Wednesday, April 23, 2014

a can of bees

The Soft Boys chiseled open a can of funky psychedelia and waded crabwise through the ventilator with the farcical fury of this jagged metallic folk.   The group had formed in Cambridge, England as Dennis and the Experts with Robyn Hitchcock,  Rob Lamb, Andy Metcalfe, and Morris Windsor.    
Hitchcock reveals the genesis of the band:   "The Soft Boys came into my head in Cambridge, in the hot, dry summer of 1976 while punk was being conjured up by a small group of artists and villains in London. My idea was to concoct a tribe of translucent, bloodless man-things that had awesome powers but were largely invisible: stalkers of the hypothalamus, erotic guerrillas that would transform people's thoughts in a different way from the bludgeoning M.O. of UK punk. The front man would be a robot, for good measure; being the songwriter and lead guitarist I would supply the material and direct the music, while he, Golem-like, would be the cyber-darling of the crowds. I saw The Soft Boys as upmarket versions of Morlocks from HG Wells' Time Machine crossed with William Burroughs' slithery boys on bikes. At my table in the Portland Arms, where at the folk club each Saturday I tormented the local bluegrass community with my three-song floor-spot (the MC Nick Barraclough once introduced me as 'Cambridge's answer to music'), I hunched over my Guinness and sketched out my plans.    When it came to the actual birth of the band, the reality was a little different. My friend James 'The Great One' Smith had pointed out to me some of the great local players who were already on the ladder to professionalism. On his advice, I met Morris Windsor in his dark eyrie, where he gave me some coffee and we leafed through copies of Creem magazine together, not saying much. Then I found Kimberley Rew, appearing through a trapdoor with shoulder-length hair and an ironic (or was it?) grin; he seemed amused that I was me and he was him. Could it have been the other way 'round? From my performance-art perspective, living for my weekly spots at folk clubs, these guys were like Ringo Starr and Eric Clapton, as yet unused. Matthew Seligman smiled charmingly at me across an empty plate in another medieval chamber, and Andy Metcalfe loomed out of the shadows to play bluegrass mandolin at the Portland Arms occasionally.    I could see these people but I couldn't get at them. The true Soft Boy is almost invisible, only appearing at twilight. But courtesy of Rob Lamb (half-brother of Charlie Gillett, DJ and man of great taste, who sadly died earlier this year) I eventually recruited them all at different points into the band. The early Soft Boys featured Alan 'Wang Bo' Davies on guitar and was light in touch; we were crystalline guitars over a nimble rhythm section. Our first EP Give It to The Soft Boys (1977) shows us trying out whatever we thought would work, and on that record it did. When Kimberley Rew replaced Wang Bo, our sound mutated into a ferocious kind of folk-metal, not the easiest of wares to peddle to a UK audience in 1978, which had only the year before been brutally shaved of whiskers and bell-bottoms and converted to punk.    What did we play back then? Bowie's 'Station to Station,' Lennon's 'Cold Turkey,' Cream's 'Sunshine of Your Love,' and Rob Lamb's ace, the John Cale arrangement of 'Heartbreak Hotel'. There was always a hard rock element to the SB's, but we were innocent of marketing at that point. We played what we felt like playing. Gradually my own songs developed: 'Give It To The Soft Boys,' 'The Face Of Death,' 'Where Are The Prawns?' and 'The Pigworker'. We spent a month arranging a group composition called 'Hear My Brane' which was always a favourite. Morris and Andy inclined to The Beach Boys and Steely Dan; Andy, Kimberley and I were big into Fairport, Richard Thompson, and The Albion Band; while I was magnetized by Syd Barrett and Captain Beefheart, but we all loved the Beatles, which marked us out, irrevocably, from the permitted heroes of punk. As we learned to play electric music, we festooned it with harmonies and booby-trapped it with odd time signatures. Meanwhile, Sham 69 were singing "If The Kids Are United, They Will Never Be Divided".    Wang Bo gave way to Kimberley and The Soft Boys spread in a very light film across Britain. Outside of Cambridge where we had incubated, and London where we had first crawled after hatching out, we found ourselves in a bleak and alien land. Huddled at the foot of a slag heap in Grantham (birthplace of Margaret Thatcher) in the drizzle, then watching Kimberley pad through Scarborough in his striped blazer, I wondered how long we could go without being beaten up. Would we be mugged for our cucumber sandwiches and thermoses? After a gig in Sheffield one person clapped and one person told us to fuck off. We finally got an encore in Yorkshire in late 1980.    As we sharpened the guitar sound we started delving back into Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention, whilst picking up the odd droppings from Pere Ubu, whom we supported in autumn 1978. This further polarized listeners; most couldn't stand it, but the occasional fellow (it was mostly fellows) would become apoplectic with joy and go into spasm. Having spent months and thousands of pounds trying to record 'Sandra's Having Her Brain Out' and other songs of mine from that era, our record company dropped us before the deal was even signed. No one rushed to take their place, so 'A Can of Bees' was released on our own label in spring 1979. Whilst it was a hit with neither the press (apolitical, impenetrable and 3-part harmonies to boot - sorry, lads) nor many of our listeners, it was the best approximation yet of what we were playing at the time, and it did make its way to a swathe of US record shops where young musicians working there behind the counter would listen to it in amazement, sometimes putting it on to clear the shop at closing time. I've worked with a few of them since. The 'Can of Bees' tour was a demoralizing experience: long silences in the van punctuated by Kimberley sighing, 'Looks like rain.'"

Rew remembers:      "Robyn Hitchcock arrived in the medium-sized college town of Cambridge, England in 1975 to look for musicians for his band- not an obvious choice of location as a hotbed of talent but none of this would apply if he hadn't. I first heard him at some weekly informal musical get-togethers at the Great Northern Hotel run by a man called Sunshine Joe, with a backing band he later described as 'people who were living in my house'. Robyn wore black leather trousers and jacket, long hair and beard, and either glowered at the audience or, then as now, launched into lightningly impromptu song introductions which took the subject matter on a season ticket to Unexpectedsville.   At the time I was renting a room in a terraced house whose basement contained Spaceward recording studio. Robyn arrived and recorded and we met in the kitchen where he stubbed his fag on the lino and was rebuked by recording engineer Mike Kemp. Mike subsequently invented the 'Sadie' hard disk recorder and retired to the Algarve.  Morris Windsor and Rob Lamb (and original Waves singer Rob Kelly) were in local rock outfit Mad Hatter whom I heard at a cricket pavilion on one of those balmy summer night college shindigs. Rob and Morris went on to form Sheboygan (which I thought for a long time was a quote from Surfin' USA, but then found was a generic name for 'Nowheresville') and discovered pub-rock. The next year, 1976, in pursuit of a 'white soul' style, they teamed up with Robyn and Andy Metcalfe to form Dennis and the Experts and began to rehearse in Robyn's front room. Uneasy about the way things were shaping, in December Rob quit (subsequently forming the respected Ducks on the Wall, whose Adrian 'Hots' Foster gave us the phrase 'I've got the hots for you'). Except Robyn was in bed at the time so he had to shout his resignation thru the keyhole.   Dennis and the Experts were booked that month for a university Christmas ball- recruiting Alan Davies on guitar, Robyn arrived at the venue, which being an educational institution had a blackboard, that night being used to list the evening's musical program. Erasing 'Dennis and the Experts', he chalked in 'The Soft Boys'. Thus were they born.   Now began the group's truly formative year. All the distinctive musical ingredients were brewed- incisive lyrics, unexpected twists (at least few expected twists), the twin guitar attack. There was a vague feeling among the local musos that it wasn't 'proper' music- proper music at the time was more a swamp of 'tasteful' licks at the pinnacle of which, if swamps have pinnacles, was Steely Dan. Nobody of course ever actually could play like Steely Dan, but that distant peak was always in view. Certainly it was hard to hear the subtleties of the Soft Boys thru the group's two four-by-twelve WEM columns. That all changed with the appearance of the EP 'Give it to the Soft Boys' on Raw Records, run by local entrepreneur Lee Wood, that summer of 1977. There was Wading thru a Ventilator in all its glory, lyrics originally aimed at Robyn's neighbour Vyrna Cole now turned in upon himself, the rising guitars of the middle eight raising hair on arms.   The Soft Boys began to get second-on-the-bill gigs in London, supporting among others the Pirates, Elvis Costello and the Vibrators where they met long-term producer Pat Collier. I joined in January 1978, having baby-sat and sat in the previous month. We signed to the short-lived Radar Records, who had Costello and Nick Lowe and were thus considered the last word in cool. (This is the only time in my life I have ever been cool and then only by association). We opened for the Damned- the only time in my life I have ever attended a punk gig.    Radar financed an album to be made over two weeks at the residential Rockfield studios on the Welsh border. But the coolness was already returning to room temperature and the album was mothballed, followed shortly by the rest of the record company. This was the time when the nation limped half-heartedly after punk- it was not the glittering golden age that it was later labelled. Gigs in Swansea, Leeds and elsewhere were attended by small numbers of punks who had a miserable time (but if you were a punk that of course meant you had a great time because the object was to be miserable). It was also the time of Supertramp's Logical Song and Dire Straits' Sultans of Swing, which were played incessantly at ear-melt volume in these joints, and which I never want to hear again. Bands such as Squeeze and the Police, who had been 50p on the door at the Hope and Anchor when we were charging 75p, whizzed past at 100mph.   Robyn put up the cash to record 'A Can of Bees' independently at Spaceward on his own Two Crabs label." 

'A Can of Bees' was cut with engineer Mike Kemp at Spaceward Studios in Cambridge with Gerry Hale on violin;  Robyn Hitchcock on bass, guitar, and vocals;  Jim Melton on harmonica, percussion, drums, and vocals;  Andy Metcalfe on bass and vocals;  Jim Milton on harmonica, percussion, and vocals;  Kimberley Rew on guitar and vocals;  and Morris Windsor on drums and vocals.  Hitchcock says that the original concept for the band was "to cross Abbey Road with Trout Mask Replica, to have those harmonies and choruses but also that jumping sound.  But it was quite an ugly hybrid.   In 1978, we were at our most fragmented - a kind of heavy metal/barbershop doo-wop/country and western/psychedelic/folk blues band. We would play something like ’Mystery Train,’ then do these gothic pieces in 9/8 time. We were painting ourselves into a corner with cleverness. I didn’t have an identity as a songwriter either. What we tried to do was make an identity out of not ruling out any possibility. It was a beast that couldn’t survive...By the time we recorded 'A Can of Bees', most of the songs had been recorded at Radar’s expense in three or four studios up and down the land. The songs were overworked. The technique was there, but there was no love in it." 


"Human Music"   4:30

"Sandra's Having Her Brain Out"   3:47

'A Can of Bees' 
full album:

All tracks written by Robyn Hitchcock, except where noted.

1. "Give It to the Soft Boys" 1:57
2. "The Pig Worker" 4:30
3. "Human Music" 4:30
4. "Leppo and the Jooves" 5:27
5. "The Rat's Prayer" 3:19
6. "Do the Chisel" 3:03
7. "Sandra's Having Her Brain Out" 3:47
8. "The Return of the Sacred Crab" 2:54
9. "Cold Turkey" (John Lennon) 4:17
10. "School Dinner Blues" (Live) 2:26
11. "Wading Through a Ventilator" (Live) 4:08
12. "Leppo & The Jooves" 5:29
13. "Sandra's Having Her Brain Out" 3:39
14. "School Dinner Blues" 2:14
15. "Fatman's Son" 2:38
16. "(I Want to Be An) Anglepoise Lamp" (Live) 2:51
17. "Ugly Nora" (Live) 3:05

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