A bolder step was the compilation of a double-disc anthology of the band. 1976-81 kindly presented the band’s history in chronological order, alternating tracks from singles, EPs and LPs with unreleased material. Easily half of the contents would have been new to collectors, making it both essential and repetitive.
For newcomers, however, it provides an excellent view of the band’s trajectory, akin to being shot out of a cannon into a brick wall. The earliest tracks show their debt to the organized chaos of Captain Beefheart, before more melodic things like “I Want To Be An Anglepoise Lamp” emerge. What truly sets them apart are the live recordings, where they took on such unlikely covers as “Heartbreak Hotel” as filtered through John Cale and Lou Reed’s “Caroline Says”. “We Like Bananas” is an old vaudeville tune just made for Robyn Hitchcock, while their acoustic takes on “That’s Where Your Heartaches Begin” and “Book Of Love” are hilarious.
Most of the second disc is given over to selections from the albums, with appropriate alternate takes slotted in here and there (including both versions of “Have A Heart Betty (I’m Not Fireproof)”, which is just fun to type). More live songs fill up that disc, including covers of Syd Barrett’s “Gigolo Aunt” and the Velvet Underground’s “Train Round The Bend”, bringing us right up to the moment where Robyn went solo.
It really is a well put-together set, and of course, it’s out of print. As many of the tracks are only available here, the curious will have to find used copies. Or borrow it from a friend.
The Soft Boys 1976-81 (1993)—3½
Current CD availability: none