. "I've never strayed far from the matrix of the Soft Boys. Morris and I worked together for nearly a decade with Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians. I played on Kimberley's last solo record and he on mine. We were glad to find each other still around, really. Matthew is the only one we hadn't seen much of, but he's been out of the business almost completely, being a lawyer—it's really watering his plant, playing music."
"The 20-year break has done us good," Hitchcock relates. "The Soft Boys were never remotely successful, so it's not like we're trying to recapture anything. There are moments where you do get an uncannily clear memory of what it was like back then, but not for very long. The show is based on Underwater Moonlight, but thereafter it's quite new. It's only called the Soft Boys because that's what we're known as. There's a certain instability the Soft Boys had, a kind of mania that I can feel coming back in some way."