Thursday, October 04, 2007

Robert Wyatt, English Treasure

With a new Robert Wyatt album out next week, I thought I'd dig out a little piece I wrote about Wyatt, close to being my favourite artist - with a personal selection of his greatest at the end.


Robert Wyatt is a unique artist, without comparison within rock music of the last 40 years. As the drummer and occasional singer with sixties avant-rock band the Soft Machine, he had a place in one of the pivotal times for music. Musical friendships formed at that time have endured, even if the so-called “Cambridge scene” that gave up Soft Machine, Gong and Caravan and their various alumni, seems self-indulgent in retrospect. Soft Machine, along with the Pink Floyd, were leaders of the psychedelic avant garde of late sixties London, performing at the famed UFO club, and, over a period of 4 albums becoming a concert and late night radio fixture.

Part of Wyatt’s appeal is that although as a musician and singer he is far closer to the improvised jazz scene, he has always shown both a pop sensibility and an affinity with certain elements of rock music. That he played with Jimi Hendrix in the late sixties, has worked frequently with the rock guitar greats Dave Gilmour and Robert Fripp, and has recorded songs by Neil Diamond, John Lennon, Elvis Costello and Chic, shows a remarkable breadth of appeal and influence; yet throughout this, the percussive expertise, the nods to improvisation, the innovative if apparently na├»ve piano playing, and mostly one of the most uniquely stylised and recognisable vocals in twentieth century have created a consistency that has survived and surpassed all fashions. Running in a wayward parallel path to British pop and rock music of the last four decades, Wyatt has emerged periodically, as almost a reminder of so much of that music’s shallowness. Whether it was his top 40 hit from the early ‘70s covering the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer”, the anti-Falklands Costello song “Shipbuilding” from the political charged early ‘80s, or the surprise 2004 Mercury Prize nomination for his “Cloudcuckooland” album.

My own acquaintance with his music began in an unexpected way. Every week, Radio 1 would play the new singles, and usually they would be predictable, unexciting, and bland. One week, it played a song called “Grass.” I only heard it on the radio the once. It had an Indian styled percussion, a voice that was English-accented, deadpan, and woefully unprotected by the mix, and strange, yet poignant lyrics. I remembered the name, Robert Wyatt, but in those days pre-CD, pre-internet, it was impossible to find the record. When I did, on a Rough Trade compilation of singles, “Nothing Can Stop Us” I was devastated to find that none of the other songs sounded a bit like “Grass.” Yet, over time the album became an unexpected favourite, prompting me to seek out his ‘70s work, in particular the album “Rock Bottom” and his post-Soft Machine band Matching Mole.

After he left Soft Machine, with some rancour, he created an avant garde solo album “The end of an ear” before coming up with a new band, Matching Mole, so-called because it was an English hearing of the French for Soft Machine. That first Matching Mole album included “O Caroline”, a beautiful ballad, that remains one of my all time favourite songs. Yet, this was as nothing to “Rock Bottom.” An album unique in the pantheon, it’s six songs are orchestral in scope, pastoral in feel, and a mix of immense sadness and inescapable hope. Wyatt, shortly beforehand, had become wheelchair bound through falling off a balcony, drunk. Instead of ending his career, it somehow began it. Unable to live a “normal” rock star life, the convalescing Wyatt, supported by his partner Alfreda Benge, (a painter who painted most of his album covers), created one of the masterpieces of ‘70s music. “Progressive” but also timeless, its mixture of sophisticated musical textures, and plaintive childlike lyrics and singing, becoming one of the most critically acclaimed albums of 1974. The next Virgin album “Ruth is Stranger Than Richard” was more of a jazz album, though it did include “Soup Song”, a typically humorous song about er… soup.

By this time, Wyatt was becoming increasingly politically active and engaged. As a singer exploring different styles he took influence from around the world, and although he was mostly sceptical of music to “change the world”, he saw that music could come out of struggle and reflect that struggle for the wider world to see. Increasingly during the eighties and nineties his music would reflect this world-view. Covers of “The Red Flag” and the “International” sitting besides songs dedicated to East Timor and even the soundtrack to the anti-vivisectionist movie “The Animals.” As a singer and musician however, this activism has never obscured the need to entertain. Rather, Wyatt seems similar to the protest singers of previous ages, reflecting the concerns of his audience, or of the age, but remaining, first and foremost, a musician. And if some of those equally committed singers such as Elvis Costello, Billy Bragg and Paul Weller, have dipped out of direct polemic, as their influence has reduced, for Wyatt, it seems that his almost negligible commercial presence (his recordings have generally appeared for the independent labels Rykodisk and Rough Trade), has allowed this continued freedom to operate as a lone political voice. Rarely able to play live, his “help” has been frequently offered via guest appearances on a large number of recordings, from Phil Manzenera’s “Diamond Head” album, to Working Week’s “Venceremos” single, to Ultramarine’s “United Kingdoms” album. Being a Robert Wyatt fan has involved keeping an eye on the sidetracks and back alleys of contemporary music.

Since “Old Rottenhat” in 1985 he has, to some extent, had a more regular career, albeit with quite long gaps between albums, with “Dondestan”, “Schleep” and “Cloudcuckooland” being careful, considered works, each one being welcomed by anyone who has ever been beguiled by his remarkable voice.

My personal Robert Wyatt "best of"...

Written specifically for Wyatt by Clive Langer and Elvis Costello it was possibly the only explicit anti-Falklands song to receive airplay and make the charts.
KINGDOM “United Kingdoms” CD by Ultramarine
The UK dance scene had fractured by the mid-90s and more ambient/pastoral sounds were as welcome as harder beats. Ultramarine inspiredly collaborated with Wyatt on their 2nd album “United Kingdoms.”
TEAM SPIRIT “Ruth is Stranger than Richard” CD
“Ruth…” is a sophisticated jazz album from 1975, like an English Steely Dan, and this driving rhythmic track is its standout. Features Eno on “direct anti-jazz ray gun” (which clearly failed!)
LULLALOOP “Cloudcuckooland” CD
“Cloudcuckooland” was a surprise near-hit in 2004, being shortlisted for the Mercury Prize. Essentially a “double album” it was Wyatt’s most complex and achieved work for years. Written by his wife, Alfreda Benge, this track features Paul Weller on guitar.
A LAST STRAW “Rock Bottom” CD
“Rock Bottom” from 1974 is almost impossible to extract from, its 6 long songs forming a beautiful whole. The album was produced by Nick Mason of Pink Floyd.
Signing for reissue label Rykodisc after years on Rough Trade seemed to cause a renaissance for Wyatt, 1997’s “Shleep” a quietly pastoral album.
The unexpected Monkees cover was an unexpected 1974 hit, but the BBC infamously wouldn’t let a singer in a wheelchair appear on Top of the Pops in case it upset the viewers. A follow up cover “Yesterday Man” was almost as good, but didn’t make the charts.
O CAROLINE “Matching Mole” CD
The most traditional track Matching Mole recorded, it shows Wyatt’s soon-to-be more apparent romanticism to the full. It’s also one of my favourite songs of all time.
FOREST “Cloudcuckooland” CD
“Cloudcuckooland” is a suite of songs, of which “Forest” is one of the most affecting, with backing vocals by Eno and guitar by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour.
GRASS “Nothing Can Stop Us” LP
An Ivor Cutler song, and my own introduction to Wyatt. The deadpan south-east accent and intentionally hilarious lyrics show the lighter side to Wyatt’s muse.
INSTANT PUSSY Smoke Signals Live by Matching Mole CD
The scat-sung track from Matching Mole’s debut recorded on tour in Europe in 1972.
FRONTERA “Diamond Head” LP by Phil Manzanera
From 1975 and a hidden highlight of his career, co-written with Roxy Music’s Manzanera on his 1975 album “Diamond Head” this is an early sign of his interest in latin rhythms and voices.
WINDS OF CHANGE “Cloudcuckooland” CD
The politically charged days of the mid-eighties saw a number of collaborations of which this joyous track, with the SWAPO singers from South Africa, produced by Jerry Dammers of the Specials AKA, was a highlight.
SEA SONG “Rock Bottom” CD
The opening song of “Rock Bottom.”
AT LAST I AM FREE “Nothing Can Stop Us” LP
A Chic album track that had Wyatt not decided to cover, may have stayed in unexpected obscurity. The lyrics clearly had political currency, but it’s the beauty of both song and vocal that astound. Liz Fraser would cover it in a similar style for Rough Trade’s 25th anniversary.
THE AGE OF SELF “Old Rottenhat” LP
Essentially his first proper album since “Ruth…” “Old Rottenhat” is a series of glorified home recordings, mostly politicised.
LOVE Uncut Magazine Lennon Tribute CD
A recent cover version of a John Lennon solo song that perfectly matches song and singer.

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