The Soft Boys - A Can Of Bees

by Kevin Orton Rating:8 Release Date:1979-08-01
The Soft Boys - A Can Of Bees
The Soft Boys - A Can Of Bees

While Underwater Moonlight might be the Soft Boys’ masterpiece, there is something to be said for their big bouncing brat of a debut. A monstrously brilliant hybrid of Psych and Punk. Open this can and it's more likely you’ll be hit by a swarm of Byrds. Not to mention, little worker bees with the heads of John, Paul, George and Ringo.  You also might notice the Queen herself bears a striking resemblance to Syd Barrett. Toss the contents into a frying pan, sprinkle with a little Bob Dylan and you’ll detect an odorous whiff of Captain Beefheart arising from the pan.

A Can of Bees also marks the debut of the legendary, Robyn Hitchcock. Of whom, I confess, I am a long- dedicated fan. Introductions are rarely chronological, and I first stumbled upon Hitchcock while he was waving from the caboose of his more introspective solo album, I Often Dream of Trains. In comparison, Hitchcock’s premier with the Soft Boys can be a bit jarring. Much more so than Underwater Moonlight. Yet once you get over its sting, A Can of Bees is Hitchcock at this most incendiary and uncompromising.

Of course, when one is talking about, A Can of Bees, the question arises, which one? For there are in fact, several editions with different track orders. If it’s all a bit confusing, blame the record business. For our purposes, let’s focus on the initial release and go from there.

Right from the start Hitchcock asks you to, ‘Give It To The Soft Boys’ before introducing you to “one of the brotherhood” in ‘The Pigworker’.  Those furious licks, come courtesy of Soft Boy, Kimberly Rew. Who would later find himself ‘Walking On Sunshine’ with Katrina and The Waves. Here however, Rew has never sounded so ill-tempered. The same, for Hitchcock himself. It’s the Soft Boys at their most acerbic. The delirious, ‘Leppo And The Jooves’ by contrast, is the Soft Boys at their most assessible and catchy. Hitchcock’s unique brand of humorous nihilism on full display.  

‘Rat’s Prayer’ takes on the point of view of mankind’s most vilified rodent. Going to show that the scavenging species may be more akin to us than we’d like to think. While not Hitchcock’s best-known song, it remains one of the more striking moments on A Can of Bees.

Early on, Hitchcock wrestled with cheeky novelty song tendencies. ‘Sandra’s Having Her Brain Out’ manages wriggle free of that morass.  Scathing and dissonant, it also perversely indulges in some defiantly Beatleseque melodicism. And while Sandra may have removed her brain, “tickets come out of her mouth”. Which I suppose might be a good thing, depending on what one wants from Sandra.

If it all reminds you of the work of an obscure English writer named, Raymond Hitchcock, it should come as no surprise he was Robyn’s dad. His most infamous work being, Percy, which was later made into film with a Ray Davies/Kinks soundtrack. In addition, the elder Hitchcock penned surreal, satiric tales of Stonehenge being stolen and people having sex organs in their armpits. Despite any attempts at a proper British upbringing, Raymond’s literary antics seemed to have rubbed off on the lad.

‘Do The Chisel’ might have been the Soft Boys’ attempt to lampoon the latest imaginary dance craze, but it’s a chance for the band to bang to the rafters with wild abandon. And while, ‘Return of the Sacred Crab’ may be a touch adolescent, the cover of Lennon’s ‘Cold Turkey’ finds the band wearing their influences on their sleeves with jeering dissent.

Rounding out the original release were two live tracks, the somewhat Glam Rock, ‘Skool Dinner Blues’ and the furious ‘Wading Through A Ventilator’. Both decadently arch, going for the throat with all the intensity of a rabid ferret. And so endeth this, the first incarnation of, A Can of Bees.

On to the 1984 reissue, where we see a new addition in the menacing, ‘Fatman’s Son’ whose psychotic protagonist vows to, “put you in the ashtray when I’m done.” If that weren’t enough, there’s a live workout of the whimsically entitled, ‘I Want To Be An Angelpoise Lamp’. Which is not nearly so twee as the title suggests. In fact, it’s Soft Boys at their most Pop, bringing early XTC to mind. ‘Ugly Nora’ also puts in a cameo, before the band goes ‘Cold Turkey’. The 1992 reissue however, concludes with ‘Ugly Nora’ after shuffling the sequence around even more. All of which makes the album’s legacy understandably confusing and unnecessarily arbitrary.

Despite this, A Can of Bees had a massive influence on early REM, who championed Hitchcock and the Soft Boys whenever they got the chance. All of which helped the band achieve a wider audience, posthumously. Taking into account Hitchcock’s subsequent solo career, A Can of Bees might come across as sophomoric at times, yet musically, it has aged well and remains undeniably potent. The Soft Boys may have been musician’s musicians, but there’s a reason why they caught the ear of folks like Peter Buck. At the very least, A Can of Bees is a striking Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Angelpoise Lamp. That is, if we’re talking about the 1984 or 1992 versions. If it’s the original, well then, just do the Chisel and give it to the Soft Boys.  

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