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PRINT February 2011

music

Robert Wyatt

Cover of Robert Wyatt’s Dondestan (Revisited) (Domino, 1998).

IN 2006, A NEW WORD, Wyatting, entered the lexicon. Referring to the prankish activity of sneaking an experimental music track onto an unsuspecting pub jukebox in order to vex other patrons, it got its name from an English teacher who suggested that Dondestan, a 1991 album by Robert Wyatt, epitomized the kind of music suitable for such a venture. While it’s hard to imagine one of Wyatt’s records actually clearing a room, he is the consummate cult figure with a taste for subversion—albeit one with a vulnerable, inimitable voice as cherished by his fans as Chet Baker’s or Chan Marshall’s by theirs. A bohemian who dived into pop rock at its mid-1960s apex (drumming in the Beat group Wilde Flowers) but never quite abandoned the jazz he’d previously sworn by (as evident in his subsequent outfit, the legendary first-generation British prog rock band Soft Machine), Wyatt later switched to making solo work that occupies a landmark space in between rock, jazz, soul, and experimental music. (In this sense, the figure he most closely resembles is pianist-composer-vocalist Carla Bley, with whom he has previously worked, and who arrived at an equally idiosyncratic position through the jazz world rather than rock.)

The teasing approach to genre in Wyatt’s solo recordings—nine full-length albums and a brace of singles and EPs, all newly reissued on CD and LP by Domino—seems an attempt to reconcile his love for disparate musical styles rather than to amalgamate their formal aspects. Tellingly, Wyatt left Soft Machine as it increasingly veered toward jazz-rock fusion, after 1970’s Third. And he once told writer Michael King he was more influenced by Spike Milligan’s outlandish BBC radio series The Goon Show than either rock or jazz; the use of falsettos and the mélange of jazz, R & B, and pop standards on that ’50s comedy program are undeniably present in Wyatt’s own material.

It is his second official solo album, Rock Bottom (1974), recorded after another group project, Matching Mole, disbanded—and, more significant, a year after a drunken fall from a fourth-floor window left him permanently disabled—that stands as Wyatt’s masterpiece. Described in the credits as “drones and songs,” all but one of the half dozen tracks clock in past the six-minute mark, creating a spacious, fever-dream ambience. Given the title and the fact that its maker was newly paraplegic, the album is frequently assumed to be a chronicle of despair. But nothing could be further from the truth: The title refers to the ocean floor, as does the cover art (the first two songs are set undersea), and much of the record was written before the accident, while Wyatt and partner Alfreda “Alfie” Benge were in Venice visiting Benge’s friend Julie Christie on the set of Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 film Don’t Look Now. “Alifib,” for example, despite its somewhat pained minor-key melody, is a paean to his love for and life with Benge, whom he married the day the album was released.

Indeed, Wyatt’s music is often perceived as melancholic because of his singing, which conveys human frailty rather than bravado. “My voice always comes out disappointed to say the least,” he told King. “Nothing I could do would ever cheer anybody up, and I don’t even sound fashionably down.” This is borne out by Virgin Records’ rejection of Wyatt’s rendition of Chris Andrews’s 1965 “Yesterday Man” as a follow-up to his left-field hit version of the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer,” released two months after Rock Bottom (and performed on Top of the Pops, over the BBC’s objections, from his wheelchair). Andrews sings of being spurned by a lover with raffish, easy-come easy-go gusto; Wyatt is spirited but fatalistic, taking the lyrics at face value. Yet the latter’s unaffected delivery is intrinsic to his appeal—pop sung in a “real” voice (complete with a vaguely cockney accent), well before such an idea became voguish. (It would also make Wyatt a favorite among late-’70s post-punk groups like Scritti Politti and the Raincoats, both of whom he’s guested with, and of later indie rockers like Damon & Naomi.)

As it turned out, Wyatt’s next (and, so far, last) taste of chart success would be another cover, when “Shipbuilding,” written for him by Elvis Costello in the wake of the Falkland Islands War, landed in the UK Top 40 in 1983. “Shipbuilding” was the successor to a string of singles, virtually all cover versions, that Wyatt made for the celebrated indie label Rough Trade. The highlight of this series was one of his most beloved recordings—a markedly personal remake of Chic’s high-gloss soul ballad “At Last I Am Free.” The original is a purely functional slow-dance/make-out number (albeit one cowritten by a former Black Panther) that goes on for seven minutes; Wyatt cuts the running time nearly in half, limits the instrumentation to piano, a faint, metronomic drum machine, a cymbal, and his trusty Vox Riviera keyboard, and accentuates the political implications of the lyrics by pairing it with a version of “Strange Fruit,” the startling account of a lynching famously sung by Billie Holiday, on the record’s B side. Similarly, Wyatt’s 1984 version of Peter Gabriel’s “Biko” halves the original’s lengthy duration and pares down the backing to sustained organ chords and a stark drumbeat. Where Gabriel’s histrionics make this memorial to slain antiapartheid organizer Steve Biko as much a self-serving vehicle for his own powers of expression as a spotlight on political injustice, Wyatt’s vocal is heartfelt but uniformly modest, as if anything more ostentatious would occlude the import of what he’s singing about.

Although his social consciousness had been apparent since Matching Mole’s “Gloria Gloom,” in which he waxes dubious about continuing to “pretend that music’s more relevant than fighting for a socialist world,” Wyatt officially joined the Communist Party in 1979. The Rough Trade singles and 1985’s Old Rottenhat (his one completely solo album) are dominated by his political concerns. The explicitly topical songs have not stood the test of time, but what rescues the ’80s material from being pure agitprop is Wyatt’s innate humility. More than the overtly left-wing lyrics, his strongest political statement is made through his scaled-back, DIY production and performance values. And the commentary is often leavened by Wyatt’s love of wordplay. In “Revolution Without ‘R,’” part of an experimental Italian radio program from 1981 in which he created music in the station’s studio on the fly, he sings, “What’s that going round and round, dear? / It’s revolving . . . it’s a revolution, dear.” This is a pun not only on the mechanics of a record player and on Wyatt’s Marxism but on the repeated drum figure he plays behind the vocal. More multitextualism of this sort would have enriched his music in this period, but it also might have reinforced its own self-imposed marginality—a dilemma born of Wyatt’s puckish genre upendings and intensified by his dramatic emphasis on the parallels between his politics and his aesthetics.

Wyatt left the Communists in the late ’80s; Dondestan (1991) reflects this moment of transition. The first side of the original LP uses surreal poetry by Benge as its lyrical source, but the flip finds Wyatt stuck in politico mode (and sounding as if it’s wearing thin, even for him). The music is still droning and homespun, qualities that recede in the series of increasingly ambitious albums that follow: Shleep (1997), the seventy-five-minute, two-part Cuckooland (2003), and the three-“act” Comicopera (2007). Though these have been widely hailed as some of Wyatt’s best work (Cuckooland was even nominated for Britain’s Mercury Prize), his vocals rarely leave their comfort zone; the eerie, tremulous Riviera is largely discarded for higher-tech machinery; and the expanded array of accompanists gives the proceedings the air of a fete for an elder statesman–survivor rather than the message-in-a-bottle aura of the earlier records.

Still, it’s both laudable and uncommon for an artist to widen rather than narrow his or her scope in the fourth decade of recording––and it’s probably draining as well. Perhaps needing a breather, on his latest release, For the Ghosts Within, a collaboration with saxophonist-producer Gilad Atzmon and violinist Ros Stephen out this past November, Wyatt revisits his strengths as a strikingly original interpretative artist. Opting for the venerable rather than his usual eccentric mix of high and low, he here performs mostly jazz and pop standards (“Lush Life,” ’Round Midnight,” “Laura,” “What a Wonderful World”) plus a few familiar Wyatt tunes (“Maryan,” “Dondestan,” even “At Last I Am Free”), with the arrangements built around a string quartet, additional acoustic instruments, and some electronic manipulations. The results are predictably lovely—maybe a bit too predictably lovely—but the overall feel hovers somewhere between a remix collection and an Unplugged/Great American Songbook–style bid for wider exposure. The ghosts in the title and the juxtapositions of crackling 1920s Victrola simulations with ’90s–’00s electronic processing and beats on “In a Sentimental Mood” and “Where Are They Now” (aka “Dondestan”) are ripe for a hauntological reading, I suppose. But rather than a deconstructionist, Wyatt should be held up as a Janus of the rock fringe: looking backward, to a time when singers mainly performed other people’s material—and also forward, to a leveling of distinctions between musical idioms, a post-Adorno reckoning of pop and insurrection.

Alan Licht is a musician, writer, and curator based in New York.