Sunday, February 5

the whole point of no return / let me off please, I am so tired : robert wyatt

At Avant Gardening we're quite fond of following the more hidden threads across musical careers : in a recent show dedicated to Tom Rapp/Pearls Before Swine, we explored an artist arguably at his most dramatically diverting when he dipped briefly into the familiar narrative tropes only to then head radically away from the cliche. Tonight we present an eclecticism of a similar breadth. There's a strikingly obvious turning point early in the artistic life of the great British singer/ composer Robert Wyatt : the blonde, frequently shirtless drummer/singer for jazz/prog pioneers Soft Machine (and later Matching Mole) throws himself drunkenly out of a fourth floor window after too close an adherence to the Keith Moon formula of rotating tequila and Southern Comfort, and breaks his back... and becomes a depressive, culty songwriter in a triumph of (relative) artistry over adversity. This has always been the dominant opening strand for R. Wyatt 101, but the sting in the tail is a little longer than that.

Nearly 40 years since the accident, and Wyatt has gone on to become the most interesting, consistently shifting and developing member of that generation of English musicians who created what is now known as the "Canterbury Sound" of "progressive rock". And there's a condescension in the reception of the trajectory that comprehensively overshadows the ongoing career, that is belied by Wyatt's own response: to be a serious, ongoing figure who requires no pity but constantly acknowledges his situation as casting a long shadow over his life and his work. The need to listen closer applies to his unique singing voice: tremulous, deeply accented in sound and delivery yet profoundly expressive and addictive in its depths of feeling. It's the best kind of voice to present in terms of the argument between a technically "correct" voice of general precision and that of a person who has a singular take and will sing in a singular way.

Wyatt talks about his singing in terms of jazz, as a kind of "human horn", and he often sings beautiful wordless passages without defusing emotion or focus. He has an ongoing predilection for re-interpreting old songs from disparate sources - take for example his classic take on Chic's At Last I Am Free. This tendency in the work - most likely a kind of modesty at odds with the 70s tradition of singer-songwriters he isn't really a part of - sometimes overshadows an engagement with his own songwriting. The knowledge of and love for a ridiculously open array of music reflected in the sonic textures covered across those decades is not contradicted by the range of themes expressed verbally, but the style of songwriting is much tighter, and no less compelling for it. Throughout his career as a songwriter - first expressed in tracks like Soft Machine's Moon in June and Matching Mole's Signed Curtain - he's been a striking adherent to the British schools of intelligently whimsical wordplay, perhaps somewhere between Lewis Carroll and Samuel Beckett. Somewhere in there, he's become a master of honing this tendency to a very sharp communicative point indeed... It's in evidence on tracks like the paired Alifib/Alife off Rock Bottom ("Alifib, my larder" sings the recently crippled Wyatt to his wife and ongoing collaborator, Alfreda Benge. "I'm not your larder" is the response, several minutes later) and the later Free Will and Testament off Shleep.

Of course, the sharper the point, the smaller the detail it illuminates, and Wyatt's is a deceptively modest art, one that highlights the important difference between this expressive "everyman" and the more sterile notion of the "universal". A lover and responsible appropriator of many forms from bluntly commercial pop music through many histories of jazz, world music and punk, he is also a specialist in adapting tools available with clarity and laterality. Witness the 1981 Radio Experiment LP, where he was given the tools of a small Italian radio station studio for a week to develop from scratch an equivalent of an album and did so with only the items to hand from a constant process of solitary improvisation... or also the sometimes derided tendency to use the most basic of preset sounds from 80s keyboards to great expressive effect.



1. Robert Wyatt, Sea Song from 'Rock Bottom' (1974)
2. Robert Wyatt, At last I Am Free from 'Nothing Can Stop Us' (1980)
3. Soft Machine, Moon in June from 'BBC Recordings 1967-71' (rel 2003)
4. Matching Mole, Signed Curtain from 'Matching Mole' (1972)
5. Matching Mole, March Ides I from 'Smoke SIgnals' (rec 1972, rel 2001)
6. Matching Mole, Starting in the middle of the day we can drink our politics away from 'Little Red Record' (1972)
7. Robert Wyatt & Friends, Little Red Robin Hood Hit the Road from '1974 Live at Drury Lane' (rec 1974, rel 2008)
8. Robert Wyatt, I'm A Believer from 'Peel Sessions' (rec 1974, rel 1987)
9. Robert Wyatt, Alifib from 'Rock Bottom' (1974)
10. Robert Wyatt, Alife from 'Rock Bottom' (1974)
11. Robert Wyatt, Muddy Mouse (c) Which in Turn Leads To Muddy Mouth from 'Ruth is Stranger Than Richard' (1975)
12. Robert Wyatt, Solar Flares Burn For You from 'Solar Flares Burn For You' (rec 1975, rel 2003)
13. Robert Wyatt, Opium War from 'Radio Experiment Rome, February 1981' (rec 1981, rel 2009)
14. Robert Wyatt, Holy War from 'Radio Experiment Rome, February 1981' (rec 1981, rel 2009)
15. Robert Wyatt, Prove Sparse from 'Radio Experiment Rome, February 1981' (rec 1981, rel 2009)
16. Robert Wyatt, Shipbuilding from 'Shipbuilding' 7" (1982)
17. Robert Wyatt, Amber & The Amberines from 'Works in Progress EP' (1984)
18. Robert Wyatt, Pigs (in there) from 'Abuse - Artists for Animals' compilation (1986)
19. Robert Wyatt, Gharbzadegi from 'Free Will and Testament' (2003)
20. Robert Wyatt, The Animals Film (excerpt) from 'The Animals Film LP' (1982)
21. Robert Wyatt, We Got an Arts Council Grant from 'Solar Flares Burn For You (rec 1973, rel 2003)
22. Robert Wyatt, Vandalusia from 'Old Rottenhat' (1985)
23. Robert Wyatt, Alliance from 'Old Rottenhat' (1985)
24. Robert Wyatt, The Sight of the Wind from 'Dondestan' (1991)
25. Robert Wyatt/Chris and Cosey, Unmasked from 'A Short Break' EP (1992)
26. Robert Wyatt/Pascal Comelade, September Song (w Pascal Comelade) from 'September Song' EP (2000)
27. Robert Wyatt, Was a Friend from 'Shleep' (1997)
28. Robert Wyatt, Free Will and Testament from 'Shleep' (1997)
29. Robert Wyatt, The Verb from 'Solar Flares Burn For You' (rec 2003, rel 2003)
30. Robert Wyatt, Forest from 'Cuckooland' (2003)
31. Robert Wyatt, Lullaloop from 'Cuckooland' (2003)
32. Robert Wyatt, Stay Tuned from Comicopera' (2007)
33. Robert Wyatt, A Beautiful Peace from 'Comicopera' (2007)
34. Robert Wyatt, A Beautiful War from 'Comicopera' (2007)
35. Robert Wyatt, Out of the Blue from 'Comicopera' (2007)
36. Wyatt/Atzmon/Stephen, Lullaby for Irena from 'For the Ghosts Within' (2010)
37. Robert Wyatt & Friends, Memories from '1974 Live at Drury Lane' (rec 1974, rel 2008)

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