Washed-up one-hit wonders of the world: Don't let untimely deaths and pesky feuds keep you from milking your Behind the Music show for all it's worth. Is your lead singer's self-regard bigger than his stack of amps? Hire one from a tribute band, like Judas Priest did! Are your original members sick of touring? Do what Styx did, and tell your Dennis DeYoung to stay home while you hit the state fairs! Or, if your band plans to have any staying power whatsoever, maybe it's better just to do what the Soft Boys did: Walk away while you're at your artistic peak and stay away until fans actually want you back again.
With the onslaught of their reunion tour, the Soft Boys are reaping a paradoxical reward: The lack of popularity that killed them in the first place has turned them into cult icons, shielding them from becoming a parody of their former selves. When songwriter/guitarist Robyn Hitchcock, guitarist Kimberley Rew, bassist Matthew Seligman, and drummer Morris Windsor play First Ave. together this week for the first time ever--reconvening in support of Matador's newly expanded, double-CD reissue of 1980's Underwater Moonlight--they'll probably be playing for a bigger crowd than they gathered in all the London pub gigs of their "glory years" (a term used loosely here). Back when Moonlight was first released, the Soft Boys were unfashionably middle-class rockers, stuck in between the Swinging London of the Sixties and the Clash's "London's Burning." Their biggest legacy was felt in America, where Reagan-era college radio and indie bands like R.E.M. admired how Moonlight merged influences ranging from Syd Barrett to Brian Wilson into an accessible yet idiosyncratic sound.
Musical cohesion and popularity were not always a priority for the Boys. In fact, Moonlight's predecessor, 1979's debut A Can of Bees, flailed with startlingly warped lyrics (on "Leppo and the Jooves": "A farmer and his diary might conspire to freeze a widow"), Brit Invasion hooks, and spiky guitars that revealed the band's impending identity crisis. Bees' approach of fitting a surfeit of musical styles into a structured form did not fare as well with the public or the press as Moonlight's easier listening did.
"If you take that Beefheart approach, you have to put everything together quite carefully," Robyn Hitchcock explained recently during a phone call from his home in England. "You might come up with a jamming rhythm, but the way the music is actually played takes a lot of arrangement. And I think by Underwater Moonlight we didn't have the heart to do that."
Frustrated by public indifference to Bees, the Soft Boys recruited pop-rooted bassist Matthew Seligman to replace the departing Andy Metcalfe and help gear the band toward simpler songs. The addition of Seligman seemed to shift the Boys into new-wave mode, tempering their lyrical irreverence with catchy pop hooks. Yet Hitchcock insists, "At the heart, that lineup of the Soft Boys was, and still is, a great sort of pop-dance band. A really good bar band in the most complimentary sense of the word. Psychedelic pub rock."
If Moonlight was created to appeal to a bar crowd, those lending ears while drinking beers must have been an eclectic group. "I Wanna Destroy You" has staggered harmonies over a keening bed of guitars somewhere in between where the Byrds and the 13th Floor Elevators intersect, with Hitchcock jabbing the hip U.K. journalists who declined to cover them ("A pox upon the media and everything you read"). "Old Pervert" is the biggest holdover from their early, Beefheartian sound: Rew and Hitchcock's guitars wrestle over rumbling drums and heavy bass. And the record's title track tells a surreal tale of statues who come to life, fall in love, and then drown themselves--to a climax of sunny surfing harmonies and descending Ventures guitar. Beyond such sonic marvels, the album's reissue has been beefed up with seven new outtakes and an entire separate disc of 1979 rehearsals.
Moonlight could have been the Soft Boys' first step into mainstream popularity. Instead, since the band was out of step with the early-Eighties U.K. postpunk scene, it quickly faded away. The Soft Boys decided to quit while they were still a respectable outfit and broke up quietly.
"If the ship was going to sink," remembers Hitchcock, "we might as well not be out at sea." In hindsight, it looks like a prescient decision--the band members all managed to keep making music as cult heroes (Hitchcock's work as a solo artist and with Windsor in the Egyptians), chart toppers (Rew's Katrina and the Waves) or sidemen (Seligman worked with Thomas Dolby, Bowie, and Morrissey before retiring to study law).
So if the bandmates are happy performing independently, why talk reunion now? The firmest response either Windsor or Hitchcock will concede is, "It's the right time." Still, the fact that Hitchcock and Rew appear on each other's recent releases (Rew's Tunnel into Summer, Hitchcock's Jewels for Sophia) and that Seligman is currently taking a break from his day job as a lawyer ("He wanted to hang up his badge and his six-gun and pick up the Fender Precision" says Hitchcock) were important catalysts for the reunion.
Notes Hitchcock dryly, "We've never drifted completely apart, so it's not like having to swallow masses of humble pie or nasty medicine or wade up to our knees in dirt to get back to that place." He even dangles out a possibility of new music if the tour works out, but warns against too much optimism before the concert dates have even started.
"We're far too old to be traveling around in packs," the singer says. Still, the irony of reenacting the roles of their former selves tickles him. As Hitchcock puts it: "You can be what you like as long as it's in inverted commas."