If a rule-book had been written for aspiring punk rockers back in 1977, what the Soft Boys did would have broken every single directive in it. At a time when hip London punks like the Sex Pistols and the Clash were slamming the likes of the Beatles, the Stones and Pink Floyd, the Soft Boys—a quartet based in exciting Cambridge, no less—played a rather uncool combination of Beatles/Byrds “old-school” jangle-pop, clever Captain Beefheart-y time signatures and Syd Barrett-Pink Floyd/Incredible String Band hippie whimsy.
So it’s unsurprising that the two albums the band released in its brief lifetime were derided and ignored , but it’s also ironic when you consider that what the Soft Boys were concocting in their brave new whirl was more honest than the output of their punk peers. The latter hid their obvious ‘60s garage/power-pop influences underneath a nihilistic sheen while the Soft Boys and others (like the Jam) celebrated the ‘60s with both eyes firmly on the horizon.
Underwater Moonlight remains the Soft Boys’ definitive statement and, like The Velvet Underground & Nico and #1 Record, it’s one of those albums that nobody seemed to buy when it was released but that has subsequently proven to be hugely influential. Many ‘80s alt. rock luminaries have name-checked the album liberally—R.E.M., Yo La Tengo, Ultra Vivid Scene and the Replacements, for example—never mind the so-called psychedelic revival Paisley Underground that would spring up in the early half of that decade.
Previously re-issued by Rykodisc with several bonus tracks, this latest re-mastered release seeks to up the ante by including an extra disc of rehearsals recorded, it would appear, in preparation for the album proper two decades ago. Unfortunately, these snippets of unfinished tracks and half-formed ideas lose their novelty appeal quickly, although they do provide fans a “fly-on-the-wall” perspective on the band.
Concentrating on Underwater Moonlight proper (i.e. the original ten songs), there is a realisation that this sublime album requires no embellishment. Certainly the quartet—viz. Robyn Hitchcock (vocals/guitar/songwriting), Kimberly Rew (guitar), Morris Windsor (drums) and Matthew Seligman (bass)—was at the peak of its collective powers and the record bears this out. In an era of simplistic punk rock, the Soft Boys’ polished and intricate performances embroider Hitchcock’s offbeat yet unforgettable songs marvelously.
“I Wanna Destroy You” out-punks the competition as Hitchcock spits out viscerally, “I feel it coming on again just like it did before. They feed your pride with boredom and they lead you on to war. The way you treat each other really makes me feel ill. ‘Cause if you wanna fight then you’re just dyin’ to get killed”. “Kingdom of Love” is a languorously funky piece with a bizarre outlook on sex: ” You’ve been layin’ eggs under my skin / Now they’re hatching out under my chin / Now there’s tiny insects showin’ through / And all them tiny insects look like you”. “I’ve Got the Hots” confounds all expectations with its campy style and hilarious concepts: “Said the dentures to the peach / Said the tide of filth to the bleach / Said the spike to the tomato / Said the curry to the corpse / I got the hots for you”. “Queen of Eyes” is a gleaming folk-rock classic chock-full of Hitchcock’s trademark non sequiturs: “In this horrible age of abuse and decay / It’s good to know that somebody’s looking ok” and “Mucky the pig is out on a limb / He’s looking for someone to investigate him”.
A big, psychedelic, folk-rock guitar masterpiece whichever way you want to look at it, Underwater Moonlight deserves the attention and adulation of every card-carrying fan of obscure, intelligent pop-rock music.