Listen to this track by formerly monikered Soft Boys and ’80s neo-psychedeliaists Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians. It’s “Madonna Of The Wasps”, the lead track on their 1989 record Queen Elvis. In addition to former Soft Boys members Hitchcock, plus bassist Andy Metcalfe, and drummer Morris Windsor, this song features the distinctive lines of another key player worth mentioning; R.E.M’s Peter Buck.
Buck, and his band, were formed by following the example of what Hitchcock had laid down with the Soft Boys, particularly their Underwater Moonlight album. And here, Hitchcock reinforces that influence on one of his most enduring pop songs. A recurring theme in his work seems to revolve around insects, from cans of bees as forming the title of the first Soft Boys record, to references to Antwomen later on, and even with a documentary about him called Sex, Food, Death … And Insects, with all of those other things referenced being recurring themes in his work as well.
Hitchcock’s particular parallel is to draw a comparison between our six-legged friends and a form of idealized womanhood. And no song does this better than this one. And it shows something else too beyond Hitchcock’s affinity for writing songs about our winged, stingie-tailed pals.
After nearly a decade putting out records by this point, Robyn Hitchcock wasn’t a household name. As is often the case, incredible skill, scope, and singularity when it comes to being a musician and recording artist does not always translate into international success. But, it often means that such an artist has an impact on others of their ilk who go on to reach that goal instead.
This is certainly the case when it comes to Hitchcock and Peter Buck respectively. But, besides that, Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians were certainly paid back by R.E.M, joining them on the Green tour in 1988 when R.E.M were attaining a new level of exposure at the beginning of their rise to million-selling mainstream success. All the while, Hitchcock still maintained a distinctive worldview when it came to approaching the matter of writing songs, while also maintaining his cult status too perhaps as a result. But, Hitchcock would still tackle many of the same ideas as most pop songwriters, including songs about the nature of love.
This is a love song, and one of his best. It’s Hitchcock’s roundabout way of saying that love can be both beautiful and dangerous at the same time, embodied here by a spectacularly patterned and coloured creature with a terrifying sting. It’s as good a metaphor for love as any. And it certainly plays into a tradition of pop songwriting that talks about the double-edged nature of love, although (as always on a Hitchcock song) completely without any established songwriting reference points. That’s his genius.
Hitchcock made his North American TV debut on the David Letterman show with this song, which included a spoken word intro that is appropriately bonkers. Over the next few years, he would court the North American mainstream particularly with his Perspex Island album that played into this same jangly Byrds-meets-Barrett style of pop. But, his unique approach to songwriting, and to presenting ideas that asked the listener to do a little more digging would continue to mark his work, which maybe hurt his chances at the top ten.
In the meantime, Peter Buck would continue to guest on Robyn Hitchcock records, and even on live shows in his new backing group The Venus 3 in the 2000s. And the subject of love would continue to be explored in odd angles, too. With subject matter as complex as love, you need the work of specialists working at various points on the love song writing spectrum to bring it to life. Maybe this is more important than being a household name.
Learn more about Robyn Hitchcock at robynhitchcock.com.