Mojo DECEMBER 2008 - by Mike Barnes


Art-rock's grumpy comedian.

By his own admission, Robert Wyatt's career has been a summation of his influences, from the outer reaches of jazz, to Ray Charles, Buddy Holly, and music from across the globe. "The underlying ideology of the kind of rock I was involved in was that we started out simple and we got dead clever. Since then I've been trying to get really simple."

As a child, Wyatt was encouraged to explore literature and music by his left-leaning, culturally enlightened parents. As a young drummer and singer he played in Canterbury band The Wilde Flowers and established himself in Soft Machine from 1966 until 1971. When he fell while climbing out of a window at a party in 1973 and became paralysed from the waist down, it spelt the end for the new line-up of his band Matching Mole, and his career as a kit drummer.

But luckily he was also a talented vocalist, keyboard player and songwriter, which he demonstrated on his first post-accident solo album, Rock Bottom, in 1974. Since then, his output has been a source of delight and fascination; his left-wing politics have never been far from the surface, but his consternation at human behaviour has been balanced by a peculiar joie de vivre, and since the '90s an increasing number of his lyrics have been written by his partner - and album sleeve designer - Alfreda Benge. His choice of musical collaborators has included Ivor Cutler, Paul Weller, Annie Whitehead and Hugh Hopper, and he has additionally guested with such artists as ben Watt, Ultramarine and, most recently, French popster Bertrand Burgulat.

With his back catalogue reissued this month by the Domino label, it's time again to listen to Wyatt's lisping, pure-toned vocal style, memorably described by Ryuichi Sakamoto as the "saddest voice in the world".

10 ROBERT WYATT Old Rottenhat
Horrified to hear that his music had been played on Radio Free Europe, Wyatt recorded songs that would be banned by all such right-wing media. His lyrical entrenchment was also reflected in his most musically and politically concentrated venture, a set of solo songs comprising voice, keyboards and percussion. Wyatt's assertion that his music is essentially funny might raise eyebrows when faced with songs critiquing liberal hypocrites and the US and Australian roles in supporting Indonesia's military presence in East Timor. But the luminosity of his melodies remains.

9 ROBERT WYATT His Greatest Misses
With seventeen tracks covering nearly thirty years from Rock Bottom to Cuckooland, His Greatest Misses is currently the newcomer's best point of entry. It's endorsed, though not compiled, by the man himself, but like a number of previous Wyatt compilations, it's heading for deletion - Going Back a Bit and Flotsam And Jetsam are now pricey and near unobtainable, a great shame as they contain a number of Wyatt's singles and collaborations, which often slip under the radar. Also available, the EPs box set is a curious mixture of singles, LP tracks and remixes.

8 ROBERT WYATT Comicopera
Wyatt's most conceptually bizarre album, Comicopera moves through a set of love songs into a series of slice-of-life tableaux that start out jocular and end up with the hatred felt by a victim of the bombing in the Iraq war. It ends up with a batch of brooding songs sung in Italian and Spanish as Wyatt was avoiding his native language in protest against Anglo-US warfare. So, no amusing denouement, then, but nevertheless it's one of his most accessible albums, for the most part full of melody and space. Just As You Are, a duet with Monica Vasconcelos, is disarmingly tender.

7 ROBERT WYATT Cuckooland
Cuckooland was created amid the rumblings of the Iraq war, which informs Alfreda Benge's lyrics to the poignant Lullaby For Hamza, about an Iraqi child traumatised by bombing during the 1990/91 Gulf War. A lengthy, varied collection - with a break of thirty seconds in the middle to give the listener breathing space - Cuckooland finds Wyatt in fine voice, despite self-deprecating claims that it was reduced to a "wino's mutter". His first duets on his own albums, with Karen Mantler, yield the brooding Beware and a bittersweet take on Antonio Carlos Jobim's Insensatez.

6 MATCHING MOLE Matching Mole
After being ousted from Soft Machine in 1971, Wyatt formed Matching Mole with guitarist Phil Miller, bassist Bill McCormick and former Caravanner David Sinclair on keyboards, although the group's debut was ostensibly a Wyatt solo album. Instant Pussy sees the fist outing of his trademark wordless scat singing, and the bittersweet O Caroline finds him wondering aloud about the efficacy of addressing her in song. Signed Curtain goes even further with its famous meta-lyric ("This is the first verse / this is the chorus"). The full group numbers are an idiosyncratic mix of jazz and rock.

5 ROBERT WYATT Nothing Can Stop Us
Recently, Wyatt has opined that musicians shouldn't be expected to be political - instead, politicians should stop acting like rock stars. But as a communist activist in Thatcher's '80s, he was galvanised into recording a series of singles for Rough Trade, including Elvis Costello's Shipbuilding, Chilean socialist folk singer Violet Parra's Arauco, Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit and Stalin Wasn't Stallin', the wartime gospel paean to America's short-lived ally. The album, with its poignant reading of The Red Flag, proved political music need not be clichéd.

4 THE SOFT MACHINE Vols. 1 & 2
Given his later solo career, it's fairly easy to overlook Wyatt's standing as one of the most exciting British drummers of his generation. But on the psychedelic jazz-pop of The Soft Machine's first two LPs, his swinging, hyperactive style placed him somewhere between Elvin jones and Keith Moon. On Vol. 1 his vocals carry some naïve but charming inflections dating back to the soul covers he sang with Wilde Flowers. The more experimental Vol. 2 finds him adopting his matey, vernacular style on Pataphysical Introduction and Dedicated To You But You Weren't Listening.

3 ROBERT WYATT Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard
Darker than Rock Bottom, Ruth is hallmarked by brooding, melancholy songs and instrumentals. On Soup Song the hapless protagonist hope a "tummy ache will bring you to your knees" as Gary Windo spits out an acidic tenor solo. The violent, symbiotic relationship between the characters in Team Spirit reads like Samuel Beckett, while Brian Eno's treatments and George Khan's wig-lifting sax solo create an energised, blasted soundscape. Respite comes with trumpeter Mongrezi Feza's joyous instrumental, Sonia, and the hypnotic, incantatory Solar Flares.

Wyatt's first for six years, Shleep was a revelation, a warm-blooded collection of songs, and lighter in mood than much of his '80s work. There was more of a pop sensibility on show, especially on Heeps Of Sheeps, written with Alfreda Benge and Brian Eno, and an unusually upbeat song about insomnia. The Duchess is a deliciously droll portrait of Benge featuring improvising saxophonist Evan Parker, and Blues In Bob Minor is a nod of sorts to Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues. Wyatt had rediscovered the cornet, which he plays in animated fashion on September The Ninth.

1 ROBERT WYATT Rock Bottom
An album of great originality, freewheeling musical invention and broad emotional range - albeit fed through Wyatt's allusive lyrical lexicon - and with some lovely tunes, Rock Bottom is a desert island disc for the Wyatt aficionado and deserves to be heard by everyone. Although inextricably linked to, and recorded after, Wyatt's accident, all the songs were composed beforehand. Produced by Pink Floyd's Nick Mason, it's a luxuriant world of childlike innocence - going back even further on the pre-speech syllables of Alifib - evoking a peculiar mix of joy and unease. Mike Oldfield, bass guitarist Richard Sinclair and drummer Laurie Allen all make telling contributions.

Avoid THESE!
Robert Wyatt's debut 1970 solo album, the rambling, sketchy instrumental collection, The End Of An Ear, is definitely the odd one out in his back catalogue. There are also a huge number of Wyatt-era Soft Machine live sets, radio sessions and demo albums available on CD, but as the quality of these varies from the brilliant to the decidedly very ropey, all but the most devoted fans are advised to seek guidance here. The series entitled Canterburied Sounds showcases rehearsal material of a widely varying sonic and musical quality dating back to the era of The Wilde Flowers and is consequently for religiously devoted fans only.