There are certain musicians who’ll make me think “Oh yeah, they’re pretty well-known,” and then when I really think about it, and remove myself from the confines of music nerdity, I realize that this is completely untrue. This happens with rappers I listen to, garage rock groups from the 60s, and perhaps every time that I think about and listen to Robyn Hitchcock. For good reasons, Robyn Hitchcock is someone I should easily be able to think the aforementioned thought about, yet despite having a cult following around the world, influencing numerous indie rock bands,and even being the subject of a Jonathan Demme documentary (1998’s Storefront Hitchcock), Robyn Hitchcock is still one of the most underrated songwriters of the past fifty years. Well, I take that back; the famous albums of Hitchcock seem to be known by a lot of indie rock fans. Robyn Hitchcock isn’t exactly the most accessible artist either, but certain albums of his balance the oddity of his lyrics and guitar playing very well with his potential for strong pop sensibilities. One of these pop-wonder albums of Hitchcock’s is his very first, the overlooked yet brilliant Black Snake Diamond Role.
Being the prolific songwriter that he is, Hitchcock has the ability to churn out many songs within a year. So around the same time he recorded The Soft Boys’ sophomore effort Underwater Moonlight, Robyn recorded Black Snake Diamond Role with production help from Pat Collier of the Vibrators. The album starts out with the Zombies-like “The Man Who Invented Himself.” The jumping piano opens the song, and then Robyn brilliantly shouts “He came bursting out of nowhere/Like a spear into the sky/And he cast his light on everything/It was like he’d never die;” an early introduction to the ironically poignant lyrics for which Hitchcock would become famous.
The second track has a little more of a Soft Boys style, adding a little more of the psych-meets-post-punk guitar that was used heavily on their debut album A Can of Bees. “Brenda’s Iron Sledge” is a mini-reference to the Beatles track “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” and is filled with eerie imagery (“They’re sitting on a human chain/Their limbs compressed in icy slush”). Next we have the funky psychedelic pop track “Do Policemen Sing?,” a song that starts out in very Talking Heads-like oddity, but quickly turns very power-pop at the chorus, and also has perhaps one of Robyn’s funniest lines, a quick dig at Freddy Mercury: “And are policemen gay?/Depends on what you mean/They are not lewd or queer/But they all dig the queen.” Another funky number is the dark and strange “The Lizard,” a song that truly sounds like mid-career Echo & The Bunnymen, just five years too early.
The album becomes poppier again with the Buzzcocks-like “Meat.” Robyn sings what it “don’t feel” like, all before jokingly singing “Oh come on baby, give me your meat.” Following is the disco-meets-psychedelia track “Acid Bird.” “Acid Bird” is the song that MGMT have tried to write for two albums, a song that keeps a funky beat, but still features brilliant lyrics. Next is the noisy rockabilly track “I Watch The Cars.” This track is a serious rocker that is complemented by catchy lyrics and awesome percussion from Vince Ely. The album closes out strong, first with “Out of The Picture,” which has a very Pretty Things style to it, and the melody is gorgeous. The last two are even better. “City of Shame” is a lonely but upbeat rocker filled with tortuous thoughts framing cities as a state of being. Lastly, we have one of Robyn’s most beautiful songs, the oceanic “Love.” “Love” is a rare pop song; Hitchcock’s odd lyrics are all there, but the melodies transform these words into honest and inward poetry. His best line comes first with “The sun is shining on the ground/I see that nothing makes a sound/I move, invisible as air/And choose the time to disappear;” and Robyn closes it out with a simple “I’m in love with you.”
An album that’s punk enough for the times, and poppy enough for a Beatles or Stones comparison, should be enough to somehow squeeze out a hit. But this has been the long, difficult story for Robyn Hitchcock, and many other 60s pop-influenced artists who are decades away from their genre’s beginnings. Black Snake Diamond Role really sticks out like a sore thumb in a sea of powerpop and abrasive post-punk. Hitchcock wanted to make a pop album, but might be too strange to do so, or wanted to make a very strange, neo-psychedelic record, but may be too melodically talented for signs of pop to fly away. All in all, for a 10-track debut, Robyn does exactly what any solo artist ought to by introducing his style, but being modern as well. Yet despite the evident poppery, Hitchcock’s a weird enough guy to throw in some psychedelia and bleak, post-punk lyrical imagery into his world of “summer of love”-like tuneage. Robyn keeps making albums like this, even today, and his cult status may stay, but hopefully this album’ll be another to throw under his “classics” section.