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 Robert Wyatt - Record Collector N° 80 - April 1986




Two minor chart hits - "I'm A Believer" in 1974, and "Shipbuilding" in 1983 - disguise the fact that Robert Wyatt is generally recognised as one of Britain's most consistently creative and articulate musical talents. Wyatt began his career in the mid-Sixties with the Soft Machine, recording four albums with them that developed from 'psychedelic pop' to a more jazz-based experimentation. Since then, he has emerged as one of the major artists on the British independent scene, with a string of classic singles for Rough Trade. Wyatt is also well-known for his session work, and has played with a variety of artists ranging from Henry Cow to the Raincoats.

The roots of his career can be traced back to the Simon Langton School in Canterbury, an educational facility reserved for the sons of local artists, run on similar radical lines to A.S. Neill's 'Summerhill', and whose other pupils included Mike Ratledge, David Sinclair and Hugh Hopper. Wyatt left the school around 1960, and fled to Spain and Majorca, where he stayed with the poet Robert Graves, a family friend. When he returned home, Robert brought with him George Niedorf who, as well as teaching him the drums, also introduced Wyatt to Daevid Allen, an Australian who lived in a houseboat in Paris. An enthusiast, Allen experimented with the tape-loop music of Terry Riley, knew and worked with William Burroughs, and consumed hallucinogenics - and this was back in 1962! Both Wyatt and Hopper visited him in Paris, and both were profoundly influenced by the trip.

Upon returning to Canterbury, the duo pieced together a group of their own, the Wild Flowers, who made their debut in June 1963 at the Bear and King Hotel in Whitstable, Kent. The rest of the group included Kevin Ayers (vocals), Richard Sinclair (rhythm guitar), and Brian Hopper (sax), with Robert and Hugh on drums and bass respectively. Ayers was soon replaced by one Graham Flight, who in turn was ousted when Richard Coughlin joined as drummer, leaving Robert free to sing. So it remained until August 1966 when Robert left to form the Soft Machine. The Wild Flowers in the meantime added Pye Hastings and David Sinclair, and would, in 1968, evolve into Caravan.


The Soft Machine reunited Wyatt with Kevin Ayers and Mike Ratledge, as well as bringing them together with the mysterious Larry Nolan (who disappeared after a handful of gigs), and Daevid Allen, whose contacts with the embryonic London 'underground' ensured that the Softs became synonymous with the scene. Initially, however, their sets were less radical, featuring original material mixed with current soul hits. However, by the time they came to record their first single, it was clear that such compromises were now past. The group had signed to Polydor in January 1967 (in the month that their underground contemporaries Pink Floyd released their first single, "Arnold Layne"), and they immediately began recording, using ex-Animal Chas Chandler as producer. While the A-side, "Love Make Sweet Music" was a fabulous piece of pure pop, with Wyatt's voice already distinctive, its flipside, "Reelin' Feelin' Squealin'", was much more like their Dadaist approach to music, helped by having the enigmatic Kim Fowley as producer. In fact, it may be that this track was recorded first, causing Polydor to baulk at its wierdness and demand something less radical. Strange it certainly was, with Kevin's booming depth-of-a-well voice totally upfront. The single itself was a complete flop and copies now are incredibly rare. However, both sides have appeared on subsequent compilations, "Rare Tracks", and "Triple Echo", the latter being a boxed set of Softs' material, of which more later.


Dropped by Polydor after the failure "Love Makes Sweet Music", the group's next move was to put together a set of demos. Although never intended for commercial release, they would ultimately appear on the French BYG label, before eventually being pulled together for a 1977 release on Charly, reissued again in 1983. Despite the sometimes erratic playing (and out-of-tune guitar!), there are some strong performances. Robert's voice is excellent throughout, and two of the songs, "Memories", and the magnificent "That's How Much I Need You Now", are among the best the group recorded. Although most of the material was cut with Giorgio Gomelsky, at least one track, "She's Gone", was produced by Joe Boyd as a projected second single. The album, "At the Beginning" is still in catalogue, and provides a fascinating insight into early British progressive music.

Meanwhile, the group continued to play at London's UFO Club and other burgeoning haunts, but also spent a considerable amount of time in France where they found a very receptive audience. But when they returned from one such visit, Daevid Allen was refused re-entry into Britain and the Soft Machine was thus cut to a trio. As such, they played the 1967 Edinburgh Festival and when Allen did return, he decided he wasn't happy in the group anyway, resettled himself in Paris, joined the barricades during the riots, and began hatching the equally bizarre Gong.

The Softs then began a gruelling U .S. tour supporting the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Between May and July 1968, the trio was augmented by guitarist Andy Somers, en route from Dantalion's Chariot, and before his spell in the New Animals. He joined just after the group completed work on their first album, recorded and mixed in four days in April at the Record Plant in New York, and released by Probe that December. "The Soft Machine" was never granted a U.K. release at the time, partly due to Probe's low profile here, and partly because the band spent most of their time in America anyway. However, it became one of the era's most endearing imports. It was a good album, with "Hope For Happiness" and "Why Are We Sleeping" among the highlights. Gimmicks such as Wyatt's phased drum solo sound rather dated now, but his heartfelt rendition of "A Certain Kind" still remains as powerful as ever. Indifference from the coproducers, Chas Chandler and Tom Wilson, resulted in a somewhat muddy and unfocussed sound which detracts slightly from the overall performance, but the album still remains an essential purchase for those who missed out the first time. It was actually available in two different forms; the earlier pressings had a revolving clock-like front cover (similar to "Led Zeppelin Three") featuring a collage of photos of the group. This was soon dropped in favour of a nondescript non-revolving green circle. Very early copies also lack the bikini crudely drawn on to the girl on the inner sleeve. The final irony was that the Soft Machine, exhausted by the grind of the U.S. tours, celebrated its release by breaking up, Wyatt remaining in America, Ratledge returning to London and Ayers heading for Ibiza.


When the Softs decided to reform in February 1969, Ayers refused to be tempted back and began his erratic and idiosyncratic solo career instead. Wyatt and Ratledge then drafted in Hugh Hopper, a promotion of sorts as he'd spent the past year as their roadie. The new trio immediately began work on a second album, "Volume Two", which was an altogether better work, balancing Wyatt's quirkiness with the more serious approach of Ratledge. Hopper's passion for instrumental experiments also pulled the group towards a greater seriousness which would fully manifest itself on later Softs' releases. Meanwhile, here was "The Concise British Alphabet' in all its glory, and other moments of lunacy, all granted a U.K. release this time 'round, although without the elaborate gatefold of the U.S. pressing. Either version is probably rarer than the 'green circle' first album, which was available as a cut-out here for several years, though the American issue is by far the hardest to find. Increasingly rare is the British double-pack of these first two albums, issued during the mid-Seventies as "The Soft Machine Collection", but deleted quickly when the parent company, Anchor, went bankrupt.

"Third", issued by CBS in June 1970, continued the schism between Wyatt and Ratledge, with Robert's masterpiece, "The Moon In June" outshining the more posturing "Out Bloody Rageous". Strangely, it was with this album that the group had their most commercial success, reaching No. 18 in the British album charts, despite the increasingly uncompromising nature of their music. "Third" saw the introduction of saxophonist Elton Dean into the group (as well as Lyn Dobson on a temporary basis); another sign that the group was moving towards serious compositions. In fact, around this time, the Soft Machine became the first 'rock' group to play at the prestigious 'Proms' concerts in London. This line-up can be seen performing "Esther's Nose Job" in the "Stamping Ground" film of the 1970 Rotterdam Pop Festival. When "Fourth" appeared in 1971, charting at No. 32, it became clear that Robert was being squeezed out of the group. He left that September, and although the Soft Machine continued without him until 1978, they bore no resemblance to the group of old. In truth, the spirit of the original group was continued in Daevid Allen's Gong more than anything released on or after "Fourth".

However, the story doesn't quite end there. In 1977, Harvest issued "Triple Echo", the aforementioned boxed set. It took in representative tracks from the whole of the Soft Machine's recordings, but in amongst some straight re-releases were sessions taken from John Peel's BBC Radio programme, 'Top Gear', none of which had appeared on vinyl before. The set thus had versions of "The Moon In June" "Noisette" and, "Slightly AlI The Time" alI of which would appear on "Third" but in different forms, as well as material such as "Mousetrap" and "Eamonn Andrews", which would not be available elsewhere. "The Moon In June" in particular, is a revelation. Broadcast a year (21/6/69) before the official version was issued, it is crammed with references to its specific recording, mentioning the programme, the BBC tea-machine, the Pink Floyd, and much more! "Triple Echo" is worth it for this track alone, but sadly, it was deleted in the early 1980's and is now increasingly scarce. It remains an essential purchase for anyone remotely interested in the group, coming as it does, with an eight page booklet filled with rare photographs, complete session details, memorabilia, and a Pete Frame family tree.


Robert's immediate work upon leaving the Soft Machine was to make a solo album, punningly titled, "The End Of An Ear". This was a musically complex release, more in keeping with the instrumental fury of the group he was escaping than the intellectual pop one may have expected. Mark Charig and Elton Dean from the Softs played on it, as well as David Sinclair, but in truth, it was not a successful album and was deleted a few years later. However, it was recently repressed on the CBS 'Nice Price' series, and those wishing to hear jazz-rock in a freer atmosphere would find it a rewarding experience.

Robert retained David Sinclair for his next project, which he had pieced together by December 1971. Matching Mole were named after the French for his previous aggregation (machine molle), and also included Phil Miller (guitar), and Bill McCormick (bass). During the recording of their debut album, Sinclair left to be replaced by Dave MacRae, confirming the line-up which would remain together throughout the group's career. Their eponymous debut was issued in April 1972, and immediately recalled the Soft Machine's ability to mix songs with experiment. The first side in particular, blends well, with the magnificent "O Caroline", "Instant Pussy" and "Signed Curtain". "O Caroline" proved so popular that it was lifted as a single, which is now a highly prized artifact.


A second album, "Matching Mole's Little Red Record" was released in October that year, but was artistically less successful than its predecessor. A complex but compulsive album, once again, the highlights were down to Robert, most notably on "God Song". It was, however, to mark the end of the group, organisational problems and 'personality difficulties' caused them to break up. Both albums have since been deleted , though the first is easier to locate, having been reissued in 1982. Plans to ressurect the band around Wyatt, McCormick, Francis Monkman and Gary Windo were suddenly dashed by Robert's tragic fall, which left him permanently paralysed from the waist down.

A second solo album, "Rock Bottom", written during his long convalescence, was released by Virgin in July 1974. Produced by Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason, it was a rare masterpiece, deeply emotional, personalised, vulnerable, and easily one of that decade's most important and greatest recordings. The same sessions also produced "I'm A Believer", an excellent recreation of Neil Diamond's song for the Monkees, which gave Robert a hit single (No.29), and a 'Top Of The Pops' appearance in September. It was backed by a new version of "Memories", previously only cut as part of those 1967 demos. Plans to continue a singles' career were shelved when it was rumoured that the BBC were not entirely happy at having a man in a wheelchair appear on a pop programme. Chris Andrews' "Yesterday Man", another Sixties hit, had been scheduled for release, but instead, was placed on a Virgin double album sampler, "V". However, in 1977, the track was mysteriously put out as a single, but despite its excellence, disappeared without a trace, and is now highly collectable.


Meanwhile, a second Virgin album, "Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard", was issued in May 1975. Another fine album, it moved some way towards combining the vocal and instrumental styles of the two previous albums, and it was not only confined to Wyatt's own material. Charlie Hayden's jazz classic, "Song For Che" was included, alongside contributions from Fred Frith, Phil Manzanera, and Mongezi Feza, to create a fascinating mixture. These two Virgin albums are now available as a budget-priced double-pack, although they are still relatively easy to find individually.

Robert then withdrew from active recording for several years, and it wasn't until 1980 that Rough Trade persuaded him to record a series of singles. Free to choose whatever material he wanted, Wyatt embarked on a fascinating cross-section of releases which indicated much about his politics and his aspirations. The first coupled two South American songs of hope, " Arauco" and "Caimenera", while the follow-up was a beautifully slow recording of Chic's " At Last I Am Free", backed by "Strange Fruit", a worthy rendition of the Billie Holiday song. Ivor Cutler's "Grass" was his third release, although Wyatt was not on the B-side, which was performed by a group of Bengali musicians, Dishari. "Stalin Wasn't Stalling" followed, this time coupled with Peter Blackman's "Stalingrad", while a further track from these sessions, "Born Again Cretin", a homage to Nelson Mandela, turned up on the Rough Trade/NME cassette. ln 1983, Rough Trade collected these tracks together, added a version of "The Red Flag", and released them as the "Nothing Can Stop Us" album. Taken together, it allowed Robert the same kind of personal statement that "Rock Bottom" had been.


However, it was the fifth Rough Trade single, "Shipbuilding", which brought the most attention to his new music. Written especially for him by Elvis Costello, this subtle indictment of the Falklands War gave Wyatt his second chart hit, reaching No.35 in May 1983. Continued interest in the single was such that eventually it was added to the "Nothing Can Stop Us" album, making the first pressing of the LP increasingly rare. When the "Shipbuilding" single was repromoted, the 7" pressing was issued in a triple fold-out sleeve (the initial copies were not), while a new 12" pressing added another jazz standard, "Round Midnight" to the usual flipside, "Memories Of You". It had previously been only available on another NME cassette, "Mighty Reel".

Wyatt has also turned up on a couple of other collections. He had a one minute version of "Strangers ln The Night" on the "Miniatures" album in 1980, then two years later, appeared on the "Recommended Records Sampler" with a rousing version of "The Internationale". Again in 1982, he collaborated with Ben Watt on a 12" EP, "Summer Into Winter". The same year, he made an unpublicised return to the stage, performing "Born Again Cretin" with the Raincoats at the Albany Theatre, London; his first appearance since guesting with Henry Cow back in 1975.


Wyatt continues to record a variety of material for Rough Trade; his soundtrack album to "The AnimaIs Film" complemented the harrowing scenes captured on celluloid, while in 1984, the appearance of the "Work ln Progress" 12" EP was led off by a great reworking of the Peter Gabriel song, "Biko". 1985 saw the release of "The Age Of Self", a single released on the TUC/7.84 label, with proceeds going to the Miners' Hardship Fund, and "The Winds Of Change", a collaboration with the SW APO singers, produced by Jerry Dammers, and proceeds helping the Namibia Support Committee. Robert Wyatt also contributed two songs, unavailable elsewhere, to "The Last Nightingale" EP, again, proceeds going to the Miners. On "Old Rottenhat", his most recent solo LP, Wyatt is backed with only keyboards and sparse percussion, his voice at the forefront. One unreleased track, "Pigs", is due to be included on the "Re Records Quarterly Vol. 1, No.3" disc-zine, and he has been working recently on the future "News From Babel" LP.

In fact, mention must be made of some of the guest appearances Robert has made, for he turns up on literally dozens of albums. Far too many to mention them all here, these include many of Kevin Ayers' earlier albums, Daevid Allen's "Bananamoon", Henry Cow's "Concerts", and Syd Barrett's classic solo, "The Madcap Laughs". More recently, he has worked with the Raincoats on "Odyshape", and Nick Mason "Ficticious Sports".

Taken together, along with his own work and with Soft Machine and Matching Mole , this represents an ambitious and fascinating body of work, the scope of which continues and extends to this day. Undoubtedly, Robert Wyatt has long been one of the most challenging individuals working in music, and as well as maintaining a consistently high standard, he retains a depth and perception that few other artists have achieved.

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