The Most Successful Robot In Chart History

The musical stylings of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s Marvin the Paranoid Android.

Back in the great and glorious days before the internet, when the standard repository of chart knowledge was The Guinness Book of British Hit Singles, artists were described by their nationality and format: ‘USA, instrumental group’ or ‘Australia, pianist/vocalist’ or whatever. Only one artist was listed in that book as ‘UK, robot’. And we’ll come to him in a second.

When Douglas Adams created the original radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in 1978, he wanted it “to sound like a rock album”. He selected all the incidental music for those first six episodes from his record collection, including the now iconic instrumental Eagles track Journey of the Sorcerer (from their One of These Nights album) as the series theme.

Adams was a serious music fan and a frustrated amateur guitarist. He became pals with members of Paul McCartney’s backing band and, to his fanboy delight, with both Procol Harum and Pink Floyd (with whom he once performed on stage as a birthday present).

Music was a big influence on Adams, and he in turn inspired musicians. Radiohead’s album OK Computer and single Paranoid Android both took their titles from Hitchhiker’s Guide. Level 42 named themselves after Hitchhiker’s. At one stage during the recording of Marillion’s breakthrough album Misplaced Childhood, the band planned to include snippets of the radio show between each track. At the End of the Universe – Hommage a Douglas Adams by the Klaus Konig Orchestra is an entire album of unlistenable modern jazz inspired by THHGTTG.

Original Records, an indie label which mostly released New Age stuff, recorded an entirely new audio production of Hitchhiker’s Guide after the BBC declined to release the radio show, and also put out the theme music (re-recorded by Tim Souster) as a single, which was then used for the TV series. Throw in the many and varied talking books and (eventual) BBC releases of the original radio series, and Hitchhiker’s has quite the discography.

And then there was Marvin the Paranoid Android.

The 1980s was a golden time for comedy/novelty singles: Snot Rap, Living Doll, The Chicken Song and so on and so forth. The 1970s had been a pretty good decade too, with artists like Benny Hill, the Goodies and the Barron Knights featuring regularly in the charts. At the cusp of the two decades, popular culture was awash with spaceships and aliens and ray guns, and the charts were awash with robotic synth-pop from the likes of Kraftwerk and Gary Numan. The concept of a novelty hit single by a depressed robot from a hit comedy sci-fi franchise seemed, on that basis, a good bet.

The man behind the brace of Marvin singles released in 1981 by Polydor Records was John Sinclair, a record producer with a string of credits as long as your arm. NB. This is not heavy metal keyboardist John Sinclair, session muso for Ozzy Osbourne, Uriah Heep and Spinal Tap. Nor is it the American producer/musician who has worked with Weezer, Celine Dion and others. No, this John Sinclair is much more interesting.

Starting out as an actor in the London production of Hair, alongside Richard O’Brien, Sinclair gave up acting after a knee injury, tried his hand at photography for a short while, and then set up London’s first 24-track recording studio, Sarm East. This became a veritable hit factory for everyone from Queen to Madonna. Bohemian Rhapsody was recorded there, and Foreigner’s first album was famously mixed there. Sinclair also worked with Buggles, not unexpectedly as Trevor Horn was his brother-in-law.

He was also good friends with Stephen Moore, the voice of Marvin on the radio, TV and LP versions of Hitchhiker’s Guide. “John was very much into what he called ‘the theatre of wax’,” Moore told me when I interviewed him in 1998, “which meant doing dramatic things on record, with music.”

Sinclair’s initial idea for a collaboration was a version of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice with Moore narrating over (presumably) the Dukas symphonic poem made famous by Fantasia. But the actor had another idea: why not do something based around the character he had made his own?

“I said ‘Why don’t I do something as Marvin?’ So I wrote the words – although obviously the character was Douglas Adams’ through and through – and John wrote the music. It was such fun. I love all that business: staying up all night doing takes and fiddling about. We did it and we were so happy with it, and we said ‘Look, we can’t not involve Douglas.’ So Douglas came round and he had lots of ideas – which we listened to very politely! We said ‘Thanks. We’ll put your name on the credits anyway, if that’s alright with you.’”

The resulting single, credited to Marvin the Paranoid Android, was simply entitled Marvin. It’s a morose recitation of rhyming couplets – too lethargic to be called a rap – over a perky synth beat with an ethereal female voice crooning “Ma-a-a-a-r-r-r-vi-i-i-i-i-n-n-n-n” as a chorus. On the B-side Metal Man, Moore played both Marvin and the captain of a spaceship calling on the robot to help him, again with the title repeated by a female singer.

Although radio play was limited – Terry Wogan liked it, at least – the single did manage to reach 52 in the charts, largely on the back of a performance on Blue Peter on 25th June 1981 (included on the TV series DVD).

Undaunted, later that year Sinclair and Moore released a second Marvin single, confusingly touted on its sleeve as ‘The Double B-Side’, which can’t have helped sales. The obvious lead track Reasons to be Miserable was much the same again, but more energetic and more interesting. It’s arguably the best of the four Marvin songs with a title, of course, riffing on an old Ian Dury number. The ‘other’ B-side was Marvin I Love You, on which the paranoid android discovers an unexpected recording in his databanks of a female voice singing his praise. The vocalist is now known to be Richard O’Brien’s sister Kimi, although it’s not clear if she is also the female voice on the other three tracks. This single went nowhere chart-wise although Marvin I Love You somehow ended up on Dr Demento’s radio show and was included on one of the compilation LPs of musical oddities that he curated.

Both singles are now very collectable, especially in picture sleeve editions. Of course, all the tracks are on YouTube and the singles are listed on Discogs and Wikipedia and yada yada. But what no one knows is that there was a third, unreleased Marvin single. Stephen Moore told me that in the Sarm vaults was a Christmas single that never saw the light of day. Sarm became part of Trevor Horn’s SPZ Group which was acquired in 2017 by Universal Music. It’s theoretically possible that the tape of the Marvin Christmas single is still sitting on a shelf somewhere but after all this time that’s looking increasingly unlikely. Stephen Moore had a copy on cassette at home but he passed away in 2019. I fear it is lost forever.

Marvin and Reasons to Be Miserable were re-recorded by Stephen Fry to promote the 2005 Hitchhiker’s Guide movie, of which the less said the better. These terrible cover versions were only made available online; there were no actual records. When the original radio cast toured a stage version of Hitchhiker (presented like a radio show) in 2012, Moore provided the recorded voice of a large Marvin puppet and Marvin was included among the show’s musical interludes.

As for John Sinclair, in 1987 he bade farewell to his musical career and moved to Israel where, after nearly a decade of studying the Torah, he was ordained as a Rabbi in 1996. Taking the name Yaakov Asher Sinclair, he took up a teaching position at Ohr Somayach/Tanenbaum College in Jerusalem, where he remains to this day, politely declining any inquiry about his former life.

“He’s now completely shocked by everything to do with music,” Moore told me in ’98. “He came over to his sister’s house one weekend from Israel, and there was a picture of Madonna on the front of some magazine, and he threw it out of the window.”


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One comment

  1. Kimi Wong was O’Brien’s wife, not his sister.

    If she was both it would have been…weird.

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