Robert Wyatt : Join The Professionals, Form A Rock Band ... - New Musical Express 27 July, 1974
JOIN THE PROFESSIONALS, FORM A ROCK BAND...
YEAH, WELL - Robert Wyatt (fact) drummed with Soft Machine, led Matching Mole, and fell from a fourth-storey window in Maida Vale early last year, breaking his back and finishing up in a wheel-chair.
His lady's name is Alfie and they now live in a house in leafy Twickenham, and he's just done a solo-album for Virgin, the first enterprise in his post-accident career.
Robert Wyatt (opinion) was probably the most creative and individual drummer in British rock, and his enforced retirement from that activity is a great loss. Fortunately, he is also one of the most creative and individual singers / composers in British rock, as you can hear on Rock Bottom, the title of his new album.
The usual deal at this point is for The Journalist to go and ask The Artist questions about The Record - which I did.
However, I also knew that Robert was always disposed to think original thoughts about The Rock Scene in general, and reckoned that the isolation of his last year would have allowed him plenty of time to indulge this bent.
This turned out to be true, and looking over the transcript of the interview afterwards, I decided to concentrate on the Wyatt's-Eye-View of what's going down in the music biz by letting him spiel uninterrupted for the rest of this article and handle his album myself elsewhere.
So, without further ado - whatcha think of today's rock scene, Robert?
"I'm vaguely disappointed. I find myself looking with envy at the creative environments of other art movements in the past and - I don't know whether it's just the rosy glow of retrospection - I find the atmosphere around the rock scene today humourless, heavy-handed, and dull. Compared, say, to that surrounding the dadaists and the surrealists in art."
What's up then?
"Well, it's like armies. There's a generation of people who've got to think of something else to do - now they're not being conscripted for a couple of years - and the rock scene seems to be a kind of substitute for army life."
"Well, take Charles Shaar Murray's thing about Sergeant Pepper and The Beatles not playing proper rock 'n' roll at the time when they were previously supposed to have been making great records - saying, in effect, that rock has got certain stylistic limitations and is all the better for them.
"I reckon you can say the same of military brass-band music, really - and that's what that kind of obsession with the 'it's-either-rock'n' roll-or-it-isn't' thing reminds me of.
"People say rock bands are influenced by R&B - but that heavy 4/4 thing they're all using now doesn't strike me as having much in common with the fluid, loose, danceable rhythms you get in R&B. It reminds me more of military brass-bands, and in fact, most British drummers these days sound as if they've come straight out of the army to me.
"The excitement that fans today feel seems to me to be like that of a crowd of people cheering their local brass-band as they lead them off to war."
Where's that come from?
"From the 'live' situation. It appears that a band playing to 20,000 people are, if they're going to be successful, going to sound pretty much like Led Zeppelin. That's the main constraint of the idiom today. New bands come in all the time with new ideas but, after a couple of years on the road, these are all squeezed out of them and they end up sounding more or less like Led Zeppelin.
"I've felt this on-stage myself. The audience puts a constraint on what you're doing, by being extremely reluctant to modify their imagined idea of what they're going to enjoy. And, since you have to work out a way of pleasing people to whatever degree is necessary to keep you in a job, it's inevitable that most bands slowly metamorphose into the audience's image of what they ought to be if they're going to get their rocks off to them. And that seems to be Led Zeppelin.
"Personally, I'm far more interested in the hit parade nowadays. The whole crazy logic of Top Of The Pops is very appealing to me since it's largely beyond me why one three-minute chunk makes it while another doesn't. And it isn't just the TOTP promotion-spot that does it. You have to see through all that unfairness and lunacy to a hidden logic - a real human need being catered for.
"I think it's very funny the way the hit parade makes people cross, actually."
What's the solution to all this Led Zeppelin impersonating?
"The acknowledged separation of 'live' and recorded music. Eventually they'll be seen to be as independent of each other as theatre and cinema, and the first suggestion of recorded music having the relationship to 'live' music that cinema has to theatre was probably Phil Spector, wasn't it?
"One big mistake these days is assuming you can do everything. One guy writes it and performs it and records it ... as Bryan Ferry said recently: 'the trouble with rock these days is that everybody writes their own material and they're not very good at it.' I think it's lovely the way he's getting down to doing tunes that are much better-written than the ones he can write. He's really flourishing now that he's not trying to do it all himself.
"I'm also watching with interest the future development of Andy MacKay. That Eddie Riff record's really fascinating."
In what way?
"Well, it's Pop Art, innit? Much more so than the Who thing in the mid-Sixties when people were wearing striped plastic coats and claiming they were influenced by Bridget Riley. It's only with MacKay and Ferry that the original thought behind Pop Art has reached rock.
"What put me off Roxy Music initially was the idea of playing safe by using an obviously good, obviously professional, polished, modern rock rhythm-section which everybody can stomp along to - and then having the ideas-bits and the jokes sort of spread on top ... so that, if people didn't understand them, they could still come and watch the band and get their rocks off.
"I think that's cheating a bit. I really think that Andy MacKay should have a weak, rickyticky rhythm-section under his rickyticky alto sax. But the idea of that kind of muzak - the idea that you're stuck miles away from anywhere with a really crummy juke-box so you sling on about twenty B-sides - which is what his album's about - ...
"I think that's amazing."
If Ferry's the David Hockney of rock, who's MacKay?"
Richard Hamilton, probably - though, if I was being a bit rude, I'd say Rauschenberg, 'cos he puts in bits of 'legitimate' painting around the edges of his things the same way Roxy use a 'legitimate' rhythm-section.
"Again, it all comes from having to work in the 'live' situation. Of somehow having to make it 'strong.' There's nobody using the kind of wonderfully crummy rhythm-section that Buddy Holly used. Y'know - Elton John'll have his guitarist doing Shadows-type figures, but his drummer'll be bashing away at the modern heavy rock number. Instead of the old Fifties thing, which was someone playing very weakly with a lot of echo.
"In a way though, I like Ferry's attitude to the modern rock rhythm-section. It's like a reintroduction of class-distinction - the Gentlemen and the Players. I think it's a very funny thing to have happened ... so soon after 1967."
Can you elaborate on your theory of Ferry?
"Um, well - I don't think he's very inventive musically - he's a thinker, a conceptualizer. But I think he really loves singing 'cos he's so good at it. The idea of taking a lyric and replacing the American thing - the dotted crotchet, which is based on swing - and putting in the British staccato eighth-note ... it's very funny and he knows that and he's exploiting it.
"Take Brenda Holloway's 'Every Little Bit Hurts,' for example. Sing it the way she does it, the American way. You're doing 'every night I cry, every night I sigh' - duckety duck, duckety duckety duck.
"Now, if you sing that with English intonation and stress you're doing it like 'ev-ry litt-ul bit hu-urts' - dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum ... And you immediately sound like ... Bryan Ferry!
"There are people who suggested it before, mind you. Whispering Paul McDowell of The Temperance Seven using a resolutely English voice on old Louis Armstrong numbers, and so on.
"But there's plenty of things that Ferry's putting in on top of that - like his version of 'Wonderful World': 'Don't know much about the Free-ench I took.' That's lovely.
"This whole interpretive thing - last year everybody doing Foolish Things-style albums. I think it's very healthy. I agree with Ferry and Bowie when they say they're not really very inventive musically (even if the general public doesn't), because the kind of songs they write, the chord-sequences they use, are - and this sounds terrible, I know - the kind of thing I play every day and reject as not being good enough.
"I think it's good that people are beginning to go back and examine great songs, and not feel obliged to blunder about trying in vain to write them themselves."
Well, well, well. You can hardly call this mainstream thinking, can you, folks?
Only one question left, really. When'll Wyatt get down to doing his own interpretive album and what'll be on it?
"Sooner or later I'd certainly want to do it. I've got lists and lists of stuff in my notebooks - but, right now, the selection I'd probably want to tackle would go something like this:
"Ferry's 'Do The Strand', which is a genuinely good song; Charles Mingus' 'Goodbye Porkpie Hat'; Monk's 'Round About Midnight'; 'Every Little Bit Hurts'; two Beatles' tunes - 'If I Fell In Love With You' and 'She's A Woman', Caravan's 'Place Of My Own'; The Miracles' 'Ooh Baby'; 'Georgia On My Mind'; Brian Wilson's 'She Knows Me Too Well'; Charlie Haden's 'Song For Che'; Duke Ellington's 'Solitude'; Randy Weston's 'Berkshire Blues'; and 'Hey, Hey, We're The Monkeees' - y'know, the theme from the TV show."
Well, I'm sorry Mr. Wyatt, but that's all we've got time for on this page. Your album's reviewed on page 14. Doubtless we'll all see you out on the road again before too long.
"When my guilt about sitting around here doing nothing gets the better of me, yeah."