Listening to Miles Davis’ record Miles Ahead the other day, I realised with a bit of a start that Robert Wyatt had lifted the opening phrase of ‘The Maids of Cadiz’ for his song ‘Alliance’, on his 1980s record Old Rottenhat. (The Maids of Cadiz is embedded at the top of the post; Alliance can be heard here.)
They’re very different records, of course: Wyatt made Old Rottenhat in the early ’80s in anger about the Thatcherite government and its works, among other things, before moving to Spain for a period of time, although it’s not an angry sounding record. (Actually, it’s pretty much him and a synthesiser, which makes for a very distinctive sound). ‘Alliance’ is a song to the politicians who had left the Labour Party to set up the more centrist Social Democratic Party:
There is a kind of compromise you are master of
Your endless gentle nudging left us polarised
You’re proud of being middle class (meaning upper class)
You say you’re self sufficient (but you don’t dig your own coal)
I think that what you’re frightened of more than anything
is knowing you need workers more than they need you
“A herd of independent minds” Chomsky got it right
Joggling into battle waving old school ties
Of course, he was wrong about ‘knowing you need workers, more than they need you’ – globalisation put paid to that – but that’s a story for another day and probably a different blog.
What struck me here was that musicians and their publishers have ended up in court over far less, but that Wyatt was in a long tradition – going back at least to Bach and Shakespeare – of borrowing something old to start something new. And also that if Miles knew, he’d just smile – or perhaps throw in a quote from ‘Alliance’ the next time he played ‘The Maids of Cadiz’.