In these strange days when our allotted five minutes of fame can be stretched, a la Jade from Big Brother into a full time career of nonentity-dome, when hero-worship of worthless pop stars, talent-less film stars and preening sports-stars has reached absolute fever pitch, when gossip, innuendo, prurience, dysfunctional-ism and body fascism clog up our newsagents and TV schedules, perhaps more than at any other time in history we need genuine people to admire, honest, real people who do what they do because they are good at it and because they’re passionate about it. Robert Wyatt is without question such a person.
The founding member, drummer and vocalist of the original Soft Machine (born January 28, 1945 Bristol) Wyatt helped established a style that merged the avant garde with English eccentricity and, along with the likes of Pink Floyd, helped to transform the late sixties psychedelic scene in the UK, their jazz-based rock fusion, punctuated by Wyatt's distinctive plaintive vocals, attracting a massive following across Europe. Ejected from the good ship Soft Machine when his more song-based approach proved to be at odds with the remaining band members incessant noodling Wyatt left, initially intending to pursue a solo career - although he actually released An End Of An Ear in 1970 a year before his official departure from the Soft's after the album 4 - but instead assembled Matching Mole who went on to release two critically acclaimed albums, the eponymously titled debut (featuring two classic Wyatt moments in 'O Caroline' and 'Signed Curtain' - the lyrical idea of which was lifted wholesale by King Crimson on 'Happy With What You Have to Be Happy With' from The Power To Believe) - and Little Red Record.
Then disaster struck when Wyatt fell from a third floor window on June 1st, 1973 during a particularly drunken party in London, ending up paralyzed from the waist down, the general assumption being that ‘here was a career cut tragically short.’ But in fact, as Wyatt himself later explained, it was simply a turning point. "The accident was fine. It was just in time really as the problems of working in a group and how to get the ideas filtered through no longer arose.”
Indeed Wyatt actually embraced what most of us would imagine to be a soul destroying, career limiting tragedy and during the early part of 1974, less than a year after his accident, began recording sessions in a friends "Wheelchair Friendly cottage in Wiltshire". What emerged in July of that year was nothing short of astounding, Rock Bottom was a funny, melancholy and otherworldly collection of songs, the first in an, albeit sporadic, series of equally left-field, but never less than fascinating solo efforts.
Sadly live shows would not be a big feature of this new direction Wyatt insisting “I think more like a film maker. Once I've made my record, it's finished, you don't finish a film and then take the actors out on the road [anyway] I had to get drunk to do it the first time round.”
Fortunately before he chose to give up live work entirely he agreed to play a concert at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane (8th Sept 1974) with the help of Mike Oldfield, Nick Mason, Fred Frith, Hugh Hopper and a stellar cast of jazz rock notables, the recording of which has finally seen the light of day – including Soft Machine and Matching Mole material and Rock Bottom in its entirety – proving beyond any doubt that his decision not to pursue a live career was a sad loss to us all (since this article was first written Wyatt has actually been tempted onto a stage by David Gilmour prompting hopes that he will do so again at some point in support of his own material).
A surprise hit cover of the Monkees 'I’m A Believer', followed (his Top Of The Pops performance almost pulled when he was asked to, and refused, to sit in a chair rather than his wheelchair for the performance), and the double album Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard (1975), before his solo career stalled and his guest performer career blossomed (you can find extensive detailed coverage of these guest appearances on the Hulloder web site ). In 1983 he would have his second surprise hit with an achingly beautiful reading of Elvis Costello’s anti-war anthem 'Shipbuilding', the avowed Marxist’s career having become increasingly politicised, nowhere more so than on his next albums Nothing Can Stop Us (1982) and Old Rottenhat (1984). Later work such as Schleep (1997) and Cuckooland (2003) would see him re-embrace his first great love jazz, albeit in distinctly Wyatt-ed form, and also produced a slew of friends/fans, from Phil Manzanera to Paul Weller, eager to help him out. His collaborations have taken him from the Swapo Singers to Brian Eno, from Ultramarine to Henry Cow, from Kevin Ayers to Kevin Coyne and from Ryuichi Sakamoto to The Raincoats, he is held in enormously high esteem by almost everyone who’s path he has ever crossed, not just for that astonishing voice but for the entirely genuine nature of the man himself. In these strange days we really do need artists like Robert Wyatt.
The Wilde Flowers is out now in remastered and expanded double disc format on Floating world Records