Graded on a Curve:
The Soft Boys,
Underwater Moonlight

The Soft Boys are one of those bands that failed commercially for lack of a straight-talking high school guidance counselor. Because a straight-talking high school guidance counselor could have sat Robyn Hitchcock and Kimberly Rew down and said, “Look boys, your desire to make psychedelic rock is laudable. But it’s 1976, everybody’s wearing safety pins through their noses and screaming about anarchy, and to be perfectly blunt lads your desire to make a go of it as acid rockers makes about as much sense as pursuing careers as lamplighters. Oh, and while we’re on the subject, I have an employer here who is looking for a dependable rat catcher.”

Alas, they had no one, which is why their magnum opus, 1980’s Underwater Moonlight, sold approximately 18 copies. The Soft Boys were at the right place but at the wrong time, and as the Velvet Underground will gladly inform you, timing is everything. Underwater Moonlight has gone on to become a neo-psychedelic masterpiece, but it hit the record stores well before everybody and his sister hopped aboard the paisley bandwagon just in time to enthrall a listening public looking for something completely different from post-punk. And by that time the Soft Boys were no more—the whimsical and eccentric Hitchcock having gone on to form Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, and Rew the commercially successful Katrina and the Waves.

The Soft Boys’ influences aren’t too hard to discern—The Beatles, The Byrds, Syd Barrett, and when it comes to sheer lyrical absurdity, the Bonzo Dog Band. But they are far more than the sum of these influences. Opening track “I Wanna Destroy You” is punk in attitude—less 1967 than 1976—but has a power pop heart, and is the catchiest anthem this side of Cheap Trick’s “Surrender.” And “Old Pervert,” which features some truly wonderful drum pummel, lots of fractured guitar, and some insane laughter, is nobody’s idea of a flower power Day-Glo acid rocker. The guitars are just too mean, and the lyrics are a million miles away from the Summer of Love. “I’m an old pervert and I hang around under the bridge/I won’t do you no harm I just wanna show what’s in my fridge,” sings a lecherous Hitchcock, before adding, “They said that I’m weird and disinfectant is all that I drink/Ah, but cleanliness of the soul is more important, don’t you think?”

“Queen of Eyes” is another power pop masterpiece, and could well be both inspiration and template for all 36,497 of Robert Pollard’s songs. Or maybe not, because you can also hear the future echo of Pollard on the Captain Beefheart-meets-the-Raspberries “I Got the Hots.” Inspirational lyric: “When you see her your eyes awake/Electric bulbs on a birthday cake/Would you care for a lump of steak?” “Positive Vibrations” is positively giddy-making, what with its big happy guitar hooks and dizzying vocal harmonies. Meanwhile, “Kingdom of Love” comes on like a distant cousin of the Hollies “Long Cool Woman (In a Black Dress),” and you can only wonder what love means to Hitchcock when he sings, “You’ve been laying eggs under my skin/Now they’re hatching out under my chin/Now there’s tiny insects showing through/And all them tiny insects look like you.”

The title track is about as whimsical as they come, and boasts a great chorus, to say nothing of an excellent instrumental passage that is guaranteed to open your third eye. And the way the song builds and builds to a grand climax will set your heart chakra on fire. On the green-eyed “Insanely Jealous of You” Hitchcock goes from a whisper to somewhat less than a scream, and says to hell with biological determinism with the lines, “I don’t know why the people want to meet/When all they know is that they’ll breed like rabbits in the end.”

Unlike most of the neo-psychedelic bands—yes, I’m talking about you Brian Jonestown Massacre—that would follow in their footsteps, the Soft Boys refrained from ornamenting their songs with such ticky-tacky trappings as sitars, tablas, and drones, although a rogue sitar does sneak its way onto “Positive Vibrations.” The Soft Boys didn’t ape their predecessors; they merely took from them what already came naturally, such as a taste for the surreal and a knack for writing groovy melodies, man. The Soft Boys are proof that everything that goes around comes around again, which brings us back to our mythical high school guidance counselor. Who, having failed to talk the Soft Boys into seeking careers as costermongers, ends his counseling session with Hitchcock and Rew by asking, “Oh, by the way… which one’s Soft?”

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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