The Soft Boys were an English New Wave/psych band from Cambridge that debuted with a three-song EP on Raw Records in 1977, followed by the 1979/80 albums A Can of Bees (Two Crabs Universal) and Underwater Moonlight (Armageddon Records). Guitarist/vocalist Robyn Hitchcock launched a prolific solo career.
Members: Robyn Hitchcock (vocals, guitar), Morris Windsor (drums), Andy Metcalfe (bass, 1976-79), Rob Lamb (guitar, 1976-77), Alan Davies (guitar, 1977-78), Kimberley Rew (guitar, Moog, vocals, 1978-2003), Matthew Seligman (bass, Moog, 1979-2003)
The Soft Boys evolved from Dennis and the Experts, formed in the mid-1970s by Cambridge transplant Robyn Hitchcock (b. 1953, Paddington), a singer/songwriter and guitarist whose influences ranged from English folk rock to psychedelia and Captain Beefheart. His father was novelist and playwright Raymond John Hitchcock (1922–1992), best known for the 1969 comedy novel Percy. (In 1971, it was made into an erotic comedy film starring Elke Sommer and Britt Ekland with music by The Kinks).
In late 1976, Hitchcock renamed his band The Soft Boys, an amalgam of two novels by American Beat author William S. Burroughs: The Soft Machine (which inspired the name of this band) and The Wild Boys (later appropriated in a song by Duran Duran). Within months, the Soft Boys lineup stabilized with bassist Andy Metcalfe, guitarist Alan Davies, and drummer Morris Windsor.
In October 1977, they debuted with the EP Give It to The Soft Boys on the punk indie label Raw Records. It features two Hitchcock originals, “Wading Through a Ventilator” and “Hear My Brane,” plus the group-written “The Face of Death.” “Hear My Brane” appears on the 1978 label comp Oh No It’s More From Raw with cuts by The Gorillas, The Killjoys, Lockjaw, The Unwanted, and the Downliners Sect.
In 1978, Davies cleared out for Kimberley Rew (b. 1951, Bristol), a guitarist, keyboardist, and songwriter who led the unsigned Cambridge act The Waves during the mid-’70s. Before that, he cut material with another local unsigned act, Puzzle. Three Puzzle songs (“Emerald,” “Consuelo,” “Each Twist of the Knife”) appear on the 1973 Spaceward Studios comp The First Lame Bunny Album, which also features tracks by Public Foot the Roman and (later Advertising/Data member) Simon Boswell.
The Soft Boys signed to Radar Records (Elvis Costello, The Yachts) and issued their second shortplayer, “(I Want to Be an) Anglepoise Lamp” (b/w “Fat Man’s Son”), in May 1978. Both songs are Hitchcock originals. The single was produced by Andy Arthurs (A Raincoat, Arms & Legs, Celia & the Mutations, 999) and housed in a sleeve designed by Barney Bubbles (Quintessence, Hawkwind, Devo, Psychedelic Furs).
1979: A Can of Bees
The Soft Boys recorded material for an intended first album in a series of Radar-financed sessions at Rockfield Studios in Monmouthshire, Wales (also the recording site of Hemispheres, the concurrent album by Rush). Its working title was Heat Me Up and Tell Me You’re Happy. However, the band parted with Radar over the label’s dissatisfaction with a track called “The Day They Ate Brick.” With the Rockfield tapes withheld, the band drew from sessions held at Spaceward Studios in Cambridge between August and November 1978.
In April 1979, the Soft Boys released A Can of Bees on self-press Two Crabs Universal. It features 10 Hitchcock originals, including “Leppo and the Jooves,” “Do the Chisel,” “The Return of the Sacred Crab,” “The Rat’s Prayer,” and “The Pigworker.” A live rendition of “Wading Through a Ventilator” closes the album. Side B includes a cover of “Cold Turkey,” originally by John Lennon from his 1971 album Imagine.
A Can of Bees was originally pressed in a quantity of 2,500 copies. The back cover states “This album is dedicated to anyone who started out as an animal and winds up as a processing unit.” None of the tracks were issued as singles.
That summer, Metcalfe cleared out for bassist Matthew Seligman, formerly of Bruce Woolley and the Camera Club. The Soft Boys cut two new songs, “Have a Heart Betty” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Toilet,” both included on the 1980 reissue of A Can of Bees. That version, issued on Aura (UK) and Metronome (Germany), omits “Ventilator” and “School Dinner Blues.”
1980: Underwater Moonlight
In early 1980, The Soft Boys signed to Armageddon Records, a newly formed London independent label whose initial roster was steeped in stateside post-punk (1/2 Japanese, Pylon, The Method Actors). The Softs made their Armageddon debut with the EP Near the Soft Boys, the label’s second release (cat# AEP 002). It features two Hitchcock originals, “Kingdom of Love” and “Strange,” plus a cover of Syd Barrett‘s “Vegetable Man,” the subject of a 10-panel comic doodle on the rear sleeve.
The Soft Boys’ second album, Underwater Moonlight, appeared on Armageddon in June 1980. It features 10 tracks in all, including “Kingdom of Love” and seven new Hitchcock originals, such as “Insanely Jealous,” “Tonight,” and the title track. Side B includes two rare co-writes: the Hitchcock/Rew “You’ll Have to Go Sideways” and the group-written “Old Pervert.” The opening track, “I Wanna Destroy You,” became their next a-side (August 1980, b/w “I’m An Old Pervert (Disco)“).
Underwater Moonlight was primarily recorded between January and June 1980 at Alaska and James Morgan studios, London, with producer/engineer Pat Collier, former bassist of The Vibrators. Two tracks (“I Got the Hots” and “You’ll Have to Go Sideways”) were recorded in recorded June 1979 at Spaceward and co-produced between the band and engineer Mike Kemp. Violinist Gerry Hale and sitarist Andy King appear as guest musicians. The cover shows two mannequins presented as an elderly couple, seated arm-in-arm on a seaside jetty.
In 1981, just as The Soft Boys came undone, material from their prolific 1978–79 sessions appeared on two singles: “Only the Stones Remain” (b/w “The Asking Tree”) and “Love Poisoning” (b/w “When I Was a Kid”). Those last three titles are grouped with eight other non-album tracks on the posthumous comp Invisible Hits, released in 1983 on Midnight Music.
Hitchcock launched his solo career with the album Black Snake Diamond Röle, released in 1981 on Armageddon. After two further solo albums, he assembled the Egyptians with Soft Boys alumni Metcalfe and Windsor. Between 1985 and 1993, they released six studio albums and scored college radio hits with “Heaven,” “My Wife and My Dead Wife,” “If You Were a Priest,” and “Balloon Man.”
Rew stockpiled numerous originals during his time in The Soft Boys. After their breakup, he contacted drummer Alex Cooper, his old partner from The Waves. Cooper, who now drummed in a covers band called Mama’s Cookin’, invited Rew into the fold. That band, which switched to a setlist of Rew originals, renamed itself The Waves. Before long, American-born keyboardist Katrina Leskanich became their lead singer, prompting a final name-change to Katrina & the Waves. In 1985, they scored a global hit with the uptempo, brassy “Walking On Sunshine,” a pastiche of ’60s soul pop.
Metcalfe doubled as the Egyptians’ producer and moonlighted in Squeeze with sporadic keyboard contributions on their 1985–94 output.
Seligman reteamed with his Camera Club cohort Thomas Dolby in The Fallout Club, a synthpop band that issued three singles in 1980/81. Concurrently, the pair partook in the post-punk project Local Heroes SW9. Seligman then joined the Thompson Twins for their 1982 second album Set, which also features Dolby on three tracks. Dolby’s first two solo albums, The Golden Age of Wireless (1982) and The Flat Earth (1984), feature Seligman on string bass and Moog bass on select tracks. He also played bass on Hitchcock’s Black Snake and its 1982 followup Groovy Decay. In 1987, he was one of three bassists used on the album Catch the Fall by the Dolphin Brothers, the project of erstwhile Japan members Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri.
The Soft Boys reunited for a 1994 tour and again for a 2001 tour. Their second reunion produced the 2002 album Nextdoorland.
- Give It to The Soft Boys (EP, 1977)
- A Can of Bees (1979)
- Underwater Moonlight (1980)
- Two Halves for the Price of One (1982)
- Invisible Hits (1983)
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