Robyn Hitchcock hates “Arthur’s Theme” like he hates clean underwear
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In HateSong, we ask our favorite musicians, writers, comedians, actors, and so forth to expound on the one song they hate most in the world.
The hater: Though Robyn Hitchcock earned a place in the spotlight as the frontman for the late-’70s act The Soft Boys, for all intents and purposes, he’s been a solo artist for the past 30 years and 19 solo records. Best known for his eccentric characters, vivid lyrics, and wry humor, Hitchcock is a singer-songwriter’s singer-songwriter. His latest, Love From London, is out now on Yep Roc.
The hated: Christopher Cross, “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)” (1981)
The A.V. Club: Why is “Arthur’s Theme” your least favorite song?
Robyn Hitchcock: It’s my least favorite song I could think of. I have to preface this by saying there are many things in life to hate more than songs. If the worst thing I had to suffer in the rest of my life was “Arthur,” I’d be getting off easy. But it has a variety of negative qualities that I can list up in any order.
One is the feel of the song, which has a kind of weary sense of defeat. It’s as if you found that you had just become incontinent and soiled your clothing, but you’ve just been given an enormous amount of painkillers so it doesn’t matter. It’s a combination of defeat and indifference.
The best that you can do is fall in love, and you’re between the moon and New York City; these are two pretty intense phenomena. The moon has existed for a very long time. New York hasn’t, but like the moon, it’s the center of gravity. If they swapped places and the moon was sitting here on the Hudson like a great puffball and there was New York, full of itself, rotating the earth… If there’s one thing that’s self-important enough to rotate the earth, it’s New York. My life would be much poorer without the moon or New York City, and so would mankind in general. That you could put the two together in such a dreary song is heartbreaking. I think that’s one thing, the lyrics.
But also, the feel of it is horrible. Like, who gives a fuck? Why did we even bother to crawl out of the swamps, is this it? It’s not pretending, and it’s not “Bohemian Rhapsody” or something; it’s not full of Freddy Mercury in his leotard. Christopher Cross is just standing in the corner spilling his drink on his trousers, saying “Oh well, who cares?”
Then it’s applied to this sentimental early-’80s film with Dudley Moore—may his soul rest in Elysium—but his working partner Peter Cook was a terrible alcoholic, and it always amazed me that Dudley Moore did what struck me as a rather goofy, sentimental characterization of a really serious problem. But I don’t think he had anything to do with the script. He was just the star, he was paid to do it, and he did it well.
Arthur came out in ’81, and was part of America really seriously beginning to go backward. It was just part of the whole sentimental Americana idea of, “Here we are, all standing together.” We’re not standing together, but someone’s pretending we are. Here comes the saxophone. There’s a scuzzy, freewheeling element of the ’70s being laundered up or laundered down or laundered out, but things are being sort of ironed out and put into shoulder pads and headbands. It was a bleak time. And music tended to become overcharged or limp, accordingly. It was the dawn of power ballads, of which “Arthur’s Theme” is an early version.
Another reason not to get trapped on the elevator with “Arthur’s Theme” is that it was partly written by Burt Bacharach. I don’t know what he had to do with it, but this was the man who wrote “Walk On By” and all those other incredible tunes in the ’60s. Him putting his hands on something like that made an old ’60s head like mine hang in horror. It was just like, “Oh Christ, is this what we’ve come to?”
The other candidate I had for worst song was “We Built This City” by Starship. I actually Googled that, and I couldn’t even listen to it all the way through. But I then saw that there was a site that named it the worst song ever, so I thought I’d leave it. But again, that showed Grace Slick, who was a veteran of Jefferson Airplane, standing there in her perm singing a few platitudes about corporations, surrounded by shoulder-padded people, while yet again, the Reagan-numbed masses stand shoulder to shoulder regardless of color, creed, or sunglasses. So I think if I had to be in an elevator with either “Arthur’s Theme” or “We Built This City,” I might opt for a mild penal sentence instead.
AVC: Why do you think songs like that exist? Do you think it’s because they paid Burt Bacharach or Jefferson Starship a lot to create this dreck, or were those acts just trying to stay with the times and remain vital?
RH: They exist because somebody makes a schmucky film, and they needed a schmucky song to go with it to sell to a bunch of people who don’t give a shit how they pass the time. Because big business and entertainment don’t like to challenge people, and once times get conservative and people are scared about spending money, they go for the safe bet. And the safe bet means you’re listening to Van Morrison in the distance, or to some drooly power ballad, where everything’s played correctly by a bunch of people in clean underwear for the undead to suck upon. I think it’s a combination of lack of adventure and greed.
Captain Beefheart was still going, and they could have thought to have Captain Beefheart compose the theme to Arthur. That would have been fun. Or a very young REM, they could have brought them up, and that could have come out as an adjunct to “Radio Free Europe.” They could have asked me, but I wasn’t in the phone book.
And it continues. It’s just what happens. It’s unadventurous money-grubbing, basically. Also, it continues because no one stopped it. Everybody gets a payout along the way. It makes money for the studio, it makes money for the film… nobody loses. Something like that gets into all the movie theaters and keeps people employed. If they used Captain Beefheart, only a few freaks like you would have gone to the movie. It wouldn’t have been right for the demographic. And they certainly got that right. If you like that film, you like that music. This is why I’m still a 60-year-old, immature, indie outsource still spouting this spout.
The other reason I dislike it is because it’s terribly catchy. If it was some sort of badly put together, lame-ass wonk, then it wouldn’t matter, but the thing is, it’s lovingly, carefully plotted and signed off on by none other than Burt Bacharach. So it’s what they call an earworm. It sticks in the ear and you can’t get rid of it. Fortunately, my wife was actually in the shower—no, she was in the bath, because we’re English—while I was playing it, because I had to check it out, and it was every bit as good as I’d remembered.
There’s a fifth element to this, and that is that somewhere in that melody line, there’s a portal to “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” by Elton John. And if you’re not careful, you can be cruising around the byroads of “Arthur’s Theme” and you suddenly find yourself on the full highway of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” Which is not a song I’m a fan of, but I prefer it.
It’s not a side of Elton I particularly like, though. And again, it’s not Reaganized, but it has that early-’70s sort of washed-out feeling. I’m from the ’60s, I was the last one to hatch out, and I come from a time when music was still vital and not resigned. And I guess really what I hate in that song is the resignation. Like “Oh, fuck, why bother, okay? I will just get back into bed and wait until I die.”
AVC: There are whole stanzas of the song that expound on Arthur’s life and character. It’s not like he’s some enigma. You can pretty much figure out what he’s about from the movie’s trailer.
RH: Yeah, actually, he’s just a giraffe at heart. Not only that, but they made a remake of it. I mean, there are worse things you could have a remake of, or there are worse events you could stage, but Arthur… of all the things to make a remake of, as if the first wasn’t bad enough. Have you seen either of them?
AVC: I’ve seen the original one, but not the remake.
RH: Why would you? Life is too short. If you’re on a plane and the only thing showing is the remake of Arthur, you need to take a blindfold with you. How did you see the original?
AVC: I think it used to be on HBO all the time in the mid-’80s.
RH: Yes, it would have been. I’m just staring up at the Empire State Building with deep respect, and praying it won’t let it happen again.
AVC: Have you ever started hating one of your own songs?
RH: I had a radio hit in 1988 called “Balloon Man” that I’d be happy to never hear again, although I do like the money I get from the royalties. Just imagine what was generated by “Arthur.” Most songs of mine that are vaguely well known, I don’t particularly like. I don’t like “I Wanna Destroy You” and I don’t like “My Wife And My Dead Wife,” but again, I’m really happy to keep the money.
AVC: Do you still play your hits live, though?
RH: Not much—not if I can avoid it. But they weren’t huge hits, so I’m not tethered to them, and I should be profoundly grateful that I’ve managed to make a living without actually ever having a hit. [Sleazy voice.] “We’d like to adapt your song… we thought we could do a song called “My Balloon And My Dead Wife.” What a thought. But everyone has their price. It can’t be helped.
AVC: Do you ever get tired of singing the same songs over and over?
RH: I think you can, although if it’s a good song, it doesn’t matter. I don’t know what’s a good song of my own… I guess that’s why I’m not really a very popular artist. The songs of mine that a lot of people like, I tend not to.
I suppose there are songs that someone gets fed up with, but you have to consider the alternative. You’re extremely lucky to be paid to go and stand anywhere and sing your own songs and have people watch. So kvetching about it is an indulgence. I’m not utterly serious about any of this. I would never wish evil on another songwriter or performer. Everybody’s got to make a living, and I understand that.
I do bemoan the corporate way life meets art meets money that results in movies and songs like “Arthur’s Theme.” I think it’s tragic. But I don’t begrudge anybody the living they make out. It isn’t an easy life as a song-maker, and if you do well at it, good luck. I’m not going to be sitting there muttering curses in the corner and spitting pins. For my own stuff, I’m very grateful that people pick up on anything I do. So it’s all relative.