Guys Don't Dance - Bill Nelson meets Robert Wyatt - originally
appeared in the August, 1992 edition of Musician magazine
BILL NELSON MEETS ROBERT WYATT
An extraordinary dialogue between two kings of
the underground. Nelson and Wyatt have each spent
decades producing music of depth and personal vision
for a small, devoted audience. Each continues to face
enormous hardship in trying to get his music out.
You think you know tough guys? Meet the real thing.
Bill Nelson meets Robert Wyatt. For 20 years they've bucked
the system and have been making music at the edge of rock.
Two vets discuss the never-ending battle.
The first time Bill Nelson met Robert Wyatt, in 1974,
Wyatt asked for his autograph. Nelson, the Yorkshire-born
singer/songwriter/guitarist, was just starting as a professional.
He'd released a limited-edition solo album called Northern
Dream and formed a band, Be-Bop Deluxe. The solo album
caught the ear of legendary BBC DJ John Peel, who played
it on his influential Radio One show. Peel must have been
impressed because he invited Nelson to his wedding. Among
the celebrities in attendance was Wyatt, who'd established
himself as a drummer, vocalist and writer for the Soft
Machine and Matching Mole before falling from a third-story
window and permanently paralyzing his legs. Nelson admired
Wyatt's work, but couldn't get up the nerve to start a
conversation. Wyatt had heard Northern Dream and liked
it. He wheeled his chair over to Nelson and asked, "Could
I have your autograph?" Nelson said, "Only if
I can have yours."
The second time Bill Nelson met Robert Wyatt was for
this interview, nearly 18 years later. "You haven't
changed at all," Wyatt said cheerfully to Nelson.
Maybe he hadn't, but much had happened to both of them.
Be-Bop Deluxe recorded six albums, getting a British Top
5 hit with "Ships in the Night" and achieving
moderate cult status in the U.S. In '78 Nelson formed
Red Noise, which made one brilliant album that went nowhere.
After that, he began a solo career (literally solo - most
of his post '79 music has been recorded at home without
collaborators). On the one hand, he produced a series
of instrumental records on his own Cocteau label that
could almost be called "ambient music" if they
weren't so sophisticated. On the other, he made left-of-center
pop gems like The Love That Whirls (1982), Vistamix ('84),
Getting the Holy Ghost Across ('86) and last year's Luminous,
filled with great radio songs that somehow never made
it to the airwaves.
Meanwhile, Wyatt recorded two discs for Virgin in the
mid-'70s and then dropped out of music for several years.
He resurfaced in 1981 with a stunning series of singles
that were later compiled on Nothing Can Stop Us. His music,
like Nelson's mostly recorded solo, was more stark and
somber than before, his lyrics more political. One thing
hadn't changed, though: his heartbreakingly tender singing.
For the first half of the '80s Wyatt was relatively prolific;
then, after '85s Old Rottenhat, he vanished again, emerging
after six years with Dondestan, perhaps his best album.
This interview took place over two days in March at Wyatt's
cozy 19th-century house in the Lincolnshire town of Louth,
a charming village of narrow, winding streets, antique
buildings and crooked alleyways isolated by miles of flat
green fields and marshland. There's no railway station,
and the nearest noteworthy town's about 30 miles away.
To most of Louth's inhabitants, Robert Wyatt is simply
the guy in the wheelchair, who moves around faster than
some cars. Almost nobody here knows about the 30 years
he's put into music, and he likes it that way.
At the time of the interview, neither Nelson nor Wyatt
had much reason to be cheerful. Nelson was in the middle
of a lawsuit with his former business manager who, Nelson
says, is illegally claiming full rights to the Cocteau
catalog. He says Virgin has agreed to release three new
Nelson albums provided they get the back catalog too.
So until the ex-manager lets go of it, Nelson says, there's
no deal. What with mounting costs and the lack of cash
coming in, he may lose his house, his car, his studio
- in short, everything he owns.
Although Wyatt's living in comfort for the first time
in years (thanks to friends of his wife Alfie, who gave
them the money to buy the house in Louth), his future
is also uncertain. Rough Trade, the label he's been signed
to since 1981, has gone bankrupt. Though Gramavision is
licensed to distribute his records in the U.S., he is
essentially, like Nelson, a man without a contract. And
like Nelson, he's seen no money for some time.
For decades Wyatt and Nelson have struggled on the perimeter
of pop, often with little reward save the devotion of
a select group of listeners. They simply love what they
do. They are, as Nelson put it, representatives of "two
complementary aspects of the human condition - the inward-looking,
spiritual side (Nelson) and the outward-looking, political
side (Wyatt) that's concerned with how that spirit deals
with the rest of the world." And, as Musician quickly
learned, they are talkers of a very high order. When the
articulate, soft-spoken Nelson and the earthy, wisecracking
Wyatt sit across the table from each other drinking wine,
laughing, and talking about music in the company of Wyatt's
comfortable old mongrel, Flossie - you can't help wishing
the conversation won't stop.
MUSICIAN: It seems there's a small group of English
musicians who spend most of their time staying home and
making records, including both relatively famous people-Peter
Gabriella, XTC-and some lesser-known ones-The Bevis Frond,
Peter Hammill And then there's you two. Do you see yourselves
as part of this - if you can stomach the apparent contradiction-group
NELSON: Sometimes I wonder whether all these people
had train sets when they were kids. I know Andy [Partridge,
of XTC] and I know Peter, and there's something of that
in me as well. It's the boy in his loft with his gear.
Life passes him by. He's living inside his head all the
time. It's an obsessive thing, and you tend not to have
time for other people. It's a sad, sick reflection on
what we've become. [laughter] I'm terrible sometimes,
I don't want to know that there's a world outside that
WYATT: Not all of the arts are intrinsically performing
arts. Composers, painters, novelists, poets are solitary
workers. That's what the job requires. You have to get
into a state of mind which too much human traffic can
destroy. To use a crummy metaphor, you're working in a
pond and it has to be still; otherwise you'll never see
to the bottom. In music this may seem odd, because people
think of music as something that's performed. But compare
it with painting, and you see an analogy that's very obvious.
A lot of English pop music of the '60s came more out
of the art college tradition than the conservatory tradition.
John Lennon, Pete Townshend, Brian Eno, Ian Dury, were
all art students. In the '50s, it was one of the only
places where kids could go who didn't have qualifications,
who weren't articulate or impressive in academic fields.
They could suddenly feel welcome, allowed to do their
own thing. They could become kings of their imagination,
instead of failures in some system they couldn't understand.
I was only in one for three months, but it has to be acknowledged
as an English thing.
NELSON: I'm from a working-class family, and I
wasn't happy at school but I always liked painting. When
I got to art college, it was like going to heaven; everything
that made me an outcast before made me acceptable there.
WYATT: I don't think this maverick thing you're
talking about comes out of the music colleges. These mad
breakthroughs that have taken place from John Lennon onwards,
totally unpredictable things that set off a chain reaction,
that has to be attributed to the anarchism of art colleges.
By that I mean the lack of hierarchy, the governmentlessness,
the feeling that you could be anything you wanted to be.
NELSON: When I was at art college, I used to pick
up the International Times to find out what was happening
in London. I read about Robert's band, and I'd think,
"This sounds wild!' And without being able to go
down there and see for ourselves, we made up our own version
of what we thought was happening. We did concerts with
light shows and the whole thing. Nobody knew what was
going on-'Where the hell's this coming from?"-because
it was only three of us reading the International Times
who knew what was happening anywhere south of Barnsley.
WYATT: That's fantastic.
MUSICIAN: Robert, how did you become apart of that
underground London scene in the mid-60s that Bill thought
was so wild?
WYATT: I'm afraid I may have to dodge that question,
because ... well, people think I must have problems talking
about my accident. But I don't; what I have problems talking
about is what happened before the accident. Rock Bottom
[19741 and beyond, that I see as me. But my adolescent
self, the drummer biped, I don't remember him and I don't
understand him. I have a hard time dealing with the way
I was before; it's almost as if the fall affected my mind.
I see the accident now as being a sort of neat division
line between my adolescence and the rest of my life.
This was how the accident went: in order, wine, whisky,
Southern Comfort, then the window. The doctor was amazed.
He said, "You had to have been really drunk to fall
in such a relaxed way.' If I'd been any more sober, I
probably wouldn't be here today; Id have tightened up
with fear shattered. It's been a long time now and it's
been hard, but at least the top part of me works, though
I'm never quite sure about @s bit here [points to his
bead]. I do know exactly what I can and can't do, and
that makes it easier.
MUSICIAN: Which players inspired both of you?
NELSON: When I first started out, I played in groups
that did everything- country & western, jazz, blues,
rock'n'roll, psychedelic. At one time I just wanted to
get all the technique together. I had a turntable that
went down to 16 so I could slow it down: "Ah, that's
how it's done." First it was Duane Eddy, Hank Marvin
and the Ventures, the twang. Then Beck and Clapton, and
Townshend, more for his attitude than anything else. That
little flourish in his chord playing, which is a sort
of Wagnerian thing - every guitar player's got that in
his book of tricks now, but Townshend was the guy who
did it. And if you want to hear the entire catalog of
what a guitar can sound like, you have to listen to Electric
Ladyland. Nobody yet has gone much further than Hendrix.
WYATT: Music was my way of escaping from school.
Mostly jazz; old as I am, I'm more old-fashioned than
I need have been. I did have a romantic association with
pop records of the time-Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, Eddie
Cochran-but that had to do with where the girls were.
Whereas Jazz was my comfort when I was struggling with
homework that I couldn't make head or tail of. Miles Davis'
voice, getting lost inside a Mingus arrangement, being
carried along by the band, chucked from one soloist to
another - that saved my soul as a schoolboy.
Then Coltrane and Miles Davis encouraged me to listen
to Indian music. At that time more musicians were coming
from the Indian subcontinent to England, so Indian music
was around. And the fringes of Europe generally, where
European harmonies meet something else, that's interesting
to me. Not for some ulterior motive, I'm just an aural
MUSICIAN: Both of you have definite Eastern influences
in your music.
NELSON: It's weird. The first time I worked with
Yukihiro Takahashi it was for an instrumental piece. He
had a half-completed track and no ideas for melody lines.
So I put some things down using the E-Bow. And he said,
"God, you sound more Japanese than I do.' [laughter]
WYATT: It's just a question of using scales which
tend to be identified as Oriental or non-European. But
often you'll find they're discarded versions of Greek
modes, perhaps from someplace like Macedonia. You hear
it in Bulgarian folk music to this day, which is probably
closer to ancient Greek music than we realize. I've always
liked scales that had an ambiguity about whether they
were major or minor. What I like about flamenco is they
use gypsy scales, where the second note is only a half-step
up; both our major and minor scales go up a whole tone
on the second note. That half-step's a North African thing,
because a lot of Egyptian scales are like that.
MUSICIAN: How important was John Peel for your
WYATT: I think you'd hardly recognize English rock
NELSON: After I first heard Peel, I started buying
American imports, because you could only hear them on
his show. And that influenced the way I played. Then he
picked up on my things and played them, so it's almost
like showing me what was possible and then giving me space
to do it myself.
WYATT: By the way, the bloke who put out The Peel
Sessions in the States made a fortune. None of us got
much of a look-in on that. It's depressing that the memory
of the Peel days is spoiled by people who think, 'Oh,
these lot are a bit innocent, they're looking the other
way, we can clean up."
NELSON: You know Imaginary Records, that put out
Luminous? They asked, "Why don't we get the Peel
sessions that you did with Be-Bop Deluxe? Would you mind?"
I said no, there's some good stuff there; in fact, some
songs we did for those sessions never got recorded. There'd
been no plan to release the Be-Bop Deluxe Peel sessions.
But as soon as these people found out that Imaginary were
thinking of doing it, "Ah well, we might wind up
putting them out." It's still not resolved.
WYATT: Columbia has a load of stuff I was involved
in, both in Soft Machine and Matching Mole. It comes out
here and there, on Japanese imports or whatever. But if
any of the musicians phone them up to get a handle on
anything, they say, 'Sorry, he's out of the office,' 'Oh,
you want the legal department," 'He's not here....'
They treat musicians like crap, unless, I suppose, you're
Wynton Marsalis. And it's a shame, because I know people
who want to put that stuff out but CBS won't put it out.
So I'm getting publicity for stuff that nobody can buy.
NELSON: All you need is one Top Ten mainstream-play
record and that stuff would just roll out. It's waiting
for that moment.
WYATT: That's right, and whether you earn a living
in the meantime is not a major concern.
NELSON: I've had a lot of pressure from people
on the business side. Normally I'd ignore that, but sometimes
it looked like by the end of the week we wouldn't have
a roof over our head. Then you start thinking, 'Maybe
I could compromise...." You always regret it. A few
people make a career from music and are utterly uncompromising.
They don't give a shit what anybody thinks, they just
do what they do. I admire that. It's the only way.
WYATT: Some people can't do that. For kids from
tough backgrounds, the only way out is to "make it."
The only other choice is the dole or a boring job in the
local factory, and they want to make something more of
things. So they go for success. The people at Motown said,
"We want a classy black record label," and they
groomed it to be an imaginary mainstream America. It was
a bit utopia but I find no fault with that, because what
were the alternatives?
NELSON: And they actually produced decent music.
WYATT: Wonderful stuff. Marvin Gaye knocks me out
to this day. You know, politically speaking, black America
has been a failure - but often to what's come out of it!
All this music that's been my sustenance and made life
worth living. Never underestimate the power of failure.
NELSON: I played a long time before I ever thought
of making a career from it. One of the spurs in the early
days to practice a bit harder was what happened the first
time I gave a public concert at school: Suddenly girls
would talk to me. I mean, sex had a lot to do with it.
WYATT: Oh yes! He's got a point there...'Sex had
a lot to do with it.' That's gotta be my epitaph. [laughter]
Especially since I couldn't dance... I mean, how do you
meet them? Let's see, a drummer gets to meet them... right.
Lester Young started out as a drummer, and he figured
that the saxophonists got the nicest girls because they
wouldn't wait for the drummer to dismantle his kit. [laughter]
So he changed to saxophone, and became one of the most
important players in the history of the instrument.
NELSON: I've worked with young bands in the studio,
and you discover people's motives quickly. For a while
now there's been a push for music to be a career move,
which I think is dangerous. That's forced upon us by the
economic climate we live in; there's desperation in this
country. Not only do people not have money, but they lose
self-esteem. And the myth that pop music creates is so
glamorous to younger people. This can show they've achieved.
But when they've got into it, they find out it's all a
front and they're still stuck with nothing at the end
of the day. WYATT: They're calculating career moves, and
that's okay, but it can be the wrong place to take your
talent ... that week. Talent is a tough taskmaster, first
of all, you never know whether you've really got any.
But you have to follow it, you can't afford not to. It
tells you what it needs. And if you have another master,
you're just thinning it out.
MUSICIAN: You would say that the audience is second,
and when you're working, you do it primarily for yourself
NELSON: It's a totally selfish experience, creating
- it has to be. It's one of the few things where you have
to deal entirely with yourself, with your own experience
and limitations. But despite that, it still will connect.
I think the more true you are to yourself, the more chance
it has of connecting with other people, because there
are common threads under the surface.
MUSICIAN: What are your views now on the progressive
scene of the '70s that you were both, to some extent,
NELSON: The '70s I spent mostly on tour. I was
so wrapped up in what the band was doing that I didn't
notice anybody else; I was dismissive of other people.
I don't see anything important about what I did then-still
[laughs] although EMI re-released the records and people
still liked them. But I can only listen to them and hear
a young guy struggling with ideas.
I went through a period of buying music that was difficult
to play and difficult to listen to. The idea was, if you
even pretend you can listen to this, you must be pretty
bright. It's like watching people with muscles flex them.
They're all oiled up and you can see there's years of
work gone into this. But a lot of those people who had
all those muscles never actually went out and hit anybody.
They didn't do anything except pose around. And the older
you get, you see that truth doesn't reside in incredible
shows of technique. I used to do 20-minute guitar solos,
but I don't anymore; some might call that a retrogression.
But I think, why waste your energy?
WYATT: As a drummer, I tried to play things people
needed, but at the same time I had my own ideas, and I
didn't know anybody except me who was interested in them.
[In Soft Machine] they wanted a drummer who could play
in any time signature for very long solos. They didn't
want a drummer who kept showing alarming tendencies toward
turning into something else.
I'd already done what amounted to a solo record, which
was 'Moon in June' [on the Soft Machine's Third album].
I'm not credited with it, but I played it nearly all myself;
I got the others in just to do a sequence towards the
end. They didn't want to play it and I was embarrassed
to ask them. I don't think they liked me having ideas,
but I don't know-, we didn't talk to each other much.
I thought, "If I weren't in a band, I could do more."
But obviously, if I wanted to work as a live musician,
I had to be in a group. So I wasn't released to concentrate
on what was growing in my head, funnily enough, until
I found myself in the wheelchair. Then I couldn't live
a group life anymore, so I had to take control. And everything
MUSICIAN: Didn't you do some live performing after
WYATT: I did two or three gigs, and the practical
side was very difficult; I was nearly fainting with exhaustion
onstage. I suppose vanity prevents me from wanting everybody
to know that I'm incontinent, but I am, and that's a big
problem when you're on a stage somewhere. It's too embarrassing.
If I go anywhere or do anything, it has to be carefully
MUSICIAN: What are your feelings now on the punk
revolution of 76-77? It really seemed to change your music,
Bill - Red Noise sounded so different from Be-Bop Deluxe.
NELSON: I was listening more to electronic music,
and people like the Residents; I'd always liked Terry
Riley, Karlheinz Stockhausen. I was using a synthesizer
guitar instead of an ordinary guitar, and putting the
snare drum through fuzz boxes, making drum loops, manipulating
tape. Those were the concerns and not so much the punk
thing. The good thing about what happened then-briefly,
before the industry grabbed hold of it and strangled it
to death-was that it opened up possibilities for people
to have a platform to say something. I didn't think the
music was all that wonderful, because it sounded incredibly
old-fashioned. Apart from John Lydon's voice, I thought
the Sex Pistols sounded so dated. Amateur Chuck Berry,
full-stop. But John Lydon's voice was very interesting.
And I still like Public Image, I'm a big fan. I was listening
to a lot of American bands of that period, more than English
ones. I liked Television and Talking Heads.
WYATT: What was I listening to then? Calypso and
Nat King Cole. [laughter] And shortwave, getting the Latvian
version of events. If I heard music that I liked, it was
usually Radio Sofia, Bulgaria. But it's the age-old thing,
the young bullets coming up. I thought they were sweet
little things; Johnny Rotten makes me laugh every time
I hear him. And I tend to like things when they're in
a state of terminal collapse.
I was taken by [Rough Trade's] Geoff Travis to meet some
people, and I thought, 'Do they allow people over 21 in
here?" 'Cause I always think of rock 'n' roll as
being the land of age apartheid. But people were friendly,
they came up and said hello. And I felt at home with them,
except I suddenly realized that they were saying hello
like I used to say hello to an uncle. They weren't saying
hello to a contemporary, and that's a very funny feeling,
because I'd never grown up inside.
NELSON: The industry is so youth-oriented. That
ageist thing is as bad as any divide between the sexes.
WYATT: And you really feel you're just getting
there now. That's accepted in painting, in classical composing.
If we were politicians, we'd be considered still in nappies.
It's a cruel irony, in a way, that just as we reach adulthood,
we no longer belong to anything we can participate in.
MUSICIAN: What prompted you to get back into music,
WYATT: Alfie saying, 'We're running out of money
and you can earn it quicker than I can." And Geoff
Travis saying, "If you want to record for us, you
can." I fell into it. I might have drifted away altogether,
except that I think Alfie worried that whatever I was
drifting into didn't constitute earning a living. She
also felt I was fraudulent, because on the marriage contract
she married a musician. You can't marry someone and then
they turn into something else, that's cheating. [laughter]
So she and Geoff got me out of it. But if I didn't have
to earn a living, I'd be quite happy to disappear completely.
I'm not in the music world half the time anyway, I'm somewhere
else. There's a dog to be fed - this is serious stuff,
you know [laughter]. And when I listen for stimulus, it
tends to be music which I have no part in. I'll recreate
Harlem 1940 in my front room, because it's untouchable
and I can build up a fantasy about that that isn't brought
down to earth by any real experience. I tend not to hear
what my contemporaries are doing, especially other songwriters.
I'm almost nervous of it in a way. Since I stay home a
lot, I like music that's comfortable. If you're in the
city rushing about, you might very well want to hear music
that's like a train driving through your skull. But I
don't listen to stuff like that so much. Also, since I
haven't been able to see the world, particular emphasis
has been on vicarious travel.
I've worked with musicians who are really prolific; I
wish I was like that. [Elvis] Costello writes a lot of
songs, they pour out all the time, and I was impressed
that he was so certain. I think Bill's more like that.
I get disheartened, and I spend a lot of time thinking
I just can't do it. Nobody's that noble-if you're trying
to do something and can't get it how you want it, you
go fry an egg. 'Cause I can do that, I know it's going
to work. [laughter] Even out of the amount I do, not a
lot gets out.
MUSICIAN: That's very different from Bill.
NELSON: But don't forget, I've had the luxury of
having my own studio and label. It's like self-publishing;
you can foist it on people and they've got no say in it
whatsoever: "You will see this exists." If I
hadn't had that outlet, it would have been different.
WYATT: Peter Cook, the English comedian, once said
his motto was "If at first you don't succeed, give
up." Unfortunately, he's had an enormous influence
on me. [laughs]
MUSICIAN: Do you miss working with others?
NELSON: There was a time when I struck out just
to see what happens when you play everything rather badly
and only one thing slightly well. [chuckles] At the moment,
I'd crave to have musicians around me to take a skeleton
of a song and say, "Okay, you can go down the pub
for half an hour, we'll make it sound good." But
that's an impossibility at the moment.
WYATT: I don't understand machinery well enough
to do the finished object myself, only enough to get the
ideas down. My room's just a sketchbook, not a painting;
I need people with know-how. The real problem is there
just isn't the money. Usually when you're making a record,
a record company puts up money upfront. Well, our record
company has no money. They can't pay me, how can they
pay someone else? That's the inhibiting thing at the moment.
It's not an abstract thing of 'what would you like to
do,' it's 'what can you do.' And I've ended up just doing
what I can. But there's a kind of pride in that. I made
the great discovery, influenced by Stevie Wonder, that
you can play your own basslines. I thought it wouldn't
sound right, but his are so organic. And by covering everything
himself, he was compensating for disabilities in real
life. There may be an element of that in me as well. I
like to hear that rhythm section, that bass player, that
drummer.....that's me. Even if somebody else could do
it better, it's still a nice feeling. And at least they're
playing within your range of technique. They know the
NELSON: For me, it's also a way of seeing yourself
in a clearer light, because you see everything undiluted.
WYATT: That's very true. Undiluted is a good word.
NELSON: And it might not be brilliant, and it might
not be what you'd like to achieve, but it's honest and
it's a real mirror. Which is why sometimes it's uncomfortable
to listen. I hear everything that's wrong with it and
nothing that's right. Then you get on with the next one
and say, 'This one'll be okay." But it isn't. [laughs]
MUSICIAN: Yet you make such a point of declaring
the imperfections in your work - the broken tape machines
and soforth - that you seem to have a certain pride about
NELSON: It's a romantic thing. I've put on the
back of my record sleeves that only 14 of the 16 tracks
work and the speaker distorts. It's a charming thing to
write about, but sometimes it's a bitch to deal with.
MUSICIAN: Robert, have you ever put out anything
recorded completely at home, as Bill does?
WYATT: A couple of things. In the early '80s Dave
Macrae, who was the keyboardist in Matching Mole, helped
me out on a couple of old jazz standards, "Round
Midnight" and "Memories of You." I wanted
somebody who had enough of a jazz education to play the
chords right, but at the same time could drain out everything.
I just wanted the skeleton of the tune, but having revealed
it, I wanted the bones in the right place.
MUSICIAN: Trying to get to the skeleton of the
tune seems to sum up your general approach to music.
WYATT: I've been looking for the essence of what
it is I like about a piece. Is it just that one bit where
the harmony changes or that one note or the way that beat
falls ... it's a process of tracing it and thinking, 'Well,
if I'm right, it should stand without any covering."
if it collapses under exposure, then it isn't right and
I've exposed a fault.
I'm scared of doing what happens a lot in music, which
is getting too intoxicated by the beauty of the sound
you're creating or the energy you're putting out to actually
hear inside it. The skeleton of the music can be a very
rickety and inadequate thing that pulls apart once the
excitement's over. That's one of the reasons I'm scared
of expensive synthesizers, because you can just sit on
'em and sound great. I've got a feeling that's more or
less how some records are made. [laughter]
NELSON: I wouldn't in real company admit to actually
being a musician. I'm more of a person who tries, using
music as much as I can get my hands on-which often is
not very much [laughter]-to express something for myself,
about myself, my relationships, whatever. So often my
preoccupations when I'm writing aren't musical ones at
I'm not a great technician. I've had a reputation in
some quarters for being a perfectionist, and I'm not.
I'm a lazy sod when it comes to it; I want to get there
the quickest route possible. If I had more confidence
in myself as a musician, I'd be more thorough, and a lot
of what I do isn't. It's not so much that it's slipshod,
but I have to let things stand because they came out spontaneously
and they're an honest reflection of what I was doing at
that moment. Since I often don't know whether it's going
to be heard by anybody else, it doesn't matter whether
it's perfect or flawed, as long as it's true. So I'm not
always pursuing music, it's something else, but I'm not
sure how to explain what that something else is.
WYATT: We have a lot of difficulty in this context
talking about what we do. When you read about what musicians
or artists do, you're not reading about what I sit down
and think about when I go to work. If I'm full of too
many ideas and theories, it just blocks every route to
getting there. It has to be a physical, instinctive thing,
just you and the instrument and the sound you're making.
All this analysis is retrospective.
Say you sat down and talked with your girlfriend about
exactly why you were about to go to bed, it could kind
of. - -spoil it. And I think a lot of important activity
can be talked out. It's pretentious to use words like
'sacred'; all I mean is that the whole point about music
is it isn't accessible to logical analysis. And I don't
think those of us who make it know quite what we're doing.
Professionalism just consists of knowing which trigger
mechanisms are most likely to work. We turn on the tap,
and what comes out, that comes from somewhere else. Art
Blakey said that music comes from the Creator through
the musician to the audience in one split-second. I understand
what he meant, though he used the word 'Creator.' But
I know Americans are very religious people, I've read
about it in the papers. [laughter]
NELSON: I think you'll find that people who are
committed to music-and, despite Robert saying he doesn't
do it all the time, there's obviously a life commitment
there - everyone I've met with that commitment is very
cagey about going into too much detail about what the
actual creative process is. But if they've had a drink
or two, or they know somebody well, you'll always get
this reference to it coming through from somewhere else.
There's a kind of religious feeling, an awe about it.
You know that it's something you can't trivialize or muck
about with because it's so fragile. There are so many
explanations for where it's coming from, the unconscious
or wherever, but whatever it is, it's intangible. So you
don't feel comfortable talking about it in front of just
WYATT: There's actually a hint of apology. We're
saying not that we're at the source of creative power,
but precisely the opposite, that we're simply tools in
the hand of forces that we cannot presume to understand.
Even the best gardener couldn't make a single flower.
He can only understand how to nurture the process.
MUSICIAN: Do you believe there is a musical mainstream
and consciously see yourself as outside it?
WYATT: Stan Kenton was once asked, 'Where is jazz
going?" and he said, 'Well, we're going to Cleveland
on Tuesday.' [laughter] I've always considered myself
absolutely normal. Not only am I in the mainstream, I'm
possibly the only mainstream there is. I write absolutely
normal tunes, I make absolutely normal records, and it
sounds totally sensible to me. People who are deliberately
eccentric must be insane; I have enough trouble just trying
to be normal. [laughs]
NELSON: It's always a shock when you offer something
you've done to someone to listen to and say, 'This is
really commercial," and they go, 'This is weird.
Where's your head?" And you say, 'No, honestly...'
WYATT: That happened to me when Virgin wanted me
to make singles. I'm a girl who likes to say yes, so I
did one [a cover of 'I'm a Believer'] and then another,
and I really enjoyed it. I did 'Yesterday Man,' a major-key,
upbeat, jolly pseudo-reggae thing. I bent all the chords
out of shape and did the whole thing kind of sideways.
And I was so happy with that. They said, 'We're not putting
this out. It's too lugubrious." I thought, "that
must be good," but I got a dictionary, and it's not.
MUSICIAN: Robert, how did you go about setting
your wife Alfte's lyrics to music for the first five songs
WYATT: I work from sound, from atmosphere, and
the words have to appear out of that, like out of the
fog. I had some unpopulated landscapes, and what was surprising
was, the words that came were Alfie's and not my own.
She wrote those poems in the mid-'80s when we were in
Spain. I happen to know that everything she describes
is true, like when she describes the wind on the beach
sweeping everything away ['The Sight of the Wind']. Everything
she describes-"a plastic bag caught by a rail"
- that's what we saw. So I wanted the music to give a
sense of the event, the time and the location. I worked
on it a lot, because I wanted the end result to sound
fairly spontaneous. I have to do a lot of work on words
to make them sound like there hasn't been a lot of work.
I recorded the whole LP 10 times at home, a kind of dry
run before going into the studio. What's in this room
is what's on the record. I work at home on the four-track
and get it as near completion as I can, and then I beg
the studio for a bit of cheap time. And I get in there
and work as fast as possible. I have to work cheap because
my records don't sell enough for me to work any other
way. The last expensive record I made was Ruth Is Stranger
Than Richard in 1975. That was with the Virgin lot.
NELSON: That's still selling, isn't it?
WYATT: Yeah, and thank goodness it is, because
I only finished paying for it about two years ago. Virgin
charged me for making the record. They're a clever lot,
you can see how Branson got rich. Everything's collateralized.
Any money that came in from a record, instead of you getting
it, they'd say, 'Well, you're recording again now, so
we'll put it straight back into your next one." You're
always behind, and someone's getting your money. I was
in debt for years on that one, and I thought, "I
can't live like this." So I had to start working
dead cheap. But it doesn't make much difference, because
Rough Trade's going bust. We're all going bust in England,
you've landed on a sinking ship. [chuckles]
MUSICIAN: I guess so. Bill's been telling me all
his horror stories.
WYATT: Well, tell me then.
NELSON: Oh, I'm trying to take some people to court
at the moment, and they're blocking everything. I set
up a label 10 years ago which I funded out of my own income.
The guy I'm suing was my business manager, I hired him
after the label had been set up, to do the administration,
because I didn't have time for that and music. It turns
out he's put things through different companies and various
manipulations until it's ended up all in his name. He
claims that all my work of the last 10 years is his and
not mine. And I've just had a deal ... from Virgin, ironically.
They want to buy the back catalog, which would bail me
out of a lot of problems, because besides appropriating
the label my ex-manager didn't deal with taxes, and I
ended up getting stuck with them. Virgin wants my catalog,
but my ex-manager's claiming that the stuff's his. And
I'm saying he has no right to it. It was my label in the
first place. I set it up and ran it, and I was virtually
the only artist on it! We've got to resolve this, and
all he did was apply for extension after extension for
time to put his defense together. And when his defense
came through, it was a tissue of lies, so that's got to
be taken apart. I could go on for months and months.*
*Nelson's ex-manager, Mark Rye, denies ever claiming
that Nelson's work belongs to him: "I'm simply trying
to get my bill paid. I haven't been paid for the last
five years, and until the debts - paid off I'm not prepared
to let anything go. He had a debt when I took him on,
and he still has one because he spends more dm he earns.
The trouble with Bill is he doesn't understand business.
He's very talented, but when things go wrong, it's always
somebody else's fault."
WYATT: And it costs, doesn't it? Apart from burning
up valuable brain cells?
NELSON: Yeah, the Inland Revenue Bankruptcy Department's
on my back, and I stand to be homeless within a few weeks,
unless a miracle comes out of the sky. Selling the house
would clear up a lot of problems, but I don't know what
to do after that. It's more of a worry because I have
a family; I worry about them being warm and fed more than
WYATT: Oh, it's a bastard. It's such a cesspit,
this industry. People think we live on a higher plane,
we're artists. But we're talking about the mechanisms
whereby we live. It would be so easy to do a straight
deal: 'You make the records, I'll sell them. Percentage
so-and-so of retail well crosscheck accounts regularly.
You get this amount, I get that amount. Deal? Deal. Right,
sign here.' Why work out all these fucking scams?
NELSON: It's not like we're talking about huge
amounts of money, especially with people like me. My ex-manager
knew how much music I put together on a daily basis. It's
been 20 years since my first record, and I've done over
40 albums. The majority of that has been on the Cocteau
label which he's got his hands on. And I've no particular
faith in the system, or that I'll come out with a fair
settlement. I hope so, and the lawyers say so, but they're
bound to say that, and there've been so many miscarriages
of justice in the past, I don't know.
WYATT: Well, at least you've got a solid body of
work, and you know it's yours. There are laws coming to
our rescue. I'm thinking of the European stuff about intellectual
property and moral rights. There are new laws on the horizon.
The last check I got was for what Gramavision picked up
in America on my last LP, and that completely disappeared
into the Rough Trade debt. So I haven't actually yet made
a penny from Gramavision. It discourages you; you think,
'How can I afford to make any more records?' But I must
say I like Gramavision's catalog, they've got a great
bunch of music.
MUSICIAN: If an artist becomes involved with business,
particularly the huge bureaucracy of a major record conglomerate,
doesn't that immediately compromise the art?
NELSON: There has to be some kind of compromise,
because of the nature of the beast. I always had this
dream that you could change things from the inside, and
I don't know if I've completely shaken it off yet.
WYATT: I remember when they said the Clash sold
out. Well, the lads are only trying to earn a living,
you know! Give me a break. [laughter]
NELSON: That's an important point. If you've put
your life on the line for music as a career, then you
have to survive. A big record company can help make things
more successful for you than an independent label. It's
not so easy to say, 'All major companies are automatically
terrible and corrupt.' I've met some people in majors
who don't give a shit about music and all they want is
whatever freebies come with the job and as much cocaine
as they can get through. But there are some genuine music
lovers as well who've got good taste, who really give
a lot of their time for what for you're trying to achieve.
And I've seen ripoffs in the indie scene just the same
as in the majors.
WYATT: It's a romantic illusion that you can extricate
yourself from the system. Systems are a bit tougher than
that, systems are the way are organized. And you can turn
your nose away so the smell doesn't kill you, but really
you're in the shit with everybody else. I don't think
there's any such thing as an independent record label;
there's no such thing as an independent person. Put a
self-sufficient individualist in a desert without water
and he's dead in a day. A thing that worries me is that,
even in the indies, there's tendency for the music to
be a hastily cobbled-together afterthought, once the serious
business of getting the haircut has been sorted out. [laughter]
Obviously, I have personal reasons for feeling threatened
by that. At the moment I've nervous about how to function
in the future. Because apart from these high aspirations
we've been talking about, we are talking about a job and
trying to earn a living. I'm not getting any younger,
and it's not getting any easier. There are some tough
times ahead. And there's nothing I can see on the horizon
that'll help much, we're on our own.
NELSON: Everybody could make their own records.
It doesn't cost an awful lot to print up a few. I had
this dream once that you could release them like you would
a newspaper, on a regular basis and quite cheaply. People
could try them out and throw them away; they weren't precious
so it didn't matter. But the industry has made people
expect to pay money. If you start offering people cheap
records, they'll think that the music on them is cheap;
there's a psychology that goes with it.
WYATT: In my case, I don't think people are saying,
"Well, we've got Diana Ross, I know what we need
now ... Robert Wyatt!' [laughter] But I don't want to
say anything about my decisions which might cast aspersions
on somebody else's. For example, I personally have had
a very hard time with Columbia, but I also know they've
looked after some musicians I admire very much. Maybe
there's an inadequacy in me that I'm dumping on the record
company. Look at the art industry, the film industry,
the way people run supermarkets. There aren't a lot of
virtuous organizations out there, really. Just the way
things are done is pretty hair-raising.
You may have thought, 'If he's struggling, how come he's
got this nice house?' And I'll tell you. My wife knows
a film actress, and after I had the accident, this film
actress, in an amazing act of generosity, gave Alfie the
money that she'd earned off a film so we could buy a flat.
And it was with the money from that that we got this house.
This isn't music money. Ronnie Scott and Pink Floyd and
a few others also helped set us up. So a lot of what I've
got is due to the generosity of particular people, and
I'm just glad to have the opportunity to say thanks again.
This is indulgent of me, but one man was very nice. I'd
only met him once, and at that time I'd had a blazing
alcoholic row with him - I can't remember what side either
of us was on or what the details were, but there was a
lot about Pinochet and Chairman Mao in there. That was
the only time I met him, and I was just a friend of a
friend. When I broke my back, he was in America. He came
to England to see me in the hospital and he said, "I
want to put you in the best hospital money can buy. I'll
take you anywhere and you won't have to worry about the
bill.' Isn't that amazing? It was Warren Beatty. Since
he's the kind of man who often gets unsympathetic press,
I just wanted to say there are some things about him that
he himself would never talk about.
MUSICIAN: If the music word is really so terrible,
why carry on?
NELSON: Musicians do complain about business and
the rest of it, but ... they're so damn lucky. Despite
all the threats of bankruptcy and all the angst, I wouldn't
change any of it, because I love what I'm doing and I
couldn't do it any other way. I've got a life that would
be a dream for some people, so there's very little room
to complain. And I'm bloody useless at anything else.
WYATT: My maths teacher at school told me once,
Look, if you don't pass maths 0-level, you'll be coming
back here, 'cause you won't get any work, you know.' And
I haven't had to go back to him yet. I've gone a long
way without any exam results - I must be well over halfway
by now. And I'm proud of that; it's pure vanity.
NELSON: That's like the day I left my day job.
The boss said, "Now, about this pop business, Bill...
[Laughter] it's rather flaky, you know. I don't want to
put you off or anything, I'm wishing you all the best,
but your job's always here for you if you have to come
back." I got outside that door and I went: ' Yeah!"
And I've never gone back. Not even to give them any autographs.
How to make a ROBERT WYATT record: Riviera portable keyboard
and make sure the vibrato's set real slow. "It matches
my voice," says Wyatt of the instrument that he found
in a Venice toyshop back In '73. Also in Wyatt's Louth
abode are a Yamaha baby grand piano and PSS-780 keyboard,
and two AKG D1200 E microphones. Percussives Include some
no-name timbales, Paiste crash, Black Rock Ride and an
old Gretsch snare which hasn't been used for a while.
"I never liked snares because of their martial overtones,
so I've gotten rid of them for my solo records."
He also favors brushes and mallets over sticks. Wyatt
gets it all down on a Tascam 244 four-track recorder,
hidden underneath the Kampuchean Flag.
And here's all you need to duplicate BILL NELSON's Studio
Rose-Croix in your very own home: a Fostex B16 tape machine,
A.H.B. Systems 8 32-channel mixing console, Sony PCM-Fl
mastering deck, Quad amp driving Tannoy Little Red Monitors,
and for outboard, a Yamaha SPX90, Fostex compressor/limiter,
and MXR 0/1 reverb. Keyboards include an E-max Series
1, Yamaha DX7 and CS70M, while the drum machine's an Akai
MPC 60. For guitars, Bill's got three Yamaha SG2000s,
Ovation 6 and 12 string acoustics, a Rickenbacker stereo
electric 12-string guitars, a Guild D50, and a custom-made
Viellette-Citron. A devoted E-Bow user, Nelson has one
of the original silver models.