THE SOFT BOYS at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Wednesday (March 28). $17.50. 416-870-8000, 416-598-4753. Rating: NNNNN
like many important cult art- ists, the Soft Boys' influence stretches far beyond what their meagre sales might indicate. Peter Buck will tell you that the Soft Boys were a much bigger inspiration for REM than the Byrds. And if Paul Westerberg had his way, Soft Boys idea man Robyn Hitchcock would've produced the Replacements poorly realized Tim album.
The Boys' largely overlooked recordings, like 1980's Underwater Moonlight album (just reissued by Matador in an expanded two-disc set), continue to be musicians' favourites and consistently pop up on critics' all-time-greats lists.
The Soft Boys were a witty and creative bunch of over-educated fools who plowed ahead with whatever felt good in spite of popular taste. Underwater Moonlight's timeless tunes are well constructed and passionately performed -- they could just as easily have been cut in 69 or 89 as 79.
It sounds cool now, but during the punk era few things were less fashionable than the paisley-print psych pop the Soft Boys were revisiting.
"I couldn't relate to much of the stuff going on in the late 70s," admits guitarist Kimberley Rew, who rejoins the Soft Boys on tour to present the songs from Underwater Moonlight. "Coming from the 60s, we all loved the Beatles and Kinks, of course, but we were into the Velvet Underground, too, and, retrospectively, Chuck Berry.
"The whole punk thing was something we had to contend with rather than something we belonged to. In hindsight, you can see that what we were doing was really out of step, but at the time I didn't look beyond the fact that I was the guitarist in a good band that was making a record."
And it's the construction process that becomes the focus of the fabulous new re-release of Underwater Moonlight.
The accompanying disc of previously unheard studio rehearsals offers a revelatory glimpse of crackpot genius Hitchcock dribbling his way through Pythonesque word-association football while guitarist Rew, bassist Matthew Seligman and drummer Morris Windsor fumble around with boisterous blues-rock blather. Wang Dang Pig? Who knew?
"Robyn would come up with the melody and lyrics, he'd walk into the studio singing and playing, and we'd join in with the appropriate musical backing.
"Some of what he was singing sounded a bit oblique to us, but it was more or less left that way. We didn't demand explanations, because if we did we knew the response we'd get from Robyn would be even more oblique than the songs."
That they weren't able to parlay their press attention into a label deal might've been a huge disappointment at the time, but recording the album in the raw with producer Pat Collier proved very advantageous in the long run. Free of gimmicky circa-79 new-wave effects, Underwater Moonlight sounds nowhere near as dated today as most every major-label recording of the period.
"It wasn't like we were trying to avoid trendy sounds; the technology just wasn't available to us. We were operating on a 4-track concept, recording everything together instead of each instrument separately.
"If we'd had a big label deal, we definitely would've made a more produced album. And I've got the feeling that if we had, we probably would've gotten it wrong."