Going Back A Bit: A Little History Of Robert Wyatt

Robert Wyatt



Robert Wyatt: Going Back A Bit - A Little History of Robert Wyatt (Virgin)

Simon Reynolds


AT LAST, a long-overdue anthology of stuff and nonsense by one of the great eccentrics of English art-rock, Robert Wyatt. A miscellany of bits and bobs from solo albums and the shortlived outfit Matching Mole, its main selling-point, O punter, is that it makes available again, CD-sharp, 5/6 of his all-time 1974 classic Rock Bottom. But infuriatingly, not only is the album's original sequence jumbled up, for no apparent reason, but one track is shunted onto the second disc, so that you can't even reprogram it into the correct sequence. And one of the best is left off altogether.
With most albums this wouldn't matter a jot, but Rock Bottom is structured around a compelling emotional/musical narrative – it's a complex allegory of Wyatt's disablement (he tumbled out of a window during a wild party), his subsequent emotional regression, and his slow recovery. Even in the wrong order, Rock Bottom dazzles: it's a masterpiece of oceanic rock to rival Buckley's Starsailor, A.R. Kane's 69, maybe even Davis' In A Silent Way. On 'Last Straw', aqueous keyboards, refractory guitars and imagery like "seaweed tangled in a home from home" conjure up a poignant vision of the amniotic heaven of the briny deep. 'Sea Song' begins as an eerie serenade to a mermaid, then Wyatt spirals off into soul-harrowing scat-falsetto aquabatics.
'Alifib' is Wyatt at his lowest ebb, gasping out tiny breaths of anguish amidst a lachrymal sound-web of harmonium, while 'Alifie' sees him reduced to baby-talk drivel as his dependence on his wife Alfie deepens. "I can't forsake you or forsqueak you, Alifie, my larder", dribbles Wyatt; eventually she puts her foot down – 'I'm NOT your larder'. This is the turning point, the first step on the road to recovery, and the (original) album ends with the wonderful eco-terrorist ditty 'Little Red Riding Hood', with Ivor Cutler ranting about how he lies down in the road to stop the cars: "yeah me and the hedgehog busting tyres all day long".
Wyatt emerged, via the Soft Machine, from the late '60s/early '70s Canterbury scene, along with Caravan, Gong, Kevin Ayers, Egg etc. As well as an interest in bending rock form in all manner of jazzy-folky-weirdy ways, what these groups shared was a very English whimsy – at once their charm and their liability. And so on the 13 minute 'Moon In June', Wyatt extemporises about the joys of doing a session for the Beeb, while 'Soup Song' is sung from the point of view of one of its reluctant ingredients, a slice of bacon. Even Wyatt's lovesongs are skewered by irony. In the wonderfully sentimental 'O Caroline', Wyatt warns his sweetheart "if you call this sentimental crap you'll make me mad", while 'Calyx' is full of oddly phrased praise: "close inspection reveals you're in perfect nick".
Wyatt's wonderful voice is why he gets away with it whereas, say, Kevin Ayers mostly grates: he always sounds simultaneously wry and earnest, ironic and heart-felt. Damp, lugubrious, resolutely colloquial, totally unrock'n'roll (like a cross between Peter Skellern and Roland Kirk), Wyatt's voice could be the closest thing to an authentic "English soul" this nation's produced.

MOJO - August 1994

Robert Wyatt: Going Back A Bit - A Little History of Robert Wyatt (Virgin)

Richard Cook


HE IS A GREAT ENGLISHMAN, a pragmatic jazz buff, a witty and wise lyricist, an ingenious instrumentalist; but it's by his singing that Robert Wyatt will be remembered. In that eerie, colloquial voice, Wyatt has distilled his singular contribution to rock's beleaguered soul. He can sing as high as Smokey Robinson, as plaintively as Ben E. King, yet he is as remote from their tradition as, say, Ian Hunter.

On much of this collection, Wyatt is singing words that are a step away from mere nonsense and rhyme. But when he sings those few lines at the heart of 'Little Red Robin Hood Hit The Road' (mistitled here, by the way), which is about rain falling on the garden of England, it almost sounds like a lament for a lost empire. No wonder Elvis Costello's melancholy masterpiece, 'Shipbuilding', suited him so well.

Not that Wyatt would ever think of mourning imperial decline. Whether as the drummer for the earliest Soft Machine and their spin-off Matching Mole, or the genial balladeer of 'Arauco' and 'Stalin Wasn't Stallin'', he's always worn politics on his sleeve, even if he sounds like the tenderest of hard-liners. A concern for justice imbues all the music that he has arranged and sung. One always hears Wyatt as a member of a group, rather than a singer with accompanists: his jazz leanings dissolved the brute pecking order of the rock group, and have saxophonists and guitarists and drummers in a democratic alliance. It's appropriate that Going Back A Bit – A Little History Of Robert Wyatt starts with a BBC version of the Softs' old classic 'Moon In June', with lyrics adapted for John Peel's Top Gear circumstances: this edition of the Machine, with Mike Ratledge and Hugh Hopper helping Robert to burn off the barriers between jazz group and rock band, was crucial in suggesting ways that rock could accommodate the braininess of jazz without surrendering either playfulness or a visceral impact (and if you doubt this group's ability to be visceral, check out Ratledge's fuzztoned organ solos – a fine memento of another lost figure). A pity, though, that this version is finally something of a dud: Wyatt sounds terribly off-key throughout.

Matching Mole's three tracks here include the lovely 'O Caroline', a deliberate undercutting of the kind of lyrics that Wyatt had already guyed on the earlier track: it's the timbre of his voice that identifies the emotion in the song, a man trying to say something to a woman without sounding like a romantic twit. This is English reserve surfacing as honest, tongue-tied bewilderment at your own emotions. Still, Matching Mole were trying to be as political as their later offspring, Crass: they called one of their albums Little Red Record and had Maoist cover art to go with it. But everything changed when Robert fell out of a window in 1973 and found himself confined to a wheelchair.

He then made his two mid-'70s albums, Rock Bottom and Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard, which are the core of this compilation. The first album is, indeed, here in its entirety (aside, alas, from the extraordinary 'Little Red Riding Hood Hits The Road') although the sequencing has been jumbled. Robert called them "songs and drones", set around the lilting buzz of his cheap electric organ, performed by friends from the Canterbury school of rock groups which Soft Machine had spawned some years earlier. Though the lyrics are sometimes epigrammatic or gobbledgooked into near-nonsense, they clearly document his pain and dependence on wife Alfie. 'Team Spirit' especially is a cruel, pitiless self-examination. He sings them and scats around the words with a kind of anti-virtuosity: you hear the effort in his vocals, but also the inventiveness and skills of a musician who started out by loving Mose Allison, Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins.

More than that, Wyatt makes sure the music is a fascinating blend of rock and jazz that has seldom been heard from since on British records. When punk wiped out the fatuous excesses of art-rock, it also killed the possibility of making more records like this, the sense of great players – Hopper, tenor saxophonist Gary Windo, the flutteringly beautiful trumpet of Mongezi Feza – being experimental and dissonant and still making it work within the context of what are unequivocal rock records, albeit of a maverick nature. Improvisation has long since left rock playing, disdained as empty showmanship, but Wyatt proposed a music that remains unexploited by the most inventive of acid-jazz groups. Even when he goes for a "pure" jazz, as with his arrangements of Feza's gorgeous 'Sonia' or Charlie Haden's 'Song For Che', he confines them to pop-single length. And then he made a couple of great pop singles, remakes of 'I'm A Believer' (drivingly rhythmic, with nutty guitar fills by Fred Frith) and 'Yesterday Man' (heartbreakingly desolate and a complete antithesis to Chris Andrew's original).

The remaining nine tracks are bits and pieces from a career that has never quite mustered the urgency that could have propelled him into making another album to equal those earlier two. The Michael Mantler and Carla Bley tunes that he signs on, the sparkly arrangement of 'Arauco', the lonely fragment of 'Lisp Service' and the rousing finale of 'The Internationale' are jigsaw pieces from an observer who has had little choice but to be passive.

It's been good, though, to have Robert back again in recent times, since such a piercingly intelligent musician should never stop making music, and this lumpy, engaging patchwork will remind many of a time when rock had real margins to work in.