Having first come to prominence as founding drummer/vocalist with Canterbury’s Soft Machine, Bristol-born Robert Wyatt is one of the English art-schools’ most notable (and best-loved) musical alumni, retaining that genre’s spirit of musical adventurousness without indulging in the bloated pretensions that sidetracked many of his contemporaries. In the unselfconscious experimentalism of his post-Softs work, the political commitment of his later material and his determination and dignity through a tragic physical setback, Wyatt has served as an inspiration for a new generation of socially conscious British artists.
End of an Ear, Wyatt’s first solo album, was recorded right before he left Soft Machine and basically continues in that group’s freewheeling avant-jazz spirit. Wordless scat-sung originals are bookended by two lengthy versions of Gil Evans’ “Las Vegas Tango.”
Setting out to record a solo album, Wyatt assembled the quartet Matching Mole — the name is a phonetic adaptation of the French translation of “soft machine” — and released two albums of meandering (and occasionally charming) pieces, mostly instrumentals, under the rubric. The spotty debut is mainly a Wyatt showcase; the more driving Little Red Record (produced by Robert Fripp) is a collective effort, but both are weighed down with the sort of aimless noodling that helped give progressive rock a bad name. Smoke Signals is an archival collection of 1972 live performances.
Following an accidental fall from a window that left him permanently wheelchair-bound in 1973, Wyatt recorded Rock Bottom, produced by Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason, and the self-produced Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard. Both records are idiosyncratic, mixing woozy experimentation (“Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road,” which appears in two utterly different versions on Rock Bottom, and Ruth‘s “Muddy Mouse,” a collaboration with Fred Frith) with charmingly pastoral nursery rhymes (“Sea Song,” “Alifib,” both from Rock Bottom). Ruth is the better focused of the two albums, and includes the remarkable “Team Spirit,” which hints at the political outlook that dominates Wyatt’s later work. I’m a Believer and the live Peel Sessions (recorded in September 1974) also contain material from this period; both feature Wyatt’s droll reading of the Monkees’ Neil Diamond-penned classic. The other three tracks on the radio session are “Soup Song,” “Sea Song” and “Alifib.”
Wyatt lay low for the remainder of the ’70s, finally reemerging at the turn of the decade with a series of four audacious Rough Trade singles. Those eight sides (two of which are performed by artists other than Wyatt) are collected on the Italian Robert Wyatt, and form the basis of Nothing Can Stop Us. Though basically a singles compilation with only one original composition, the latter is a cohesive and incredibly moving statement, with Wyatt’s fragile, plaintive vocals breathing new life (and political content) into material as diverse as Chic’s “At Last I Am Free,” the obscure American gospel tune “Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’,” the folk song “Caimanera” (aka “Guantanamera”) and the disquieting lynch-mob protest “Strange Fruit” (popularized by Billie Holiday). Though Wyatt personally adheres to a fairly ruthless strain of Stalinism, you’d never know it from the compassion and empathy that radiate from every groove of this record.
Nothing Can Stop Us was subsequently re-released with the significant inclusion of the Elvis Costello/Clive Langer-penned “Shipbuilding” (produced by Costello, Langer and Alan Winstanley), as subtle and insightful an anti-war song as anyone’s ever written. The album’s US version, released in 1986, ditches the poet Peter Blackman reading his “Stalingrad” and adds “Shipbuilding,” plus its British 12-inch B-sides (interpretations of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” and Eubie Blake’s “Memories of You”) and cover art.
The Animals Film contains Wyatt’s appropriately harsh instrumental score for a harrowing documentary chronicling institutionalized human cruelty. The four-song Work in Progress is similar in approach to Nothing Can Stop Us, with a reworking of Peter Gabriel’s “Biko” and Spanish-language folk songs by Victor Jara and Pablo Milanes. The American 1982 – 1984 combines the contents of Work in Progress and the British “Shipbuilding” 12-inch. (Going further down that same road, Mid-Eighties joins everything on that compilation except for “Shipbuilding” itself with Old Rottenhat and two rarities: “Pigs” from a pro-animal compilation and “Chariman Mao” from a label sampler.)
The completely self-penned Old Rottenhat is a perceptive, beautifully performed and ultimately bleak view of ongoing political struggle, more specific than Nothing Can Stop Us but no less emotive. Though many of Wyatt’s lyrics veer towards the doctrinaire, his singing is as quietly passionate as ever.
On Dondestan, Wyatt offers his songs in a spare mixture of haunting solemnity and jolly bounce without much correlation to their contents. It would be far too literal for someone of Wyatt’s qualities to simply make the happy songs upbeat and the angry ones fast. So the title track ends the album as a skittering jitterbug that promotes the national rights of Palestinians, while the irreverent “Catholic Architecture” (lyrics, as on more than half the songs here, by Mrs. Wyatt, Alfreda Benge, who also painted the cover) is sung with dreamy nonchalance over two-note piano figures, lulling synth strains and the occasional cymbal tap. But the vague capitalist critique of “Shrkinkrap” rushes along to something like the rhyming musical prose of Ian Dury. A remarkably handsome work that occasionally thumps you on the nut with a left-wing newspaper. The 1998 reissue, titled Dondestan (Revisited), is an enhanced disc with completely reordered tracks and a bonus video interview with the artist.
Brian Eno, Phil Manzanera and Paul Weller are only the best known of the contributors to Shleep, a more personal (i.e., less political) and intermittently more ambitious undertaking than Dondestan. The flighty horns on half the tracks lend more of a jazzy tone than is needed to the proceedings. Elsewhere, Wyatt summons up the sound of Eno’s early solo work and combines it with his usual languorous shimmer. Two of the highlights involve Weller: the existential contemplation of “Free Will and Testament” (which provocatively wonders, “What kind of spider understands arachnophobia?”) and “Blues in Bob Minor,” a full-scale parody of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” punctuated by Weller’s biting guitar heroics. Given its creative circumstances, Shleep is something of a missed opportunity, but it’s still one of Wyatt’s most entertaining and involving efforts.
Compilation is merely a pairing of Old Rottenhat and Nothing Can Stop Us. Going Back a Bit is a convenient two-disc career retrospective, while Flotsam Jetsam, for more serious devotees, is a collection of outtakes, leftovers, home recordings and other ephemera, beginning with “Slow Walkin’ Talk,” which Wyatt recorded in 1968 with Jimi Hendrix on bass!