A kind of homecoming

Reunited British rockers the Soft Boys return South, where they've never been before

In 1985, five years after the breakup of their influential psychedelic-pop band, the Soft Boys, Robyn Hitchcock and Kimberley Rew played their first Atlanta shows.

Hitchcock debuted as the headliner in the intimate confines of now-defunct Midtown rock club 688 in November '85, supporting his major-label debut, Fegmania. A few months earlier, Rew — as lead guitarist in Katrina and the Waves — played his first (and last) Atlanta gig for a substantially larger crowd at the Center Stage Theater (now EarthLink Live).

Their unlikely connection to Georgia's music scene, however, was established long before the musicians ever set foot in the state.

"There are people in and around Georgia who've been into our music for ages," says Hitchcock by phone from his West London home. "We're glad to finally play there."

When the reunited Soft Boys, led by Hitchcock and Rew, make their way to the Variety Playhouse Monday night, they'll be passing a major landmark of their history.

Danny Beard's DB Recs, the indie label that released material from some of the area's most-lauded '80s bands, is headquartered in Wax 'N' Facts, a record store on Moreland Avenue. "There was a sort of funnel from Georgia to London," Hitchcock says. "A lot of stuff from [seminal DB bands] Pylon and the Method Actors was either pressed up or imported over here. And a lot of our stuff wound up there."

The facilitator of the international song-swap was Richard Bishop, the Soft Boys' first manager. "He was working for an import/export company [Caroline] and, because of that, I think he figured he could sell a certain number of anything," Hitchcock says. "So he set about to do just that."

In early 1980, Bishop set up a deal to release DB Recs overseas on his Armageddon label. Armageddon also issued the Soft Boys' third album, Underwater Moonlight, in June of that year and arranged a brief promotional tour. The band played New York's Danceteria, sharing a bill with Pylon and the Method Actors.

"We very narrowly missed meeting R.E.M. back then," Hitchcock says. "Peter [Buck] worked in a record shop in Athens and he used to sell our records, which is how he found out about us." Buck has frequently cited the Soft Boys as a major influence.

Rew notes that Peter Holsapple of North Carolina's dB's (former honorary "fifth member" of R.E.M. and occasional Indigo Girls sideman) "was one of the small number of people who were aware of the Soft Boys' existence in 1980. It was an 'us against them' kind of attitude amongst the small number of bands who were doing the same kind of things back then."

The good "olde" boy camaraderie continued as Pylon toured the U.K., using the Soft Boys' van. "It died completely on them," Hitchcock says. "It was so rusted you could see the road passing beneath you."

The dB's and their pal Mitch Easter of Let's Active backed Rew on part of his post-Soft Boys solo material, released 20 years ago as The Bible of Bop on Armageddon and domestically on Atlanta-based Press Records. Easter produced many classic Athens bands from the early '80s, including the first two R.E.M. albums.

Yet with all his R.E.M. connections, Hitchcock didn't visit their Athens headquarters until 1988 to begin his Globe of Frogs tour. From '88 until '92, Hitchcock was in the Classic City frequently, recording at John Keane's studio, performing with Buck and popping in to chat with Athens music historian Todd Ploharski, a fellow Captain Beefheart fan who operates the record store Lowyoyo Stuff.

Rew points to the similarities between Athens and the Soft Boy's career-incubating home of Cambridge, England. Both are college towns with thriving music scenes. But, Hitchcock adds, the Cambridge denizens are much more insular. "A lot of good groups from Cambridge sort of shriveled up the minute they got past the city limits," Hitchcock says. "Athens produced more people who got out and about. Even Syd Barrett, the original pilot of Pink Floyd, never really got out of Cambridge. Kimberley still lives there."

As founder of Katrina and the Waves, Cambridge-bound Rew enjoyed worldwide success when his song "Walking on Sunshine" became a massive hit single in '85. "If it hadn't been for that song, I'd have been out of the music business on my butt by about 1986," he says. "People tend to use it as sort of shorthand for something upbeat or bouncy in a movie or something. And that's a nice thing to be associated with."

Last year, the Soft Boys — including bassist Matthew Seligman and drummer Morris Windsor — reformed and toured to support the deluxe re-issue of Underwater Moonlight. At rehearsals, Rew says, Hitchcock would often have new songs ready. "By the time of the gigs," Rew says, "we had almost enough new songs for an album."

Buoyed by the success of the tour, which didn't come to Georgia due to routing problems, the band recorded the new material. The result is Nextdoorland, the band's first new release in 22 years. It's not as bitingly raw, oddly humorous or rocking as their previous efforts, but both Hitchcock and Rew agree it represents the band as mature, dignified, middle-aged, middle-class musicians.

"We were never punk, really," Hitchcock says. "Punk had the bands from the streets; we were from the lawns."

In addition to finishing another draft of his long-in-progress novel, Hitchcock says his aims for the near future are humble. "I'd like to prevent World War III," he says, "and somehow cause the current U.S. administration to dissolve as painlessly as possible, because I'm a man of peace ... and make another solo album."