SOFT BOYS - Underwater Moonlight 2CD (Matador/2001)When this was reissued in 2001, I strangely didn't pay it much mind. My old friend Tony Dale (RIP) from Camera Obscura Records came into Missing Link, where I was plonked behind the counter at the time, and excitedly bought a copy of the 3LP set. It was quite an impressive beast, featuring more bonus tracks than you could digest in a month. I marvelled at the fancy packaging, commented that they were a band I would investigate one day, and then paid it no mind. I'd heard about the band for years, yet knew next to sweet FA about 'em, except for the obvious fact that Robyn Hitchcock, who has been a well-known psych-pop troubadour since the band split in 1980, fronted them. Thing is, in the pre-internet era, or at least before it started getting really "good" (a highly subjective judgment, I know) - which was around 2001, I guess - finding any information on the band was tough. Forced Exposure loved 'em back in the day, so did Mike Watt (I'm supposing, since he mentioned them in a couple of interviews), and you've probably heard about REM hailing the group as one of their definitive influences. Bucketful Of Brains, the UK mag which similarly championed the likes of Bevis Frond, were big supporters, too, though that "scene", if you want to call it that, or at least many of the outfits it championed, always struck me as a bit limp. Other than those snippets, I just figured you had to be there. This 2CD set was bought in 2004, and quickly set me off on a Soft Boys binge. There's not a lot to get: the debut, Can Of Bees, and a couple of out-of-print comps which compile out-takes, singles and live material, so it was over fairly quickly and cheaply. And all that waffle brings me to the band itself. The group were given the tag "acid punk" at the time, a term which, in one of my more unforgiving moods, may have me thinking such a term was likely coined by a genre-starved English journalist at the time, but since the term "psych-pop" doesn't really do them justice, I can deal w/ it. The Soft Boys, as demonstrated on Underwater Moonlight, their swan song and alleged masterpiece (I only say "alleged" because I think you could say the same for their debut), were way too "rock" for the pop tag, even if the songs had hooks you could hang a hat on. Unlike a lot of new wavers - the Soft Boys weren't "punk" by any stretch, despite the aggression of some of their material; and nor were they "new wave", so scratch that, too - the band never mixed their guitars down, a pop compromise made by many at the time. Am I making sense here? Nope, well carry on, regardless. In essence, the group were a music-fan's band: a band made by music fans, even possible record collectors (I think it was Carducci who said that record collectors don't make great music... or something to that effect) who, whilst in some ways were apeing the sounds of their heroes (the reference points here are a cinch, since there are so many moments throughout which bring to mind the bleeding obvious influences list: Beatles, Byrds, Syd, Fairports, Kinks, Beefheart), but through actual musical invention, added their own slant on it. The band was terribly middle-class and English, just like Syd himself, but had enough dirt under their nails to not come across like a bunch of fops.
The opener, "I Wanna Destroy You", is a glorious slice of aggro pop menace (since covered by the Circle Jerks!), as are "Positive Vibrations", "Tonight" and the title track, all of which wouldn't have been out of place on an early Buzzcocks long-player. Then you get cuts like "Old Pervert" and "I've Got The Hots For You", total Beefheart rippage w/ spikey solos which are just as much Richard Thompson-inspired as they are Magic Band. It's a schizophrenic mix which is brought together by the flawless musicianship - the band were, at least moreso than many punkers, seasoned musos who'd practiced their craft for years beforehand -and a sense of whimsy which is never cloying. They were simply a band stuck in the wrong time and place. Brit post-punk was, at least ideologically, all about looking forward. Musically, the best acts of that era carried off that forward-thinking music, too. The Soft Boys were bordering on being nostalgic - bassist Kimberly Rew, who later made a penny in '80s popsters, Katrina & The Waves (he wrote their hits, and I hope he was paid handsomely), freely admitted at the time that he "gave up" on new music in 1972(!), which I guess puts him well out of range of the Rough Trade school of agit-pop. Underwater Moonlight was released on the Armageddon label, the same one-man-operation which put out Half Japanese's epochal 1/2 Gentlemen/Not Beasts 3LP set at the time. It stiffed commercially, won some praise from the critics and disappeared from view from a number of years. Why it flopped so hard remains a mystery to me; the Soft Boys aren't a thousand miles from a band like XTC: new wavers steeped in British psychedelia who achieved some fame (and even commercial success) a couple of times in their career. Whatever. The band played a couple of shows of the east coast of the US of A then called it quits. Such is the stuff of folklore. What really counts is the fact that the Soft Boys wrote and played some exceptional music. They sound largely untouched by the '70s and the '80s (although they did sneak in Lou Reed and Roxy Music covers in there, too), and almost untouched by punk rock itself. Maybe that's why they don't sound dated, or at least trapped within a certain place and time. For me the second CD here is a tad excessive - I don't need to hear more alternate versions - but the first disc and the bonus tracks therein, killers such as "He's A Reptile", "Vegetable Man" and "Where Are The Prawns?" make up an excellent full-length CD.
On another note, Jay over at Hedonist Jive has just set up a short, sharp Tumblr account, named Dynamite Hemorrhage (go here). I'm tossing up the idea of this kinda thing, too. One thing it alerted me to (belatedly) is the ace site, Waitakere Walks, an archival-style music page which appears to also have a bit of an SST fixation. I need to waste a few hours there right now...