Robyn Hitchcock: 'Rock 'N' Roll Is An Old Man's Game Now'
Robyn Hitchcock turns 60 this weekend. The British singer and guitarist has traveled a long way to this point, beginning in the 1970s as the frontman of proto-punk group The Soft Boys and continuing through a solo career that has produced hundreds of songs. He's even appeared in a few films: Jonathan Demme showcased the singer in Storefront Hitchcock and gave him a cameo as a Russian operative in the 2004 verison of The Manchurian Candidate.
Hitchcock also has a new album, Love From London. Speaking from the London studios of the BBC, just before a tour that will take him across the U.S. and U.K., he says the milestone birthday hasn't set him to reflecting just yet.
"I think I used to reflect a lot more," Hitchcock says. "I remember being very broody when I came up to 30, thinking, 'Oh God, now I'm going to get old.' Now, you realize the less time you have left, the more you just want to get on with it."
He adds, "Forty years ago, when I first got hold of an electric guitar, if someone had told me that at 60 I'd be playing amplified beat music, I would have just said, 'Get out of here! ... It's like Mr. Rogers is playing guitar; that's gross!' But you know, rock 'n' roll is an old man's game now."
To hear more of Hitchcock's conversation with NPR's Rachel Martin, click the audio link on this page.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now, as we promised, the weird and wonderful musical journey of British artist Robyn Hitchcock.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KINGDOM OF LOVE")
ROBYN HITCHCOCK: (Singing) In the spiritual Kingdom of Love...
MARTIN: There he is singing as front man with The Soft Boys, a proto-punk band he founded in the late 1970s. During his solo career, he has created over 500 songs with curious titles, including "Where Are The Prawns?" "Chinese Bones" and "The Cheese Alarm."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CHEESE ALARM")
HITCHCOCK: (Singing) Oh please, somebody ring the cheese alarm...
MARTIN: Filmmaker Jonathan Demme is also a fan. Demme showcased the singer in "Storefront Hitchcock" and gave him the role of a sinister Russian operative in the 2004 version of "The Manchurian Candidate."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE")
HITCHCOCK: (as Laurent Tokar) Pardon me.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hmm.
HITCHCOCK: (as Laurent Tokar) Is this seat taken? I see the captain enjoys the road less traveled.
MARTIN: Today, March 3rd, Robyn Hitchcock celebrates his 60th birthday. And on Tuesday, he releases his new album. It's called "Love From London."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "DEATH AND LOVE")
HITCHCOCK: (Singing) Yes (unintelligible), I'm a fool....
MARTIN: And Robyn Hitchcock joins us from the studios of the BBC in London. Mr. Hitchcock, so happy to talk with you.
HITCHCOCK: Hi, Rachel. How is it over there?
MARTIN: It's pretty good. We're doing pretty well. So the big 6-0, huh?
HITCHCOCK: Yes, that's right.
MARTIN: I mean, I don't want to make too much of this - 60 is quite young in my book. But are you doing a little reflecting about your musical career and where you have been, and where you are and where you want to go?
HITCHCOCK: No. No, not at all.
HITCHCOCK: No, I think because there's less time. I think I used to reflect a lot more. Now, I remember being very broody when I came up to 30, thinking, oh, God, you know, now I'm going to get old. And now, you realize the less time you have left, the more you just want to get on with it.
HITCHCOCK: I mean, I'm not sure I want to be one of those spry nonagenarians when they go, Oh, he's 90 years young - God bless him. You know, I bet he was a goer in his day and all that lot. I'd like to exit probably before all my teeth do, you know. But 40 years ago, when I first got hold of an electric guitar, if someone had told me that at 60 I'd be playing amplified beat music, I would have just said get out of here, that's disgusting.
HITCHCOCK: You know, old men. It's like having old, you know, Mr. Rogers is playing electric guitar. That's gross.
HITCHCOCK: But no, you know, here I am. I mean, rock 'n' roll is an old man's game now. You know, The Stones are 70 this year, aren't they?
HITCHCOCK: And Dylan is 72 - whatever. So it doesn't matter, you know, we're just following where somebody else went...
HITCHCOCK: ...as is so often the case.
MARTIN: You have described your songs as paintings that you can listen to. I'd love to get into your newest album. Let's listen to a bit of the first track, a very evocative but kind of dark picture that you're painting here. Let's take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARRY'S SONG")
HITCHCOCK: (Singing) Nothing answers like the ocean to the albatross that punctuates the sky, the sky. Pterodactyls used to hang there, silhouetted high above the broken sea...
MARTIN: All kinds of haunting images in there, that's the first track off the album. It's called "Harry's Song." Who's Harry?
HITCHCOCK: He's somebody who was a kind of king in his own way. But his abilities are beginning to leave him and he's found himself on a beach. And he has no idea whether he's in this age or an age that is millions of years ahead or behind him. You know, there's nothing really to show where he is. He misses somebody but he doesn't know whether they ever existed. It's that kind of loneliness. That sets the scene.
And then the next song is on a beach in Tel Aviv and it's a much more kind of close-up picture of somebody - this time, a woman on her own.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "BE STILL")
HITCHCOCK: (Singing) What is swimming through her mind as she sits alone...
Rather than starting a record off with a kind of up-tempo bang that announces, hey, this might get a few spins on the radio, I thought, well, let's actually put the most reflective song on the record. And then it does gradually get more up-tempo but you're coming in gently.
MARTIN: The tempo does shift. There are other so-called paintings on this album that are definitely not dark and gloomy. Here's one that sounds kind of pleasant and it's got this ethereal, dreamy quality, though I'm not quite sure what it means. But let's take a listen to this. It's called "Strawberries Dress."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRAWBERRIES DRESS")
HITCHCOCK: (Singing) Telecom Tower, the tree doesn't reach above your head...
In this one, it's set in Fitzrovia in London at Telecom Tower which is like our - gosh, I don't know whether you've got - the Space Needle in Seattle...
MARTIN: Sure, yeah.
HITCHCOCK: ...is probably a reference, you know. Here we have some people wandering around Fitzrovia, which is the middle of London, dominated by the tower. As you come to the street corners you keep seeing it sort of peering down at you, you know, like the cat in the old Monty Python film. And it seems to sort of follow you around.
So this song is seen from the perspective of somebody who feels overlooked. Not ignored, but they just feel slightly intimidated by other people.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRAWBERRIES DRESS")
HITCHCOCK: (Singing) And so weak with you, I'm scared that you'll explode or walk away. You...
MARTIN: Is that something that you have felt at some point, overlooked?
HITCHCOCK: Well, not ignored but I certainly, you know, I'm very easily intimidated. I'm your classic shy middle-class Brit. You know, you tell me to go and jump out of the window and I'll get as far as the ledge before I think, ooh, I don't really think I have to, actually. You know?
HITCHCOCK: I'm a very meek, biddable sort of person. But I don't feel totally demoralized person that everybody steps on. You know, it's just sometimes that happens.
MARTIN: I'd like to ask you about inspiration, where that comes from for you.
HITCHCOCK: Ah. Yes, see, like fif-whatever it was now. Forty-five years ago, I was listening to all these records like Bob Dylan and "Sgt. Pepper" by The Beatles and "Forever Changes" by Love, and Captain Beefheart and the Velvet Underground, and the Incredible String Band and many others. And I just gradually absorbed this stuff and I developed a kind of songwriting muscle. I didn't write anything very good for about 10 years.
The song you played at the beginning of this interview, "Kingdom of Love," I wrote when I was 26. So, you know, I spent 10 years working on this. And I mention that because I now have kind of installed this mechanism in me which writes songs. And I just don't take any notice of it. So inspiration, the only other thing I would say at the end of this very long sentence...
HITCHCOCK: ...is that's its most likely to occur between April and October, the warm months. I get a lot in harvest time.
HITCHCOCK: This time of year, I don't even bother. I mean, I'll play the guitar but I'm not going to sit there hunched over the notebook.
MARTIN: The cold doesn't do it for you.
HITCHCOCK: No. No. No. I have the potency of the lizard. You know, it all comes in when I'm warm and my dry skin begins to flex in the buds of heat or - in Britain...
HITCHCOCK: In the case of Britain, summer rain.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
HITCHCOCK: (Singing) Welcome to the under...
MARTIN: Robyn Hitchcock, his new album is called "Love from London." It comes out on Tuesday on Yep Roc Records. He joined us from our studios at the BBC in London.
Robyn, it's been a pleasure. Thanks so much for talking with us.
HITCHCOCK: Likewise. Thanks, Rachel.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
HITCHCOCK: (Singing) Love from London...
MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.