In his ongoing series From The Archives Of Oblivion, GARY STEEL digs up old stuff and reanimates it just because he can. Here’s the story Steel wrote after having a nice long chat with the genuinely legendary Robert Wyatt.
Rock history wouldn’t be the wonderful kaleidoscopic funfair that it is without the key visual mythology-enhancers demanded of every true icon. Hence, images burned into the furtive virtual memories of all true fans/believers such as: Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett fixing the psychedelic gleam in his eye on his audience but forgetting to play a single note, Jim Morrison romantically expiring in a bathtub in France, Janis Joplin giving head to Leonard Cohen at the Chelsea Hotel, Iggy Pop rolling around onstage in shattered glass and blood, Sid culling Nancy then himself, Kurt Cobain’s squalid last fix/blast…
And on it goes. And then there are the pivotal moments of genuine alternative cultural heroes. Like Robert Wyatt, fantastic drummer (and occasional singer) of the Soft Machine, arguably Britain’s most important psychedelic band. Wyatt was out of his head at a party late one night in 1973, fell out of a third storey window, and never walked again. And then made possibly the best album ever.
It’s a cliché to repeat it ad nauseum, and Wyatt must barf when he reads it recycled every time someone writes an article (that’s if he reads his own press), but it’s impossible to ignore the tragedy in this utterly unique chap’s artistic progression, as it had a profound impact on what he did next. You can’t really play drums without legs – hey, it was years before the guy in Def Leppard had a go at playing with just one arm – so Wyatt had to completely change his approach to music.
The following year he returned to the music world with the epochal, amazing Rock Bottom. Truly indescribable, this oddest of oddities can be listened to literally hundreds of times without cracking its code.
Soft Machine had started out as the most visible part of the famed Canterbury scene in the UK, and had been there right at the beginning of the psychedelic revolution, playing with early Pink Floyd and, later, Jimi Hendrix. The group’s sound, however, quickly evolved from a pop/rock/jazz fusion into an exploratory jazz/rock that was in keeping with the progressive rock of the day. Wyatt was a fine drummer, but what he did after he stopped using the instrument was to – in his own humble fashion – write some new vocabulary for contemporary music.
In the past 30 years, though praised by critics and adored by loyal fans, Wyatt hasn’t exactly been prolific. In fact, there are only eight official studio albums since his reinvention, so the occasion of a new one is call for celebration. By Wyatt’s standards, Comicopera follows hot on the heels of Cuckooland from a mere four years ago.
That last album – recorded at former Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera’s studio – was such an enjoyable experience for Wyatt that he wanted to repeat the pleasure.
“Phil’s studio is really friendly,” says Wyatt. “Phil’s a great friend, and Brian Eno (who co-writes a couple of songs on Comicopera) lives just a bicycle ride around the corner, and it’s like ‘I’m really enjoying this, I want to do it again’. That, and finding myself in my 60s and thinking ‘blimey, I’d better get some more stuff done before I’m completely ga-ga’.
“This record has got much the same core of people on it. So it’s me with three or four musicians that are sort of imitation family.”
The lineup on Comicopera is a horn-based jazz ensemble featuring long-time associate Annie Whitehead. Wyatt brings the basics along in the shape of raw keyboard recordings and then forges the sound he wants. Manzanera and another plank spanker, Paul Weller (The Jam, Style Council) also lend a hand on a couple of songs,
“I always look for musicians who are a combination of really good friends, people I really like, and some ways unique, and have a voice that’s really distinct. And I always wanted everyone on my records to be an identifiable human being and not just a clever noise. I wanted that, and I wanted to be friends with them because I’m fed up with playing with people that were clever but we didn’t get on that well. I’m not doing that anymore!”
Is it jazz?
“It’s basically a bunch of jazzers not playing jazz is what it is. There are such a lot of squabbles that go on in the jazz community about what is jazz and who is jazz and what it isn’t. I’d rather keep out of it and just use jazz musicians. A lot of how I work and what inspired me to be a musician was jazz. I listened to lots of other stuff; my Dad had lots of 20th Century classical music and I had pop records and I liked all these things, but the thing that completely grabbed me and took my heart was jazz, and it still does really, and the same records too. Old Duke Ellington things and Charles Mingus and Coltrane. The usual suspects.”
Listening to Wyatt’s emotionally complex and distinctive music, the often glib and superficial sound of what most often passes for jazz hardly comes to mind. But those trying to get a fix on Wyatt’s methodologies might want to ponder the following admission:
“I’ve got a really, really good record collection. I don’t consciously nick stuff, it’s just that I get so many ideas. Like in one Sonny Rollins solo, there’s about 18 really good ideas for a tune, if you slow those little bebop lines down. If you hear what they’re doing, on any chord sequence, even if it’s just a well-known song or a blues, they’re showing you how to get so many different notes out of any given situation, and I’m just so grateful to them for that.”
Responding to my trying to get to grips with how Wyatt came up with his stunningly original sound, he reveals: “Especially since I stopped drumming, I’ve had to invent a kind of music that I can do, that suits me. I’ve had to invent a one-person genre. It’s not a deliberate attempt to be different, or anything like that, it’s how I find I can work.
“Although what I do isn’t pop music, it’s not deliberately extra clever or anything like that. I don’t know how to put it. I try to be pretty clear and emotionally direct in what I’m doing. I don’t really like being deliberately obscure or taking pride in the fact that people can’t understand what I’m doing. I get embarrassed by that. It’s hard enough to get across to people anyway without putting up obstacles.”
Much of the poignant quality of Wyatt’s work comes back to his voice; a high, reedy, pitch-perfect instrument that’s somehow almost unbearably emotive despite the lack of any apparent effort to display his hurt. Perhaps it’s his British reserve that creates an absence that in turn creates an ability in the listener to read between the notes, but Wyatt’s singing can be emotionally devastating, as on the whole of Rock Bottom or the song Elvis Costello wrote for him, ‘Shipbuilding’ or ‘Pigs’, a spoken word piece in which a few words summons up the brutality and sheer horror of modern-day pig farming.
When asked about his singing, again, Wyatt is astoundingly humble. “When I write songs the words are so English really, and they just come out like that. The only thing that works for me is to sing more or less how I talk, it’s nothing like anybody who invented jazz talks, it’s not deliberate but I wasn’t born in New Orleans.”
When Wyatt first started singing, “Because I had a high voice, I couldn’t sing like any of the blokes, so I used to try and sing like Dionne Warwick or something. That was a good place to start, because she hits good notes and had some fantastic material to sing and that nailed it. How to do good songs with a true but soulful voice.”
Wyatt proposes that it’s very easy to sound like a “bad actor” when singing, and says his life has been a process of “getting rid of that stuff… I just use what I’ve got left, and my influences in how to phrase tunes come as much from listening to Coltrane doing a ballad as much as any singer. The main thing I’m trying to do is hit the right note for about the right length of time, and have the vowels and consonants in the correct order, and the rest of it is just being really careful what material I choose to sing in the first place, so that it’s got a good chance of coming out the way that it’s meant to be.”
As for Comicopera, “All I’m really interested in is making a kind of record that I would like to hear that doesn’t already exist. I’m more interested in the whole record, the totality of the record. My singing, I take the responsibility for the voice and having to carry it, but I also like parcelling out the sound, because even a good singer can get monotonous. So one of the things about the ‘opera’ thing was to split it up into three 20-minute chunks. It’s over an hour long, and 20 minutes is a reasonable length of time to listen to a piece of music.
“There’s one song on it which is very difficult to sing because the words are written by my wife, a song called ‘Out Of The Blue’, just about what it might be like having your house bombed from an aeroplane. And you can’t put after that a little comedy song about walking down the street. So the first third is more personal songs about love and lust and stuff, the second lot is walking around the streets seeing things that go on, and then it goes to this bombing thing, and then I go off into singing in foreign languages, speaking in tongues, and there’s a bit more improvisation and kind of general alienation. The last third I get totally fed up with being English altogether actually, and pretend I’m not. You sing in a foreign language and it’s a nice feeling, it’s a bit like putting on ladies underwear or something… it doesn’t make you foreign but it gives you that frisson of difference.”
It’s official: Robert Wyatt has become a verb. The practice of “Wyatting”, as defined by Wikipedia, is ‘playing weird tracks on a pub jukebox to annoy the other pub goers’.
When I ask Wyatt about this, he sounds genuinely perplexed.
“Yeah, it means clearing a room quickly by putting on an intolerable record, and I was chosen. I’m very sad and I feel very sorry for myself.”
It’s not a great honour?
“I’m not like that. I would never put on a record if I thought somebody in the room didn’t like it, and I never even send people my CDs and say ‘this is my CD’… I’d be too embarrassed. I wouldn’t impose what I do on anybody, because I know it’s not everybody’s taste, and so the idea that other people would impose my music on people who didn’t like it I find a bit… I would never do ‘Wyatting’, put it that way.”
On The Soft Machine
“I don’t think about it much, but I have been shown a couple of videos people have dug up of when I was beardless and drumming. And it’s so long ago it’s like someone else, but I find it quite poignant really, and I’m grateful that people hold onto some of that. All the acrimony that went on in the band at the time, young men, too much testosterone stuff, that’s all just evaporated and I can appreciate what we were trying to do. Wincing at the mistakes, but realising it wasn’t a complete waste of time.”
5 Wyatt Classics
Soft Machine – 3
Recently reissued, this (originally) double album is part-live, part-studio, and features great gonzo jam sessions with crazed keyboards and early Wyatt vocal excursions.
Featuring Kiwi keyboardist Dave McRae, this 1972 album is a superb set combining experimental jazz and more song-based numbers.
Robert Wyatt – Rock Bottom
Featuring luminaries from the UK scene of ’73 including Mike Oldfield, Fred Frith and Ivor Cutler, and an album that still sounds like something from the Twilight Zone.
Nick Mason – Fictitious Sports
Pink Floyd’s drummer, Nick Mason, produced Rock Bottom. Now Wyatt was the featured vocalist on Mason’s 1981 solo album with compositions by Carla Bley and a stellar cast of jazzbos. An amazing, neglected classic.
Robert Wyatt – Nothing Can Stop Us
A collection of material from the early ‘80s, much of it politically oriented, including ‘Shipbuilding’ (about the Falklands war), and astounding versions of the Chic song ‘At Last We Are Free’ and a song more often associated with Billie Holiday, ‘Strange Fruit’.
* This story was originally published in Real Groove magazine in 2006.