I’ve pretty much always loved the music of Robert Wyatt, who has announced his retirement as a musician at the age of 69. As he told Uncut,
I thought, train drivers retire when they’re 65, so I will, as well. I would say I’ve stopped, it’s a better word than retired. Fifty years in the saddle, it’s not nothing. It’s completely unplanned, my life, and it’s just reached this particular point. Other things have happened – I’m more taken up by politics, to be honest,than music at the moment.
The good news is that this gives me the chance to write something appreciative about him before waiting for his death. There’s a biography just come out, (reviewed here in LRB by Jeremy Harding) and, next week, a double compilation, the second disc of which has on it some intriguing looking collaborations, some of which are new to me. My Robert Wyatt playlist/mixtape is below.
But before we get to the videos, five or six things to admire about Robert Wyatt:
First, he had a terrible accident that wrecked his fine career as a jazz-rock drummer with Soft Machine, which left him in a wheelchair. He picked himself up, more or less literally, and rebuilt his career as a musician rather than feeling sorry for himself.
Second, that even in the darkest days of the 1980s, when Thatcherism and Reaganism did their worst, he didn’t give up trying or believing in the possiblilities for change. Two in particular: his 12″ EP Works In Progress was a moment of inspiration, and his contribution to Working Week’s “Venceremos” lifted the spirits. In fact, Gramsci has a famous phrase about “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”, which Wyatt’s work exemplifies. (See “The Age of Self,” below”). Typical of Wyatt that when he left the UK for Spain when Thatcherism got too oppressive for him, he went to the mining area of Asturias.
Third, and related: his relentless musical curiosity, for music from around the world, from the radical tradition, from jazz, and for music that was dowright unfashionable when he recorded it. He seems to listen to everything. The first two are exemplified by his version of “Stalin Wasn’t Stalling,” first recorded during World War II, and his covers of Victor Jara (‘Te Recuerdo Amanda’) and Pablo Milanes’ song ‘Yolanda‘ on Works In Progress. The last one covers thimgs like his recording of the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” at a time when it was, approximately, the least cool track in the universe.
Fourth, his openness. He has collaborated with almost everyone, as far as you can tell, on the basis of the quality of the music and ideas rather than reputation. When Comicopera came out in 2007, he said in an interview, “I like the idea of the record as a meeting place, where friends wander in and out.” He worked with Ben Watt when Watt was barely known (and those recordings are among the best things Watt has done); he worked with Ultramarine on their electronic LP United Kingdoms, adding vocals to some reworkings of 19th century ballad lyrics that seem prescient in the age of the new Poor Law: “Happy land, happy land, your fame resounds from shore to shore/Happy land, happy land, where ’tis a crime to be poor”. In turn, he’s been well served by other musicians, who find interpretaive space in his music: Annie Whitehead’s live recording Soupsongs is a fine collection, and so is the record by the French Orchestre National de Jazz. Ditto, the selection of Robert Wyatt covers by the Unthanks.
Fifth, his simplicity, sometimes accompanied by a white hot political anger, always accompanied by an internationalist worldview. “Palestine’s a country, or at least it used to be”, on Dondestan. Or “East Timor, who’s your fancy friend?” on Old Rottenhat. And his complexity: he’s always experimenting with something.
Sixth, the sense of his politics infuses everything, but as a senseability as much as a sense. There are very direct political songs, yes, but there’s a more important element, that his worldview – radical, dissident, critic, outsider – infuses all of his work and many of his choices. As when he chose to record Mongezi Fezi’s “Sonia” in 1975, with Fezi and other exiled South African musicians; he’s making a political commitment as well as a musical one. (Unlike, say, Paul Simon).
Anyway, here below the fold are twelve tracks from his career, from the dozens I could have chosen, that are worth listening to. For Wyatt fans, I’ve tried to avoid some of the obvious choices.
A Robert Wyatt mixtape
(1) “Moon In June.” From his time with Soft Machine. A hymn of praise to the virtues of the BBC and public service broadcasting that also nods to his musical roots in Canterbury.
(3) “Aquamarine” with Ben Watt, mentioned above. From the Summer Into Winter EP (not North Marine Drive, despite the youtube image).
(4) “Sea Song“, from his fabled Rock Bottom record. I love the opening verse.
(5) “At Last I am Free”, originally recorded by Chic. Finding new things in unfashionable places. I know: they’re fashionable now.
(7) “Biko”, originally recorded by Peter Gabriel. Elegiac and quietly angry where Gabriel’s version is a bit bombastic. From Works In Progress. My video tribute…
(8) “The Age of Self”, on his 1986 record Old Rottenhat. It seems to be as relevant today, two decades on.
(9) Gilad Atzmon has worked with Robert Wyatt on and off – I love Wyatt’s spoken introduction to this Atzmon track. He also plays trumpet.
(10) “O Caroline,” originally on the Matching Mole recording, performed by Annie Whitehead’s Soupsongs ensemble.
(11) His appearance on Ultramarine’s United Kingdoms, here singing a version of the 19th century underclass ballad “Happy Land“.
(12) “Just As You Are,” from 2007’s Comicopera, which I suppose we’ll have to get used to referring to as Robert Wyatt’s “last record”. It’s a very rich collection of songs. I picked this one because it was a way of acknowledging his lifelong personal and creative partnership with his wife, the artist Alfreda (“Alfie”) Benge, who co-wrote this, and many of Wyatt’s other songs.
The image of Robert Wyatt at the top of the post is by Sian Superman at Raw-Art, and is available for sale in a limited edition. The Guardian has an engaging playlist by Robert Wyatt of the tracks the influenced him. And while doing the research for this post I came across a profile of Wyatt by Paul Brad at Bandcamp that would be a great starting point for someone new to his music.