The Soft Boys
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die
There's something about alternative music that makes it so rock 'n' roll is no longer just that. It's got to be college rock or neo-psychedelia, or something along those lines. Or, in the case of "Underwater Moonlight" by The Soft Boys, some combination of those things. But definitely not just rock 'n' roll, heaven forbid.
Let's look at what might make this album psychedelic in the eyes of 1001 Albums writer Rob Morton. Where he hears "swirling guitars" during "I Wanna Destroy You," I hear just the opposite: a fairly straightforward chorus backed by fairly straightforward guitar. At the very end of the song where the instruments start losing focus, but the album never reaches the truly trippy guitar washes of say, Pink Floyd. The sitar, a popular instrument for the psychedelic movement, makes an appearance during "Positive Vibrations," but it's used for melodic purposes, not to create drone.
One aspect that might fool a listener into referring to Soft Boys as "psychedelic" (one of the most used and misused words in music criticism. It's like when people say "ironic" constantly. Ninety percent of the time it's not ironic) is the absurdity of the lyrics. "I Wanna Destroy You" is one of the few songs with an obvious message. Absurdity isn't a complaint. Here's my favorite, from "I'm Insanely Jealous of You": "It comes on pretty quick, just like a crocodile in search of a mirage, across the undulating sand."
When I listen to the album all the way through, I feel that much of this record is power pop. Even if you can't understand the verses (in lyrics or meaning), some of these hooks are just too catchy to be considered far from rock 'n' roll. "Positive Vibrations" is nearly Merseybeat. "I Wanna Destroy You" packs an aggressive message, but the hook is a chorus of vocals singing the title in a style reminiscent of '70s acts such as Foreigner and ELO. The rising hooks of "Tonight" (again with falsetto help) and "Underwater Moonlight" would help this album fit with less discerning classic rock listeners.
Of course, the main thing that separates rock like this from the stuff you hear on the radio is intention. Band leader Robyn Hitchcock didn't want to appeal to the popular audience, so he didn't. It's a similar story with REM as we'll see later with "Murmur." No reason that stuff couldn't be mainstream popular, but the band chose to market itself through the smaller, more independent radio stations. The difference is that huge audiences eventually found REM, and "Underwater Moonlight" would be The Soft Boys' second and last record.
INTERESTING FACT: Plenty of interesting places where bands have cut records. The Soft Boys had their rehearsals in a boathouse on the River Cam in Cambridge. Surprising there was no Gordon Lightfoot-style nautical narratives.