Robyn Hitchcock: 5 Albums That Changed My Life
The legendary musician’s musician Robyn Hitchcock is speeding down the road on his way to Pittsburgh on tour with the Psychedelic Furs when I call him up to chat about his new record — plus all the records that have changed his life.
He was just pick-pocketed in Detroit and he’s a bit weary of eating at all the malls that dot the U.S., malls where, as he notes on Twitter, one can watch “obese Christians eating radioactive trash…we are bred like cattle — not to be consumed but to consume.”
Still, he’s eager to talk — about his very first self-titled record, out April 21, as well as Dylan, the Beatles and trying to pick up ladies with Captain Beefheart lyrics. After decades as a singer-songwriter (with the Soft Boys, Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians), Hitchcock says his decision to self-title the release is rooted in two ideas: 1) he wants the album to be a summary of his career, 2) well…this one’s a little harder to sum up.
“A lot of the songs on the record are about people in my own mythology, people I knew and people I knew about, friends or ex-friends,” he explains. “Dead people or imaginary people, but they are all myths to me. I certainly feel like I’m a compound of a lot of other people. So ‘Robyn Hitchcock’ is a series of people that are echoed and reflected in me. In some way, I’m the keeper of their souls. That’s another reason it is called Robyn Hitchcock.”
Read on for a taste of a few of those people who make up Robyn Hitchcock the man.
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Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited
Probably the first LP I bought was Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan and the first song on that was “Like a Rolling Stone,” which was the first song I had heard multiple times on the record player that was in the Gothic penitentiary that I was in as a young English gentleman. I was just coming on thirteen, so I was waiting on my “Psychedelic Bar Mitzvah,” as I’d call it, but psychedelia hadn’t really struck then.
I think just hearing his voice say “How does it feel to be on your own?”… I was away from my family, I was away from everyone I knew in a completely alien world full of adolescent boys in a strange, British hierarchy. There were a lot of odd, barbaric things that happened that I wouldn’t describe over the phone, but we did have music. We had these records coming in, so when we were in a very isolated situation, we weren’t even allowed to have radios, we had LPs and singles, so I heard this song every day. One day, someone put the parent LP that it came on and I heard “Desolation Row,” “Tombstone Blues,” “Ballad of a Thin Man.” My metabolic structure was altered, my chemistry changed, my DNA was rewritten. I became one of a million “Bob Dylan-abees” and you could trace my life now back to then.
I go around America, playing with an acoustic guitar and a polka dot shirt singing songs. Living the dream or however people would describe me. I think it all goes back to hearing Highway 61 as a thirteen-year-old. I have to say that’s the most influential record of my life. I heard all of them in the end, everything he did in the 1960s, and I absorbed it all through my third eye, but Highway 61 is the one that really hit.
The Beatles: Revolver
Probably the other one that had a big influence was Revolver, which came out in ’66. I had heard all of the Beatles’ singles up until “Love Me Do.” My late childhood had been mapped out in Beatles records, and now my adolescence was going to be mapped out in Beatles records. I was sixteen when Abbey Road came out and I think I was seventeen when the last one, Let it Be, came out. So, that vital period, ten to seventeen, was mapped out by the Beatles.
Revolver has probably influenced me more as a musician [than Bob Dylan]. In terms of how I sound and the music I still write, Revolver is much more of an influence because I think of the Beatles as a kind of academy, like a family, like three brothers who founded this school of songwriting. They looked the same, they fought like brothers, they had those hate/love relationships to each other that brothers seem to have. They were just packed in so close; they couldn’t get away from each other and they couldn’t wait to. They were always sort of compared to each other and looking around to see what the others were doing.
John Lennon died thinking he was in competition with Paul McCartney, George Harrison always felt like Paul got a better deal than he did and Paul talks about them like brothers now. But, musically, they were in this academy; they had different ways of working with the same chords, they had these minor sixths and diminished chords and rock & roll chords and mythical chords and folk chords, some Indian chords. They all had their own take on it. I feel like they were the prime academy and then the rest of us, like Elvis Costello and Andy Partridge and Jeff Lynne and Jon Brion, like smart songwriters, obviously Elliott Smith…all these other writers, myself included, studied at that academy. We all went to Beatles school, in terms of music.
Syd Barrett: Barrett
When I was eighteen or nineteen, I started listening to the second Syd Barrett record. He had been out of Pink Floyd for a few years and didn’t seem to be doing much. He put out a couple of records and people said they weren’t very good or they didn’t live up to the potential of the first Floyd record. I remember putting Barrett on. I put that on and was absolutely magnetized by it; I thought, “This is me, this is what I sound like.” Of course, it wasn’t me, it was Syd Barrett, but I think it was because he was an imaginative, middle-class person. He hadn’t conquered the world like Dylan or the Beatles; he had a little bit of success and then kind of had a breakdown.
He was obviously getting ready to leave the world, the world of relationships and other people. He spent the last thirty-five years of his life sort of hermetically sealed. I think he had a pretty awful time of it and his past tortured him. He rejected it completely, he looked different, he changed his name back to Roger, lived at his mother’s house and his sister looked after him. He was protected by his family and stalked by his fans and the paparazzi.
But, listening to the record, I had this feeling of an interior world, like being in someone’s head and they were recording all of his thoughts in a way the Beatles and Dylan didn’t really do. He erased himself creatively and he erased himself as a songwriter and socially. Ironically enough, he left behind this imprint of a character and personality. You could just feel Barrett walking around the backstreets of Cambridge or stalking around West London or just walking around the place with his mind humming. A lot of the songs have a little “walking” in them, like “duh-da-dah, duh-da-dah,” you can actually feel the rhythm of the footsteps, of somebody walking from one house to the other in the middle of the night and it’s five miles.
I used to walk around a lot by myself; I’ve never been a driver. As a kid, it guided me when feeling lost and not formed, not sure what I’d do. I think hearing that Barrett record…he sang in this flat English voice. I tried to stop singing like Bob Dylan and wound up sounding more like Barrett, which was closer to my natural voice. I guess whatever Barrett was, was similar to me. But I don’t know; I’ve never saw him and I never met him. He absolutely started helping me crystallize who I would be as a songwriter, even if it took me a long time to transcend his influence, which I may never do. There will always be elements of Syd Barrett in Robyn Hitchcock, like how Townes Van Zandt was to Steve Earle or Chuck Berry was to John Lennon, like an absolutely primal force. I think he was up there with Dylan and Beatles in terms of the talent and I loved it.
Captain Beefheart: Trout Mask Replica
I think another record from that era would have to be Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band. I actually got into that before I got into Barrett. It came out around Abbey Road, around 1969. Captain Beefheart was a very imaginative man, who I think trained as an artist and listened to a lot of blues; he actually based his voice on Howlin’ Wolf, the old bluesman.
He had this tendency to recruit young guys he could mold; it was quite sinister in a way. It was like if the Beatles was a competitive academy, Captain Beefheart was an abusive academy, an abusive teacher. I’ve met some of the Magic Band alumni and they all have his imprint on them; they all suffer from hats. They all have odd characteristics, which I feel were imposed on them.
He had a big following in Europe, but this was in the “freak” era when you’d grow your hair and wear a top hat, like kids who broke into an adult’s costume shop. People would just put on an airline pilot’s cap or a dress or a suit of armor or a top hat and be photographed or be seen. That’s what you did then, that’s what I wanted to do. Sadly, when I came to make records, all that had been erased by punk.
It was great fun at the time, but Beefheart was one of the maestros and exemplars. He had this extraordinary sound and image; I didn’t know about keeping the musicians trapped, but the music he somehow forced them to play and then took all the credit for was extraordinary. It was kind of a blues vocal, but with very organic lyrics, just words that… “Lucid tentacles test and sleeved/And joined, and jointed, jade pointed diamond back patterns/Neon meate dream of a octafish…” Here I am, in a parking lot in Pittsburgh fifty years later, reciting it.
It was not a good way to pick up girls when I was young, it didn’t get me far. The red light would come flashing on and they would take their cup of white wine spritzer elsewhere. But it was what I believed in. I thought it was sexy in a way that didn’t necessarily appeal to women; it was a male kind of… it had a sort of growth and luminescence and explosions and weird, goddess concepts behind everything. After buying Trout Mask Replica I went around saying to everyone, “Everything in the universe is either bulbous or tubular, man.”
There I was, my appeal was limited, but goddamit, I loved it and spent a term learning Shakespeare, reading Burroughs. It also affected getting the Soft Boys going, the idea of having two guitars, left and right, playing complementary parts, but neither was lead or rhythm. I tried to do that on my current records a bit, but it’s much tamer. After a few years, the Soft Boys gave up trying to sound like that. If you listen to the first few Soft Boys records or Soft Boys singles, you can hear Beefheart and Trout Mask Replica.
Roxy Music: Flesh and Blood/Avalon
I think the last one would have to be Roxy Music, somewhere between Flesh and Blood and Avalon. I got the Soft Boys going and we didn’t get far; what we were doing didn’t really jive in Britain in the late ’70s. I think of all of the records I have mentioned, they were all abrasive, they were all things I got into as a teenager, they clanged and they wailed and they hooted and they hissed. They were, sort of, high testosterone in a verbal way. I know the Soft Boys are like that; we had a very loud guitar sound, we weren’t punky, but there was nothing mellow, there were no soft edges or anything tempered about the Soft Boys. I think listening to Flesh and Blood affected me the most.
It’s late, but oddly it’s Bryan Ferry’s best. His heart had been broken by Jerry Hall and he wasn’t experimental anymore. He was writing stronger songs, songs you could pick up and play with an acoustic guitar to. Although it’s famous as a jewel of early ’80s production, I also think the songs simply work with a voice and a guitar. They are good, simple, sad songs. Somebody consoling themselves, their love is lost and wherever it is, it’s somewhere else. And he’s there exquisitely dressed in his tuxedo and his stimulants and his cigarette and his extremely upscale bottle of wine, sitting there by himself at a table on a balcony in the rain as it drips and the leaves fall around him. He’s probably got a date that hasn’t shown or she’s gone to the wrong nightclub.
It’s such an exquisitely, distilled, lonely world and the music is very tangled; it affected me toward the tail end of the Soft Boys, when Flesh and Blood came out. That was the beginning for me of being in an abrasive band and then becoming a reflective songwriter and making records like I Often Dream of Trains and the stuff with the Egyptians. It gave me a chance to grow up a little bit, it took me out of that manic adolescence.
Barrett and Beefheart were very manic in a way, Highway 61 Revisited is pretty turned up on the throttle and Revolver as well. Bryan Ferry in Flesh and Blood was the one that influenced me, even though Avalon is stronger as a sound. That helped me become what I subsequently became.
My new record probably harks back to Revolver more than anything, in terms of the sound. The songs are mine, but I don’t know who, lyrically and emotionally, they are connected to in terms of other songwriters. I’m sure you could see ingredients of all those records I mentioned, perhaps not so much Trout Mask Replica in there. I’d say those are my five.
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