Stories Behind The Songs

Wolfpack by Robyn Hitchcock

Robyn Hitchcock

Howling the pack in formation appears
Diamonds and clubs, light misted fog, the dead
Waving us back in formation,
The pack in formation
Bowling they bat as a group
And the leader is seen so early
The pack on their backs, the fighters
Through misty the waving the pack in formation
Far reaching waves
On sight, shone right
I lay as if in surround
All enmeshing, hovering
The milder I gaze
All the animals laying trail
Beyond the bough winds
Mild the reflecting electricity eyes
Tears, the life that was ours
Grows sharper and stronger away and beyond
Short wheeling fresh spring
Gripped with blanched bones moaned
Magnesium, proverbs and sobs
Howling the pack in formation appears
Diamonds and clubs, light misted fog, the dead
Waving us back in formation,
The pack in formation.

I was standing on an escalator in London, riding down into the Underground with a copy of Rolling Stone magazine. It was late 1971 and I was not happy. Life had rolled easily for me at school: out in the world I was foundering. A junkie girl - another lost middle-class kid like myself, only further adrift - tried to talk to me, her fingers yellow with tobacco smoke as they clawed at the handrail. I glared at her in self-protection. “My god”, she said: “Why are you staring daggers at me like that?” She moseyed away and I stalked off down towards the deep gun-barrel horror of the Northern Line.


Robyn Hitchcock Summer 1972

Robyn Hitchcock and sister Lal, Summer 1972

But my mind was elsewhere already. On an inside page of Rolling Stone I had seen a headline: ‘The Madcap Who Named Pink Floyd’ and beneath it a striking photo of the saturnine, spooked Syd Barrett. “According to who you speak to, Syd Barrett is either dead, in jail or a vegetable. In fact he’s alive, and as confusing as ever…” the article began. I read on, transfixed. I knew who Barrett was, of course, or had been - his music with Pink Floyd was my favourite part of them: but I’d never thought to follow him beyond that. Word from my groovier friends was that Syd’s solo records were ‘disappointing’.


I stood by the entrance to the platform and sank my attention further into the article. It depicted a bright, successful young man who had run out of momentum and was back in his mother’s house in suburban Cambridge, emerging from the cellar where he now lived for the interview (which turned out to be the last he ever gave). I didn’t know yet any of the details of his breakdown, his ejection from Pink Floyd, or his slide into inertia. His turn of phrase was striking: “I’m treading the backward path…full of dust and guitars”…”I walk a lot - 8 miles a day: it’s bound to show  but I don’t know how.” Barrett spoke in illuminating fragments. “Look at those roses…of course, once you’re into something…” The writer talked about Syd’s ghostly, poetic beauty; and then described how, in a burst of enthusiasm, the ghostly poet showed him a neatly typed manuscript of his lyrics. Syd’s favourite, apparently, was ‘Wolfpack’ from his second (and last) solo album. My train pulled into the tube station and pulled out again. The junkie girl moved up and down the platform, working the passengers. I read on, magnetised:


“Beyond the bar winds 

Of the reflecting electricity eyes, tears 

Life that was ours grows sharper and stronger away and beyond;

Short wheeling, fresh spring 

Gripped with blanched bones 

Moaned, magnesium proverbs and sobs.


Howling the pack in formation appear

Diamonds and Clubs, light misted fog of the dead 

Waving us back in formation the pack 

In formation.”


I was hooked. This was it. To me, Syd Barrett made a trifecta with Bob Dylan and Captain Beefheart. This was what rock lyrics were all about: could be all about, taken to the furthest extreme. The way Barrett conflated wolves with playing cards was neat enough; but the surge, the mania, the sheer demolition in the whole song was beyond magic: it echoed how I was feeling as I headed for 19 years of age. 


Before long I’d bought the “Barrett” album with Syd’s drawing of insects on the cover, and I’d disappeared into it. Whether I ever came out of it fully again is questionable. Just as I had absorbed Dylan’s ‘Visions of Johanna’ on entering my teens, I exited them by virtually becoming ‘Wolfpack’. There should be more songs like this, I thought, and I tried my utmost to write them. 


But I can only express me - though I can *inhabit* Syd’s songs easily enough - and I have, thankfully, never lived through a psychotic breakdown. At a guess, this song seems like one of the last that he managed to write, or at least to finish. As with ‘Visions Of Johanna’, the surreal intensity of ‘Wolfpack’ chimed with what was already inside me; it also set the bar high, gave me something to aim for - and miss, of course.

There’s a truth in there that is conjured by words but lies beyond them. 


“All-enmeshing, hovering” -  indeed. Thank you Mr B, wherever you went…

by Robyn Hitchcock

With a career now spanning six decades, Robyn Hitchcock remains a truly one-of-a-kind artist –surrealist rock ’n’ roller, iconic troubadour, guitarist, poet, painter, performer.

Robyn Hitchcock 2024

Robyn Hitchcock 2024


Genre: Psychedelic folk

Length: 3.41

Label: Harvest

Writer: Syd Barrett

Producer: David Gilmour • Richard Wright