We're not too low the cloth to weave But too low the cloth to wear
January 6, 2020 11:19 AM   Subscribe

On their 1993 album Kingdom, techno-hippies Ultramarine recruited Robert Wyatt to sing two songs from a radical and lost English past.

Happy Land, lyrics taken from a parody of a patriotic Victorian song.

Kingdom, based on The Song of the Lower Classes by Ernest Jones (c 1848).
posted by thatwhichfalls (19 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
An underknown classic.
posted by sonascope at 11:22 AM on January 6 [1 favorite]


Richard King's 2019 book The Lark Ascending: The Music of the British Landscape contains a chapter on Ultramarine and this collaboration.
posted by ryanshepard at 12:03 PM on January 6 [2 favorites]


My feeling is that "Kingdom" works better. It also has a wonderfully 1993 video. I could hardly ask for a video that more vividly recalls the general tenor of that whole left/hippie/crustypunk/pagan thing.

Good old Robert Wyatt.

Okay, so lately as I realize that many of the people I admired as a young person are getting a bit, you know, old, or a bit, you know, dead, I find it very depressing that they've spent a lot of time trying to warn people and improve things and they're getting older and it's unlikely that things will get better before they die. It seems extremely unfair. (Like, I can hold out a slim hope that if I hang on for another thirty years I'll see some kind of revolutionary change - at least enough hope to be going on with - but Robert Wyatt is 74 and Alasdair Gray is dead.)

Speaking of old music, it makes me think of the Art Bears' Song of the Martyrs, which has always been a song that fills me with anxiety.

All our lives, all of us
Whose bones you have
Climbed on
– were all our lives wasted?
– were we martyred to
Finish with all forms
Of slavery forever – only
To witness our offspring
Complacent and bought off
With scraps – to see
Workmen and women
Divided?

O as we look about us
Things seem worse than ever
posted by Frowner at 12:09 PM on January 6 [7 favorites]


I half recall the duo talking about Chumbawamba’s ’English rebel songs’ record as an inspiration at the time, in the nme or melody maker probably.
posted by tomp at 2:04 PM on January 6 [1 favorite]


Wyatt is still alive (a few days ago!) and still collaborating in his own way. One of the greats, bless him always.

(Related-ish: I can't recommend enough this beautiful new interpretation of Wyatt's classic album, Rock Bottom, by the North Sea Radio Orchestra with John Greaves and Annie Barbazza.)
posted by mykescipark at 2:14 PM on January 6 [2 favorites]


that whole left/hippie/crustypunk/pagan thing

Absolutely. In a similar vein tracks like "Phorever People" by The Shamen. Brings back memories. Many companions down that path. Most of them got lost, or gave up, or sold out... Interests shift, allegiances fade, energy dissipates. One moment you're among friends, the next you're surrounded by hollowed out people, then you yourself are a hollowed out person. Things just happen. This, in part, I think, this is what it means to grow older. To recognize things have a way of happening -- that there are certain ways things can go. Still it feels like something exceptional fell by the wayside. Is it a kind of reversal to the mean?

Saving grace is that all that is true for those who oppose you as well.

Phorever people you will always be
A step forward in life for positivity
So keep on believing, and keep on going
Keep on trying and keep on sowing

posted by dmh at 6:27 PM on January 6 [1 favorite]


Kingdom's never really left my personal playlist. Ultramarine in general continue to sound good in various backgrounds -- never pushing too hard for attention, always keeping the groove.
posted by philip-random at 8:11 PM on January 6


Every Man And Woman Is A Star was one of those albums I heard at a particularly formative time, and it remains a stone-cold classic. This one only suffered, for me personally, from simply not being that record. I can say nothing else against it.
posted by mykescipark at 1:07 AM on January 7 [1 favorite]


I still listen to this album a lot - and never get tired of Robert Wyatt's voice. His Chic cover is a bop too.
posted by bifter at 2:45 AM on January 7


For me I don't totally understand why I am so sold on Robert Wyatt's voice. The first thing I ever heard was his cover of "Shipbuilding", and I feel like (bear in mind I'm not good at music and may not be a good hearer or describer) his voice sounds so strained and thin compared to Elvis Costello's - and yet it absolutely sends me. When I hear "Shipbuilding" in my head, I always hear the Wyatt version now.

~~
Okay, smarter than me music people, though: I am listening to Every Man And Woman Is A Star, and isn't Pansy very like Belbury Poly's Summer Round? "Summer Round" is cooler and more tech-y sixties-y but the middle of "Pansy" sounds so like it.
posted by Frowner at 5:34 AM on January 7


The Wyatt version actually came out before Costello's.
I only mention that because I remember hearing it when Peel played it for the first time, a few months after the Falklands war ended. That haunted voice (which Ryuichi Sakamoto once called the saddest sound in the world) singing those lyrics over a spare backing. He sounded like a tired ghost.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 6:13 AM on January 7 [1 favorite]



The Wyatt version actually came out before Costello's.


Really! Wow, I had no idea. I had heard Costello's so often before I heard the Wyatt.

I think I like his voice because it sounds a bit more like talking than singing, at least to me. This makes it feel very personal, like he is speaking to you individually.
posted by Frowner at 6:20 AM on January 7


My favorite Wyatt deep cut is the EP he did with a teenaged Ben Watt (later of Everything But the Girl) who turned up at his house one day with a guitar. Some very fragile songs on there.
Walter and John
posted by thatwhichfalls at 6:33 AM on January 7 [1 favorite]


Clive Langer had written a song for Robert Wyatt but neither liked the lyrics, so Elvis Costello offered his and a near-perfect song was born. I like Elvis' own version of Shipbuilding, but Robert's is the original single. I hadn't heard the Ultramarine tracks, but Robert Wyatt improves everything he touches, so thanks for sharing. Those videos remind me so much of that era.
posted by YoungStencil at 1:25 PM on January 7


If we're playing the Wyatt Game, my fave record of his is Old Rottenhat, and specifically "Gharbzadegi." For a different take, I also recommend this lovely live version from the Robert Wyatt BBC documentary.
posted by mykescipark at 1:44 PM on January 7


Wyatt was one of those people I was introduced to from two directions at once - on the one hand the series of Rough Trade singles that became Nothing Can Stop Us (I think it's an interesting comment on the way left-wing thinking has changed Robert singing a coupling of Strange Fruit with Chic's At Last I Am Free seemed like a perfectly sensible way to celebrate the African-American struggle in 1980, though perhaps less so today). As it was a modular album, a re-released Nothing Can Stop Us easily accommodated Shipbuilding when it turned up a couple of years later; On the other hand a review in Sounds of a pseudo-double-album reissue of Rock Bottom and Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard that described Rock Bottom as one of the greatest albums ever made, so I had to buy it. That was how we did things in the days before the internet. I tend to agree with the reviewer.

The resolutely minimalist stuff of the 80s is constantly inspiring and fascinating - in fact, I think I might go and listen to some this afternoon. One I'd like to point out is Amber and the Amberines (provoked by the US invasion of Grenada), which has one of the most astonishing melodies I think I've ever heard (by Hugh Hopper, a genius of melody), though I'm not sure the lyrics have dated that well.

I used to go to the South Bank Centre's Meltdown Festival concert series a lot, and Wyatt's 2001 Meltdown is probably my favourite - I got to see David Gilmour, Max Roach, Shipp & Parker, Elvis Costello, Ivor Cutler, Mark Thomas and the Soupsongs show (Annie Whitehead's band performing Robert's songs - Robert and Alfie saw off the show at the very end singing You're Wondering Now in the Royal Box.

I'm a bit of a fan.

Ultramarine's 2019 album Signals Into Space featured Anna Domino, another voice of my 80s. I seem to have lived a completely different 80s from most people, musically speaking. Anyway, I've been going through her old albums and she's fantastic too.
posted by Grangousier at 6:27 AM on January 8 [2 favorites]


The resolutely minimalist stuff of the 80s is constantly inspiring and fascinating - in fact, I think I might go and listen to some this afternoon. One I'd like to point out is Amber and the Amberines yt (provoked by the US invasion of Grenada), which has one of the most astonishing melodies I think I've ever heard (by Hugh Hopper, a genius of melody), though I'm not sure the lyrics have dated that well.

Well, the lyrics aren't very good, for one thing. I mean, they're not good in an interesting way, but they really illustrate what separates song from prose. Contrast them with other art songs of more or less that period, like the Art Bears' The World As It Is Today or News From Babel and you can clearly see the difference between expressing some kind of complex political idea in song and just...singing your prose.

Or consider Chumbawamba's Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records, which is musically very different but still includes an "interlude" in praise of the Sandinistas which is heartfelt (and I pretty much have it by heart since this was one of my favorite albums in about 1994) and amazingly only three minutes long and..."The PEople are LEARning to TAKE back THERE-AIR lives, as the COUNtry will CHANGE, SANdinISta surVIVES", augh.

It seems like there's a whole bunch of mid-eighties sort of drone-y, "the revolution will require a lot of boring work so we should also write very prosaic lyrics" stuff from the UK, often growing out of international solidarity movements. I wish I could recall what I was listening to, but I was sort of clicking around on the tubes listening to, I think some old The Granite Shore songs, and there was all this stuff - really musically interesting but the lyrics were like someone was reading from an SWP pamphlet. (And I feel like the later Raincoats stuff is a bit this way, but there it seems to be more about landscape and the pastoral.)

This stuff seems so weird to me. Like, on the one hand obviously people are experimenting with what song lyrics can do, on the other it seems like such a falling off from the things it seems to draw from, Henry Cow, the Red Krayola, etc. If you want rambling on-and-on Marxist lyrics, The Red Krayola is your band every time.
posted by Frowner at 6:50 AM on January 8 [2 favorites]


Ultramarine's 2019 album Signals Into Space featured Anna Domino, another voice of my 80s. I seem to have lived a completely different 80s from most people, musically speaking. Anyway, I've been going through her old albums and she's fantastic too.

Oh, yes yes yes. I was at a party here in Los Angeles a couple years ago, and the host – who knows I am a huge fan of hers – approached with a sly grin and led me into the next room, where she was sitting. He very much enjoyed watching me stammer my way through this introduction. I suggested we work together on something musically but I just never came up with a good enough idea. Anyway, my mind was blown when that album came out last year.
posted by mykescipark at 9:05 AM on January 8


If you want rambling on-and-on Marxist lyrics

I think the problem is that I'm not sure that I do, it's just a side-effect of records I like. I want tunes, or grooves or something. But if I listen to early 80s Wyatt, or Gang of Four, the furious Marxist agitprop kind of comes with the territory. The lyrics on Wyatt's records definitely improved once Alfie started writing them. For example, the one about the nuns on the beach.

It's very odd looking back at that time - the Left in the 80s is where I grew up, and I suspect my difficult relationship with left-wing politics stems from that. By the same token, the sine qua non of feminism, at least in my corner of the world, was the RadFems, and internalising that stuff certainly gave me a complicated position on gender.

Good tunes, though. That's the important thing.
posted by Grangousier at 9:31 AM on January 8 [1 favorite]


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