Robert Wyatt's soundtrack of his life
October 28, 2014 3:51 AM   Subscribe

When I’m not watching Russia Today, obviously, I’m watching pop TV. Even my son’s embarrassed by the infantilism of my tastes, but there’s some good stuff out there now. Pharrell Williams’s Happy– that’s absolutely fucking knockout. Williams is as good as any 60s soul singer and the song is brilliantly put together. It’s a great drum track, and there are only four chords or so, but they’re just enough. It’s really subtly done, absolutely spot-on. My granddaughter tells me I should totally disapprove of that other song he did, though. With someone else... something lines? Blurred Lines! That’s the one. Take it from me that I don’t like that one at all.
Robert Wyatt talks to the Grauniad about The Soundtrack of his Life. (Robert Wyatt previously)

A short bio of Robert Wyatt, for those who don't know him:

He started out as a jazz drummer in the early sixties in the Daevid Allen trio, before moving on to the Wilde Flowers, the Canterbury based pop group that would launch a thousand Canterbury Scene prog rock groups. When that broke up, Wyatt joined Daevid Allen in his new band, Soft Machine (named after the Burroughs novel, natch). He remained with the group for their first two albums, through which he expressed his interest in pataphysics:
Wyatt was introduced to ‘pataphysics in 1967, when Soft Machine—already established, alongside Pink Floyd, as darlings of the London underground scene, and about to tour the States with the Jimi Hendrix Experience—performed a live soundtrack to Ubu Enchaîné at the Edinburgh Festival. By the time of their second album, Wyatt was introducing the band as “the official orchestra of the College of ‘Pataphysics,” going on to prove these credentials by singing the letters of the alphabet in reverse.
Wyatt was both drummer and vocalist in the Softs, but artistic differences between him and other members of the band led him to leave and set up his own, Matching Mole (a pune, or play on words, which if pronounced the right way, sounds like Machine Mole, which is of course French for Soft Machine) in which he set out to explore his own experimental music to great critical acclaim. Until, dead drunk, he fell out of an upstairs window during a friend's party and was paralysed from the waist down.

That didn't stop him however, though Matching Mole was disbanded. He came back with the 1973 solo album Rock Bottom and actually had an hit with a cover of the Monkees' I'm a Believer. Of which he has said:
There was a bit of mischief there, too. I didn't like the fact that hierarchies had developed between what people thought was "serious" rock music and pop music-- that was all rubbish. I was very uncomfortable with that. That was exactly the kind of situation I thought our generation had got rid of. I've always admired pop music, because I think it's the modern post-industrial folk music. Everybody can join in, you don't have to be a specialist. You can sing along with it. But there's not much room in pop music for all the things I want to do. It's a bit like food: I like all kinds of interesting food, but in the end, I can just sit down with an egg sandwich and really feel great.
Since then he has been working steadily on both solo projects and collaborations with other musicians, including Björk and Hot Chip. For more on Wyatt, the BBC4 documentary on him from a few years back is essential viewing.
posted by MartinWisse (14 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
absolute hero, will be reading this, always a nice man and great music
posted by maiamaia at 3:59 AM on October 28, 2014

NB anybody who hasn't heard his 'shipbuilding', that song is up there with Tim Buckley 'saturday's child' and other similar very beautiful unforgettable sixties songs that don't fit any genre seen from here
posted by maiamaia at 4:01 AM on October 28, 2014

NB anybody who hasn't heard his 'shipbuilding' and other similar very beautiful unforgettable sixties songs that don't fit any genre seen from here

Wyatt's "Shipbuilding" was released in in August 1982.

BBC 4 also has a great audio-self portrait of Wyatt available, "The Voices of Robert Wyatt".
posted by ryanshepard at 4:14 AM on October 28, 2014

"My favourites were by a Bulgarian folk singer called Kalinka Vulcheva, who had an extraordinary voice ...
She's good. She's no Alla Pugacheva, but she's good.
posted by octobersurprise at 5:39 AM on October 28, 2014

Neat article, and I can't wait to check out the BBC documentary later.

I always loved Wyatt's version of Peter Gabriel's Biko the best. Comparing it with other popular versions, Wyatt's minimal production and emotional restraint allow the song's own melody and message to come to the forefront with a powerful intimacy. Really interesting to see how other singers attempt to inject the emotion with vocal manipulation, but it often has an inverse or distracting effect, and you get more with less.
posted by p3t3 at 5:42 AM on October 28, 2014

Off topic, but I know of at least four people on this site who know how to spell The Grauniad, and I wish for this trend to continue.

Now, I'll actually RTFA and the maybe WAFC.
posted by eriko at 6:03 AM on October 28, 2014

That's a great version by Wyatt of Peter Gabriel's Biko. And the video is just chilling... a summary of how apartheid-South Africa's Banning Orders operated.

Yours, another The Grauniad reader.
posted by Mister Bijou at 6:32 AM on October 28, 2014

Just a minor nitpick - Robert Wyatt played on four albums with Soft Machine ("The Soft Machine," "Volume Two," "Third," and "Fourth"), not two. Nice post, though!
posted by Nat "King" Cole Porter Wagoner at 7:18 AM on October 28, 2014

Wyatt is one of my all-time heroes, and probably my favourite Communist. His eighties Rough Trade stuff - Nothing Can Stop Us, Old Rottenhat and Dondestan along with some E.P.s - show just what someone with ingenuity can do on half a shoestring. And Rock Bottom is one of the greatest albums ever made.

Amber and the Amberines
Born Again Cretin
posted by Grangousier at 7:27 AM on October 28, 2014

Being a fan of the prog rock scene, I had already enjoyed Soft Machine's music, but I have to admit that I wasn't familiar with Robert Wyatt's solo work until a friend/coworker turned me on to his later work.

No one else has a voice quite like him, and his drum work is still tremendous, given the limitations that he works under. Beautiful work.

Fun fact, the practice of "earworming", whistling or singing a portion of a song in order to get said song stuck in other people's heads, is also apparently known as "wyatting". Additionally, I think that wyatting involves playing odd music on jukeboxes in bars in order to disrupt the stereotypical flow of bar jukebox choices, but I may be mis-remembering.
posted by giantrobothead at 7:56 AM on October 28, 2014

Thanks for the link. I'm a big Wyatt fan, as you can probably tell from my username.

I've read plenty about and from Mr. Wyatt, and am a huge admirer of him and what he's done. He's also one of the most expressive drummers I've ever heard.

He's capable of making achingly beautiful music, such Just As You Are and O Caroline.

It's nice that his solo LPs are starting to be reissued as well. And there's a new authorized biography about him just out: Different Every Time. It's a good time to be a Robert Wyatt fan, and I wish him many more years of creatiivty.
posted by the matching mole at 8:33 AM on October 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was talking about Soft Machine last night and listening to Comicopera over the weekend. This post is exactly what I needed!
posted by munchingzombie at 9:00 AM on October 28, 2014

Chiming in as another for whom Robert Wyatt has been a lifelong hero and inspiration.

"English rock is all about beer and guitars. That’s why I don’t really fit in. I’m much more wine and keyboards." Hahaha. I will be reading the hell out of that biography. Thanks for this.
posted by mykescipark at 9:52 AM on October 28, 2014

I just have to say Happy is one of the best songs I've heard in years. CANNOT BE UPSET when that song is playing.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 3:12 PM on October 28, 2014

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