A very English voice combines with wholly un-English sentiments in the idiosyncratic songs of Robert Wyatt, who is about to break a six year silence with a brilliant new album. This article was originally published in The Wire 163 (September 1997).
"The last record I made under my own name was while there was no elected prime minister," reminisces Robert Wyatt with a slight shudder as he recalls the grey years. "John Major was there by default, as it were, so I quickly made a record. When he actually got voted in, I was so depressed at the thought that another generation of English people were prepared to vote for a Conservative government that I went on strike for five years, and now he's gone I have made another record..."
Pausing long enough for the listener to weigh up the implications of his one man art strike, Wyatt leans forward, his face creasing into regularly exercised laughter lines, as he readies himself to toss a banana skin under the oncoming train of thought.
"At least that's what I would like to say, but that's a load of old bollocks!" he guffaws. "I just had a hard time collecting my thoughts throughout the 90s. They seemed to just dissipate.
"But I have to earn a living," Wyatt continues, "so I just collected together scraps of tunes and words, with a lot of help from other people, other people's tunes, Alfie's words, and I found to my surprise that I had enough material for a record."
Fully animated, nothing can stop Robert Wyatt now. He is sitting in the garden of the ramshackle summer dacha he and his wife Alfie (nee Alfreda) bought on the mouth of the Humber river near Cleethorpes, along with a house in Louth, Lincolnshire, with the proceeds from selling their Twickenham flat in the late 1980s. They might be far removed from the heart of things, but their thirst for a righteous fight hasn't diminished. On the way from the train station, Alfie, herself an artist and poet, rejoices in their recent victory over the developers by getting the land around their dacha - one of a colony that used to serve as a holiday retreat for Yorkshire miners - declared a conservation area.
If sunshine and a seaside victory were not enough, Robert Wyatt's excellent new album Shleep is just cause for celebration. Recorded at former Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera's studio, it marks Wyatt's return to working with a range of different musicians, rather than trying to do everything himself on what Alfie calls his 50 quid keyboard. You can imagine what a difference a line-up including Brian Eno, Evan Parker, Annie Whitehead, Belgian guitarist Philip Catherine, and, most surprisingly, Paul Weller made, not only to the texture of the music, but also to Wyatt's spirit.
"The people who came in, they really livened me up," enthuses Wyatt, "because when you are on your own, I mean, not in a group, you can get a bit… abstract. You can lose your grip on that physical, visceral thing of making music, that momentum of working with other people. So it wasn't just their contributions that were valuable, it was the psychological effect, for me, of being back among other people."
What with its balance of musical invention and playfulness, song structure and the freedom for players like Parker to extend song form way beyond its usual parameters, and the sharp observation and Lear-like nonsense of its lyrics, Shleep reverses the spiral of despair which Wyatt's latter records seemed locked into. Indeed, at its most buoyantly optimistic it is as exuberant as "Love Makes Sweet Music", the very first single he made with Soft Machine some 30 years ago, especially when Wyatt's voice locks into - in his words - his "girlie chorus act" with Brian Eno (on "Heaps Of Sheeps") That same spirit carries through into the affectionate comedy of "The Duchess", featuring Parker's soprano and Eno's synthesizer. Thereafter, it takes a wistful tumble through a Wyatt/Catherine ballad and a vaguely troubled dream song co-written with former Soft Machine colleague Hugh Hopper. And then Wyatt slays you with the album's masterpiece, a faintly comic, yet heartbreakingly melancholy philosophical meditation called "Free Will And Testament". Over Paul Weller's guitar and slide revamp of the tune (originally written by Mark Kramer), Wyatt opens brilliantly with the lines, "Given free will but within certain limitations/I cannot will myself to limitless mutations", and concludes with the devastating plea, "Had I been tree, I could have chosen not to be me/Demented forces push me madly round a treadmill/... Let me off please, I am so very tired."
The piece heads a canon of great Wyatt songs, among them Soft Machine's "Moon In June", Matching Mole's "Oh Caroline", "Signed Curtain" and "The God Song", the exile's lament of "Dondestan" and the whole of the Rock Bottom album. His voice threads such songs through successive tapestries of psychedelic, experimental, Rock In Opposition, post-punk, agitpop, jazz fringe and Electronica musics without ever tugging him away from the path he marked out for himself 30 years ago.
"Any consistency comes from the fact that my brain goes round and round similar preoccupations for years on end," Wyatt remarks in his characteristically self deprecatory manner. "I nag away at one or two thoughts like Winnie The Pooh, who was, in fact, my earliest role model. That's where any consistency comes from."
Robert Wyatt talks as he sings, just as you would expect of the man who, 30 years ago and then some, introduced the once revolutionary notion of singing it like you talk it, while all around him were mimicking American R&B vocalists. In Soft Machine he drummed and sang the 'pataphysical alphabet in the sour-sweet pop countertenor of a defrocked Canterbury choirboy. Well, who's to know whether he ever really sat in a cathedral pew, but as a prime mover of the Canterbury scene, out of which emerged the pre-Softs group Wilde Flowers, Caravan and Kevin Ayers, Wyatt helped set the tone of a very English kind of psychedelia. And just as his voice - high, keening, sometimes deliberately flattened at the edges to vaguely comic effect or to up the melancholy quotient - refused to disguise its origins, it also expressed a range of emotions and concerns that must be the envy of classically trained countertenors who are invariably confined to freakish roles. After rigor mortis set in at Soft Machine, around the time when the thrilling, fuzzed rutting of their lead players started hardening into a bookish cousin to jazz rock, Wyatt was frozen out of the group he founded. All these years later his 'expulsion' still pains him.
"Well, I think it was Tom Waits who said, I slept through the 60s," ponders Wyatt "All I can say is, I certainly didn't do that but I envy him a great deal. I mean, for me, the things that came out of it were quite other. My son was born in 1966 so it wasn't a waste of time. Something came out of it. But I find it hard to imagine that I wouldn't have been happier somewhere else, with someone else, as far as the music went."
Punning on the French for Soft Machine he teased his ex-colleagues by naming his next group Matching Mole. With them he produced two albums - the first an erratic masterpiece of pioneering mellotron mood experiments wrapped around a pair of heartbreaking songs, "O Caroline" and "Signed Curtain"; and its sequel, Little Red Record, an occasionally brilliant melange of skits, bizarre song and racing fusion pieces. He was about to record a third when, in June, 1973, he fell out of a fourth floor window at a party and broke his back. The accident rendered him paraplegic. But straightaway during his stay in hospital he began formulating Rock Bottom, the album that launched his solo career proper.
"I don't think I have ever been a group musician really," Wyatt postulates "Now this sounds sarcastic, but I was liberated by paraplegia from having to be in a group. It was only really since being in a wheelchair that I have had to do what I feel most comfortable doing, which is doing what I do first, then finding the people most appropriate to the particular tracks. I mean, there was no way I could go on the road with a group featuring Paul Weller and Evan Parker and Annie Whitehead. I don't have to think like that anymore. There isn't that awful anxiety of having to fit every person to every tune and every tune to every person, because that is your group."
As evidenced by such a statement, humour and pain are never far apart in Wyatt's work. His music is so profoundly affecting because it's very much a direct expression of his feelings at the moment of recording. That's not to say he's the fringe's equivalent of a 70s singer/songwriter opening their veins to a community of damaged souls. On the contrary, the power of Wyatt's art resides in its understatement. So the post-accident Rock Bottom registers the shock, the enormity of the life change, the strange, weightless feeling of hospitalisation in submerged, slithering electronic melodies merging with a fuzz of horns over surging currents of percussion. As a drummer the accident forced him to seek more imaginative ways of keeping the music moving than by simply frog-marching it to a hefty bass-drum kick – thereby bringing it in line with most all late 20th century popular music. Besides, rockbeat has always been anathema to Wyatt's freer musical thinking – a statement borne out by the first-time issue of the British free music unit The Amazing Band's solitary recording, Roar, on which Wyatt drummed. "I can safely say with, not pride, but with defiance, that I have never in the end made a rock record in my life," Wyatt proclaims. "If you lean on my rhythm tracks you will always sort of get tripped up somewhere. I just love the ducking and diving of the jazz rhythm section too much. Mind you, I haven't checked back to see..."
If Rock Bottom was Wyatt's first landmark solo recording, the personal breakthrough happened earlier, on End Of An Ear, his first solo album proper, an intriguing experimental drum 'n' voice record produced in 1970 while he was still in Soft Machine. If he felt Soft Machine's hatchet faced response to their earlier slithering psychedelic orientation was forcing him out of his own group, he wasn't looking to cram End Of An Ear with stillborn Soft Machine songs. On the contrary, the record came across like Wyatt was out to prove he could easily outflank their avant garde manoeuvres. Pitched somewhere between Oskar Sala's soundtrack for Hitchcock's The Birds and Meredith Monk's vocal compositions, it scats swirls of multitracked vocals over slippery drum and piano-led rhythm figures.
"I learned a lot doing that record," recalls Wyatt. "It was the first time I had ever really gone into the studio and just treated the tape as a canvas upon which to paint. If anything, I have always felt more kinship with painters, like Chagall or Picasso, for example, rather than musicians and composers. That is very dangerous, and a lot of people have made the mistake of thinking that they can translate the visual arts into music. You have to test it musically, because if you only test it visually, you can come a bit of a cropper. Even so, in my head I still see music almost as much as hear it, so just that feeling of treating the tape like a canvas was incredibly exciting and very euphoric, and it also broke my fear and intimidation of keyboard players. There is a sense of discovery which is often the most enjoyable thing in art for me, rather than just the business of manufacturing perfectly constructed objects."
The experience proved invaluable when the time came to record Rock Bottom. Even before the accident he found the notion of recording as a simulation of real-time live performance problematic. "As soon as I started singing the drummer would stop playing," quips Wyatt with mock bafflement. "It used to happen all the time. Never could work out why." On Rock Bottom, multitracking resolved that problem.
From early Soft Machine through Slapp Happy and on to Steve Beresford's various projects, humour has always been a strong feature of the British avant garde. Often as not it grates horribly, because it comes on like a typically British apology for getting serious. But in Wyatt's case, humour is integral to his being and therefore to his work. It emerges from somewhere deep inside the music, adds a wholly other dimension to it. Besides, who can resist opening Wyatt lines as divertingly daft, yet spot on, theologically speaking, as "What on earth are you doing, God?" from Matching Mole's "God Song"?
"I mean, I am a muddle-up, like lots of people," says Wyatt, getting serious for a moment. "I know I joke that deep down I am shallow, and I think that is right. In fact, one of the funniest things about recording Shleep was that though some of the songs had been written in the depths of despair, to coin a cliche, when I was recording them I never felt happier. So I felt a bit of a fraud by the time I had finished doing it, and in fact it is the most nursery rhyme-y things that most accurately reflect my feeling at the time I was recording.
"What I don't like about Anglophone culture is the relentless pressure to be anti-serious," he continues. "The idea that seriousness is suspect, that if anybody is serious, well, they haven't got laid recently, you know, lighten up, man, and all that stuff… My dad used to say there is nothing more ponderously suety than light music. And there is nothing that can make you more miserable than a series of bright major chords and so on, and that, quite apart from anything else, the desperate attempt to be liked has a very leadening effect.
"Well," Wyatt says, "it's not that I believe in seriousness or believe in silliness, I just think you have to not be scared to be true to how you feel, because there is a constant pressure to be cowardly in what you do, which knows no boundaries."
In terms of Wyatt's music, humour is his way of bringing to the bulk of the song the same fluidity and swing of his rhythm tracks. His shifting balance of weight and nonsense recalls the French surrealists' love affair with jazz, embodied in the writings of Jacques Prevert and Boris Vian. Wyatt's courageous commitment to silliness when applicable, in defiance of the more po-faced avant garde ordinances, is shared by one of Shleep's unlikeliest guest musicians, Evan Parker. Other than Shleep, Parker's extremely rare song sessions pretty much amount to his appearances with Scott Walker and... Vic Reeves.
"I think Evan was Steve Beresford's idea," Wyatt smiles, Beresford being Reeves's musical arranger "Vic hadn't been told how venerable a character Evan Parker was, and in the middle of one of his long solos, he shouted out, 'Shut it, Parker! and Evan really broke up."
Wyatt knew Parker well enough to feel comfortable asking him to record on Shleep "I mean, if you are lucky enough to know Evan Parker, and think you can embarrass him into playing on your record, you do, don't you? Can you think of a better saxophone player? I can't." But he did have misgivings about what Parker's sterner followers might feel about him playing on the wonderful nonsense track "The Duchess".
"I know that Evan, like a lot of musicians, is a fairly open-minded listener," explains Wyatt. "I mean, it was Evan who stocked me up on the gaps in my Dionne Warwick collection, for example. But people who follow Evan's music follow the philosophy of what he is doing very closely, because it is a very important part of the appreciation of it, and him playing along with me scraping away on Alfie's old Polish fiddle I don't think figures in any of these schemes. So I was a bit worried that they would think I had somehow blackmailed him into doing something, which wasn't quite the point. I wasn't worried about Evan himself; all he asks is that you are trying to do something and you're not following a formula."
Though Wyatt commands respect from so many corners, he himself is modest to a fault about his own pulling power. But in terms of the music he makes and who he chooses to make it with, it is not so much diffidence as a balance of his own tastes and desires with his ability to get along with the people he asks in to help realise them.
"This may be apocryphal, this story," begins Wyatt, by way of illustrating the point, "but I think I heard it from Evan, so I don't think it is too like gossip. It's about Derek Bailey, whom I admire very much. I think it was that bass guitarist, Jaco Pastorius, he said to Derek, 'Oh, that was a nice little bit of playing there', to which Derek said, 'Aw, that chord's been dealt with'.
"Well," he laughs, "I wouldn't really have the confidence to know which chords have and have not been dealt with. I had conversations like that with Mike Mantler [Wyatt has sung on a number of Mantler recordings, among them 1976's The Hapless Child]. He'd say, 'How can people go on using the common chord of a major arpeggio?', and I just blushed deeply, because I think that there is at least two and a half hours of my recordings that are just sustained major arpeggios. I love major chords, I could just go on and on, play C-EG on an organ and just hold it. I do like the basic alphabet of the common musical language, as much as I like what has been done with it, which is why I have never abandoned it to just become an explorer of new music. So there are a lot of people I would never ask to play on my records, because I know that they would feel uncomfortable with chords that have been dealt with."
It's difficult to think of any other musician who has touched so many bases that are so far apart as Robert Wyatt. Normally you'd need special dispensation from the Pope or some other such higher authority to negotiate the difficult passage from The Monkees – Wyatt had a chart hit in the early 70s with a cover of "I'm A Believer" – to Ultramarine, via Michael Mantler. Even allowing for the diplomatic immunity that protects Wyatt from the usual inane accusations fired at anybody who moves so freely between genres, the mention of Paul Weller's presence on Shleep produces the biggest shock among Wyatt's more leftfield admirers. For his part, Wyatt is a longtime fan of both Weller's cussedness and his music, explaining that he got to meet one of his "handful of rock heroes" when Weller was demoing at Phil Manzanera's studio.
"I left him a note saying if you need that kind of old man sound on any old hum vocals, a bit of the old gravitas, I am available," Wyatt explains, "and I got a quite a witty note back saying, no, I don't really think I need that, but if you need a bit of strumming on anything, I'll come along and have a go. He was extremely courteous and helpful and he wasn't going to presume to put the Weller stamp on anything.
"The thing is," he goes on, "people think I want to write Robert Wyatt records, you know, here we go, Jimmy Somerville on valium. When he came in, I was a bit nervous, because I normally work with people I know, and I was also a bit nervous on his behalf, because he might feel that some of the things that I do are a bit on the whimsical side."
As it happens, Weller contributes to two of Shleep's most stunning pieces - the aforementioned "Free Will And Testament" and "Blues In Bob Minor". The latter is a lengthy, linguistic tour de force modelled on Bob Dylan's tongue twisting "Subterranean Homesick Blues", except it's almost three times as long. Lyrically, it's an extremely witty, phantasmagorical dusting down of the foulness of British politics though, in keeping with the best post-surrealist traditions, anyone would be hard put to pin down the real point of the song.
Incidentally, it is also Wyatt's first blues. "A bit po-faced, I always thought that as long as apartheid actually existed I didn't really have a right to play the blues, but now Mandela has sorted that one out I thought I would have a go at this old blues business. Never too late to learn. I always thought the blues was an unbeatable chord sequence. I just think it is quite extraordinary how it is endlessly regeneratable. And I had the lyrics, which went a bit like that Capri ad, you know, 'Papa?' 'Nicole' Well, mine went, "Ah, Alfie, ah Alfie, ah Alfie...". But when Alfie heard it, she said, you can't sing that, and I said I can, look, it's dead minimalist, it's really far out, and she said, no, you're being fucking lazy, write some words, people want something to listen to. So I said, OK, you want some fucking words, I'll give you some fucking words. So I just wrote a stream of words. I really like that tumbling, relentless rhythm [on "Subterranean Homesick Blues"] and I also like [Longfellow's poem] "Hiawatha", and the whole thing comes out of that. The reason I referred to myself in the title as Bob Minor is because to be any kind of Bob in that context is an honour, sir."
The six year silence that preceded Shleep was not the first to so punctuate Robert Wyatt's recording career. His first period in the wilderness occurred in the mid-70s after his two albums for Virgin, Rock Bottom and its sequel, Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard, which featured his outstanding version of Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra anthem "Song For Chen". Through an invitation from Rough Trade's Geoff Travis, Wyatt began his second great set of recordings - the series of singles now collected together on Nothing Can Stop Us. They include a superlative reinterpretation of Chic's "At Last I'm Free", a heartbreaking reading of Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit", and a reclamation of the Cuban folk song "Guantanamera" from its Radio 2 void. In their original single form, they were intended as journalism, quickfire bulletins broadcast from Wyatt central to the increasingly ragged broad left alliance.
"Because I don't do gigs, everything I do has to be on record," says Wyatt. "It has this sort of posterity hanging over it, this dreadful weight. By doing them as singles, I wanted them to be almost like journalism, do them fast and then they should disappear. Old records are like old tattoos, you know, 'I love Martha true' and, like, oh no, I've been going out with Carol for two weeks, how can I get this fucking tattoo off? It wasn't my idea to compile them as an album, it was Geoff Travis's, so if it does hang together as a record, he can take credit for that."
The singles began a new phase of Wyatt songs and music. He composed the soundtrack for The Animals Film, a harrowing documentary examining the abuses of factory farming. More and more the melancholy and the wistfulness of Wyatt's music was being combined with a tough lyrical stance. The news that Robert Wyatt had joined the Communist Party hardly came as a surprise. "I do like a kind of integrity of the song, that the words are true to the way that it is done, the tune that is true to the lyrics and all that kind of thing," he explains. "I do like that sort of consistency, although I play perverse games with it, but that is me being deeply shallow for you. In the mid-80s I was writing what sounded like mournful love songs whereas in actual fact they were vehicles to express my deep hatred of David Owen. Some people consider this a deceitful exercise, typical party hack behaviour, undercover work, but I don't think I have done that on this new record [Shleep]. I think there is a consistency between the tunes and the words, they come from the same source.
"But my lyrics, as far as I am concerned, have always been fairly unplanned, they always end up as being what happened when I started writing I have never made a deliberate attempt to either be political or not be political. In any case, politically I am a reactionary - if there is too much of one thing going on I try and tip the balance the other way If there is a lot of acid I need a lot of alkali, and so on. The fact that a lot of the songs ended up with political references is simply a reflection of the preoccupations and pressures which came out or were exorcised when I started to write them. Besides, I never in my own mind distinguish between the use of an utterly private image and a very public one. To me they are all in a way utterly private and then, as with all music, you just have to hope that they resonate somewhere beyond. To those people who say that image or phrase is contentious, I can only say, well, I don't have to fall in love with the same girl as Stevie Wonder when he is singing "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life" to actually enjoy the song."
As the 80s wore on, with the Conservative government systematically dismantling all the social gains of the post-war period, Wyatt became more and more worn down. His music, not unnaturally, reflected his spiritual downward spiral.
"I felt there were assumptions being made on my behalf, which if they included me, I would feel very invaded and interfered with, like after a prime minister described to foreigners the British way of life, I would like to write to every foreigner I knew to say, she doesn't mean me, she is not speaking on my behalf, and so, via songs, I can do that, I can exorcise that viscosity of being stuck to things which made my skin crawl, wash them off via a song...
"I really was depressed to a point of serious disorientation by the Conservative revival, not on principle, but because it was like... Having been born in 1945 I was constructed psychologically simultaneously with what they call the welfare state. My parents thought at last, after the chaos and misery of the past, the basis of a kind of human civilisation was being built in our time; nothing grand, you know, just the basic framework that makes civilised life possible, and the idea that that was being pulled from under our feet just made me very, very queasy.
"Depression," Wyatt asserts, "was a biological response to conditioning... It was just too ghastly, it was nightmarish, there was something hellish going on, and it entered my dreamworld. I mean, I do live in a dreamworld and I never haven't done. I wake up just long enough in the daytime to eat lots of food and then try to go back to sleep. I mean, I am not by nature rebellious or activist or anything like that, I am really self indulgent, but this business was stopping me enjoying myself, it totally invaded and disrupted my world and I had to exorcise it as best I could. And I desperately looked around for sympathisers.
"People say, you only preach to the converted. Well, that's good enough for me. The reassurance of likeminded souls keeps me going."
The funny thing is, the deeper Robert Wyatt trawls the depths of his memory of a painfully difficult decade that left him as depressed as the Left was demoralised, the faster and funnier flows his analysis of the Right's political impact on a very human condition. "I mean, I hope I am wrong, I don't wanna be right," he concludes. "What pessimist wants to be right? I am not a fucking pervert! Jesus Christ, if anyone wants to persuade me that I am wrong, please do. Take this weight off my mind, set me free. Blondes just wanna have fun."