Robyn Hitchcock Wishes the Claypool Lennon Delirium Had Been Around 40 Years Ago

The prolific singer-songwriter takes on Monolith of Phobos.

Although a tragic year in many respects (rest in peace David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen…), 2016 has undoubtedly been an amazing 365 days for music. So amazing, in fact, that our contributors weren’t able to cover every incredible release. That changes now. From Conor Oberst’s Ruminations to Kanye West’s long-awaited The Life of Pablo, from now until 2017, the Talkhouse will be honoring the records we missed this year.
– Brenna Ehrlich, Talkhouse Music Editor-in-Chief

The Claypool Lennon Delirium talk my language. More specifically, Les Claypool and Sean Lennon talk the language I grew up with: wah-wah, tape-delay, echo-plex, backward instruments, random interstellar bleeps, tremolo vocals and chimerical harmonies. I saw them launch a recent show in New York with Syd Barrett’s “Astronomy Domine” and finish it with the Beatles’ definitive piece of psychedelia “Tomorrow Never Knows,” composed by Sean’s dad when that term was barely coined. On the way, the CLD took in In the Court of the Crimson King from Robert Fripp’s calling card, an LP that many a greatcoat had tucked under its arm in my youth. I watched the show enraptured.

It’s funny that you can only define words by other words, and things in terms of other things. The CLD is very clearly labeled Psyche-Prog, by its own material as much as by the covers it plays. The ghosts of Jethro Tull, Syd Floyd, Hawkwind, the Satanic Stones, King Crimson and the Revolver-to-White-Album Beatles flit through the CLD corridors with seedy British glee. The Delirium is very Anglo; posh operatic choruses bloom in the corner of the soundscape as the music clicks and whirrs by. At times, the fine Brit aroma of disapproval rises from Her Majesty’s vaults on this record via American psyches. At others, the songs have the briny tang of sea-shanties — played by colonists on a planet where water has yet to be discovered.

‘Delirium’ is an apt word for the sounds that Les and Sean conjure for your ears.

References to other acts aside, how do they sound? How do they feel? “Delirium” is an apt word for the sounds that Les and Sean conjure for your ears. The mood is created by a series of abrupt lurches; semitonal shifts, diabolic intervals, and tempo changes re-route you as you ride through the aural terrain. It’s a very visual terrain: distant galaxies refracted through giant Victorian lenses laser their way into your pineal gland and come to roost, jittery from the transit, in your hypothalamus. Jules Verne and HG Wells beckon from the ceiling of the bright, anxious child’s bedroom. And emotionally? The manic elation of psychedelic lift-off tapers into lonely glimpses of private worlds often inhabited by disturbingly British-sounding deviants: Captain Lariat (“he’s a dentist on the side”) and Mr. Wright (“he sets up little cameras ’cause he likes to watch her shower”) to name but two. The latter is one of my favourite tracks: a jaunty cousin of something Eno might have produced on Before And After Science. The Delirium gleefully intone his voyeuristic saga, as Barrett, Townshend and Ray Davies did before them.

What pulls the CLD out of the old gatefold sleeve era is themselves as a rhythm section. Les Claypool is a master bass player: a funky, percussive descendant of Jack Bruce for the post-Talking Heads world. I loved the extended raga jam in the middle of their New York set, though couldn’t identify which song on the album it grew from. And Sean Ono Lennon is a great drummer; whilst he sticks to guitar live (at which he is no slouch), it’s him playing drums throughout the album. When I came out of the fog next morning, I’d had a vivid dream of him handing me a green electric guitar, then sitting behind a kit and following my timing vagaries with a clear-eyed empathy that only the finest drummers can muster. We then decided to form a band called Steve…

Back on earth, the Claypool Lennon Delirium have created their own world, the essential for any album that wants to be anything more than a collection of songs.

Back on earth, the Claypool Lennon Delirium have created their own world, the essential for any album that wants to be anything more than a collection of songs. My favourite compositions are the most wistful: the verses of “Boomerang Baby” (“she admires all the tricks that qualify a narcissist”) are at the poignant end of the CLD arc — intercut with a dazzling instrumental — that fade into a theatrical coda. “Bubbles Burst” is a melancholy exit song, referencing Pan and Childhood’s End that bows out with a Star Trekky vocal waving like a long silk scarf. And you’re left staring out from a moon on the rim of our solar system, wondering if all this really happened…

In long, or in short, the Delirium is an intricate garden of Unearthly Delights. I may be projecting here, in seeing it as an elegant dystopia where the armory of Psychedelia is brought to bear on the unlovely future. Whatever, I really wish they’d been around forty years ago, to accompany me and the other Soft Boys through the wasteland of punk. Playing intense, vision-driven psychedelia with abrupt time changes and rapid edits to bewildered Brits who had only just that year cut their hair and discarded their greatcoats was NOT the easiest job in the world. It’s so reassuring to find some kindred spirits at last. Now about it, Les and Sean? There has to be a time machine around somewhere.

Robyn Hitchcock is one of England’s most enduring contemporary singer/songwriters and live performers. A surrealist poet, talented guitarist, cult artist and musician’s musician, Hitchcock is among alternative rock’s father figures and is the closest thing the genre has to a Bob Dylan (not coincidentally his biggest musical inspiration).

Since founding the art-rock band The Soft Boys in 1976, Robyn has recorded more than 20 albums as well as starred in Storefront Hitchcock an in-concert film recorded in New York and directed by Jonathan Demme.

Blending folk and psychedelia with a wry British nihilism, Robyn describes his songs as “paintings you can listen to.” His most recent album The Man Upstairs is a bittersweet love letter to a vanishing world. Produced by legendary folk-rock svengali Joe Boyd (Pink Floyd, Nick Drake) the album was critically acclaimed by Mojo, Uncut and The Quietus.

(Photo credit: Laura Partain)