16. Robyn Hitchcock ‘n’ the Egyptians, Queen Elvis
While I already had immense respect and appreciation for him, I wouldn’t have named Robyn Hitchcock as my favorite performer when Queen Elvis was released. When this record hit the station in early 1989, it was simply another strong outing from a college radio stalwart in an unusually bountiful winter and spring. By this time, Hitchcock’s talents were already well-established, first as the main creative force behind the cult hero punk outfit the Soft Boys and then with a fairly prolific solo career throughout the eighties. He made his major label debut the previous year with Globe of Frogs, which yielded the minor hit “Balloon Man,” which may have benefited from an arguably counterproductive whiff of novelty to it in developing its success, but the song still got Hitchcock’s name and face into unlikely places.
Queen Elvis, I suspect, was the album that A&M Records expected would build upon that misting of success. The lead single, “Madonna of the Wasps,” was slick and alluring, and there seemed to be plentiful options for a follow-up release. He relented to a fairly slick music video and made an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman. Finally, though, Hitchcock and his music were probably too odd for genuine crossover success. In that appearance on Letterman’s show, the host is conspicuously absent from the end of the segment, apparently forgoing his usual habit of striding over to thank the musical act. Maybe he was frightened by the abstract monologue Hitchcock delivered at the beginning of the song with the intensity of a Spartan soldier rallying him cohorts to battle.
The occasionally impenetrable nature of his imagery only served to make Hitchcock more and more fascinating to me, which was a somewhat uncharacteristic reaction. I was always a little more likely to dismiss material—in film, in books, in music, everywhere—that was defined by layers upon layers of resolute weirdness. Let someone else parse the meaning of the fever dreams, I was skeptical enough to believe that, more often than not, there was no there there. Hitchcock was immediately different for me, though, probably because his tangled strangeness was always merged with a surprising emotional openness. He was using his densely imaginative imagery as a way to obscure earnest feeling, but as another means to express it. “Madonna of the Wasps” may have a mythic central figure with a magic wand and a deathbed in the frost, but the song really hinges on the plaintive question “Is this love?” Similarly, “Wax Doll” is filled with references that make little sense without digging deep into the arcana of Hitchcock. Without the outside research, the song has a wistful, nostalgic mood that gives it its own meaning, somewhat independent of the words of the lyrics sheet.
Much of the album is flavored most strongly by the sound of Hitchcock and his guitar. Even songs that are filled out with lush music are easy to imagine stripped down to their bare essentials. There are a couple of jagged pop songs like the spooky, loping “The Devil’s Coachman” and the Soft Boys echo “Freeze.” Overall, the album’s standouts are those that cast Hitchcock as a troubadour madman, grappling with the rigors of love and human uncertainty by putting music to the endless, baroque novel unfolding in his head. “One Long Pair of Eyes” has a grand romanticism to it (“She falls on you like rain/ When will she fall again?” is a simple and perfect expression of the enveloping nature of love) and “Swirling” is moonily direct in its lovely longing.
Aside from cinematic collaborations with Jonathan Demme that followed years later (including a genuine acting gig in the remake of The Manchurian Candidate), Queen Elvis may have represented the cresting of Hitchcock’s career, at least in terms of gliding close to widespread exposure. His next album, Eye, brilliant as it was, made only the mildest dent on the public consciousness, in part because it was released on the independent Twin/Tone label. Then came Perspex Island, which yielded the college radio hit “So You Think You’re In Love,” but the beleaguered A&M was already clearly losing interest. From then on, any label putting out his records seemed quite content to accept him as little more than a cult hero holding on to his core audience. That’s all right, of course. Not every band and performer that lit up college radio in the eighties and nineties needed to have some taste of significant success in the public sphere, and Hitchcock has maintained a viable career, still releasing new music at a steady clip.
Whatever Queen Elvis did or didn’t achieve for Robyn Hitchcock, it stands as one of the more important and significant albums in his discography. For a while, he was moving with the sales titans of college radio, jockeying with them on the charts and opening for R.E.M. as they toured huge venues. And at least for this one kid, it’s the clearest demarcation point of the true beginning of my lifelong fandom for one of the most offbeat souls the English music scene even produced. Sometimes I look at that album cover and feel nothing but gratitude.