A Capella three-part harmony is not common in any modern artists catalog, but Robyn here does it in his own inimitable style. With a loose premise of the damage done by accepting quirky behavior in children, Robyn gets his digs in on the modern fixation with pop psychology and media coverage of the same. My favorite verse:
Even Marilyn Monroe was a man
But this tends to get over looked
By our mother-fixated
Overweight, sexist media
What does that have to do with the subject at hand? Rather little, but it is an amusing aside.
Since much of this project is really about my involvement and connection with Hitchcock, allow me to digress into anecdote. Some time ago (roughly a decade, I think) I made a mixtape of cabaret/music hall inspired music for my mother. This is one of the tracks I chose, I believe to end the first side. I picked the song because of it’s sonic sensibility not lyrical content, but my mother picked up on the lyrics right away. If you examine the lyrics (available for perusal here), there is a verse describing the balance of parental involvement and the consequences. The consequences do not describe me, but the over/under involvement ratio was the same in my life as stated herein. I was asked rather pointedly whether I was trying to imply something with this choice of song; she certainly did not see her role in raising me as coddling to my strange childhood tics and behaviors, or that any issues I may be facing as an adult could possibly be tied to how she treated me as a child, excepting maybe in my poor relationship with my father which she tried, oh she tried, so desperately to strengthen and improve.
Please believe that I had not consciously meant, or hoped she would infer, anything from this track. That she did, however, and the way she reacted to it, made me reconsider it and what possible correlations it has to my life. Since this event, I’ve liked the song much more than I had in prior years.
One of the few songs from the ill-fated Groovy Decay sessions that Robyn hasn’t disowned, “Fifty Two Stations” is a bittersweet love song, a remembrance of a past relationship that ended poorly. The singer can’t understand her and sees her as self-absorbed, all of which messes with his head until he lashes out and leaves. Only in hindsight can he see that the differences and the self-absorption was on both sides. Instead of recriminations and anger, Hitchcock’s focus is on the sadness of it all.
As far is the music, it isn’t much more than a mid-tempo rocker with a bad Dire Straits panning drum intro (really close to “Money For Nothing”, though that came later) on Decay, with just enough angular guitar to keep it moving. The Kershaw Sessions version, however, is both softer and a little cheesier than the earlier release. This is distinctly not an improvement; it sounds vaguely like a song writer’s demo for some 60s soft rock group, say, Harper’s Bizarre.
Despite my serious undersell, it is a good song. This is a good representative of the part of Hitchcock’s catalog that often gets overlooked; everyone focuses on the eccentricities and misses the pure pop songs he always wrote and nestled in beside the crustaceans, death and anthropomorphic inanimate objects.
Another elliptical/spiral guitar figure at the heart of “Glass”. I’ve noticed before that this type of riff (for lack of a better word) is somewhat of a signature style, but I didn’t quite realize how often he draws upon it. With this song, as with much of The Egyptians catalog, Robyn counters the calliope guitar work with a high, soft keyboard line of tinkling bells. This is in stark contrast to The Soft Boys, where he and Kimberly Rew would play off of and amplify the main guitar riff with more guitar, often in close harmonics.
Evoking a calliope, whether conscious or not, has certain connotations. Myself, I’ve always associated that sound – the falling and rising notes that repeat without connecting the circle – with the circus. Within the context of the Soft Boys, the dual guitar playing off the elliptical base invites madness; an aural equivalent to the frightening effect of clowns on many children. Here it isn’t madness (the trebly bells soften that feeling) but it does keep the listener slightly off-kilter to the songs benefit. Hitchcock plays on it in the lyrics, evoking the edge, the slight danger, in the third verse:
Glass protects you but glass can shatter
Hear the sirens, hear the screams
Hitchcock often opens albums powerfully, almost grabbing you and pulling you into the new vision. Moss Elixir opens with this song, all violins and roughly vibrating metal guitar strings. The sound of the strings is more important than the notes; they add an ominous undertone to the sweet soaring violin line high above. It is that contrast that Hitchcock plays with in the lyrics, the happiness to be found in the shadows, the allure of the femme fatale.
It is a hard song for me to talk about because it is wrapped up in layers of memories and anecdotes close to my heart. Moss Elixir was the first Hitchcock album to be released after my wife and I began dating. At the time, she liked some Hitchcock but wasn’t a big fan, and she humored my obsession more than she understood it. This song changed that. She really, really loved it from the first listen, and it opened up a door for her to appreciate Robyn, warts and all.
In 1999, she and I saw Hitchcock in Baltimore on the “Rock Armada” tour following the release of Jewels For Sophia. We had found a good spot, about fifteen feet back and off a little to the left of center. About halfway through his set, he played this song. It was a different arrangement (instead of Deni Bonet on violin, Kimberley Rew was playing the guitar with a hand held effects processor, an e-bow or something similar), but just as magical. My wife was quietly singing along, not even loud enough for me to hear. Midway through the song, Robyn looked our way and saw her singing. It may sound like a load of bull, but he watched her singing along with him until the end of the verse, and then smiled, big and broad, before turning away and moving on. Though I’ve seen better shows, that is far and away my favorite concert memory.
Thinking back, I believe this may be the first Hitchcock song I ever heard. It is the first I ever possessed; I may have heard “Balloon Man”, but this was the song that connected artist and sound. A female friend put this on a mix she made me, placing it second on the tape, following the sorely unsung “Hammer Of Love” by Flesh For Lulu. At the time I wished these two songs were messages, not so subtle hints and thought; sadly, I knew they weren’t because she and I spent many long, fruitless hours talking about her mad crush on my best friend. I was sixteen, and the idea of my female friends doing and thinking untoward things occupied most of my thoughts.
Strangely enough, “Vibrating” is a great introductory song. It has a typical Robyn Hitchcock guitar part, spiraling in on itself instead of quite being a circle. The lyrics combine the unseemly with the clever, including a nice aphoristic bit in “to slither is sublime”. The beat is steady and strong, the backing vocals going ba bomp/ba bomp aaaaah during the last two verses charming and unnecessary, even though they do reinforce the closing line “she couldn’t concentrate”.
Thanks Nicole; wouldn’t have had this obsession without you and that mixtape.
Those ghastly saxophones! Sadly, the first thing I think of with this song are the hideous pop sax licks that “vamp” in the verses, and then solo in the middle. Probably why I don’t listen to the Groovy Decay/Groovy Decoy [both sets compiled in 1995 as Gravy Deco, which is how I will label it] material as much as it deserves. Hitchcock was admittedly in a songwriting slump, but he still managed to put some strong songs on tape only to have them buried under piles of steaming eighties crap in the studio.
This particular track is transitory, in both a topical and sonic sense; the evolutionary step between the agitated punk sounds of “I Watch The Cars” and the shimmering pop of “My Wife And My Dead Wife”. Unlike some of the other songs from this ill-fated project, the two versions are not too dissimilar. The Decoy demo version melds Robyn’s guitar sound on “Underwater Moonlight” with a minimalist backing not unlike something from Suicide’s self-titled first album. But then ghastly sax shows up and smears it’s fecal vibe on everything. Decay has a cleaner guitar tone, and Ms. Sara Lee getting downright funky on bass. I swear a stripped down (i.e., no sax) version of the finished Decay track would be a near classic.
To make my point, Robyn and his then recently convened Egyptians absolutely rip through this on the live Gotta Let This Hen Out! album. Without cutting anything but the short saxophone solo, they manage to trim nearly 30 seconds off the studio takes. Morris Windsor and Andy Metcalfe are in full tear/ Andy not as fluid as Sara Lee on bass, but much more aggressive; Morris skittering and bouncing like a waterbug, lots of rim hits and double-time passages (reminiscent of Stuart Copland, a comparison I don’t use lightly or often). Even with some cheesy keyboard peaking occasionally through the mix, it is easily the definitive recorded version.
I wrote the following on June 15, 2003:
“Mr. Deadly” is a track from Robyn Hitchcock’s Invisible Hitchcock that just emerged from my computer speakers as I was tweaking the template for this weblog. I just put my 6800 mp3’s on random and let my computer “entertain” me when I’m doing mundane tasks like updating links, and was blindsided by this song. I’ve probably heard it at least 100 times, and I’ve never really taken a shine to it. Hitchcock’s greatest songs tend to be (understandably) guitar driven. “Mr. Deadly” is all keyboard – moody chords, flat early eighties drums (the sound to me was always a bongo with a sock on it) – complete with a vocal echo & multitrack chorus, and a Tones on Tail menacing atmospheric wash.
Randomly the radio that wanders through the stations like a train
Flickers on the dashboard as the melody dissolves into his brain
“Mr. Deadly” has surprised me. It’s the case of a certain song finding a way to be heard, a way to connect to a listener at a specific time and place. Today is overcast outside, my mind is tired and sluggish, and a slow miasma of a knowing step-outside the lines of convention and expectation has invaded my cells through porous walls. I may hate it tomorrow, a trite and cheesy eighties mistake. But oh, “Mr. Deadly”, you’re comfort and succor keep me whole.
And all who hear him say you must be further gone then they
And all who hear him say he must be mad to be himself around today