INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
New Statesman SEPTEMBER 26, 1997 - by Jonathan Coe
"IF I WERE A BLACKPOOL ROCK, I'D HAVE MARXIST-LENINIST RIGHT THROUGH THE MIDDLE"
Robert Wyatt, radical singer and reclusive star, gives a rare interview.
A thin wash of electric organ, voicing dense, minor chords. A shuffling backbeat on the drumkit, keeping perfect time but somehow sounding hesitant, tentative. An extraordinary lyric, part political lament, part nonsense poem ("hibernate in winter of our discotheque"). And over it all an impossibly frail but utterly compelling voice, somewhere between a high-pitched keen and a guttural rap - a voice that the Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto once called "the saddest voice in the world", but which its owner likes to describe, more prosaically, as "Jimmy Somerville on Valium". This, for the benefit of new listeners, is the unmistakable soundworld of Robert Wyatt.
The song in question is called Blues In Bob Minor and comes from a new album - his first in six years - called Shleep. For those of us who have been carrying Wyatt's music in our heads since the 1970s, re-entering that soundworld is one of the sheerest pleasures life has to offer: it provides a bedrock of continuity, among other things, that helps to make sense of two decades of bewildering political and musical change.
By the most superficial standards Wyatt might look like a marginal figure; his sales figures in this country have never been big. But at the same time it's astonishing to realise how often he has quietly risen to the occasion, what a diligent musical witness he has been to the key events in our recent history: berating Falklands jingoism with his version of Elvis Costello's Shipbuilding; anticipating the mood of the new South Africa with the Swapo Singers and The Winds Of Change; and, more recently, radicalising the dance scene by cropping up on Ultramine's wonderful album United Kingdoms to produce the most unlikely but exhilarating fusion of '90s drum patterns with forgotten Victorian protest songs.
Shleep must rank as Wyatt's most diverse, accessible and accomplished album since the far-off days when he recorded for Virgin Records under the benign stewardship of a budding entrepreneur called Richard Branson. Its predecessor, Dondestan, was a bleak and beautiful record which found Wyatt singing and playing entirely alone, with minimalist backing tracks of keyboards and drums. But while the new songs are still about landscapes, states of mind and political processes, and once again take their lyrical view from the supple, expressive poems of Wyatt's wife, Alfreda Benge, there's now an intriguing roll-call of guest musicians: figures from the more experimental end of the rock spectrum, such as Brian Eno and Phil Manzanera, the jazzers Evan Parker and Annie Whitehead, the singer/percussionist Gary Adzukx and - perhaps the starriest contributor of all - Paul Weller, whose guitar work instils a fierceness and dynamism which is a new ingredient in Wyatt's music. How did that particular marriage come about, I wondered?
"Paul happened to be recording at the same studio," says Wyatt, "and I just left him a little scruffy note saying, 'How about it?'"
He senses that Weller felt a little nervous at first about exposing himself in this fragile musical environment, as have Wyatt's other collaborators in the past. "I suppose one problem is that I tend to avoid a great wall of sound and so people tread more warily, somehow, when they step into my music. Perhaps that's why they find it scary. But then I've never asked them, so I've no idea. It might be the beard."
Wyatt's beard is indeed a prodigious growth: thick, grey, multidirectional and at least a foot long, it makes his resemblance to an Old Testament prophet so striking that to sit for long in his presence would be a fearsome experience if his manner weren't so relaxed and genial.
The surroundings also help: we are in the cloistered tranquillity of his back garden in Louth, Lincolnshire, where he and Alfie relocated in the late 1980s, propelled from the south of England by property prices and a growing sense of alienation. From the outside it's an unimposing terraced house, but inside it opens up, Tardis-like, to accommodate miles of shelving for tapes, books and records, along with Wyatt's sunlit music room and an upstairs studio for Alfie's painting. There are occasional ramps for the wheelchair to which Wyatt, now paraplegic, has been confined since his fall from a fourth-floor window in 1973.
I'm intrigued by this idea of pop musicians sending each other scruffy little notes. Such shyness seems of a piece with the diffident musical environment in which Wyatt's career began, when he first played drums with his Canterbury schoolfriends in a band called The Wilde Flowers, back in the mid-1960s. With a certain icy, hard-won detachment, he refers to his persona from those days as "the drummer biped".
"It was a great surprise, this whole business of singing: not really what I intended at all. Most of the musicians I knew absolutely refused to sing: they used to just sort of stand there in groups and if there was anybody listening we'd' be blushing with shame and shyness, fumbling at our various stringed instruments and so on. But I had the secret ingredient that my more prudish friends never took on, which was drink - I found that if you drank you lost all fear. So I did that and it seemed to do the trick."
Does it still do the trick? Wyatt chuckles. "Oh yes. As the late Keith Moon used to say: I still like a spot of sherry before dinner."
So there was no desire to be a rock'n'roll hero, then? "No it was just what you did at that time: at the end of National Service they suddenly invented beat groups, as far as I can work out, and we all had to troop along and trundle away in desultory fashion. In fact my main singing influences were Peter Pears, Doris Day singing Once I Had A Secret Love, and Danny Kaye singing almost anything. I just preceded rock'n'roll, really, by a couple of years. I never had this desire - which I think is a bit onanistic - to see my own generation speak back to me. I never wanted other boys shouting at me: I couldn't stand it! I didn't mind Brenda Lee shouting at me, though."
Over the next few years The Wilde Flowers indirectly spawned a number of bands (Soft Machine, Caravan, Matching Mole, Hatfield & The North) whose polite but adventurous music stands up better than most from that dismal era.
For a while Wyatt was at the centre of his movement but in the mid 1970s there came a sea change. The accident cut short Wyatt's drumming career; the death of a close friend, the South African trumpeter Mongezi Feza, concentrated his mind on the horrors of apartheid; his blossoming relationship with Alfie drew him into anew and more highly politicised circle. After recording an intensely personal solo album, Rock Bottom, his political and musical thinking became notably more wide-ranging.
"My parents were what would now be called new Labour, but with Alfie I began to meet these impressively psychotic young Trots who could out-rampage any rock musician. I hadn't ever really come out of my musical dreamworld before then. Records I'd enjoyed in the late 1950s and early 1960s had included Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite and Charlie Mingus's anti-racist songs, and so I knew whose side I was on if it came to it. But I hadn't realised it had come to it. I joined the Communist Party simply because it seemed the only really internationalist one, in the sense that it wasn't just about the English identity crisis, and all that garbage."
"Totalitarian Englishness", in fact, is one of Wyatt's pet hates. On his 1982 album Nothing Can Stop Us he recorded versions of The Red Flag, the Cuban anthem Caimanera and the American a cappella number Stalin Wasn't Stallin'. Shleep still has strong African and Latin American influences.
"I've never liked being told you must be more interested in England than in Cuba, say, just because you're English. Most of the people I knew who were in opposition were traumatised by the previous Blair - Eric - who told everybody that the pro-Soviet left were just dysfunctional patriots. I think there is such an emotion as patriotism but to displace it demographically like that is quite refreshing, and sort of... surrealist. I was into avantgarde art long before I got into this politics lark and so it always seemed rather a good idea to be a patriotic Cuban sitting in Twickenham. I didn't see the problem at all.
"If I'm to have a cultural identity, then in a free society I'd like it to be one over which I have conscious control. It would be hovering somewhere between pre-war Polish writers such as Bruno Schulz, Russian Jews such as George Gershwin, Marc Chagall and Ronnie Scott, and black Americans such as Lester Young and Miles Davis, thank you very much, and nothing to do with Surrey or hunting or public schools or football or any of the things I'm told are in my blood."
Nowadays Wyatt belongs to no political party and is as jubilant as anyone about new Labour's success, but he maintains that "if I were a bit of Blackpool rock I would have Marxist-Leninist right the way through the middle, in pink."
At which point I ask the obvious question: is making music an effective form of political intervention? Can music ever bring about political change?
Wyatt gives the question a more thoughtful answer than perhaps it deserves. "I don't act even on that hope, myself," he says, carefully.
"This is always discussed in the context of left-wing politics, isn't it? But there are certainly members of the conservative establishment who've used music as part of their camouflage, as it were. Songs such as the national anthem come to mind here, not to mention Onward Christian Soldiers. But I sing about these things because it's a way of making contact with like-minded people. What I don't like when the cold rightwing winds are blowing is that loneliness, you know. I like to huddle together with other sympathetic souls."
Then the writer of O Caroline and Sea Song - two of the most beautiful love songs of the past thirty years - ponders and adds: "I don't know... It's the same with love songs. I mean if you write a love song, do you really think it's going to get the girl back? I shouldn't think so. But it's still worth a song, isn't it?"