Posts Tagged ‘Robert Wyatt’

Twelve sides of Robert Wyatt

15 November 2014

wyatt1I’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.

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Miles and Robert

4 February 2012

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’.

Dreaming in red

7 May 2010

Maybe it’s because we’ve been having an election here in Britain, but I’ve been listening to Robert Wyatt’s elegiac version of ‘Biko’, released in 1984, about the life and death in 1977 of the black anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko – a reminder that politics is often (always?) – eventually a matter of life and death. It’s a moral choice, not a tea party; it has consequences, and not just for you.

Eight horns and a rhythm section

21 June 2009

The line-up of the Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra is: three saxes (two tenor, one alto), two trumpets, a trombone, a french horn, and a tuba. And bass, guitar, drums, and piano. The core of the band, of course, is the bassist Charlie Haden and Carla Bley, who plays piano and arranges. The drummer Matt Wilson and sax player Tony Malaby have been touring with this edition of the band for a few years now. But at last night’s show at London’s Royal Festival Hall, part of Meltdown, it became clear early on (as Haden was reading out their names) that most of the horns were an English ‘pick-up’ band, although John Paricelli, on guitar, is a previous Carla Bley collaborator.

Perhaps for this reason, the first couple of songs were a little stiff, as the band betrayed a few signs of nerves. But Carla Bley’s arrangements are tight, lyrical, and free-wheeling, and the musicians quickly found their feet, a reminder of what fine musicians good jazz players are. Although Haden said at the start that they’d be playing tracks from all four Music Liberation Orchestra records (dating back to the Nixon era) much of the set was from the most recent, Not in Our Name, recorded in opposition to the Iraq war, which is like an oppositional conversation with American music. it has versions of Amazing Grace, Samuel Barber’s Adagio, and part of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, as well as a rich and complex interpretation of America the Beautiful. During this the wraith-like figure of Bley flitted from piano stool into the shadows of the stage and out again, emerging to make sure the band finished the songs cleanly.

Somewhere in the middle of this Robert Wyatt rolled on the stage – to huge audience applause – to sing in Spanish a Cuban song and also his lyrics to Haden’s own Song for Che, from the first Liberation Music Orchestra record. The end of the concert got a little bit chaotic – Haden hoped that Ornette Coleman, the director of this years’s Meltdown festival would join them on stage on the final weekend of the festival.

The pair share a 50-year history but Coleman missed his call at the hotel while Haden chopped the running order around (and extended We Shall Overcome with some improbable solos) to push America The Beautiful – their version incorporates the Coleman composition Skies of America – to the end of the programme in the hope of squeezing in a surprise appearance. In the end we had to make do with an emotional hug on the stage between the two musicians as the house lights went up.

The you tube performance at the top is of the Bill Frisell composition Throughout, from the 2003 tour of Europe. Tony Malaby is the sax soloist.

I’ve posted before about the Liberation Music Orchestra and Ornette Coleman.

Pigs – in there

6 January 2009


A shocking article today on the conditions in which pigs are reared in most of Western Europe, where most of our bacon comes from, reminded me of Robert Wyatt’s song Pigs – in there. (If you haven’t heard it there’s an MP3 at Leaky Sparrow’s blog, scroll down to the bottom of the post).

The article was by Jon Henley, who seems to have been transformed from jaunty/jokey Diarist into campaigning reporter. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but in summary, Britain has introduced decent welfare standards for pigs, which are more complied with than not, but most of Europe hasn’t, and we don’t ensure that people exporting pork to the UK comply with our standards. The result is every bit as bad as battery farming for hens, with pigs – who are clean, intelligent and playful animals – kept in the dark inside in conditions which reduce them to boredom and fighting with each other.

A Dutch pig farmer he interviews blames market conditions:

“We’re supplying what the market wants,” he insists. “And where are we, the farmers, in the chain? The retailers tell the slaughterhouses what they’ll pay, the slaughterhouses set their prices for us. Everyone takes their margin, and right at the bottom it’s the farmer. People, consumers, just aren’t being realistic; they want cheap meat, then they’re worried about welfare. Buy organic, then! Pay twice the price. But no one will do that.”

Another Dutch couple are more reflective – it will take laws and more effort in the food chain:

The Kerstens are a charming, and plainly thoughtful, couple in their 50s. … “It’s all a compromise,” says Lowie. “Everyone would like to see better conditions for pigs, but change demands time, good laws, an effort from everyone in the chain and responsibility, from the producer, the retailer, the consumer and the politician. The cold fact is that better welfare means more expensive meat. We’d love to produce it; are people ready to buy it?”

Meanwhile, a British farmer – who was losing £26 per animal when feed prices rocketed last summer, says the problem is the supermarkets’ assumptions about what consumers want:

“The retailers always say the customer likes the cheapest,” she says. “We say we think the customer would actually like the choice. But the bottom line is, if people don’t want to pay for higher welfare, farmers will stop doing it.”

I would like the choice, certainly. Henley also quotes Churchill’s memorable line about pigs:

“I like pigs. Dogs look up to you; cats look down on you; pigs treat you as equal.”

Update, 9th January: A letter from Professor JT Winkler of London Metropolitan University’s Nutrition Policy Unit points the fingers firmly at the supermarkets, and at the margins they gouge on organics and fairly traded food:

The real problem does not lie with the farmers. The devils in this saga are the supermarkets and national meat inspection services. The organic farm you studied produces its pigs at double the cost of conventional animals. But Sainsbury’s sells that farm’s bacon at six-and-half times the price of its basic range. This is an extreme example of the extra margin (the “health premium”) that retailers commonly load on to better products. If humanely produced pig meat costs more in the shops, most of the difference comes from supermarkets’ exploiting their customers’ principles.

The picture is of a Croatian pig farm, from Animal Friends Croatia.