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This weekend I’ll mostly be listening to… Robert Wyatt December 18, 2010

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, The Left, This Weekend I'll Mostly Be Listening to....
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Another very welcome guest This weekend I’ll mostly be listening to…from anarchaeologist…

After the party is / over my friend, / there will be nothing you can / put your finger on. / Just a parasol.
‘CP Jeebies’, Dondestan (1991).

Robert Wyatt’s music has… well, a reputation for being difficult. Google ‘Wyatting’ and you’ll see what I mean. I’d imagine this is a perception related to an understandable aversion to any type of music which throws together ‘jazz’ and ‘rock’ and indeed having forced myself to listen to the several Soft Machine lps for the purposes of this post, I have to admit that some popular prejudices are indeed founded on a fundamental truth. An innovative jazz drummer in his own right, Wyatt was the lynchpin of the Canterbury Scene, a quintessentially English, proto-prog movement which brought us the Soft Machine as well as Caravan, Camel and, err… Gong. The 1973 fall from a third floor window, leaving him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, forced a realisation that he’d never tap a hi-hat or a bass drum pedal again. This has pushed him towards other highly idiosyncratic approaches to making music, most (but not all) of which bears repeated listening. His solo career, though undeniably well within the parameters of the avant garde, has nonetheless produced tunes I come back to again and again.

But this is a leftie blog and Wyatt was/is an avowed communist (as was evident on the cover art of Matching Mole’s 1972 lp Little Red Record). In the absence of convenient information elsewhere, I wondered how easy (or not) it would be to chart the progression of his music (however crassly) over what must have been a challenging period for anyone holding such an ideologically staunch line. Moreover, as Wyatt has just released his 14th lp (not forgetting various compilations and a bagful of eps, his favourite format), it’s perhaps instructive to ask to what extent he has continued to keep the faith.

Wyatt’s communism was incubated by his wife Alfreda Benge, an artist who’d worked in the film industry and especially with the more cutting edge English directors such as Nic Roeg. Having being ejected from the Soft Machine (apparently on account of his vocals), Wyatt now penned his second solo lp off the Don’t Look Now set in Venice. His subsequent accident forced a temporary break from the music scene and he was offered ‘rehabilitation’ in a local factory painting chess sets. Benge however wasn’t having any of it. As a communist she refused to collude with such blatant exploitation for slave wages and in any case, she’d married a musician because they keep civilised hours! As he subsequently noted, Rock Bottom was released on the 21st anniversary of the attack on the Moncada Barracks which had sparked the Cuban revolution. ‘Sea Song’, the first track, is sublime. A recent cover by the Unthanks is also worth checking out.

At least I won’t be shot for singing
I’m a free agent, I can “protest”!
This must be freedom, I must be happy…
‘Born Again Cretin’, Nothing Can Stop Us (1982)

Wyatt first registered on my cultural radar when he appeared on the Old Grey Whistle Test in ’82, singing what’s perhaps his best known recording ‘Shipbuilding’, a song penned by Elvis Costello and Clive Langer specifically for Wyatt’s frail, high-timbered and delicate voice. ‘Shipbuilding’ dealt with the social consequences of the Malvinas War and was a huge indie hit on its Rough Trade release. The Whistle Test performance was remarkable on a number of levels; for me however Wyatt’s appropriation of Che’s beard, beret and military shirt contrasted with his static confinement to his wheelchair, centre stage. This threw up a juxtaposition of strength and weakness adding to the poignancy of the lyrics and the delivery, one perhaps suggestive of a grander narrative of freedoms curtailed. The band also preformed another song, ‘Born Again Cretin’ where again a remarkable vocal performance conjured up images of Mandela in prison with the ‘freedom’ experienced by those of us outside the walls.

Wyatt had famously appeared on Top of the Pops in ’74, covering ‘I’m A Believer’, the old Monkees’ hit, and had fought with the producers to allow him use his wheelchair rather than a comfy chair which might have saved the viewers’ embarrassment at being confronted by a handicapped hippy crooning from the box of a Thursday teatime. Wyatt won out but it took some nifty camera work to avoid shooting his toes, which weren’t tapping.

While Martin J. and Robert M. play with printer’s ink
The workers ’round the world still die for Rio Tinto Zinc
‘The Age of Self’, Old Rottenhat (1986)

Wyatt’s contract with Virgin had forced him into recording several singles and in 1980 he had made his own a cover of a Chic song, ‘At Last I Am Free’ (reprised on his latest lp For the Ghosts Within). Again, the very idea of a paraplegic recording a track by such disco stalwarts was a revolutionary undertaking, one which questioned attitudes to the ‘disabled’ as much as it forced a rethink of my own musical prejudices formed at the high altar of punk rock. By this stage however my own political education was developing as I groped myopically towards a visceral understanding of ‘freedom’, surely a central tenet of Wyatt’s music. I was suitably intrigued to learn that he carried the card of the CPGB, an organisation which in the early ‘80s was in its penultimate stage of fragmentation, torn between the Moscow-aligned traditionalists and the Euro-Communists gathered around Nina Temple and Martin Jacques’ Marxism Today. The progressive wing of the traditionalist tendency (excusing the oxymoron) published Straight Left, and retained a significant influence within the trades unions, the CND, the anti-apartheid movement and what was left of the communist student movement. The group was also influential within the left of the Labour Party, although there were the obvious theoretical differences with the numerically stronger Militant Tendency. The fundamental direction of the Straight Left faction was suggested by its publisher Fergus Nicholson’s nom de plume ‘Harry Steel’, a combination of Harry Pollitt (a former General Secretary who’d been dismissed for his opposition to the Nazi-Soviet pact, to be quickly reinstated after Operation Barbarossa) – and of course Uncle Joe himself. The faction was particularly successful in re-establishing connections with non-reformist CPs in Iraq, Iran and South Africa and was much more focused on the international struggle – and especially the anti-apartheid movement – than the leadership was. It would appear that it was here among the Tankies that Wyatt had, for the time being, hung up his beret.

This however is possibly a convenient simplification on my part. In 1985 Wyatt contextualised himself within the various CP factions as ‘a Morning Star reader’, which then had “the makings of a good, all-round family newspaper: sympathetic to the international labour movement with a pop column, a gardening correspondent and the best tipster in Fleet Street” (interview with Sean O’Hagan, NME, 14 December 1985). Employing the infra-red rays of John Sullivan’s dialectascope, there exists here a contradiction which suggests a less than dogmatic line when it comes to sectional identities. Such leftie sectarianism is however inconsequential and his 1987 recording of Charlie Haden’s modern jazz standard ‘Chairman Mao’ is not necessarily indicative of Wyatt’s support for the Cultural Revolution. Wyatt has also spoken of a more personal politicisation from before this time, in particular the fight against apartheid and the influence of Joe Slovo, ‘a giant among men really, a successful communist who saw it through’. In a statement which will annoy those of us who pedantically adhere to leftie terminology, he told the New Statesman back in ’97 that if he were a stick of Blackpool rock, he’ d have ‘Marxist-Leninist’ right through the middle. Wyatt was of course a contemporary of Cornelius Cardew, a fellow traveller in a musical sense, who passes the more stringent test for Marxist-Leninism.

Wyatt has said he was galvanised to join the Party after the death of South African trumpeter Mongezi Feza, who had worked on Rock Bottom and its follow-up Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard, a death Wyatt puts down to neglect engendered by racism. “What I liked about the Communist party,” he told the Guardian (22 September 2003), “was that it was internationalist and opposed to the totalitarian global empire in which we’re enveloped. It was the only party to see things on that scale.” But as he joined, a new generation were about to embark on what Wyatt calls “a practice run for new Labour. So I was in the ludicrous position of joining it as a new member and immediately becoming an anachronism.”

Wyatt’s two most ‘political’ lps, if one can be so reductive, are the 1982 compilation Nothing Can Stop Us and Old Rottenhat (1985). The former mostly comprises covers, including ‘Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’’, originally sung in the ‘40s by the Golden Gate Quartet, an acapella group which presumably had modified its repertoire by the time the House of Un-American Activities began to focus on the international communist conspiracy. Wyatt also covered Lewis Allen’s ‘Strange Fruit’, the Billie Holiday standard and the ‘Red Flag’, a song presumably known to most of us at the CLR. The last two tracks aren’t preformed by Wyatt at all: ‘Trade Union’ by the London-Bengali group Dishari is followed by Peter Blackman’s reading of his own poem ‘Stalingrad’, which he saw as part of the ‘same struggle of people everywhere, in Vietnam, in Africa, in the face of Regan’s threatened holocaust’. Wyatt later said of the collection “each song was chosen on quite a consistent basis, all part of a conscious attempt to make un-misuable music: music that couldn’t be appropriated by the Right… I was pushed into this by an alarming occurrence: I was fiddling around on the short wave radio when I heard one of my old songs being played on one of those Western propaganda programmes – The Voice Of America or Radio Free Europe. Blow me, I thought, I don’t want my music used in this way. So, I consciously set out to make records where the ambiguity was removed, records that would have to be rejected by anyone promoting Western culture. Now I make sure I always put a spanner in the works’ (NME, 14 December 1985).

Everyone needs to feel at home / nobody wind who fights alone
‘Amber and the Amberines’, Work in Progress (1984)

An ep, Work in Progress, released in 1984 covered Peter Gabriel’s paean to Steve Biko (indeed a vastly superior version, another song Wyatt makes his own) along with a Wyatt/Hugh Hopper composition ‘Amber and the Amberines’. Wyatt, Benge, her elderly mother and their pregnant dog were the first protestors to gather outside the American embassy after the US invasion of Grenada on 25 October 1983. A few weeks previously US marines had conducted a military exercise code-named Amber and the Amberines, an obvious rehearsal for what was to come. Wyatt continued to support liberation struggles in Latin America and even became proficient in Spanish, although as he said himself this compensated somewhat for his ‘Englishness’, a state of being that has continuously exercised the singer over the years. Where events further afield influenced his recordings, the miners’ strike closer to home gave some focus to his increasingly rare live performances although his signing-up to the 1985 Red Wedge initiative raised a few eyebrows among the harder left.

Prior to the release of Old Rottenhat that year, Wyatt’s music had always been a collaborative effort and where old stalwarts of the prog scene (and the odd member of Pink Floyd) had helped out on Rock Bottom and his various single releases in the ‘70s, he returned the favour, working with Brian Eno among others, most notably on Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974 – surely this has to be the first British New Wave lp?) and on Music For Airports (1978). His fruitful relationship with Rough Trade contrasted with the treatment he received from hippy capitalist Richard Branson’s Virgin Records, which had released most of his ‘70s output. Rough Trade was a more comfortable home for his music and his politics and Wyatt’s presence there opened his music to another generation. Wyatt was now also appearing on releases by The Raincoats (Oddyshape 1981), Ben Watt (Summer into Winter ep 1981) and Scritti Politti (Songs to Remember 1982), the latter both former members of the youth wing of the CP. He also sang with Tracy Thorn on the Working Week single ‘Venceremos’ and contributed to the SWAPO Singers ‘Wind of Change’ single in ’85. More recently, he’s cropped up on Ultramine’s United Kingdoms [see here – WBS] to produce ’the most unlikely but exhilarating fusion of nineties’ drum patterns with forgotten Victorian protest songs’.

We get so out of touch / words take the place of meaning
‘Gharbzadegi’, Old Rottenhat (1986)

Old Rottenhat was a completely solo effort – a first for Wyatt – and was dedicated to Michael Bettany, the MI5 operative convicted in 1984 for handing secret material over to the Soviets. Musically jazz influences predominate although the free jazz of Ornette Coleman so evident on his earlier works was supplanted by a slower, more considered aesthetic. Think keyboards, muted horn, exquisite percussion and Wyatt’s ever-distinctive voice. Lyrically, it’s among the most accessible of any of his recordings, the album pinned around ‘The Age of Self’ which makes an observation as true today as it was 25 years ago (And it seems to me if we forget / Our roots and where we stand / The movement will disintegrate / Like castles built on sand). Underlying the songs is an examination of class politics (You say you’re self-sufficient / (but you don’t dig your own coal) on ‘Alliance’), the relationship between contemporary colonialism and the arms industry. Moreover, running through the album is an idea of displacement, whether that of the stateless refugee or Wyatt’s own discomfiture as a middle class communist working in that most capitalist and exploitative of industries. Surprisingly commercial, it got the thumbs down from the critics with Robert Christgau’s review particularly stinging: “Don’t deploy a slur like ‘aryan’ anachronistically or attribute a phrase of Harold Rosenberg’s to Noam Chomsky. Don’t insult the genocide in East Timor with minimalist obscurantism. Don’t preach to the converted until you’ve made more converts”. Not that Wyatt would’ve given a shit.

I realised my fists were clenched / I stretched my fingers to relax
‘Heaps of Sheeps’, Shleep (1997)

The collapse of state socialism in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union is perhaps tackled tangentially on Dondestan (1991), an album which saw Wyatt collaborate with old friends Hugh Hopper and Phil Manzanera, with half of the lyrics written by Benge, who’s done the artwork for all of his releases. Musically ‘difficult’, it was nonetheless critically acclaimed (as has all of his subsequent work), the title a reference to those displaced or dispossessed by global capitalism. For our purposes the opening track ‘CP Jeebies’ perhaps articulates a cynicism towards the leftie sectarianism we’re all too familiar with:

Picture the Scene.
“Hello, how are you?”
“Well I’m a green and yellow
Pinky blue.”
Dead alternative.
“Oh then, please step right in
to our nursery.
Just pick a group
that you can relate to,
now the grown-ups have gone.”

Dondestan was followed by a long silence as Wyatt struggled with depression (‘hibernat[ing] in winter of our discotheque’), eventually releasing Shleep in ’97, again a collaborative effort with among others, Paul Weller, Eno and Manzanera. Cuckooland (2003) was followed by Comicopera (2007), which Wyatt pronounced ‘Commie Copera’, both more in the jazzy vein with lyrical meditations on the Gulf War, the conflict in Iraq and Palestine and the persecution of the Roma and other minorities. Looser Latin and African influences began to soak in to the music; however on renewed listening to his back catalogue, they were always there. Here Wyatt covers a song ‘Del Mondo’ by Italian post-punks CCCP, whose moniker unambiguously suggests their political line with little in the way of post-modern irony. Which, I suppose, brings us back to the question I posed in the second paragraph above.

If Wyatt’s politics have been identified with his adherence to unreconstructed Stalinism of the ’80, his lyrical sensibilities have in recent years taken on a more humanist line, one however that’s staunchly anti-war and one which questions his own country’s complicity in supporting American foreign policy. His Stalinist past was broached in a recent interview with a Polish website where he accepted his Benge in-laws displeasure with his politics. His response (excusing my translation) was unapologetic: “I am surprised that anyone in Eastern Europe would want to listen to my music, in fact anyone who lived on the other side of the Iron Curtain should immediately throw my records into the bin! I’ve never apologised about supporting the Party. Why? Because here in the islands, we observed the colonization process in the new countries of the former British Empire. The reasons [for supporting the Party] were always there. This could be the struggle against apartheid, or the tyranny of Augusto Pinochet in Chile. The British Communist Party was the only one who protested against this, and as far as I know, no one was ever killed or persecuted [by the CPGB]. The CP fought against racism brought on by this rising neo-colonialism. Communism was the only alternative to American imperialism… What drove us to despair was that people in the East, so very thirsty for freedom, were always ready to accept the intervention of the United States, which after all had behaved so badly in Indonesia, the Philippines and in South America. Anyway, now Polish soldiers are being killed in Iraq”.

Hmmm… In any event, Wyatt’s identification with those outside the hegemonic power structures continues unabated as does his insistence in making music his own way, irrespective of commercial considerations. If you’ve got a Santy in your life, ask him/her for the 5 cd box set eps by Robert Wyatt. Otherwise get Nothing Can Stop Us or Old Rottenhat (all recently re-released on Domino). For the Ghosts Within came out in the autumn and will appeal more to the jazz fan in you.

Sea Song

Shipbuilding

Born Again Cretin

At Last I Am Free

Venceremos (Working Week)

Amber and the Amberines

Biko

The Age of Self

Alliance

Gharbzadegi

CP Jeebies

Heaps of Sheeps

Comments»

1. sonofstan - December 18, 2010

Great stuff.

Such a great singer – maybe precisely because he never does any of the ‘you are now listening to a great singer’ tricks. That version of ‘At Last I am Free’ is exemplary of the sort or version that adds something great to an already great song by taking it somewhere entirely different.

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2. WorldbyStorm - December 18, 2010

That’s very true. There’s a lot less ego about him. He’s a fascinating person quite apart from his music.

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3. Paul Wilson - December 18, 2010

That was a very informative post great stuff.

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4. Paul Wilson - December 18, 2010

BTW I always thought he actually wrote either the lyrics or music to Shipbuilding.

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5. Paul Wilson - December 18, 2010

Just heard that Captain Beefheart, Don Van Vliet has died.

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6. Phil - December 18, 2010

That version of “Gharbzadegi” is stunning. I love the album version partly because the arrangement is so forbiddingly sparse (it’s not a million miles away from “Sea Song” in that way). It’s great to hear the same song letting its hair down.

I’m bemused by this “Wyatting” thing; Dondestan, the album that’s supposedly the origin of it, is one of his more poppy & straightforward records. If it had been the End of an Ear I could have understood.

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WorldbyStorm - December 19, 2010

Great phrase though… Funny thing is looking at the list of collaborations it’s so clear how much he brings to songs.

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7. Crocodile - December 19, 2010


Here’s a link to a great Wyatt portrait that hangs over my computer. I’m sure Ivor (many more interesting photos on his site) would sell you one, anarchaeologist (or anyone else).

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8. WorldbyStorm - December 19, 2010

I’ve said it before you have a wide taste in music.

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9. Chet Carter - December 20, 2010

Excellent post, I only have the ‘Rock Bottom’ album and the ‘I’m a Believer’ and ‘Shipbuilding’ singles. This will encourage me to check out more of his stuff. I always loved his quote that he would have preferred to play music like Geno Washington and the Ram Jam band but he wasn’t good enough hence the sound of Soft Machine.

Good to see Working Week get a mention. I shared a house for a while with Simon Booth their mainman when I first moved to London in the early nineties.

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