In Praise Of Robert Wyatt

Published on November 29th, 2009 in: Culture Shock, Current Faves, Issues, Music, OMG British R Coming |

By John Lane

Aye, the following individual is never, ever to be classified as a “guilty pleasure,” understood? Yes, one could use the expression that he is an “acquired taste,” but goodness knows not all acquired tastes are meant to pass the taste test of everyone.

Robert Wyatt is an English creation, one that could’ve only been born of and thrived in England (albeit in a quiet, genteel way), as he has done professionally for over 40 years.

psychedelic by svennnevenn
Photo by svennevenn

He got his start with The Soft Machine in the mid-to-late-sixties, alongside Kevin Ayers (the heterosexual answer to Oscar Wilde). Wyatt proved himself an amazingly dexterous drummer, fusing together jazz idioms (his first love) and pop sensibility. His drumming spurred The Soft Machine along to two tours of America, opening for Jimi Hendrix. His warm personality made him drinking pals with Keith Moon, and his talents made Mitch Mitchell gift a drum kit to Wyatt upon completion of their final tour together with The Experience.

Fast forward considerably past 1969 and into the ’70s when The Soft Machine becomes a strange jazz-fusion group that even Wyatt (a jazz aficionado) can’t stomach; the break-up is mutual, as the other band members won’t tolerate a drummer that can sing and write idiosyncratic songs.

What becomes of a highly skilled drummer that’s booted out of his pop-group-turned-unrecognizable-Jazz-Odyssey-monster?

Well, on June 1, 1973, he falls several floors from an apartment building during a party, while he is particularly smashed; he is rendered paralyzed from the waist down, and it is believed that the relaxed (sodden) state of his body at the time of his fall prevented him from seizing up and dying. The skin of the pop drummer is shed in place of the bearded, thoughtful, and maddeningly-talented, new Robert Wyatt.

He’s not a musician or singer for neophytes, but that will not stop me from trying. His voice is plaintive, angelic, and thick-Cockney, where h’s are dropped at the beginnings of words. His melodies contain idioms of jazz, world music, and his imagination from a language that has yet to be named. Here is where one can start:

1. Rock Bottom (1974)

It’s here with a relatively cheap synthesizer tremoloed six ways to Sunday and an almost choir-boy’s soprano that one finds the artist establishing his own way. “Sea Song” sets the listener forth in the labyrinthine, kelp-covered career of Wyatt’s music. With one ear, it is easy to hear despair; with the other, it is easy to spy pragmatic, tenacious struggle through the darkness.

2. Shleep (1997)

An outing with youngster Paul Weller. This is Wyatt’s most pop-like solo disc, which is deceiving because again he delivers his sophisticated nursery-rhymes-for-grown-ups in a perhaps more commercial-sounding vein (meaning, this might be the one deejays play on college radio).

3. Comic Opera (2007)

Armed with musicians like Brian Eno and Paul Weller, once again Wyatt ventures forth. Political, personal, and even foreign—Wyatt writes music befitting a gentleman over the age of 60 while showing the youngsters how it’s tastefully done. It’s difficult to describe Wyatt’s work here, as it is a level of sophistication that transcends language; it would be a bit like taking painting lessons from Picasso. One can hear the richness of a solitary imagination (abetted by his dear wife’s support and art work) living in the remote Lincolnshire.

Robert Wyatt is a beloved “cult” figure, lionized by everyone from Elvis Costello to Bjork, a musical Saint Nick who has given you an intricate Chinese puzzle, and he is distinctly an English treasure.

robert wyatt by fabio barbieri
Robert Wyatt, Southbank Guigno 2009
Photo © 2009 Fabio Barbieri

For more on Robert Wyatt and his music, please check out this fansite.


Nothing Can Stop Us: Anti-Thatcherism And Anti-Conservatism In Music, 1980 – 1987, Popshifter May/June 2009 issue

One Response to “In Praise Of Robert Wyatt”

  1. Rev. Syung Myung Me:
    December 5th, 2009 at 3:05 pm

    I quite like the version of ‘Shipbuilding’ he did.

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