Album of the Week, June 9: Underwater Moonlight by the Soft Boys

UnderwaterMoonlightThe Soft Boys suffered from being both ahead of and behind the times. Singer, guitarist, and lyricist Robyn Hitchcock assembled the quartet in Cambridge in 1976. With Morris Windsor on drums, Andy Metcalfe on bass, and guitarist Alan Davies, the Soft Boys delighted in the raw sound and DIY ethic of the burgeoning punk movement. They had their other foot firmly in the 60s, however, with a deep fondness for the ringing tones of the Byrds and a psychedelia that was half Jefferson Airplane and half Pink Floyd. Hitchcock’s uniquely surreal wordplay and humour were also reminiscent of those psychedelic icons, especially early Floyd leader Syd Barrett. Mashing all this together into a powerfully unique whole, the Boys released the EP Give It to the Soft Boys. Davies departed, replaced by stunning lead guitarist Kimberley Rew. The debut LP Can of Bees was a powerful, grungy, melodic testament unlike anything else around, promptly disappearing. Metcalfe left next, with Matthew Seligman stepping in to round out the rhythm section. The foursome built on the raw power of Bees, injected a deeper sense of melody, and turned out a commercial failure that is widely recognized as a major influence on many of the college, alternative, jangle-pop, and neo-psychedelic sounds of the 80s.

Title Underwater Moonlight
Act The Soft Boys
Label Armageddon Release Date June 28, 1980
Producer Pat Collier
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. I Wanna Destroy You
  2. Kingdom of Love
  3. Positive Vibrations
  4. I Got the Hots
  5. Insanely Jealous
  6. Tonight
  7. You’ll Have to Go Sideways
  8. Old Pervert
  9. The Queen of Eyes
  10. Underwater Moonlight

Few albums start off with a direct a statement as I Wanna Destroy You. A potent bit of protest rock, it imagines music as a purifying force, dismantling corrupted politics and media and demanding new, finer structures. The chorus is a bitter but beautiful harmony as the Boys spit out the title with increasing force. It’s a great anthem and a perfect statement of purpose. Things get a bit happier on Kingdom of Love, as Hitchcock weaves one of his trademark avant-sensual lyrics. The images are surreal (and sometimes a bit disturbing), but offer an respite from life in the grim UK of the early 80s. Merging the undercurrents of “all you need is love” and “revolution” from the first two tracks, Positive Vibrations is a making the world better anthem with an edge. Earnest and yearning, it also carries a darkly cynical edge, inviting the vibrations that “unite all the nations” but remaining skeptical about their source. The manic sitar solo before the Beach Boys-style harmonies on the bridge is a perfect touch.

I Got the Hots is another lusty song, a bluesy shuffle filled with yearning neatly turned on its side. Rife with potent but jarring metaphors, it compares the singer’s need for the object of his desire with an impressive array of objects both inanimate and lively. A perennial Hitchcock favorite, it remains a staple of his live shows, gaining many new images as his imagination carries him. Romance and need take a darker turn with Insanely Jealous, one of the disc’s standout tracks. Voyeuristic and obsessive, it follows the paranoia of a man certain that his lover’s attentions stray far and often. The Soft Boys are at their finest as a band on this one, with a driving rhythm section and stunning guitar work. The song surges and roars to three separate peaks before finally breaking apart in the singer’s rage.

Side two of the original vinyl kicks off with the musically beautiful Tonight. It promises the narrator’s omnipresence, something that seems reassuring at first but becomes more menacing as the song progresses. One of the most subtle of the band’s performances, it’s another standout. You’ll Have to Go Sideways is an aptly named instrumental departure. It features an eerie synth line woven through the jangle-punk as the band surge like an oddly determined steam train. It’s a fun showcase for the musical talents of the quartet and fits nicely in the sequence of the disc as a whole. It also links the vague menace of Tonight with the straightforward creepiness of Old Pervert. Somehow updating Jethro Tull’s Aqualung character with less subtlety and more quirky charm, it shouldn’t work, but Hitchcock’s earnest delivery is oddly successful.

Queen of Eyes is a short but potent bit of frustrated romance, an absurdist love song like only Robyn Hitchcock could construct. The simple structure and lovely harmonies make it sweet and haunting as the singer wonders why the Queen is unlucky in love. The final song is the title track, an offbeat ballad about the power of nature. Faced with the insistence of the sea and the lure of the moon, the central characters don’t stand a chance; oh, yeah, there’s a giant squid, too. It’s a great narrative woven by Hitchcock at his finest, told with such earnestness and backed with such musical power that you just have to believe it.

That’s the secret of the Soft Boys at their best, and these ten tracks are their finest. A great musical unit, four talented performers who worked well together, the Boys took their influences, the musical setting of the day, and their own distinct style, and created something wonderful and new. Finally recognized years after its release thanks to its deep influence, Underwater Moonlight is not just one of the most important records of the 80s, it’s one of the most interesting and fun.

FURTHER LISTENING: The Soft Boys didn’t last much longer. Hitchcock broke up the band to go solo. Rew went on to form Katrina and the Waves. Seligman and Windsor became much-demanded session musicians (including work with Hitchcock), as did Metcalfe — who also joined Squeeze for a time. Hitchcock recruited Metcalfe and Windsor as the Egyptians for a number of his albums in the late 80s and early 90s. (More on his solo and Egyptians careers in future Albums of the Week!) As for the Soft Boys, their catalog is relatively small, generally worthwhile, and hard to pin down. Both albums have numerous repackagings — usually including bonus tracks, outtakes, and covers — several of which overlap with the charming, posthumous Invisible Hits collection. The Moonlight quartet reunited in 2002 for Nextdoorland, a surprisingly solid getting-the-band-back-together one-off.  Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians released a great live album, Gotta Let This Hen Out!, in 1986, featuring a number of Soft Boys songs. While it barely hints at the whimsical and eccentric joys of live Hitchcock, it’s the best representation of the band’s live energy.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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