Monday, August 11, 2008

Robyn Hitchcock, "1974"

Alright, so it's back to music, as I realize I haven't done a music-related post in a long time. Robyn Hitchcock's song "1974" leads off the soundtrack to Jonathan Demme's concert film, "Storefront Hitchcock." (If you haven't seen it, it's great, go out and watch it.) "1974" is on the soundtrack CD, and a different version appears on Robyn's 2000 CD, "A Star For Bram." The soundtrack version is Robyn solo on acoustic guitar (with a soft electric guitar in the background), and the "A Star for Bram" version is a full band version. I much prefer the simplicity of the soundtrack version. Spare, solo settings make you pay attention to Robyn's brilliant, odd lyrics. Sometimes a full band just obscures his lyrics.

"1974," as you might have guessed, is about Robyn's general observations about the year in question. I read somewhere that Robyn said that 1974 was just a crappy year, which I couldn't tell immediately from the song, but if we look deeper, there are some clues. The song starts off with a great first line, "You have two coffees, one of them is one coffee too many for you." I like the little wordplay, "one coffee too," which also sounds like "one coffee two." The time seems to be the present, as the person with two coffees is "trying to lead a middle-aged life." But "it feels like 1974, waiting for the waves to come and crash on the shore. But you're far in land." This sounds to me like a clue to Robyn's state of mind, as he is waiting for something to happen, anything to break the tedium of 1974.

One of the events of 1974 that Robyn mentions is "Syd Barrett's last session, he can't sing anymore, he's gonna have to be Roger now, for the rest of his life." The reference is of course to the band Pink Floyd, and it's founding member, Syd Barrett, a huge influence on Robyn's music. The story goes that Barrett, who had not been a member of the band for some years, showed up at Abbey Road, and witnessed the recording of the song "Shine On You Crazy Diamond," which was, ironically enough, written about Barrett. None of the other band members recognized Barrett at first, as he had shaved off all his hair and become a recluse, and was undergoing severe mental health issues. Needless to say, it was an emotional moment for the band. The lyric, "He's gonna have to be Roger now," I take to mean that Syd will have to live vicariously through Roger Waters, who had taken leadership of the band after Barrett left.

Another reference to the music of the times comes up when Robyn sings, "Rebel rebel was your favorite song," a reference to David Bowie's hit single. Any reference to David Bowie wins points with me, and one of the best things about 1974 was David Bowie's brilliant glam album "Diamond Dogs," the album "Rebel Rebel" appears on. (Bowie fact: David played lead guitar on the "Diamond Dogs" album.)

Robyn then mentions the political events of the year, "And as Nixon left the White House, you could hear people say, 'They'll never rehabilitate that mother, no way.'" This is obviously meant as an ironic comment, because Nixon was rehabilitated, unfortunately. It just goes to show you, if you live long enough, (and get a Presidential pardon) people forget about the bad things you've done. Well, not entirely, of course. But Bill Clinton invited Nixon to the White House for advice! The next lyric is, "Whirry-whirry goes the helicopter, out of my way, I've got a President to dump in the void." In my mind, I always want to change it to, "I've got a President to dump in the bay," because I dislike Richard Nixon, and also because it rhymes.

In the last verse, Robyn sings, "And you say that's where it ended, but I say no, no, no, it just faded away. August was grey, it feels like 1974." There's a naked, highly emotional quality to this lyric when Robyn sings it solo, it almost give me shivers, that is missing in the full band version. The full band version is also marred by dopey and distracting backing vocals, and what sounds like a cowbell. The cowbell is an odd choice, and it would seem to undercut the message of Robyn's song, which is that 1974 sucked. And if 1974 sucked, I don't think the song is supposed to sound like 1974! (Unless the cowbell was meant ironically.)

"1974" is a great Robyn Hitchcock song, and shows his gifts as a songwriter. It has a catchy melody, with lots of twists and turns, and lyrics that are not always easily decipherable, but are full of vivid images that stay with you long after the song has faded away.


Holly A Hughes said...

Nice post, Mark! thanks for making me think about this song. I only know the version on A Star for Bram, and it never really stood out to me -- now you've got me wanting to hear the acoustic version.

I've also put off getting a copy of "Storefront Hitchcock," and now I see I'm just going to have to get it. I saw Robyn sing at a little club in Piermont NY a few weeks ago, and Demme was in the audience right next to me -- how cool is that?

Mark said...

Ah, I'm so jealous of you New York people, with all your cool concerts and celeb sightings!

Yes, "Storefront Hitchcock" is definitely worth getting. Unfortunately, the soundtrack and the movie don't really match up, as there are songs in the movie not on the CD, and songs on the CD not in the movie. Strange. I know there's a vinyl version of the soundtrack, but I don't know if that had everything on it. There's a tremendous version of "Beautiful Queen" on the CD that's sadly not in the movie. Since Robyn is so into rarities packages, maybe his next project should be a CD/DVD combo that has all the songs!

Uncle E said...

Hey Mark,
Nice post. I hate to admit it but I'm a bit of a novice when it comes to Hitchcock stuff. Anything you would receommend for a beginner? Between you and Holly I figure I'll get the right scoop!

Mark said...

Hi Uncle E,

The first Robyn Hitchcock CD I got was "I Often Dream of Trains," which is a really good one. Although it took me a couple of listens to get into it. The CD that really got me into Robyn was "Moss Elixir," which is kind of low-key and folky. "Storefront Hitchcock" is also very good, it's almost all solo Robyn, a good mix of songs. I would say any of those would be a good introduction.

I've also got the Yep Roc boxed set, "I Wanna Go Backwards," which is really good, but I haven't listened to it much yet. I'm not familar with much of his stuff with the Egyptians, I just got the second Yep Roc boxed set, "Luminous Groove," which has his first 3 LP's with the Egyptians. Yeah, Robyn's awesome, a unique talent!

Uncle E said...

Thanks a bunch--will be looking into these...

Anonymous said...

You misunderstood the line about Syd Barrett "He's gonna have to be Roger now." Roger is Syd's real name. So, he is saying he will have to be himself now, and not play the role of Syd.

Mark said...

Thanks, anonymous poster! That line finally makes sense now!

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