Among the many stellar figures of contemporary British music, there are none less heralded yet more deserving of attention than Robert Wyatt. In a musical career spanning nearly twenty years, he's indeed proved himself a rarity, being able to deliver many classics full of lyrical and emotional wealth and substance. Though his place has been secured by those familiar with the early British progressives, it's certainly time to give Wyatt exposure to any and all newcomers.
Robert Wyatt emerged into the public eye, mid-sixtiesish, with the band the Soft Machine (their name taken from the Wm. Burroughs novel), about the same time as hallucinogens, Syd Barrett and the original Pink Floyd, the Canterbury scene, the summer of love, more hallucinogens, the flower child, and an entirely new conception of pop music. The original Soft Machine—Mike Ratledge, Kevin Ayers, Daevid Allen, and Wyatt—had more raw talent than with which they knew how to deal. First Allen left and founded Gong, a traveling lunatic's asylum of radio gnomes and pothead pixies, and Ayers left soon thereafter, taking up with the likes of David Bedford, Mike Oldfield, and Lol Coxhill. Hugh Hopper joined the Softs during this early transitional phase, and thus many influences and creative forces were combined for the first two Soft Machine albums. These first two releases, appropriately titled Volume One and Volume Two, are quite eclectic, in varying degrees being pop, jazz, improvisational, electronic, loose and unstructured bits of rock, intellectual and/or pretentious, but above all, these first two efforts were musical milestones, trend-setting and totally transcending the creative limits that had been employed up to that point in rock music. Wyatt contributed heavily in the early years, drumming with youthful and free-spirited abandon, and singing more than he would on later Softs albums, his distinctive upper-register floating effortlessly above the curious and powerful barrage of electronics and fuzz bass. Voice as instrument, voice as song.
It was about this time Soft Machine began delving more into instrumental aesthetics and Wyatt was asked to concentrate on percussives. An expanded lineup was in order for their third album, a two-record set titled Third. This release featured four extended compositions, each taking up the length of an entire side. Wyatt's one vocal, "The Moon in June," is unfortunately his swan song for the Softs. A near epic piece, with outstanding lead bass from Hugh Hopper and the usual classic organ work of Mike Ratledge, yet it's Wyatt's sadly affected voice that steals the show—a bit huskier than usual, less exuberant, and no doubt aware of the band's internal problems and eventual break-up (only to reform time and again). This version is a complete turnabout from the one specifically recorded earlier for the BBC radio program Top Gear; this "Moon in June" is so playful and alive, nearly intoxicated with life (also containing a reference to the consumption of spirits, a favorite Wyatt topic). The musical arrangement is much the same, but it is Wyatt who brings the warm humor, the ebullience, the wink and the grin. His voice sparkles with immediate identity and distinction, never sounding common or ordinary—only one voice like this.
Following Third, Wyatt did a totally instrumental lp with Soft Machine, Fourth, and also released a solo entitled End of an Ear. Highly unusual and quite different from anything ever attempted by the Softs, Wyatt even has a curious little note on the album jacket, describing himself as "an out-of-work pop singer, currently on drums with Soft Machine." I think it's safe to say that at this point, Robert Wyatt was a very unhappy musician.
Which could have led to only one alternative—the formation of his own band, Matching Mole (which is a French derivative of Soft Machine—Wyatt must have left his heart in Canterbury). Matching Mole was certainly a starring vehicle for Wyatt, and their first album accented the softer and less abstract colors of life. The album's first track, "O Caroline," spent the better part of a year occupying the turntable. A more openly honest and forthright song would be difficult to come by. Wyatt convinces and moves with his expression of love professed and profound. He also began experimenting more with his voice, setting it against a minimal musical background, allowing it freedom to drift, a dreamy half-there lilting intonation,
generous and open and reaching and arriving at a thoughtful conclusion.
The second Matching Mole album was not as acutely personal. Titled Little Red Record, this Ip had an abundance of eccentric and offbeat humor, in proper combination with complex time signatures and instrumental virtuosity. Once again the first track sets the tone—"Starting in the Middle of the Day We Can Drink Our Politics Away" is an odd mixture of voice, vibrato, and the usual Wyatt wit. His drumming had regained its fierceness and drive, and the entire band is sharp, inventive, and quite often offers glimpses of the directions in which Genesis (Foxtrot) and King Crimson (Larks' Tongues in Aspic) were to later go. Side two contains one of modern man's great religious statements, "God Song." Only Robert Wyatt could have given this song the sort of intense pride it deserves, a search for meaning and purpose, a questioning of fate and faith. Wyatt's delivery is uncertain and a bit tight: "Pardon me, I'm very drunk" (his solution, in most cases), yet refusing to bow down to an invisible god. All he asks for is an answer, and the manner in which he asks for it is unforgettable.
So much promise, things on the upswing, preparations for the third Matching Mole album, and then fade to black. In the fall of 1972, Wyatt fell four stories while drunk and was left paralyzed from the waist down. Thankfully, his creative spirit was left intact and, while in recuperation, he began writing material for what was to be his next solo album, Rock Bottom. This was released in June of 1974 to vast critical acclaim and general euphoria for Wyatt fans. It includes yet another Wyatt classic, the drone-ish and melancholy "Sea Song," (and still another reference to alcohol!), perhaps his most striking song. While dealing specifically with relationships, it could easily be seen as metaphor, a majestic reverence for life, of previously untapped human emotion now awakened by physical incapacity, almost a plea to let nothing go by, wistful and dreamlike, the sometime necessity of having to undergo pain and loss in order to gain a firmer grasp of life.
Another solo soon followed, Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard. Satisfying and simple, highly personal while remaining in
the eccentric style of previous releases. In the meantime, Wyatt performed live and in the studio with Slapp Happy, Hatfield and the North, Henry Cow, Michael Mantler, releasing an occasional 45. This brief hiatus was broken by the release of two more albums: Nothing Can Stop Us Now (a collection of previously released 45s) and The Animals Soundtrack, a lowkey, mostly instrumental soundtrack to a film which depicts our cruelty to the animal world.
Wyatt has most recently worked with the Shiney Men, Ben Watt, the Raincoats, Scritti Politti, and Nick Mason and Carla Bley. He's an artist of the first caliber, a progressive music pioneer who's set artistic standards and then continually strived to surpass them, a curious and introspective musician who offers all who listen a rare glimpse into the heart and soul of humanity.
Recommended Listening List (song & album)
1. Memories—early demo, later turning up on Rock Generation -8
2. Dedicated to You, But You Weren't Listening—Volume Two
3. The Moon in June—Third
4. The Moon in June—Triple Echo (triple album anthology)
5. O Caroline—Matching Mole
6. Instant Pussy—Matching Mole
7. God Song—Matching Mole's Little Red Record
8. Sea Song—Rock Bottom
9. A Last Straw—Rock Bottom
10. At Last I Am Free—Nothing Can Stop Us Now
11. Calyx—Halfield and the North
12. Do Ya?—Nick Mason's Fictitious Sports
13. I'm a Mineralist—Nick Mason's Fictitious Sports