No one ever accused eccentric British singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock of being trendy. That goes double for his third solo album, the inward-looking, acoustic "I Often Dream of Trains," released in 1984. Back then, the "big drum" sound dominated. Hitchcock, who came from a folk and neo-psychedelic background, chose to forego drums altogether.
But history sometimes vindicates independent thinkers and the dreamy, introspective album has become a minor cult classic. It's been reissued twice on CD with bonus tracks, the latest being part of the Yep Rock Records 2007 box set "I Wanna Go Backwards" (collector's note: some bonus tracks on the new edition are different than the ones on the 1995 CD reissue). The album's belated acceptance has allowed the lanky tunesmith to finally capitalize on a trend. Like many other rock acts these days, he's devoted a tour to playing an entire album in concert.
"I think of all the records that I've made ... probably the one that is most of a piece," says Hitchcock by phone from his London home. "It's perhaps because of the way I recorded it with me playing everything except sax on one track and bass on another. There are no drums. It has its own atmosphere, really. I remember wanting to make a record that was nothing to do with what was happening. And I guess I succeeded."
Hitchcock's love of 1960s music is well-known, but what's less documented is his hatred of the now-cliche mega-productions of the 1980s. That, he says, reached a tipping point on his release before "Trains," "Groovy Decay," his slickly-produced second solo effort (conspicuously absent from the box set). The album left him so disillusioned he quit the music business; he later tried to salvage it by commissioning a remix, "Groovy Decoy." Hitchcock may be a rock institution now, but at the time his future was far from assured. He'd been a member of the moderately successful Soft Boys and had little solo success.
"It wasn't a musical climate I could flourish in," he says. "The late '70s had been hostile and the early '80s seemed worse. This was before the rock guitar renaissance that R.E.M. and the Replacements and all those other lovely people spearheaded."
After "Groovy Decay's" release, Hitchcock withdrew from both the music business and the world: "I was very much in my own Plexiglass bubble. I was cutting off from everything and everybody. I did odd things to make money. I wrote some lyrics with my friend Captain Sensible who was in the Damned. I did gardening jobs. I even wrote a couple of articles on completely unrelated topics under a different name. So I really dismantled the idea of Robyn Hitchcock as a performer."
But he did a set up "a little four-track Fostex tape machine" and took "great delight in my spare time in making these little demos." His favored albums at the time, he says, were Van Morrison's "Veedon Fleece," Brian Eno's "Before and After Science," and the Incredible String Band's last album, "Hard Rope and Silken Twine." Out of that came "I Often Dream of Trains," which brought back some of the whimsy of Hitchcock's Soft Boys work, but with a personal, sometimes desperate edge.
"I realized after a while that essentially I had made a record," he says. "At that point I just thought, 'Well, I'll make a record, but I'll put a cap of it costing a thousand pounds.' I gave it to this guy that I knew at a small label, Midnight Records, and I said 'OK, press up 1,000 copies, let's see if we make the money back.' There obviously was some kind of a market for it. So I was very pleased. I thawed myself out and went back into the world of Robyn Hitchcock. Got my checkered suits and went on television ... the rest is history."
Hitchcock says he counts as his favorite tracks from the album most of the piano-based tunes, like elegiac "Flavour of Night" and the instrumental "Nocturne" pieces that open and close the disc. "I had a lot of time on my hands and I played the piano more than I had ever before or since," he says. "It's all part of shutting yourself off, really that kind of endless winter afternoon to practice the piano."
The "Trains" album may not have been cut with the commercial market in mind, but it ironically includes one of Hitchcock's most popular songs in "Uncorrected Personality Traits," the hilarious but thought provoking a cappella ditty that cheerfully describes the horrid outcomes of kids who grow up lacking proper discipline. Hitchcock says he's surprised the song was once a perennial with college a cappella groups. "Maybe [because it was] a bit like Tom Lehrer or something," he muses.
That song, along with others, like "Sometimes I Wish I Was a Pretty Girl" and "Sounds Great When You're Dead" feature something of a Hitchcock trademark: using humor to put across sad or disturbing ideas. It's a deliberate technique, he says.
"Well, that's what humor is for ... to balance you when you go around the dateline from finding things unbearable to finding them funny. I think humor is a form of self-defense. As you're approaching something sad you make jokes about it, or you find the funny side. The thing that always makes me cry at funerals is when people tell the jokes."
The eight-date stateside "Trains" tour, which will feature two additional musicians, will find Hitchcock tweaking the album's content, creating what he calls a "director's cut." "That means I'm gonna substitute a couple of songs for ones that were on the record," he explains. "I don't do 'Sometimes I Wish I Was a Pretty Girl.' I think I'll do 'My Wife & My Dead Wife' which was originally [slated for the album but] came out on 'Fegmania' [from 1985]. There's a song called 'That's Fantastic Mother Church' that surfaced on the recent version it was an outtake, a demo. I do that. And there's another song called the 'Abandoned Brain' [which turned up on 'Invisible Hitchcock,' from 1986]. So it's a slightly floating version, but it's getting it back to the original, really."
--Tony Sclafani, Express (Nov. 2008)