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Interviews & articles
 Chewing on Chomsky - City Limits - 1-7 November 1985

A new Robert Wyatt album is rightly considered a cause for delight. And this one he wrote himself. PAUL KERR meets Chomsky's great admirer and wearer of a rotten hat.

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He was guest vocalist on Working Week's debut single, 'Venceremos'; Elvis Costello co-wrote 'Shipbuilding' for him, and last week he could be heard singing alongside a SWAPO student choir on Jerry Dammers' arrangement of 'Wind of Change'. I've got to keep working, because it's my job,' Robert Wyatt explains, 'but I don't do much writing - I find it very hard. I'm not prolific, I'm the opposite of Costello. But when I'm not writing at least I can sing.'

Wyatt's last album ('Nothing Can Stop Us') and 12" ('Work In Progress') contained precisely one self-penned composition apiece. So Wyatt-watchers will be doubly delighted that 'Old Rotten Hat' is a solo album in every sense of the word.

'I just wrote a whole bunch of songs and sung and played them myself - they were all simple enough that I didn't feel the need to get anybody else in on them. And I wanted to do something on my own.' There's no narcissism in that desire, as the terrific 'Age Of Self' makes abundantly clear, nor does Wyatt harbour archaic ideas about the artist working best in a vacuum. 'You don't have the choice of being an isolated individual developing your craft, even if you wanted to, because the official ideology is pumped in at you, it seeps under the doors, through the windows.

'Left to my own devices I might be a lyrical, singalong composer, but I happen to live in a world battered by offensive ideas and just out of pride you have to deal with that - or go along with it.'

The very first track, 'Old School Ties', sets the tone of Wyatt's counter-attack on what he sees as individualist ideology: 'A herd of independent minds - Chomsky got it right/jogging into battle, waving old school ties.' The song is about betrayals, both of old friends ('What we had in common makes it even worse') and old phrases ('You say you're self-sufficient but you don't dig your own coal').

Coal - and the miners' strike - is very much the fuel of this album's melodic. melancholic anger. 'Miners in jail are political prisoners,' he says, explaining that the whole album grew out of 'the feelings that came up during the strike and the witchhunt against Scargill.' Hence a song like 'Mass Medium', with its wonderful opening couplet: 'And as history slips out of view/Bated breath for the 9,00 News'.

To say that the album includes songs about imperialism, the end of ideology, news manipulation and even a couple of acid contributions to the 'Forward March Of Labour Halted' debate - not to mention a beautiful instrumental portrait of Andalucia which builds a haunting topography of chords and contours - is to do no justice to Wyatt's work at all.

His lyrics have taken a page out of Randy Newman's book with some perfectly pitched political ventriloquism and the music muscles into the fray too: the kettle drum alternately hammering out the headlines and underlining the ironies; the keyboards and the bass building an almost physical vehicle for that wonderful voice.

And the voice itself, which Wyatt uses. apparently effortlessly, is both an instrument (he hums, whistles, dee-dee-dees) and his very own vernacular, a conversational singing style par excellence. Wyatt describes his style as 'simply the kind of tune I like to hum. I'm very neanderthal technologically - I'm not a Luddite, I just depend on the engineers. I don't know what the buttons mean. A microphone, a tape recorder and an on-off switch do me fine. I try to do the least possible to get the thing across and that's also my vocal technique.'

He worries about the uncritical attentions given to what rock stars say (as opposed to what they do). In fact he's pretty unimpressed with the whole interview circus. But here we are anyway - after all, it's his job.

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