The Soft Boys
When thinking about the musical careers of The Soft Boys after their 1982 breakup, one would quite logically point to singer and chief songwriter Robyn Hitchcock as the Boy with the most successful career. As Hitchcock has remained in the limelight for the ensuing two decades, churning out album after album of quirky pop gems, sometimes with The Egyptians (including fellow Soft Boys alums Morris Windsor and Andy Metcalfe), sometimes solo, to varying degrees of financial success, shuffling from label to label until finding himself label-less this year. While artistically speaking, it may be correct to point at Hitchcock as the Soft Boy Most Likely To Succeed, but that’s overlooking one factor — guitarist Kimberley Rew is probably still living quite comfortably off the fat of his biggest post-Soft Boys commercial success, “Walking On Sunshine,” a track he wrote and recorded with his post- (and-pre-, actually) Boys project, Katrina & the Waves. Think about how often you still hear that song, how many times its been covered and used in advertising, and you can imagine that it’s quite the cash cow for Mr. Rew.
Still, since most of the ex-Boys have had some modicum of success in the last 20 years, it came as something of a surprise to hear that the band was reuniting for a tour (and more?). Right on time, Matador has reissued the band’s only full-length album, Underwater Moonlight, as a two-disc set absolutely loaded with previously unreleased material, including live and rehearsal recordings. While only the first disc was made available for review, the disc includes the full length of the original album, plus all the bonus tracks from Rykodisc’s 1992 reissue, and other additional material — more than enough to comment on the historical importance of these recordings. And they are historically important, for like The Velvet Underground, the band never really met with great success in their time together (bad timing most likely the culprit, as releasing a brilliant album of quirky Beatlesque pop was probably not a strong commercial move when punk rock was ruling the roost in the UK), but also like The Velvets, it seems that most everyone that picked up the record formed a band, meaning The Soft Boys have left an indelible impression on what we now consider “alternative rock.” Surely, bands like R.E.M. and The Replacements could never have existed were it not for the trail the Boys blazed.
Having missed the album on its original release (I was nine, what do you want from me?), I was surprised at how much of the material was instantly familiar to me. Part of this is obviously due to the influence of the Boys on the music I listened to in my teen years, and more is due to being a fervent fan of Hitchcock since about the time of 1988’s Globe Of Frogs, but somewhere along the line, without my realizing it, I’d been exposed to great tunes like “I Wanna Destroy You,” “Insanely Jealous,” and even rarer stuff like “He’s A Reptile.” It’s not hard to understand the appeal — this material still sounds fresh and vibrant, and even a little ahead of its time, lo these decades hence. Tracks like the jangly, playful “Where Are the Prawns?” are timeless and irresistible, and while tracks like the angular “Only the Stones Remain” sound a bit more of their time then, say, “Positive Vibrations,” they’re nonetheless inspiring and fun.
This is an album that’s done more than grow old gracefully — like a teenager coming out of puberty, its grown into itself, and stands easily as one of the best records of the last two decades. Even if you’ve already got a copy of this album, it’s worth picking it up for the new material, but the people that really need to pick up Underwater Moonlight are the relative neophytes, like myself, and even more so, folks that have never experienced the fantastic music of Robyn Hitchcock, Kimberley Rew, Morris Windsor, and Matthew Seligman. Truly a horizons-expanding, life-changing album, Underwater Moonlight could not come more highly recommended.
New and old fans alike are also encouraged to check out the band’s official Web site at http://www.underwatermoonlight.com — it’s a treasure trove of history, information, and music, with live MP3s being added from all the shows on the current tour, and plenty of input from the band themselves. The site makes it seem that this reunion will be an ongoing concern. I can only hope we’ll be so lucky. With all that the members have matured in the last 20 years, a new Soft Boys album would likely be a near-religious experience!
Matador Records, 625 Broadway, New York City, NY 10012, http://www.matadorrecords.com