The droll (even by English standards) singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock came on the scene in the late 1970s with The Soft Boys, a Cambridge psych-rock group that — depending on one’s viewpoint — appeared too late or too soon. After a string of spotty-or-brilliant (you decide; I’d argue the latter) albums, the band folded, and Hitchcock began a solo career, one that has produced to date well over twenty albums. YepRoc has just released a Hitchcock box set I Wanna Go Backwards; it collects three of Hitchcock’s best solo efforts (Black Snake Diamond Röle , I Often Dream of Trains  and Eye ) and adds the two-disc While Thatcher Mauled Britain, full of what Robyn calls “context tracks.” Each of the three original albums is expanded, offering even more bonus tracks.
In a few years, no one’s gonna be paying for recorded music anyway.
Snake and Trains are now each on their third release; Eye is on its fourth. Why so many reissues? Hitchcock explains that it was mainly to keep them available, as the earlier release deals had long since expired. “In an ideal universe, [my albums] would have been always available, from once they were released. And I suppose that’s gonna come now. Because this is probably the last time these things will be actually released for sale. By the time this deal [with YepRoc] is expired, no one’s gonna be paying for recorded music anyway.”
Really? So he really thinks that’s the way it’s going? Yes. He believes music lovers will still be “buying vinyl; nobody can quite bear to contemplate the total end of that. Maybe the classic rock generation will be seen out to its grave with 180-gram vinyl. Otherwise, if you want a song in a hurry, you’ll just dial it up. There’ll be — hopefully — some kind of levy that’s charged to the equivalent of iTunes, or AOL or whatever. You will have an account with them, and you’ll download, in which case everything’ll be paid for: a sort of global jukebox. Or,” he goes onto suggest another possibility, “there’ll be no actual record of what is downloaded, because it’s all ‘free’; there will be some sort of five-dollars-a-month automatically added to your bill, to cover listening to music.” There’s some precedent for that approach: cable TV works the same way. You pay a monthly fee and then watch what you want.
Hitchcock believes that inclusion of the Backwards demo bonus tracks does more than add value: it provides context. “Demos often have a life in them that the official master doesn’t have. For a start, the vocal usually seems to be more relaxed…more informal. I often prefer my vocal sound on the tapes even if I haven’t formalized the song. For instance, the songs that were done directly onto two tracks, [engineered] by my friend James Smith; those were done at Smithsound, just a room upstairs where we had a Revox [recorder] and a few other items lying around. I really like the sound and feel of those. And I would take them over a lot of stuff that I did that was more formally recorded. Also, there’s a lot of things [on the album] that are just first takes; there’s all the enthusiasm of singing something once, like you get onstage.”
The new set is also available on…vinyl. Hitchcock himself prefers vinyl records to digital, and unlike some, his reasons are not sentimental. “I think that digital information is not necessarily as long-lastingly encoded on a CD as it is [when] etched into the grooves of a vinyl record. A record is sort of a circular hieroglyph, if you like. And that’s another reason that at this time I’m putting everything out on vinyl, just as a kind of safety copy. Supposedly, the information [eventually] falls off of the CD. So you might be listening to Lightnin’ Hopkins or something, and then he just falls off his CD! If you’re listening on vinyl, Lightnin’ will stay in those grooves. So that’s my reason for this, really, since we’re still in the age of people buying records. I’d like to think that new vinyl versions of Black Snake Diamond Röle will pop out every seven years until the end of eternity, but who knows?”