Robert Wyatt looks back - Comstock Lode - N° 8 - Winter'81
Robert Wyatt's career, especially the Soft Machine era, is well documented so I've left the interview in question and answer form - a narrative seems more appropriate to complete histories. Thus, although more or less chronological it's not designed to be the Robert Wyatt complete biog.
My thanks to Robert for being so forthcoming and friendly, to Alfreda for the meal and to Robert's mum for the photos. (She, incidentally, has some wonderful stories including the fact that she had to wash Mike Ratledge's underwear because he could never be bothered!).
CL. Was there ever really a Canterbury 'scene' or was it just your lot (ie the Wilde Flowers mob plus friends?)
RW. Nothing was happening in Canterbury. This gives me the chance to kill about 18 birds with one stone. Maybe I should show you this book for a moment. I only found it the other day, it's a diary of what we were doing day to day in Canterbury .
I keep reading about the place and keep thinking I don't remember anything like that. (The book is produced and whilst in some ways it backs up what Robert feels about Canterbury it is nonetheless a fascinating document full of the minutiae(?) that make up his songs. It contains drawings, poems, songs, press cuttings etc. right back to when Robert worked as a male model. It also contains things like 'Daevid and Gilli dropped in on their way back from Paris' or 'Kevin off to Majorca again'. Most of it is ordinary diary stuff and in some ways does de-glamourise the whole Canterbury myth - but it does have Robert's original words to 'Moon In June' !).
RW. We went to an extremely dull grammar school, with no cultural activities whatsoever (so much for the image of the Simon Langton school being for artistic/gifted kids from wealthy/cultured families). I only met Mike (Ratledge) twice there. Once when he came up to me when he was a Prefect and said, 'I believe you have some Cecil Taylor records, could I borrow one?' Hugh Hopper I knew in the first year until he went into sciences and I went into arts. Also his parents were Conservative and mine were Labour and we just didn't talk to each other. Dave Sinclair was a year younger so we didn't talk to him - he played piano at morning assembly.
I can't remember a single stimulating thing about Canterbury. I mean Richard Coughlan (Caravan's drummer) was a dental technician until Hugh rescued him. I think that the Caravan lot had more togetherness in a way - they still live there; Hugh still lives there too - he's the link really. He still feels part of all that. He's just produced a book called, 'Thirty Kent Churches', illustrated by his Dad. (and very nice it is too). I wouldn't have anticipated what happened, at all. Look at this (points to press cutting in the diary) 'Norman and Robert - two very individual young men'. Our first ever review. Now the highlight of that was that in 'Norman and Robert' I did my first ever public drum solo.
We had to play a Police Cadets ball in Folkestone and this drunken Police Cadet came up and demanded, 'Caravan with a drum solo.'' Norman, scouse trooper that he was, knew some quaint, two chorded version of 'Caravan' and I just hammered away. They were all so drunk they thought it was a great solo. That was the start of something or other. Basically all Norman did was play Jerry Lee Lewis songs, about twice as fast as any punk record. (Following the 'Norman & Robert' piece is a reference to Robert Graves the poet, a gentleman frequently cited as Robert's 'spiritual father').
CL. Do you still see Robert Graves?
RW. No. He's totally withdrawn. I haven't been to see him in Majorca since 1960. I've only seen him twice since then, once when he gave a lecture at Kent University and later in London. (The diary abounds with references to most of Robert's early bands, by early 66 usually variants on the original Soft Machine, such as Mr. Head and includes gig dates and set lists for them. The latter seeming on paper a strange mixture of the sort of original material the Soft Machine became known for and soul standards).
CL. Although those demo tapes Gomelsky released of the early Soft Machine contain loads of goofs I still like them. Were the band much better or indeed vastly different from that live?
RW. What we were good at were cover versions of soul numbers; Solom on Burke & James Brown things, we did a few pop songs but not that well. What happened with those demos was that Hugh and Kevin started writing songs. None of us knew what we were doing. Copying off a record was one thing but working out chord sequences and things was very different. It was really just a question of taping their songs for them to see how they sounded. I don't even think we intended to do them as a band.
CL. I really thought that by the time, you'd got to London and were playing UFO etc., that you'd dropped all the covers and were playing largely original material.
RW. The trouble is that the orientation of things like Pete Frame's family tree stuff is that it deals with groups who played gigs and made records. For example for me the most interesting musical events happened before the tree starts ie Daevid Allen, Hugh Hopper and me playing drones together in Paris, where Daevid lived. Daevid was very influenced by Terry Riley and the ESP free jazz records. We were using tape loops as well and it was that stuff that Mike heard and liked. That was how that developed. The thing with pop songs was quite different. That was back in Canterbury, everything was domestic, low keyed, people watched television and went to bed at night. Chronologically it makes no sense. We did experimental things for ages but we got fed up with them for a time and started doing the pop stuff just as an alternative. The actual development doesn't make sense chronologically unless you realize how weird brains are.
CL. To backtrack slightly, going to Paris when you were 16 or 17 to work with Daevid, must have been a big deal for you?
RW. Well, I left school at 16, tried art college for a few months and then just started wandering about. I went off to stay with Daevid in Paris, went down to Majorca. It's such a jumble, I can't make sense of it in retrospect. This is where the Tree is misleading - I don't even remember those groups as being the most interesting things that were going on. That's why the diary is a more real picture, it shows preoccupations. But even a lot of that stuff is dream world stuff. We were never very good, we didn't get work not because we were too far-out, just because we were bad. However, both Hugh and Kevin very early on did start writing what I thought were really good pop songs and it was because of that we did ultimately start doing their stuff. Our friends thought we were mad. They were all jazz fans. Hugh's songs particularly had really lovely harmonic structures but the lyrics were totally perfunctory. Later on when I got into writing words I took the liberty of putting new lyrics to Hugh's old tunes, as he wasn't doing anything with them. That's why the lyrics are different on the real Soft Machine albums from the demo record. Kevin was a great songwriter too but more self sufficient, what Kevin did would have happened anywhere, whoever he'd been with, whereas the music of Hugh and myself was much more interconnected.
CL. Did you like being associated with the Underground and playing UFO?
RW. I would like to have been more included in It rather than less. We felt like suburban fakes dressed up on Saturday and visiting the city. I never dared take LSD. I was in total awe of the audience at UFO, people like the OZ crowd. We used to come in on the train and pretend we were like them. Just because we played long solos people assumed we were stoned, which was great for our credibility. I didn't know much about it, Daevid had connections with a whole generation of people there, all these people with very advanced ideas, Daevid was the internationalist of the group, he got us into all of that. The rest of us were all provincial.
CL. The Soft Machine as well as being associated with the then new Underground seemed as much part of or at least in the tradition of, the pre 66 underground.
RW. In my head it's true. What was disappointing about the late 60's was that all these incredible uncatagorizable cultural phenomena were being channeled into rock, fashion etc.
It was really dull compared with the early 60's when, if you went to an event, you didn't know if it was a party, theatre, a group, jazz, an orgy or what it was. But that was me remembering what had excited me as a teenage fan. Sex and jazz and the Paris avant-garde.
What was interesting about dealing with the pop scene was that we came in contact as middle class aesthetes with East End sharks and Denmark Street hustlers with mutual fascination and incomprehension which has been vaguely captured in muchmore glamorous from by Nic Roeg in 'Performance', though nothing like as grand as Roeg. My background was the romantic/avant-garde tradition that I'd inherited from my parents and dealt with ideas and people who had never seriously involved themselves in the real world, a very arrogant group of people.
CL. One side aspect of all of this was your popularity in France.
RW. I was thinking about this only yesterday and came up with an explanation for the first time. I was thinking about how during the war Hugh Parnassier & the French jazz critics managed to allow jazz to survive under the Nazis by claiming that Jazz was first and formost a Franco-Belgian music and only secondarily a black American music citing Sidney Bechet and important pre-jazz composers, who were vital to jazz, like Debussy and Satie. There is just a great tradition in France of listening to music and dealing with the arts that is completely conducive to the creation of and the appreciation of, the sort of avant-garde set ups that we dealt in. Plus a whole avant-garde theatre tradition, Jarry was French after all. It's quite different from here, there's no sense of having to deal with the hit parade or anything like that, just didn't arise. You could really stretch out in front of a French audience, you almost had to apologise for it in England. There was also the whole American expatriot thing that centred on the Shakespeare bookshop on the Left Bank and bars like the Chat Qui Peche, where they had racks of jazz albums behind the bar that you could request if you bought a drink. Fucking paradise as far as I was concerned.
CL. To jump dramatically tell me about 'End of An Ear'.
RW. I was really depressed after we had done 'Third'. I was really into what Mike & Hugh had done and I'd tried to get it right and they hated 'Moon in June' and refused to play on it and I had to play it all myself except they came in and did a little organ solo with bass accompaniment. I felt really lonely and rejected. So I decided to do a solo album. They let me do one because they thought it was all going to be 'Moon in June' stuff, what I did was to stretch out. It was supposed to include Mongezi Feza but ended up with Elton Dean plus Marc Charig and my brother Mark played a little piano. It gave one a taste of what I could do. What was nice about that was I gave myself a chance to play piano, which I wouldn't have dared to do in public, in front of real people.
CL. Why did you leave the Soft Machine?
RW. I think really we just grew apart from each other. We only got together in the beginning because we were the only other musicians that each of us knew. It wasn't some heartfelt brudersbond (?). There were other things about the musical differences between the old Soft Machine and the then current band, but I've heard that stuff discussed much better by interested outsiders, I don't really trust myself to do it. It's unfair to give me the opportunity to say what I think.
What I will say is that of the original people the most creative was Hugh. His compositions demanded unique treatment. Excellent though the Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter influenced things that Mike was writing were, they could have been written by Hancock or Shorter which was alright, but it was putting us on the fringes of other people's worlds rather than at the centre of our own. To be to, let's say Tony Williams what the Stones were to Muddy Waters was not really my ambition.
To be honest in the end I was kicked out. I could have stayed but ... In political terms I'd have been better off staying - the equipment, use of the name, guaranteed full houses, road managers etc. In a sense I've never regained the practical resources afforded by the name. Even the way I've told it is coloured by my point of view. The things they had to put up with - my vanity, my gross alcoholism etc. Let's just call' it quits.
I did temporarily leave a bit earlier than that and went on the road with Kevin Ayers and The Whole World. The thing I remember most about that is Lol Coxhill's incredible solos and travelling around Holland. All sorts of disgraceful things - Dutch groupies make LA ones seem like puritans.
It was only really temporary, the group was put together solely to perform Kevin's songs. It's always pleasant to work with him and things always happen around him. It was more like a holiday really. Dutch groupies... Actually, the only reason that whole thing is worth mentioning is that despite my methodist left wing puritanical image I love having a good time, sex and getting drunk and loud music.
CL. What about Gong?
RW. In between his various 'permanent' line-ups Daevid felt he could call on me to help out. He being the original person to get me in all of this anyway. Matching Mole was the next proper thing. I suppose I just hadn't got a group and felt it was time to form one. I kidnapped a few other musicians, like Bill McCormick who was already in Quiet Sun and Dave Sinclair who was about to leave Caravan. He shared my interest in 'simple songs'. I had a few songs I wanted to do and so did everybody else, so we got into a group and played each others tunes. I was really happy with most of that first album. However, we didn't have any money or equipment, that album was made in an abandoned CBS studio that was so cold that Dave Sinclair had to play with gloves on. We'd had no money in Canterbury in the old days but what was different was that we were playing in colleges and concerts and stuff and were expected to come up with a really professional performance as musicians in amateur circumstances. Whereas as teenagers we were playing in small pubs and places as virtual unknowns. It was a very jumbled time. But that's the story of every group you've ever heard of. The name was my idea, the pun was deliberate - they got it in France straight away. Dave didn't stay long. It was difficult to find musicians who want to do all the different things that we were doing. We did a concert in Brussels in which the context was just to improvise - he was very imaginative but he hated it. He just wanted to do songs. You can't do eight 'Oh Carolines'. What do you do? Oh Annette? Oh Jaqueline? Oh Sue? It gets a bit unconvincing. Really he felt very insecure at the very experimentalness of it. So we brought in Dave McCrae he was happy to try anything - a really proficient musician. He really enjoyed the danger of playing in an anarchic situation.
CL. How serious was the whole political side of the band?
RW. I thought that it had all been new but I recently turned up ten year old irate letters to the Home Office. Alcoholic scrawls about the prototypes of the SPG etc. I suppose I inherited all that from my parents. What's happened recently is an attempt to coordinate all that. So with Matching Mole I was drawing on various things that were on the fringes of my. consciousness. The image of bearded guerillas coming down from the mountains is an exciting, romantic image but you can't really draw any conclusions from that. You have to go beyond that.
At one time I could have told you who the real music revolutionaries were, people like Charlie Haden, but it's far more difficult today. I don't think of musical and political revolution as the same thing anymore. Haden was wonderful, he ties in with the whole Spanish guitar tradition which really moves me.
To come back to Matching Mole that finished because I don't have the qualities of leadership, I don't want to run things. The onus was on me to run it because I was better known than the others, I became the focus of attention when we played. Not because I'm a nice shy person or anything, I just wanted to be a quarter of a group. Also drink problems, equipment problems, I just couldn't handle it.
I ended up escaping to Venice - thank God for abroad.' There was going to be a new Matching Mole with Gary Windo, Phil, and Francis Monkman. Francis had done a couple of things with us on the radio. We'd been writing lots of things, but the physical state I was in manifested itself, plus the accident and that effectively knocked it on the head.
The accident did indeed effectively end Robert's live performing career. Since then there have been the 2 Virgin albums and the wonderful 'I'm A Believer' single (plus 'Yesterday Man' on the V compilation). He has performed a few times since then largely with the Henry Cow fraternity. Most of the last years of the seventies were spent coordinating non-musical activities. However, last year Rough Trade persuaded Robert to record again. As mentioned last time he has cut at least 3 singles, the first of which, Cainemara has been out for a while and is indeed marvelous. The second one, 'At Last I Am Free' is also out and equally fine. It seems unlikely that Robert will perform live again although he and Eno have seriously considered hiring themselves out as a girlie chorus to any band that needs one. Robert has always been a hero and - myth debunking and self-effacing notwithstanding - remains one.