Recently the MTV program 120 Minutes, the orphan of their long ago music video line=up, celebrated 30 years since its inception. The program was responsible for bring attention to the then developing Alternative rock genre. I was a huge aficionado of the show and it was the reason I often arrived quite bleary eyed to work on a Monday morning. It was this show that I can blame for introducing me to The Pixies, The Sugarcubes, The Lemonheads, and so many others including my featured topic for this classic rewind review, Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians.
I was pulled into what would become a never ending adoration for Robyn Hitchcock during this period of his widest mainstream accessibility. It was with the release of Queen Elvis and the glorious singles Madonna of the Wasps and One Long Pair of Eyes that many first became aware of his stellar works. Hitchcock has over time woven together an amazing career as a storied psychedelic troubadour. His works are a hybrid of surrealistic comedic elements, sagas filled with eccentric Englishmen and off kilter depictions of everyday life. His warped sensibilities and ability to marry the cheeriest, bounciest music to the most outrageous topics has won him a devoted following of fans throughout what ever incarnation he chooses to exists within. Way before Beck was ad-libbing lyrics to unfriendly crowds at the beginning of his career; Hitchcock was ad-libbing strange monologues on stage mesmerizing attendees at gigs.
It is not always easy to be a Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians fan in America. Not all of their works made it across the ocean and few receive the fanfare they truly deserve. For years now I have attempted to re purchase Queen Elvis on CD or download, and have struck out. I had to rely on my very ancient cassette of said album for this review. But one thing I know is this album has stuck with me ever since I first encountered it. Hence I wanted to give it some well deserved attention.
Hitchcock formed the group that bears his name with Morris Windsor on drums and Andy Melcalfe on bass, keyboards and yes even a fire extinguisher. Hitchcock, Melcalfe, and Windsor started out with the group The Soft Boys. Queen Elvis was Hitchcock’s 8th album and the Egyptians 5th. “Queen Elvis” followed up 1988’s Globe of Frogs where the song Balloon Man had gained the band a lot of attention. “Queen Elvis” was produced by Hitchcock and Melcalfe. An additional draw that made the release so noteworthy was the captivating guitar work of band friend/ guest guitarist Peter Buck of REM.
It is on Queen Elvis that all the influences that inspire Hitchcock and Co gelled. Elements of Dylan, Lennon, Syd Barnett, the Byrds and Bryan Ferry all take cameo roles. On “Queen Elvis” there was no messing about as straight out of the gate the release delivered Madonna of the Wasps a song that is filled with verve and energy as it grabs a hold and does not let go for the duration. Peter Buck’s trademark guitar licks are a wondrous addition taking the song to a different level. Also captivating is Hitchcock’s spellbinding poetic lyrics that are clever and informed by all of his eccentricities. Since its release this song has long been a yardstick I use to measure every other alternative single. It is alternative musical perfection.
The Devil’s Coachman put on display all of Hitchcock’s magnificently winsome song-writing. Here we are presented with the devil in the buff and in a snit. Hitchcock utilizes various common idioms to underline how ridiculous the world is and make prescient observations; “the universe is based on sullen entropy.” The apt string arrangement and tempo of the piece mesh perfectly with Hitchcock’s lyrics. They convey the sense of a trippy journey where one could meet just about anybody or anything. It could all be nonsense but the song is wry and clever and you’re drawn into seeing things from a completely different angle as presented by Hitchcock.
Again on Wax Doll Hitchcock and Co. do what they do best creating a world unlike reality. Robyn uses his special kind of magic to lure you into the surreal and the everyday combined. He creates a world akin to Alice’s Wonderland with Hitchcock doing the honours as the Mad Hatter as he presides over the festivities. The underlying theme in the song is a person’s perception of themselves weighs against what the world perceives and how different those perceptions can be. There is a grounded Englishness to the song that makes it special. It is a mid tempo ballad or as close as they get for Hitchcock who does not really admit to doing ballads. The outstanding interplay of the accompaniment creates a solid centere for the oddness to bounce off of making it catchy and approachable. Peter Buck again shines in his guest spot on the song.
The engaging Knife follows with a catalogue poem set to music. The guitar on this song is a real feature; as the track has a punchy definite rock feel. Also make sure to catch Andy Melcalfe using the fire extinguisher as percussion on the track. The lyrics round on themselves with the aside of “oh come off it, not again, do we have to go through it all again? All of this again?” He then returns to the beginning of the lyrics and starts again. The song is winning and winsome and again features Buck providing a strong infective guitar treatment.
The mesmerizing Swirling has lyrics that again could stand on their own as a literary poem in the stylings of E.E.Cummings and W.H. Auden. The guitars echo the swirling feeling making for a special song, it is entrancing and hypnotic. “Swirling” could be labelled a love song but only in the eccentric way Hitchcock can do one.
Since its creation One Long Pair of Eyes has become a standard song in gigs for Hitchcock. It is a song that responds both to acoustic renderings and electric manifestations. It is a wondrous entity. Here it receives a full band treatment. Hitchcock alludes to and reinterprets various fairy tales stark and odd and makes them his own, “On black Fellini sails, tattered rags that hang on nails remind me you the mistress of your chair…on the lone Norwegian shore lovers weep forever more in evening.” The gorgeous guitar, glistening piano and bass spotlight Hitchcock’s vocals making for a rich and glorious song.
Veins of the Queen is whimsy taken to the nth degree. Hitchcock presents the idea of going for a ride in the veins of Queen Elizabeth. Only he could pull off such a bizarre idea. The song is quirky, clever and wry. It is surprisingly addictive and the idea seems plausible when suggested by Hitchcock, which just underlines his gifts. It is a simple forthright song that is really utter silliness hence the attraction. “Oh the veins of her majesty the Queen they are so regal and serene how I’d love to say I’d been.” Building the fantasy of the lyrics are the apt regal horns and panoply at the end.
Freeze again features Peter Buck on guitar. We are asked to follow the story of Elaine who represents the concept of justice, Roy who is a farmer and Steve who is the dead man in your heart. The best lyrics of this song are “I know who wrote the book of love it was an idiot, it was a fool, a slobbering fool with a speech defect and a shaky hand and he wrote my name next to yours. But it should have been David Byrne or someone else.” What is so brilliant about Hitchcock’s song writing is that he draws you into arresting surreal storytelling lyrics and then slams you into reality at the most unexpected times, keeping you on your toes to take in all he has on offer. “Freeze” is definitely a great example of this technique. Also to be commended on the song is the combination of jittery guitar, dissonant horn and a world beat drum.
The slow tempo Autumn Sea ventures into encapsulating the dying of the fruitful time of the year and compares it to the end of a relationship. Described is a relationship that had ended a friendship; “The kind of love you are to me, I stole you from a very special friend, so that friendship had to end.” Underlined is the idea that to live is to betray. The song structure juxtaposes the emotion of the lyric with a silly eccentric monologue. It is as if at the point where things get too serious there has to be a break with some inanity. Think Monty Python breaking up a skit with the catch phrase “and now for something completely different”. It is probably the most obtuse song of the collection but is fantastic in its own barking mad way.
The final song Superman is a slow burner that builds and builds momentum and is so off kilter it comes off like a drunken rant at times. The track then circles around to the fantastic semi paranoid lyric, “it took the Holy Roman Empire to get you by my side, I’m going to be more careful with you aren’t I”. The song is lip smacking eclectic goodness that rocks off into the ether.
Robyn Hitchcock is a 21st century Renaissance man, who has written poems, designed album covers, acted in movies and written short stories. Here is a man never afraid to have a laugh at himself or get his hands dirty digging in his subconscious; revealing all the surrealistic thoughts and images that he finds there. His delicious sense of humour and appreciation of the ridiculous makes him a living treasure. Queen Elvis is Hitchcock at the top of his game weaving a gloriously decadent tapestry of memorable lyrics and sounds. If there was ever an album in definite need of a re release it is Queen Elvis. Upon dusting off and listening to this album my response is All hail to the man who touts himself as “Indie rocks foremost authority on the United Kingdom’s trolleybus system”, all hail Queen Elvis.