Now and then, usually due to some aimless wandering through the Internet, I’ll become aware of some hugely influential band or film or artist that I should’ve known about much earlier in life than now. This discovery is usually accompanied with a healthy dose of shame—i.e., How come I didn’t know Dan Flavin existed until halfway through my 20s?, or, Why wasn’t I aware of Diabolique until last Thursday?
I’m experiencing this phenomenon (commonly known as “poser shame”) right now as I listen, over and over again, to Underwater Moonlight by The Soft Boys and read the Wikipedia article on the group.
I did not know The Soft Boys were a thing on the earth until I happened upon their name while putting together a playlist on Spotify. I was looking for a certain kind of song—specifically something punk rocky with a loud opening verse—and Spotify’s fantastic “Related Artist” page lead me, after a long and complex route that I couldn’t recreate if I wanted to, to The Soft Boys. I listened to them briefly, on a whim, fully intending to zoom past them.
But I’ve been listening to them a lot since then. I’ll spare you some detailed artist bio. (You can read that on Wikipedia if you wanna.)
But the nutshell version is this: The Soft Boys were a band out of England that existed for the final half of the 1970s. But their muse and lead man was Robyn Hitchcock. If you think you know the name “Robyn Hitchcock” it’s because you do. But unlike myself, who if quizzed would’ve claimed that “Robyn Hitchcock is some pink-haired power pop singer from Scotland” or something … no, Robyn Hitchcock is a man. But not just any man. He happens to be a British institution—-a singer-songwriter who’s been making music, most of it artistic and rarely commercial, for more than 40 years. He started in psychedelia in punk, and now he makes dottering middle-aged rock.
The Soft Boys are the bridge between The Kinks and REM. They created a place for Elvis Costello and the Attractions to be legitimate. The Soft Boys allows us to idolize My Bloody Valentine (which I do). They provide the soft descent from the angry heights of The Sex Pistols, landing somewhere near Sonic Youth.
In fact, when I listen to The Soft Boys, and specifically their fantastic album Underwater Moonlight (which, let’s face it, is a terrible name for such a seminal piece of work) … while I listen to this album I keep picturing a 17-year-old Michael Stipe listening to it in his little bedroom in Georgia somewhere, and he’s loving it.
(Now, I don’t have any definitive proof that Stipe listened to The Soft Boys. But I’ll eat my hat if he didn’t.)
This band is not perfect. The bonus tracks on Underwater Moonlight sometimes trend toward the jangly side of pop music. And the lyrics can be a bit too rooted in the silliness of late-60s Moody Blues-esque epicness. A couple of times I could picture David St. Hubbins singing these songs.
Still, at least when they’re silly the lyrics are interesting:
Buy my baby a piece of cheese. She’ll eat anything that isn’t diseased.
Here she come walking, down the roof.
She got heavy, man. That’s the proof.
She my baby, she alright. Keep me fairly warm at night.
This is rock-and-roll in balance—a great British twang from the singer, plenty of crunching and rhythmic guitar licks for the punk rocker in me, not too sparing with the short guitar solos, a hint of county-and-western playalong, and multi-voiced “harmonies,” and just enough experimentation to make me work for it.
This isn’t U2. It isn’t “What’s So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding?” This is sometimes accessible, but always interesting, music that is widely considered responsible for the better rock-and-roll bands of the 1980s.
And for me, they’re a band to listen to on a crisp late winter day, windows down, sun out, jamming down a mostly empty road. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Soft Boys…