I have a longstanding soft spot for Robyn Hitchcock. He’s one of our greatest songwriters and a godsdamned National Treasure. I have seen him live, covering Sgt. Pepper in it’s entirety, a gig notable for the moment when he knocked the jack out of his Telecaster and I handed it back to him.
You could, I suppose, if you’re feeling lazy, tie him in with the great wellspring of British eccentric artists that tracks through William Blake and Lewis Carroll, through Barrett-era Pink Floyd, the Bonzos, Ivor Cutler, Spike Milligan. Surrealism and humour backed up by a steely determination to tread one’s own path, and talent and ability up the hoozit. Long time fan and collaborator Peter Buck off of R.E.M. has said that he can’t understand why someone hasn’t taken his songs and made big hits out of them. I’d love to see one of the X-Factor clonoids do Brenda’s Iron Sledge or (probably more appositely) Sheila’s Having Her Brain Out, but I don’t think I’ll hold my breath.
The 2006 documentary Sex, Food, Death … and Insects follows Hitchcock, Buck and other musical collaborators as they work through the songs that would make it onto the Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus Three albums Olé Tarantula and Propeller Time. These songs mark a continued resurgence in Robyn’s fortunes, and are equal part rippling psychedelia and heartfelt pop-folk. It’s tough to write a song that can sound warm and tender while keeping in the weird angles and off-note touches that make Hitchcock’s stuff so much fun. These songs nail it time and again.
The documentary has a pleasingly intimate air, bringing us into Hitchcock’s rambling house, where Olé Tarantula was recorded. The process is ramshackle, ad hoc and spontaneous, leading to songs filled with happy accidents and unexpected guest turns. John Paul Jones drops in for a cuppa and a couple of chiming mandolin solos. Robyn’s niece Ruby Wright adds lovely, quavering musical saw to the proceedings. It feels like a delightful way to make an album. Defences drop. The famously grumpy Peter Buck airs his grievances about being part of one of the biggest bands in the world, and how much more he prefers the Venus Three. Certainly, his guitar work evokes R.E.M. at their jangly, shiny best.
But Hitchcock is the revelation here. Wise, centered and at peace, he seems the very opposite of the stereotypical eccentric. He observes things in a different way to most of us, certainly. But because he is so observant, he has a well-stocked cupboard of imagery to play with, and it’s the way he recontextualises these that brings up the surreality in his songwriting. When he talks about rotating elephants in the song Belltown Ramble, he’s talking about a sign he saw above a Seattle car-wash, in the district of the title. There’s reason and method to everything he does. The insight we get from these moments, along with the wonderful music are what make Sex, Food, Death … and Insects such a satisfying watch.
Tell you what, have a couple of clips.
Thanks and blessings to the inestimable Timothy P. Jones, without whom this documentary would not have hit my DVD playing machine.