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Baker's Dozen

Grit In One’s Third Eye: Robyn Hitchcock’s Baker’s Dozen
Julian Marszalek , February 11th, 2013 11:14

English songwriter and frontman of The Soft Boys, The Venus Three and The Egyptians, Robyn Hitchcock leads Julian Marszalek through his most played LPs

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The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground
This opens with ‘Candy Says’, which is sung by Doug Yule, which is not so far away from how Lou Reed could sing. You get to The Velvet Underground’s third record via the first two and they had their own peculiar momentum and they also seemed to mutate drastically from record to record. Whether it was a change in the song writing style or the recording approach or the personnel or the mood of Lou Reed or John Cale, it’s hard to tell but Cale had gone. They had got rid of him.

I asked Andrew Loog Oldham once, “Do you think all great bands hate each other?” and he just looked at me and said, “I hope so!” Taking John Cale out made it easier for the group to function but it took out a certain kind of tension. Those last two Velvet Underground records are more relaxed than the first two, less intense. I don’t know if he’s on this but the organ play-out on the end of ‘What Goes On’ suggests that it is him because it’s so simple and one of the great things about The Velvet Underground was their ability to be simple. You know, Maureen Tucker’s half drum kit and the fact that she didn’t whack the hi-hat and the snare like every other bloody rock drummer in the universe; the fact that she hit the drums on the beat on ‘I’m Waiting For My Man’ exactly the same time as the guitarist did and if you don’t do that then covering the song is kind of pointless. All those touches that she added to it and she’s also singing ‘Afterhours’ and ‘The Murder Mystery’ which is an inexplicable piece of music and in those days you could test whether you had mono or stereo by panning that track!

It’s quite an inscrutable record; it appears to be telling some kind of story and Lou Reed would hint in interviews that it was but he might have just been playing the interviewer along. He might have been flattered by the interviewer into thinking that it was a concept album. After the previous two records it’s mercifully low on fuzz and overdriven sound. White Light/White Heat is an exercise in overdrive and this one is quite gently recorded. There’s a lot of hypnotic, narcotic sort of lower mid bass and rhythm guitar and ‘Candy Says’ particularly has it. It’s like what The Beatles had around the same time on things like ‘The Sun King’ and ‘Don’t Let Me Down’. It’s quite warm. I don’t know what The Velvet Underground’s drug intake was at the time but if you hear the demos from around that time there’s quite a lot of scratchy stuff like ‘Foggy Notion’ and the stuff that popped up on VU which is nice but quite scrappy and really is like early garage but this record is quite purely and deliberately done.

And the guitar solos! I don’t know if Sterling Morrison does it but there’s a lovely guitar solo on ‘Jesus’ and there’s a lovely one on ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ that’s extremely melodic and it’s not that screechy guitar that Lou plays on ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’ but that’s why I don’t think it’s Lou because it’s quite delicately worked out.

It’s restrained and after the previous two records it comes as a surprise. I bought it when it first came out when I was 16 and I had a smoking license and I was straight away taken by the atmosphere. It’s a record with a lot of depth. It goes down a long way and it has a kind of sense of compassion and sort of regret, sort of wistfulness, stuff that Lou Reed doesn’t seem capable of doing now because he’s so kind of defensive. He’s such a body builder these days. There’s a vulnerability here that he doesn’t seem to allow himself anymore and I’m assuming that Lou was the songwriter. I don’t know if it was the people he was writing about but I know that he wrote in character a bit or whether it was because he was living with his parents in Long Island or whether it was something they were putting on his toast or whether his bowels had relaxed because he wasn’t with John Cale anymore but it’s a very humane record.

I love singing the songs off this record. When we got together the other night in Mexico, Peter [Buck] had gone to bed but we sat outside and we managed to play through all of the songs on acoustic guitar apart from ‘The Murder Mystery’.

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Feb 11, 2013 6:35pm

Excellent reading. Give this man his own spot on Quietus!

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Barthold Pelzer
Feb 11, 2013 6:35pm

One could moan: Yeah, a lot of predictable entries, few surprises (apart possibly from The Kinks are Village Green Preservation Society missing). But then there is this delightful and genuinely surprising last choice. And profound and entertaining musings about each and every entry, which make this an excellent and read. Thanks for presenting ever so enlightening music journalism.

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Feb 11, 2013 6:49pm

Funny isn't it? He selects the same bunch of records that a whole host of other aged musicians have chosen but I don't feel like groaning out load. Why? Because he has really really engaged with these and has some wonderful insightful comments to make. So thanks Robyn, this has been the best Dozen for a long long time.

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Feb 11, 2013 8:50pm

White people suck, especially the Beatles and fucking Bowie. Some people should never be allowed NEAR Captain Beefheart and it seems Robyn is one. (Oh yeah, Robyn made half a good album thirty years ago, I should be 'thankful'?)

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Post-Punk Monk
Feb 11, 2013 8:53pm

I have to say that this was engrossing reading! Could it be that it's time for Robyn to start writing a career sideline? As soon as I read this I looked to see if he had written any books that I might have missed! Anyone who can me care about the like of The Doors or The Beatles is an alchemist of words!
For further rumination on the Fresh New Sound of Yesterday®

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Feb 11, 2013 9:49pm

What a great read! Robyn's enthusiasm is totally infectious, & it's patently obvious that he's still a rabid listener to, & lover of, music. He always comes across as a stand-up gent who knows his shit &, consequently, I could listen to him ramble on for hours...

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peluche brutale
Feb 11, 2013 10:54pm

No revelations but, as others said, quite an engrossing read. it's good to share such a personal, passionate and well listened through selection of some of the best music of the last century. perhaps he should be invited to write more on the quietus about his mate peter buck, which seem to make him so proud.

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chris church
Feb 11, 2013 11:58pm

Robyn is just wonderful. Was listening to Ole Tarantula earlier. As said already nothing too surprising (Avalon excepted?) but his summation and insights are worth anyone's time Thanks for this!

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Feb 12, 2013 1:56am

In reply to :

Bitter, party of one...

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Fielding Melish
Feb 12, 2013 6:11am

In reply to :

Sparkling insight. I'm so glad you thought to write in!

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James McKeown
Feb 12, 2013 11:21am

What an absolute joy to read. At the first scan through, I thought some of the choices were a bit obvious, on further reading I understood a whole new level of explaination and tangents - which is a classic Hitchcock trait! I'm a massive fan of Robyn and his work. I would love to see him do a spoken word tour, just sharing anecdotes and stories of his life. Clean Steve Fabulous.

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Wayne Champagne
Feb 12, 2013 12:13pm

An absolute joy. Fresh and enlightening perspectives on well worn themes.

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Feb 12, 2013 9:54pm

A thundering good read! Since I’ll soon be taking to the trees too, I’d weave all of these into my nest.
I remember reading a top ten list by Robyn about 30 years ago. As I recall, a lot of the same stuff was on it. A few there that didn’t make this list: Martin Carthy’s “Shearwater,” Nic Drake’s “Pink Moon,” and Kinks “Village Green….” were there as I recall, though my memory of that essay is a little dim. I don’t think “Avalon” had been recorded yet though.
I ‘m interested to read of RH’s preference for a post Cale VU. To my mind, his ideas was what made their music interesting. His solo lp “Paris 1919” is singular in the same way that RH’s “I Often Dream of Trains” is: sparse, vaguely familiar but distinctly original.

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Rob Curry
Feb 13, 2013 3:56am

Very nice! This is one of the most engaging of the Baker's Dozen articles. I am not familiar with his music, but I am going to remedy that situation. And if any of it is half as witty as this piece, I shall be in for a treat.

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Orthodox Caveman
Jun 21, 2013 5:33pm

In reply to :

Troll detected!

Robyn is awesome. Like many others have said, he doesn't have particularly original choices, but his rationale for each choice and his way of communicating his ideas about music, life, and history are engrossing. This is one of my favorite Baker's Dozen entries.

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