Robyn Hitchcock is the very model of a cult artist. He’s either loved or ignored, with a 35-year career that’s required a lot of patience on the part of his fans. Luckily, some of those fans work for record companies, so the curious newcomer hasn’t had to look too far to catch up on his best work. However, being the eccentric figure that he is, Robyn hasn’t made it easy to be a completist, taking back nearly as much as he gives. The bulk of his ‘80s catalog has now been reissued twice; the third time around wasn’t necessarily an improvement on the second, as we shall see.
Coming off the formative years with the Soft Boys, Black Snake Diamond Role sounds more like where he’d go than where he’d been. The songs are gentler, if still forced, but for the most part he’d found a style that would suit him for a while.
The piano-driven “Man Who Invented Himself” may or may not be about Syd Barrett, but it sure has a neat beat to it. Very singalongable. “Brenda’s Iron Sledge” has a wonderful snaky punk riff and a beat that sounds like drums being hit with wooden spoons. “Acid Bird” is his first real classic, a microcosm of that unique Hitchcock sound in both title and content.
Unfortunately, not everything else matches those highlights. “Do Policemen Sing?” and “Meat” try too hard to be bizarre, while “City Of Shame” isn’t much more than a poem with secondary music and an unfulfilled melody. “I Watch The Cars” has some promise, but again, he was still finding his way, though the line about eating Weetabix in “Love” (wherein the sound of the ocean is provided by one Tom Dolby) is a good clue where he’d wander.
Rhino’s version of the album was just fine, with such relevant B-sides as the short-story-set-to-music “Happy The Golden Prince”, which isn’t as clever once you’ve solved the allegory. The Yep Roc version repeats four of those bonuses save “Dancing On God’s Thumb” (which is odd, as it was included on the original 1987 CD version of the album) and adds four more tracks from an earlier rarities collection. Both versions start with an alternate mix of “The Man Who Invented Himself” without saxophones, which brings the piano out more.
Robyn Hitchcock Black Snake Dîamond Röle (1981)—3
1995 Rhino reissue: same as 1981, plus 5 extra tracks
2007 Yep Roc reissue: same as 1981, plus 8 extra tracks