Robyn Hitchcock Biography
Coming to prominence in the late 1970s with The Soft Boys, Hitchcock afterward launched a prolific solo career. His musical and lyrical styles have been influenced by the likes of Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Syd Barrett. Hitchcock's lyrics tend to include surrealism, comedic elements, characterisations of English eccentrics, and melancholy depictions of everyday life.
He was signed to two major American labels (A&M Records, then Warner Bros.) over the course of the 1980s and '90s, but mainstream success has been limited. Still, he has maintained a loyal cult following and has often earned strong critical reviews over a steady stream of album releases and live performances.
The Soft Boys to the Egyptians (1972–1993)
Between 1969 and 1971 Hitchcock learned how to write a song by himself. While at art school in London around 1972, Hitchcock was a member of the college band the Beetles. In 1974 he moved to Cambridge, where did some busking, and joined a series of locals bands: B.B. Blackberry and the Swelterettes, the Chosen Few, the Worst Fears, and Maureen and the Meatpackers. His next group, Dennis and the Experts, became the neo-psychedelia band The Soft Boys in Cambridge in 1976, recording their first EP, "Give It to the Soft Boys", in his living room in 1977. After recording A Can of Bees (1979) and Underwater Moonlight (1980) the group broke up in 1981.
Hitchcock released his solo debut, Black Snake Diamond Röle in 1981, which included instrumental backing by several former Soft Boys. He followed it in 1982 with the generally critically maligned Groovy Decay, a record which he would ultimately disown. Following his solo acoustic album I Often Dream Of Trains in 1984, he formed a new band, The Egyptians, comprising former members of the Soft Boys (Andy Metcalfe and Morris Windsor, supplemented at first by early keyboardist Roger Jackson), resulting in their 1985 debut Fegmania!, which featured typically surrealist Hitchcock songs such as "My Wife and My Dead Wife" and "The Man with the Lightbulb Head". (A live album, Gotta Let This Hen Out!, was released at the end of that year.) Their popularity grew with the 1986 album Element of Light and they were subsequently signed to A&M Records in the U.S. The album Globe of Frogs, released in 1988, further expanded their reach, as the single "Balloon Man" became a college radio and MTV hit, followed in 1989 by "Madonna Of The Wasps" from their Queen Elvis album. In 1989 they also teamed up with Peter Buck of R.E.M. and Peter Holsapple of The dB's, playing two gigs as Nigel and the Crosses, mostly covers. The Crosses also had their cover of "Wild Mountain Thyme" included on a Byrds tribute album, though Hitchcock always alluded to the Bryan Ferry version when performing it live with the Egyptians.
At the beginning of 1990, Hitchcock took a break from the Egyptians and A&M Records to release another solo acoustic album, Eye, then resumed with the band's Perspex Island release in 1991. 1993's Respect, influenced a great deal by his father's death, marked the last Egyptians release and the end of his association with A&M Records.
The Soft Boys reunions (1994–2006)
Early in 1994, after disbanding the Egyptians, Hitchcock embarked on a short reunion tour with the Soft Boys. His work received a slight boost in 1995 when his back catalogue (including both solo releases and Egyptians albums) were re-packaged and re-issued in the United States by the respected Rhino Records label. For the rest of the decade he continued recording and performing as a solo artist, releasing several albums on Warner Brothers Records, such as 1996's Moss Elixir (which featured the contributions of violinist Deni Bonet and guitarist Tim Keegan), and the soundtrack from the Jonathan Demme-directed concert film Storefront Hitchcock in 1998. The 1999 release Jewels for Sophia, also on Warner, featured cameos from Southern California-based musicians Jon Brion and Grant-Lee Phillips, both of whom often shared the stage with Hitchcock when he played Los Angeles nightclub Largo. An album of outtakes from the Sophia sessions called A Star For Bram, released on Hitchcock's own label, followed, and his subsequent albums appeared on a variety of independent labels.
In 2001, Hitchcock reunited and toured with Kimberley Rew, bassist Matthew Seligman, and Morris Windsor for the Soft Boys' re-release of their best-known album, 1980's Underwater Moonlight. The following year they recorded and released a new album, Nextdoorland, which was accompanied by a short album of outtakes, Side Three. The reunion proved to be short-lived.
The 2002 double album Robyn Sings comprised cover versions of Bob Dylan songs, including a live re-creation (performed in 1996) of Dylan's so-called Live at the Royal Albert Hall 1966 concert. Hitchcock celebrated his 50th birthday in 2003 with a concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London at which his then-new solo acoustic album Luxor was given away as a gift to all those attending, and an original poem of his was read by actor Alan Rickman. He continued collaborating with a series of different musicians, as on the album Spooked, which was recorded with country/folk duo (and longtime Hitchcock fans) Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. The Soft Boys re-formed again in 2006 to perform a live concert of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd covers in London, benefiting Médecins Sans Frontières.
The Venus 3 to present (2002–)
In 2006 Olé! Tarantula was released with the Venus 3, a band which consisted of longtime friends and collaborators R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and Young Fresh Fellows' frontman Scott McCaughey, as well as Ministry's Bill Rieflin (by then also R.E.M.'s full-time drummer). The song "'Cause It's Love (Saint Parallelogram)" was written with Andy Partridge of XTC.
In 2007, he was the subject of a documentary Robyn Hitchcock: Sex, Food, Death... and Insects directed by John Edginton, shown on the U.S. Sundance Channel and in the UK on BBC Four (and later released on DVD). "Food, sex and death are all corridors to life if you like. You need sex to get you here, you need food to keep you here and you need death to get you out and they’re the entry and exit signs."
The filmmaker eavesdrops on Hitchcock at work on his latest collection of songs with contributors including Nick Lowe, former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, Peter Buck and Gillian Welch. The film culminates with Hitchcock and the band taking the songs on the road in America. A live EP with The Venus 3, Sex, Food, Death... and Tarantulas, was released in conjunction with the documentary. The film also includes candid interviews with Hitchcock, who reveals much about the source of his work: "At heart I'm a frightened angry person. That's probably why my stuff isn’t totally insubstantial. I'm constantly, deep down inside, in a kind of rage."
Late in 2007, Hitchcock's music was again re-packaged and re-released in the U.S., as Yep Roc Records began an extensive reissue campaign with three early solo releases and a double-CD compilation of rarities, which would be available separately or as part of a new boxed set release, I Wanna Go Backwards.
In 2008, that boxed set was followed up with Luminous Groove, a boxed set of three early Egyptians releases and two further discs of rarities. In 2009, the electro-pop artist and remixer Pocket released an EP featuring Hitchcock called "Surround Him With Love", while Hitchcock released an entirely separate new album, Goodnight Oslo, with the Venus 3. At the end of the year, a live album called I Often Dream Of Trains In New York documented the late-2008 onstage re-creation of his acclaimed 1984 acoustic album (a limited-edition deluxe version also included the materials to construct a kind of moving-image generator called a phenokistoscope).
Concurrent with the redesign of his official website in early 2010, Hitchcock began to offer an occasional series of "Phantom 45s" as downloads, each "45" being two newly-recorded songs that would initially be offered as a free download. He also released the Propellor Time album, containing new material partially based on the "Sex, Food, Death" sessions shown in the 2007 documentary, but mainly featuring the Venus 3. In 2011, he released Tromsø, Kaptein, an album of songs written in Norway, and released physically only in that country. Hitchcock was chosen by Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel to perform "I Often Dream Of Trains" at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival, to be curated by Mangum in March 2012 in Minehead, England. Hitchcock's new album, Love from London (working title: File Under Pop) is due out on Yep Roc Records on the 5th March 2013.