Listen to this track by neo-psychedelic janglers and left-of-center pop song crafters The Soft Boys. It’s “I Wanna Destroy You” as taken from their 1980 album Underwater Moonlight, their second.
The record would prove to be a slow burn when it came to success in the mainstream. But, in the meantime this song and the rest of the album would be a touchstone to inspire a number of bands coming up behind them in the new decade, including REM, Yo La Tengo, the Replacements, and the Pixies.
The Soft Boys was creatively driven by songwriter, singer and guitarist Robyn Hitchcock, a musician who would distinguish himself as a songwriter of unique lyrical perspectives and in no half-measures during the rest of the 1980s and up until the present as a solo artist.
And like Hitchcock would demonstrate in his solo career, the Soft Boys would pull from some of those same influences that must have seemed out of date at the time this song came out; The Byrds, Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, Revolver-era Beatles, and vintage Bob Dylan. By the end of the 1970s, new wave was the thing, and old wave was out.
But, the retro sound of the record was matched with the hostile sentiments laid down by punk rock, aligning the Soft Boys in both camps, yet in neither, too.
Maybe this had to do with where the Soft Boys formed, which was Cambridge, and also the birthplace of The Floyd. But, more importantly, it was a place removed from hip London, which was as always the center of the British music industry. Removed from the bustling competition and the demands of record labels to chase the trends, the band had the room to develop as they would in their own environs. This meant their sound was characterized by the attack of punk rock, but with harmony singing associated with a lot of ’60s music, too. What basket are you meant to put that combination in, exactly?
Another thing that the band added was a certain level of social transparency. More to the point, they were up front about being middle-class during a time when working-class accents and sensibilities were the order of the day. This wasn’t exactly de rigueur among rock bands at the time, and in some ways still isn’t. You still have to have at least a whiff of the street to be rock ‘n’ roll, says the rulebook. In this respect, their name “The Soft Boys” was one that was pretty self-aware when set among The Clash, The Stranglers, and Killing Joke.
Like those bands, I think the disdain of mainstream viewpoints and the revulsion of the tendency for a certain sector of society to do what they’re told without question was still pretty honest. I mean, this song is called “I Wanna Destroy You”. But despite the sonic aggression, this song is more “Positively 4th Street” than it is “God Save The Queen”, ultimately. That’s what makes it such a singular statement; it rebels against the rebels, while still talking about some of the same things.
Of course, not being very easily filed genre-wise or aligned with any particular scene, the record would go on to achieve ‘cult status’. The Soft Boys would break up as a formal unit by the next year.
As mentioned, Robyn Hitchcock would continue his trajectory as a songwriter who would completely avoid any and all songwriting cliches as a sterling, although kind of loopy, writer of pop songs. He’d often work with his former bandmates as Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians. Guitarist Kimberley Rew would help to form Katrina & The Waves and have a huge hit in “Walking On Sunshine”. Bassist Matthew Seligman would become a sought after sessioner, playing on records by Thompson Twins, Thomas Dolby, Sinead O’Connor, Morrissey and many others.
And eventually, the Soft Boys would come together again in 2002, with a follow-up in Nextdoorland.
To learn more about Underwater Moonlight, you can read about it where it has been reviewed with great affection at Pitchfork.com.
And should you wish to delve into the mind of Robyn Hitchcock, the best place to start would be Robynhitchcock.com, of course.