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  Wyatt : back on top - Melody Maker - March 30, 1974

Just backing tracks. They're only backing tracks,” said Robert Wyatt, almost apologetically. With that endearing lack of self confidence prevalent amongst most of our better musicians, the former Soft Machine drummer seemed vaguely embarrassed to be playing the first things put down for his debut on Virgin Records.

“You can't really get an idea of what these sound like on those crummy playback speakers...” Yeah, O.K., Robert.

No need for apologies, of course. Incomplete or otherwise, the two songs sounded fit to rate with the best that he's ever recorded.

Proof, I guess, that you can't keep a good man down.

Robert's accident of last year, which effectively prevents him from sitting behind a drum kit (never his favourite instrument, anyhow) seems to have served only to have stimulated a new instrumental creativity.

And, naturally, there's plenty of the man's unique vocalising — high and breathy, with words running in ordinary speech syntax — dropped ‘aitches and all.

Future plans for the album include the possibility of adding trumpet mouthpiece to his artillery of instruments, and maybe even a little standard drum kit, judiciously using overdubbing and playing both top and bottom kit with the hands.

The record probably won't turn out as exclusively a “solo” album. Robert has ideas, strange ideas for other parts yet to come.

I hear from other sources that one plan is to have Hatfield and the North playing a backing track. Suddenly they'll stop, and Henry Cow will continue playing the same thing.

“That will sound peculiar,” admits my musician informant.

Robert Wyatt is recording in the tiny Wiltshire village called Little Bedwyn in a tied cottage belonging to the local manor.

It's an old place, with low ceilings and oak beams that give it an air of lived-in comfort. It looks the sort of place that Constable might have retired to, after a day in the hills sketching out landscapes.

After the noisy roar of Fleet Street, Little Bedwyn is almost uncannily silent. Rolling fields on both sides of the cottages, no traffic sounds at all.

Only trouble is, the fields roll a little too much.

The Virgin Mobile recording truck is parked half way up the nearest slope. Robert can see it out of the window, but can't actually get his wheelchair across the grass to it.

It's a problem that album producer Nick Mason, of Pink Floyd notoriety, intends to sort out.

“Nick's got a second floor studio in London,” says Robert, “And if I can figure a way to get up and down stairs without too much inconvenience, I'll move in there.”

“Actually you've arrived at a particularly un-busy moment; I seem to have reached a creative impasse. There's really not an awful lot I can tell you about the record yet. Can we talk about something else?”

That's Robert Wyatt. Easy to chat to, difficult to actually interview. Never mind. Tell us how come you're writing songs again, Robert.

“I haven't written very many, as a matter of fact. The ones I'm doing now have been in my head for a long while. Apart from one of Charlie Haden's all-time classic pop singles (laughs), this one will be all me own tunes, but I'm not planning to rely on my own inventiveness in that area forever.

Generally speaking I'm not as good at writing tunes as people like Hugh [Hopper], Phil Miller and Dave MacRae are, so I'm quite happy to tackle things that they've thought of as well.

What I'm listening to most at the moment is actually New Orleans rock and roll, that piano boogie stuff...”

Ever obliging, Robert plonks his hands on the adjacent grand piano and plays said boogie, the noise resounding around the small room.

“Yeah… Where was I? Oh, right, other people's stuff. I'd like to do an album of Bobby Charles songs, and there’s some Dr. John things too.

I've got a Lee Dorsey album that I'd like to record exactly as it stands using all me mates and not trying to do anything original at all.

You know, I'd just like to do it properly, get it swinging, and not inject a single idea if I could help it!”

This train of thought temporarily carries Wyatt away as he works through a lengthy list of albums that he'd like to re-record.

He'd like to do all of the songs on Caravan's first album, he says. Especially their first single — “Place Of My Own.” What a great song that was.

Of course the songs would ultimately turn out unlike the originals, if just by virtue of the Wyatt tonsils.

“It's the old joke about getting it ‘wrong’ and calling it ‘different’.

“A cliche, of course, but that's what happens. I think it's quite a respectable procedure, nothing to feel guilty about at all.”

In the interest of realism, I asked what precise function Nick Mason would be serving on the new album.

“Well, I'd been blundering on until Nick came along, and he's been thinking precisely, like this song requires such and such an instrument, and that song will sound better in a proper studio, with a more practical outlook than I'm capable of, and sorting out the headaches about costs of cetera.

The musician is meant to forget about costs when he's recording, but I never can. I get paranoias about time dribbling away...”

That said, Robert begins to actually look paranoiac about time wasted, and turns again to the piano, there to execute a few fancy trills. Looks like inspiration's about to strike again.

“I really must get down to work,” he says, and then, calling to the engineer waiting patiently half way up the hill in the mobile truck:

“Hey, Steve, can we do a tape loop now?”

It's going to be a great album, y'know.

Steve Lake

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