Yes… another one. An artist that I’d heard about but never heard. In this case the story is quite a striking one – easy to remember. Wyatt was the drummer of early prog-rock band Soft Machine. He left Soft Machine (or they fired him) and set up his own outfit Matching Mole (those of you who speak good French may spot a little joke there) which allowed him more scope for song writing and for singing. Then in the early 70s he fell off a balcony at party, broke his back and found himself consigned to a wheelchair for the rest of his life and having to reshape his career. He’s long enjoyed reputations as an engaging singer, as a politically motivated artist and as an eccentric.
When this compilation – apparently signalling his intended retirement – was announced I got interested and took the plunge (one of the good things about iTunes and the like is that they make taking the plunge less of a gamble because you’re playing with significantly less money).
Wyatt was with Soft Machine in the late 60s and recorded his first solo album in 1970. Condensing such a long career into a 2 CD retrospective is always going to be difficult – especially if you haven’t had hits (Wyatt got to the lower reaches of the BBC charts with his cover of the Monkees “I’m A Believer”, but other than that…). Not that I’m familiar with his work anyway – this is the first Robert Wyatt album I’ve ever listened to. Which is fun – you don’t have any preconceptions about what should and shouldn’t be there. Wyatt curated this compilation himself, and other, more experienced writers have commented on the seeming wilful eccentricity of the selection – he doesn’t include a single track from the album that is widely considered to be his best – but I can’t comment on that (though I don’t doubt those critics).
Wyatt kicks of proceedings with a nearly 20 minute Soft Machine track. This sounds to me quite a lot like other music from the “Canterbury scene” that seems to have been the primordial soup for British prog rock – though SM do seem a bit more proficient than, say, Genesis on their early albums. Wyatt proves himself to have not the worst drumming chops in the world and a high-pitched, engaging and very English singing voice. I don’t mean “English” as in “Eton and Oxford”, but in as much as his voice and singing MO are completely bereft of the American affections that colour most pop and rock music. I suppose there are some similarities to Peter Gabriel, but Gabriel (especially after he went solo) always had a lot of soul colouring to his public school vocals.
And this is the thing with Wyatt – he’s very much his own man. Even when you think there’s something familiar going on he makes his own mark. His cover of “Yesterday Man” is a fine example (because it’s probably the best known song here). You’ll recognise the words and the melody, but he introduces more movement and suspense into the chords that underpin the melody and his vocal is more tentative, less confident than on the original (given the story the sing tells, Wyatt’s may be the more appropriate treatment).
The eccentricity, the englishness pop up repeatedly. After getting stuck into the Almighty for two verses of “God Song”, early in the third he pleads
“You know that I’m only joking, aren’t I?
Pardon me I’m very drunk!”
Before concluding with
“So throw down a stone, or something!
Give us a sign, for Christ’s sake!”
Even better (from a certain perspective) is “Signed Curtain”, a song about the structure of songs:
This is the first verse…
And this is the chorus
Or perhaps it’s a bridge…
This is the second verse
Or it may the last verse…
And this is the chorus
Or perhaps it’s a bridge
Or just another key change
Which sounds twee, but he pulls it off with wit and charm.
The two dominant aspects of the music seem to be a dreamy whimsicalness (whimiscality?) and jazzy progressiveness. Though Wyatt is clearly an enthusiastic collaborator. Indeed what would be the second disc if you bought the physical set is given up to collaborations and guest spots done for other folks. And the excellent “Ship Building” written for him by Elvis Costello as a rather indirect, ambivalent commentary on the Falklands war. When Wyatt collaborates he is still instantly recognisable, and when he waxes political he tends to do it in a roundabout way (at least on this compilation, he once recorded a song with the SWAPO singers and just doing that made a bit of a point even if they sang “Ring Around the Roses” – which they didn’t).
So I quite like this (and I went out – so to speak – and bought another Wyatt disc). It’s intelligent and skilful music, quite quirky at times, but Wyatt, unusually for a clever clogs prog rock type, usually seems aware of the virtues of melody and hooks. He’s one of those artists who has cut a very single-minded furrow through the music world and who enjoys the appreciation of his peers and not so much applause from the man in the street. But on this blog we don’t let things like that bother us. He’s clearly an intriguing and original artist likely to reward repeat listens.