"If Robyn was a building, he'd definitely be listed!"
Sunday 30th October 2016, 7.30pm
The Greystones, Sheffield
TalkingGigs was set up to feature "artists who have something interesting to say and play". So far the focus had been on musicians from across the world or within the UK folk/roots genre. But, having listened to his music for approaching 40 years, I was delighted to be able to feature Robyn Hitchcock as a first from the UK rock/pop tradition. He's had an astonishingly long career and is still writing songs as strong as his early material - how many people can you say that about?
The gig sold out weeks in advance showing what an enthusiastic following he still has ... and people who know his music well. So rather than just follow my own ideas for questions, I invited people to send questions in and then constructed a (hopefully) coherent set of topics.
Nicky Crewe's review below captures some of what she learned - and I suspect that we would all have added another 3 things. But I took away more than just the answers to the questions, and that was from Robyn's manner of talking with me (before, during and after the gig) and interacting with members of the audience - the man is charming, intelligent, thoughtful and erudite ... but perhaps I knew that anyway ... but now I know that it's for real!
And finally, a big thankyou to the audience members who called out requests for the beautiful and haunting 'Raymond Chandler Evening' and '1974' - which reflects on the period immediately before Robyn's own musical career began and captured perfectly his earlier stories of growing up. And a final thanks for the audience member who said afterwards: "If Robyn was a building, he'd definitely be listed!" A perfect evening!
Once again, my thanks to Nicky Crewe for her fine review - a slightly edited version here. The full version can be found on the excellent pennyblackmusic website.
I’ve written about TalkingGigs before. It’s a great format that includes music and conversation with artists who usually represent a different cultural background and musical tradition. It’s fascinating and revealing.
Robyn Hitchcock’s interview was a departure from this approach. It’s the first time a TalkingGig has featured someone with a UK rock background. The event sold out, and Charles Ritchie, the man behind TalkingGigs, came to the front of the stage, taking on the role of interviewer. There’s usually an audience Q&A session as part of the proceedings, and this was extended by an email request for questions from the crowd before the gig. Charles also mentioned that many of those who bought tickets were first timers to TalkingGigs.
Many there shared a long history with Robyn and his music, more than forty years since he emerged on the music scene with the Soft Boys, influenced by psychedelia, folk, rock and Syd Barrett. Those influences and that sense of musical heritage are still apparent. Robyn Hitchcock talked of past times with great recall and a quirky slant. He conjured up memories of playlists on pub jukeboxes of the seventies. He described his fifteen year old self, wearing a greatcoat, albums tucked under his arm, looking for that elusive two quid deal.
He’s a great conversationalist, a gift for an interviewer. The questions led to revelations and connections, but more importantly, they led to music - so that talk about his involvement with Joe Boyd and the ‘White Bicycles’ tour (where Joe read from his book and Robyn illustarted the words by playing songs of som eof the featured artists) led to his version of Nick Drake’s ‘Riverman’.
Often described as an English eccentric, with his roots in the surrealism of a particular genre of sixties pop music, he discussed his approach to songwriting. Asked about explanations of his lyrics, he told us that a song that takes three minutes to play could take a couple of days to explain. He did, however, reveal in response to a later question that ‘Brenda’, a song he wrote with Captain Sensible, was about a teddy bear.
So what did I learn about Robyn Hitchcock?
On self awareness – "If God has wanted us to see ourselves, she’d have surrounded us with mirrors."
He regards himself as an aesthete, judging people by their clothes, their books, their choice of music, their image.
He doesn’t consider himself an emotional singer, he’s "too Southern" for that. He goes for something that sounds good.
He’s a young hippy that grew old, who aged but never grew up.
Asked whether his old songs still seem appropriate, he talked about the influence of Dylan and Lou Reed, both capable of a mean spirited misogyny in their lyrics. He finds some of his unpleasant with hindsight. Some are naff, but some still work.
“A good song knows more than you do about your life." It’s like a camera.
He talked about being more open to different kinds of music as he gets older, about the spots rubbing off. (An intriguing image given that he was wearing a series of his trademark polka dot shirts!)
I was able to ask him which concert he’d been to on Captain Beefheart’s 'Clear Spot' tour of 1973. It was Bristol. He talked about the impact of seeing him in another interview and I love that he has the nerve to cover his songs and to do it so well.
Whereas the first half had been conversation interspersed with music, the second half was all about music. On some of the songs he was accompanied beautifully by Emma Swift, who has been touring with him. There were old favourites, including 'Cheese Alarm', 'Glass Hotel' and 'Queen Elvis'. Requests from the audience included 'Raymond Chandler Evening'.
His voice is wonderful, with a power that seemed to be held back and even constrained in the intimate space of the BackRoom of the Greystones pub. There are echoes of Syd Barrett and John Lennon, even Roy Harper in his style and delivery.
He has a loyal fan base. I don’t think anyone there was disappointed and I’m sure I am not the only one who left with a greater understanding and appreciation of him. There was a lot of humour in his approach and responses.
He finished his set with an encore of two songs he’d wished he had written. The Beatles’ 'A Day in the Life' and Dylan’s 'Just Like a Women'. These are both songs with enormous resonance for his contemporaries in the audience, and he and Emma more than did them justice.
I’ve seen other musicians interviewed over the years, usually to promote a book. What was different about this was the balance between conversation and performance. But if Robyn Hitchcock is thinking of writing one, I’d love to read it.