The Making of... I'm A Believer - by Robert Wyatt - Uncut N° 201 - February 2014
How Canterbury's jazz adventurer turned out a hit Monkees cover, tiring out Pink Floyd's drummer and battling Top Of The Pops in the process... "The show side of pop? I can't be bothered!"
FROM THE PSYCH pop of early Soft Machine to the cerebral jazz-fusion of Matching Mole, by 1974 Robert Wyatt was intent on following his own singular muse. You would imagine, though, that even Wyatt's closest collaborators were shocked when he decided to release a cover of The Monkees' Neil-Diamond-penned "I'm A Believer" as his debut solo single. "No, Robert has always been most peculiar," laughs Pink Floyd's Nick Mason, who produced and played drums on the recording, "so nothing very much surprises me with him."
Wyatt has been in a wheelchair since June 1, 1973, when he fell out of a window at a Maida Vale party. But rather than hindering him creatively, his paralysis allowed the drummer to put down his sticks and concentrate on singing, keyboards and songwriting, crafting the experimental, pastoral Rock Bottom, produced by Mason and featuring Fred Frith and Richard Sinclair.
Far from starting a more commercial era in his career, though, things didn't run smoothly after the release of "l'm A Believer". An appearance on Top Of The Pops led to arguments with the show's producer and threats of a ban, then Virgin refused to release his follow-up single. The irrepressible Wyatt wouldn't have had it any other way, though - the only reservation he has about the track is his own "jigging about" when miming on TV. "If you're going to do it, do it properly, like Wilko Johnson... I just thought, note to self, don't do that anymore.
"But we all learn from our mistakes," he says, mock-philosophically. "That well-known saying - well, not that well-known, because I made it up - 'we live and learn, but in that order, unfortunately.'"
ROBERT WYATT: l'd said in NME or Melody Maker that I really liked pop music - to me, it's the folk music of the industrial age, it's what people sing and dance to on a Saturday night. Simon Draper at Virgin, he saw this and he called my bluff, saying "Would you do a pop song?" l'd intended to do "Last Train To Clarksville", 'cause I like that, but I got muddled up.
NICK MASON: I met Robert at UFO, then we did some gigs together - we certainly spent time together in New York when Soft Machine were touring with Hendrix. We were all holed up in the same hotel there in 1968. Then I produced Rock Bottom.
DAVE MACRAE: Was I surprised Robert was doing a Monkees song? Working with Robert, surprises were the norm! He has great mental energy always looking for new ways to express his ideas.
RICHARD SINCLAIR: In The Wilde Flowers with Robert, I remember doing things like Chuck Berry numbers, so "I'm A Believer" wasn't anything unusual from Robert. He always wanted to be a popular singing artist. Blond-haired quite good-looking, bouncing about - he liked that idea of entertainment, still does!
WYATT: One of my friends said, "But Robert, is it a great song?" In one exhibition, Peter Blake had a lot of paintings by monkeys, and somebody said to him, "Oh, they're not very good paintings." He said, "Well, they're pretty good for monkeys! " So for a Monkees song, it's a pretty good song. I don't feel the need for any hierarchies [in music] and there was a slight statement I was making about that. Not being in a group you can do one-off things, have a particular band for a particular thing.
And for "l'm A Believer" it was the right group.
FRED FRITH: Robert used to show up at Henry Cow gigs and never failed to say nice things about us. Bill McCormick and Francis Monkman approached me about joining the reforming Matching Mole, but then Robert had his accident and that was the end of that. I visited him in hospital and we became close. Henry Cow had opened for Pink Floyd on numerous occasions between 1969 and 1972, so Nick and I had brushed shoulders. I'd had the unnerving experience of David Gilmour sitting at my feet checking me out while performing... I think Robert and I felt an affinity on many levels, musical, political and especially a shared enjoyment of life's absurdities.
WYATT: I did take the liberty of buggering around with the chords to "l'm A Believer". I played the piano part to Dave, and he played what I played him really. Dave's great like that, he can just sort of do anything. Amazing man.
MACRAE: Robert would certainly have indicated what he wanted played and I may have thrown in an idea. I think the arrangement was largely osmotic and a natural process. Robert has great mental energy, and this energy acted as a catalyst in generating ideas from others involved.
WYATT: I wouldn't have thought the recording took any longer than a day, maybe another day for mixing? I would have thought l'd have done the vocals after, especially as there is some double-tracking there. I remember there was a bloke from Neil Diamond's publisher who hung around all the time, not doing anything at all, and I thought, "That's an easy job.' He just traipsed around after us. "I'm from the publishing company." Just helping himself to the freebies knocking about...
MASON: Producing Robert didn't entail an enormous amount of hard work. He really just wanted a bit of assistance in the technical side. But I certainly didn't need to tell him anything about how the music went.
WYATT: Nick made some crucial decisions. He's also funny. He used to come out of a take and you'd say, "That's great." And he'd say, "Yes, it does a bit, doesn't it." A very funny man!
MASON: We probably did the backing tracks in an hour or two. We spent longer putting Fred's stuff on than anything else, the violins and so on. That was all Fred's idea, we let him loose on it.
FRITH: There was the instrumental break which they didn't have a plan for, so I wrote the string arrangement on the spot and recorded it. Then I finished up with the lead guitar stuff, which was a first take, just doing whatever came to me in one pass of the song, using my 1958 Gibson 345, volume pedal and Electro Harmonix Big Muff distortion - that was pretty much all I had. I remember Nick being super-complimentary about it and me feeling like a million bucks!
WYATT: Nick used to make this joke about a "Pink Floyd tempo". We said, " We're going to do it a bit faster," and it was the first time he broke into a bit of a sweat!
Moving away from Rock Bottom: Robert Wyatt in 1974
MASON: It was probably faster than all the Pink Floyd tempos throughout history. We always kept to about 70bpm max. My doctor told me never to play faster than my pulse rate... But I was a lot younger and fitter, then, so it was fine.
WYATT: It hit No 29, did it? l'm too posh to think about charts... It's not the chart side of pop music that interests me, it's the music itself and what it means to people. There's a competitive edge to charts which I find very tiresome. Most of the records I liked, jazz records, probably sold about 5,000 tops, ever. I remember somebody advising me, "DJs would rather have the chorus first, if they're going to play it on the radio." I thought, "Hang on, wait a minute, music should be about expanding your freedoms and possibilities, not about contracting them."
FRITH: My brother [sociomusicologist and journalist] Simon was impressed when we appeared on Top Of The Pops! But my memory of it is mostly around the sadness and futility. Seeing The Tremeloes buttoned into awkward-looking satin suits and looking sulky and resentful as their manager told them what to do, just observing the pop game from close up. We had to be in the studio at 11am on call for rehearsal. We were hustled onstage at about 5.40pm and when we were supposed to run it through, everyone disappeared - union-mandated break - so we never actually rehearsed or had any idea what was going on.
SINCLAIR:I'd been on with Caravan in 1970, playing"If ICould Do It All Over Again...". It was funny doing it for Robert and his pop tune!
MASON: Pink Floyd had been on TOTP in '67. It hardly changed from its first to last show as far as I remember. The same slightly uncomfortable dancing and some DJ shouting. We appeared with Robert two weeks running, and the second week they didn't want us to show the wheelchair.
WYATT: The producer said, "l'm embarrassed by that wheelchair, it's not entertaining, can you go and sit in this wicker-work thing?" I told him to fuck off, and he said, "You will never work on this programme again" - but as I just told you, I am too posh to care, frankly. I mean, I can't wheel a wicker chair, and I need to be able to get out quick in case the cops are coming, for fuck's sake!
FRITH: Richard Branson went out and bought an antique wheelchair, and insisted that if the BBC was going to object to Robert's wheelchair, they surely couldn't object to this beautiful antique version. The whole thing was irrational to the point of absurdity, but Richard insisted and won the day, making the BBC look extremely foolish in the process. And, of course, lan MacDonald made sure there was a picture in the NME afterwards.
WYATT: We were on the cover of the NME, all in wheelchairs, it looked great - most of us who played at my Drury Lane concert are on there, Mongezi Feza's just behind Julie Tippetts, and Mike Oldfield is there. Nick Mason's face is stuck on. It was a real laugh doing it, although there were, I believe, people who wrote to the NME saying it was a bit tasteless... I can't think why. I
thought it was a very good idea.
Especially on steps - wheelchairs on steps are dangerous, they're rubbish! There are people in wheelchairs and with other disabilities, who I know from letters and so on, who were very encouraged that far from my career as a musician being over, it actually got much stronger in terms of my contribution to it. But there were others who thought that I should have
been more militant and proactive in terms of
disability rights and so on. And I accept that, but
the fact is I'm not a professional cripple, l'm still
just a musician.
FRITH: I remember almost nothing about Drury
Lane [Sept 8,1974], except being told which movie
stars were in the audience. But listening to it now,
I almost prefer the live version of
"l'm A Believer"!
WYATT: It made a good
encore, it was a good laugh. We
had Julie Tippetts singing, Mike
Oldfield and Fred fiddling away
at guitars, two drummers,
Laurie Allan and Nick Mason,
and Hugh Hopper on bass. And
Gary Windo and Mongezi Feza
doing little horn parts. Dave
Stewart was on the organ, and
he came up with that live
fairground coda, and it's funny,
because it was Drury Lane
which, of course, 150 years
beforehand, had music exactly
MASON: That was the only
time the song was performed -
unless you count The Monkees. I remember it
being fun, there were a lot of people who were fond
of Robert there. It was very much a one-off show,
and they're difficult as
they're always under-rehearsed, but it was fun.
WYATT: My follow-up single was "Yesterday Man", a song by Chris Andrews. We never pretended to be reggae but it was obviously influenced by that feel, which was very much the heartbeat of London around that time.
MASON: Did I produce that? Right. I can't remember what happened to that.
WYATT: The boss of Virgin said it was a bit "lugubrious". I thought, 'Oh, that sounds good,' and I looked in the dictionary, and it isn't. He wouldn't put it out. I wouldn't have minded, but I had to pay for the recording. If you sold millions like dear Mike Oldfield did, then you still got a lot of money, but if you only sold, what did I sell in the end? 50,000? I'd never get any of that back because of the cost of the second LP and so on... So I just said I can't do this stuff with Virgin anymore. So they said, "Well, you're not doing anything with anyone else." So I didn't for a while, I just went into politics. But there's no money in that, of course - it's mostly charity donations at the Morning Star bazaar, so that's not making a living, is it?
I like pop music, but that show side of it, I can't be bothered. When you get to a certain profile in pop, you're told what to do and you have to fit into a format, and that was completely alien to me. So I couldn't have been a pop musician, really. I started out playing pop songs, but we made our own rules and did what we liked. No-one was gonna be pushed around by any of these people.