In a parallel universe, a late '70s British Invasion might sound like the Beatles totally whacked out of their gourds.
First it was Rykodisc. Then Matador. And now indie rock institution Yep Roc gets its chance to bring the Soft Boys into focus for a new generation of music nerds. Robyn Hitchcock's old band made only two "proper" albums (the technicalities get a little confusing), and it is certainly good to have A Can of Bees back on remastered plastic. Underwater Moonlight, however, has been reintroduced to the public at large several times. But none of this matters a lick because good timeless music from 30 years prior remains just that.
Underwater Moonlight is a rare kind of magical little record, and its predecessor A Can of Bees comes very close. These two albums remain seminal; they belong to a period of rock history where influence and popularity couldn't be less aligned. Just like the Velvet Underground, Big Star, and Television, the Soft Boys lacked a neat and tidy marketing classification, but launched a thousand bands in their wake. And just like their American counterpart Television, this Cambridge four-piece took the notion that two-guitar rock bands need to be blues-based and completely messed with it. Robyn Hitchcock and Kimberley Rew brewed up their own two-pronged attack where neither one really played rhythm, but you couldn't correctly call either one the lead neither. To say that their songs were angular is an understatement, and their willingness to revel in their "Englishness" is probably was caused them to go unnoticed for so long.
The 1979 to 1980 period of rock music teaches us that the music didn't always have to be about sex and drugs, and embracing a band like the Soft Boys must have felt liberating. Not to mention cynical. "You don't really need a brain, ducky / If you're a girl / It's like tonsils / They're more trouble than they're worth," goes the strangely catchy "Sandra's Having Her Brain Out". Hitchcock bemoaning the fact that some girls feel the need to act stupid is anathema to the classic rock fantasy of seducing an easy girl, and this is a microcosm of what the Soft Boys paved the way for. How do you wade through a ventilator? Where did that guitar riff for "Leppo and the Jooves" come from? How does a song like "The Pigworker" even get written?
The aforementioned songs make A Can of Bees a treat, but Underwater Moonlight is so much more. This is an album that carries mythical baggage on par with the Velvet Underground's banana album, and it's easy to overhype its quality and importance. But for Barrett's sake, it has survived three decades, numerous reissues, and is still treated like a post-punk pop Dark Side of the Moon. Gazing at Yep Roc's brand new gatefold is like looking at a miniature version of the vinyl, the one that changed R.E.M., Matthew Sweet, the Circle Jerks, and the Flaming Lips for the better, just to name a few. "I Wanna Destroy You" and "The Queen of Eyes" have become something of indie staples for more recent bands, and "You'll Have To Go Sideways", apart from Pink Floyd's "Money", is one of the more memorable guitar riffs written for seven beats to a bar.
What Robyn Hitchcock, Kimberley Rew, Morris Windsor, and Matthew Seligman contributed to modern pop is inestimable. You can't really measure musical influence, not in any concrete way. But if such a unit of measurement existed, I feel secure in saying that the Soft Boys would be up and down the chart. The Soft Boys probably didn't set out to reinvent the wheel, but modern music is definitely different because of them. Yep Roc's reverent remastering of these two wonderful albums help to secure an oddball legacy that deserves to go down uninterrupted. Buy them again.