At Last I'm Free/Strange Fruit

Robert Wyatt


THE GUARDIAN - 10 January 2013 -

Old music: Robert Wyatt – At Last I Am Free

George Chesterton

In which a hero of the English counterculture embraces the hedonistic disco of Chic, and plays a blinder.

This song involves a lot of heroes and is, in a way, about heroism itself. A ballad of psychological manumission, it was written by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards for Chic's second album, 1978's C'est Chic. Chic were not merely masters of the disco sound, they embodied the best qualities of the disco ethos: unerring positivity, hope and – in the old fashioned sense of the word – the fantastic.

Rodgers and Edwards were two of my earliest musical heroes. The band's heavily cultivated image of sophistication and affluence was in part a response to the economic and social depression of late-70s New York, but this can't muddy the luminous wonder of their songwriting, musicianship and production, which went on to enhance – in some cases rescue – the careers of Sister Sledge, Diana Ross, David Bowie, Madonna, Duran Duran and many others (not to mention their huge influence on hip-hop).

I remember watching Top of the Pops open-mouthed as they mimed to I Want Your Love. Rodgers glued their sound together with his distinctive and often-copied rhythm guitar, Tony Thompson was that most unusual of beasts, a chic drummer, Alfa Anderson and Luci Martin provided the ice-cold vocals while all around them the piano and strings whirled and purred. The person who stood out the most was the much-missed Edwards, who played the bass with the élan of a funkified praying mantis.

So it seems a long journey from Chic's original seven minutes of At Last I am Free to the version by Robert Wyatt, which appeared on his 1982 singles and B-sides compliation, Nothing Can Stop Us. Wyatt is one of the great heroes of British counterculture, like a cross between an old English sheepdog and Pan. His blend of political commitment, an endearing folk twang and a sense of musical experiment and liberty has led to career of almost unrivalled range and influence. On this song he brings the heartbreaking honesty most people will recognise from his version of Shipbuilding, with a voice that somehow is at once shrill but deeply soulful and communicative. Around the central pillar of the vocals fall piano, organ and percussion lines that gently splish and splash then dissipate like ripples in water.

The lyrics speak of a failing relationship but the way Wyatt sings it could be about anything – any momentous parting or new beginnings. The line "I can hardly see in front of me" is one of those phrases in pop music that come along from time to time that mean almost nothing yet bulge under the weight of a thousand projected meanings for a thousand different listeners. It is an anthem for the turning of a page.