England - Full Moon 226 - 02/04/15
Different Every Time
Domino Recording Company
This compilation was released in parallel with Marcus O'Dair's biography of the same name last autumn. Now, a compilation with a left-winged 70 years old man in a wheelchair, is that something to bother with, you may ask. Well, I've lived with the man's music for about 35 years. He's really the one that never disappoints, always sincere. He might be different every time, but never indifferent. Someone in his native Britain labelled him a national treasure recently. About time!
The compilation can be found as a budget priced double CD or two quite a lot more expensive double LPs. The first CD/double LP is called Ex Machina and include three songs with his bands Soft Machine and Matching Mole from the early 1970s. The rest is from his solo career thereafter; albums and singles. The second, Benign Dictatorships, includes some of his many guest appearances on other artists' recordings.
As always with this kind of album(s), the selected tracks are debateable. They're compiled by O'Dair, former Rykodisc (the label that released Robert's albums in the 1990s) manager Andy
Childs, Wyatt and his wife Alfie and 'chosen simply on aesthetic grounds', the album booklet tells us. Of course I could've wished for some
of the whimsy and psychedelic songs of the early Soft Machine 1967-69 era. The biography and album title is taken from the lyrics of "Sea Song" off Robert's magnum opus solo album
Rock Bottom. However, neither "Sea Song" nor any other tracks from Rock Bottom is represented here as such, only a version of "A Last Straw" from In Concert At The Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Robert's only major live show as a solo artist. His first of two minor hit singles, a personal rendition of The Monkees'/Neil Diamond's "I'm A Believer" is also missing. And the second, "Shipbuilding", is labelled as recorded under benign dictatorship. More of it later. Of course I could've wished for something from his appearances with tour mate of 1968 Jimi Hendrix or colleague of the early psychedelic heydays Syd Barrett (from his first
solo album) in the late 1960s, early band mates Daevid Allen's or Kevin Ayers' solo albums or "Calyx" by the great Hatfield And The North (the closest to a signature song of the Canterbury scene, if ever there was one; first a wordless version sung by Robert; he later added lyrics himself) in the 70s, "The Sweetest Girl" by the very hip for a while Scritti Politti or "The Wind Of Change" by The SWAPO Singers (Jerry Dammers' not quite that successful follow-up to "Free Nelson Mandela" by The Special A.K.A.) in the 80s, or contributions that lifted for instance recordings by Japanese keyboard wizard Ryuchi Sakamoto or British ambient house heroes Ultramarine to the roof in the 90s. To name but a few.
On the other hand, the albums are filled with other sincere highlights and misses, as he calls it himself. And Pink Floyd's Nick Mason, Roxy Music's
Phil Manzanera and Brian Eno, King Crimson's Robert Fripp and John Wetton, Cream's Jack Bruce, The Jam's and Style Council's Paul Weller, unique singer and songwriter Elvis Costello, unique singer and former hedonist Marianne Faithfull, Sugarcube's and solo artist in her own right Icelandic Björk, Norwegian rock and jazz guitarist and serious composer extraordinaire Terje Rypdal, modern music's one and only John Cage, Robert Wyatt's one and only Alfreda 'Alfie' Benge and biographer Marcus O'Dair are among the celebrities involved here, one way or another. To name but a few.
The Ex Machina album finds the songs in chronological order. The ball starts off with Robert's signature Soft Machine composition "The Moon In June", the start of his solo career, sort of. What can I say? It's still the song I've played most times in my life and one of the two I've written most about. (The other one also being sung by Robert, "Memories" by his friend from childhood onwards, bandmate and co-writer Hugh Hopper; one of the songs missing this time around...). The version of "The Moon" included here, is the almost 20 minutes long studio version from Soft Machine's Third recorded and released in 1970. I'd preferred the bit shorter BBC/John Peel session version with even more eccentric lyrics from the previous year, but they're both unique and great. Here are one song from each of the two Matching Mole albums from 1972. We visited an early version of "Signed Curtain" last year on the compilation '68, then called "Chelsea". The 1972 version have new lyrics. About the most eccentric lyrics of the entire genre labelled the Canterbury scene (a label Robert don't fancy):
This is the first verse
This is the first verse
This is the first verse, the first, the first
This is the first verse, verse, first verse
And this is the first verse, first
This is the first verse
And this is the chorus
Or perhaps it's a bridge
Or just another part of the song that I'm singing
And this is the second verse
It could be the last verse
This is the second verse, second verse, second verse
It could be the last verse, last verse
And this is the second verse
But it's probably the last one
And this is the chorus
Or perhaps it's a bridge
Or just another key change
Never mind, it doesn't hurt
It only means that I lost faith in this song
'Cause it won't help me reach you...
Not many could've got away with this kind of lyrics. But it's something about Robert's voice and dedication. He can sing almost anything and it will always sound sincere and profound, not only the last line here. Well, it might have helped with the bittersweet tune and piano ballad backing as well. The other Matching Mole offering "God Song" is a nice little guitar dominated ballad about serious doubts, or maybe what we'll call sheer blasphemy these days? 'Waiting for something unknown, still waiting, So throw down a stone, or something, Give us a sign', for Christ's sake!' Here's a mistake in the booklet, by the way, as Francis Monkman (of Curved Air fame) is credited with playing lots of keyboards and backing vocals. There doesn't seem to be much keyboards on this song, so the line-up of Phil Miller (guitar), Bill MacCormick (bass) and Dave MacRae (keyboards) that recorded the second Matching Mole album where the song is taken from, must be closer to the truth. Francis Monkman participated on a John Peel session with Robert towards the end of 1972 where they performed a different version of the song. Also, Francis was about to join the third incarnation of Matching Mole that never materialised because of Robert's fall from the fourth floor window on 1. June 1973.
Next up is ten tracks of Robert's solo stuff after his fall being linked to the wheel-chair. Apart from "The Last Straw" from the Drury Lane live event mentioned above, we're in for two
songs off singles, two from the album Cuckooland and one from each of his others from 1975 onwards. The only song I think could've been dropped is "Yesterday Man", supposed to be the follow-up single to "I'm A Believer" in 1974. Initially Simon Draper, the artistic man in charge of Richard Branson's Virgin Records didn't want to release it because he didn't see it as hit
potential. It only saw the light of day in France that year, but was eventually let loose at home in Britain by Virgin three years later. It's leaning more towards soul with less emphasis on
the reggae rhythms and with a different kind of brass compared to Chris Andrew's original ska-pop hit from 1965. Robert's second Virgin album, Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard from 1975 is represented here with "Team Spirit", a song by and featured on Phil Manzanera's first solo album, originally called "Frontera", see below. The quite different Wyatt version, with new lyrics in English, is distinguished by Nisar Ahmad 'George' Khan's and Gary Windo's very jazzy tenor saxes and Brian Eno's 'direct inject anti-jazz ray
gun' (the credit Brian Eno is most satisfied with in his entire career). After this album our man went into hibernation as a solo artist. He was disappointed because Virgin turned out
no different than any other profit seeking record company and quit. Instead he continued to visit record studios as a guest musician and vocalist and found interest in other cultural activities
and politics. Disappointed with the Labour Party he joined the very unfashionable Communist Party of Great Britain around the time Maggie Thatcher was elected prime minister for the first
time. It wasn't until 1980 that he was back musically as a solo artist, with more singles of cover versions, released by the then young, independent, enthusiastic and socialist organised Rough
Trade label. Along with his homages to Latin American revolutionary movements, a ditto to Stalin (and the Soviet army that Wasn't Stallin' during the Second World War), the despair after a
Ku Klux Klan lynching raid (a great little version of Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit") and other political moves, even the anthems, so to speak, "The International" and "The Red Flag", is
a stunning rendition of Chick's disco-soul ballad "At Last I'm Free", maybe the most beautiful song included here. It demonstrates that the communist hadn't lost his ear for great pop music.
The song about the end of a relationship was maybe meant as Robert's farewell comment to Richard Branson and Virgin. Later songs, some written in collaboration with wife Alfie and others, like "Worship" (from Dondestan, 1991), "Free Will And Testament" (from Shleep, 1997), "Beware" (from Cuckooland, 2003, in vocal collaboration with Karen Mantler who also wrote the song) and "Just As You Are" (from Comicopera, 2007, in vocal collaboration with Monica Vasconcelos) also rank among his greatest offerings. Calm and spine chilling melodies that are more or less fit to put your mind and soul at ease. The lyrics might be less overtly political than some of the previous songs, but still disturbing on at least one level.
Robert's songs might be divided in many ways; soft jazzy ballads, jazz-rock, something close to pure jazz, his communist propaganda stuff, experimental sounds, playful experimental pop, pure pop... The same goes for his contributions on other artists' recordings. Quite a few of the offerings on Benign Dictatorships are pop-jazz-ballads along with an international set of female artists, including Swedish Jeanette Lindström, Norwegian Anja Garbarek and Icelandic Björk (definitely Nordic flavoured all three of them), Italian Cristina Dona (sung in Italian)
and Brazilian Monica Vasconcelos (definitely Latin flavoured). The ones by Anja and Björk are more on the experimental side of the spectre. The overtly political stuff includes Working Week's Latin revolutionary "Venceremos (We Will Win)", the Jazz Dance Special 12" version from 1984 (anyone who remember those extended 12 inch singles from the 1980s?) and Happy End's big jazz band version of the revolution in "Turn Things Upside Down". The latter is not my cuppa tea, but it certainly adds to the diversity here. Robert's contribution to other Rough Trade artists of the early 1980s is represented with "Jellybabies" from the debut EP of the same name by the late Epic Soundtracks (of Swell Maps, Crime & The City Solution and These Immortal Souls fame) in 1981. A nice little piano ballad augmented by cellos and violins along the way almost to the brink of being pompous.
Modern jazzier stuff is also present, not least his vocal services to American jazz composer and keyboardist Carla Bley's "Siam". Well, the song is from Fictitious Sports, credited
to Pink Floyd's Nick Mason, his only solo album, but Carla wrote all the songs, played keyboards and co-produced throughout. Carla was at one point married to Austrian composer and trumpeter Michael Mantler (Karen Mantler featured above is their daughter). Michael has been associated to the prestigious German jazz label ECM for quite a few decades and Robert is featured on several of his pop/jazz/contemporary song story albums. Here are two tracks from Mantler albums, most notable "Sinking Spell" from The Hapless Child (1976), dominated by Carla's sharp keyboards, Robert's voice and Terje Rypdal's characteristic guitar reaching for the stars. It wouldn't have been out of place on a follow-up Wyatt solo album to Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard. While we're at it, "Experiences No. 2" by John Cage from the split-LP Voices And Instruments with Jan Steele on Brian Eno's Discreet label needs special mentioning. John Cage was one of the most groundbreaking composers of the 20th century, and Robert's abilities as a solo singer were indeed challenged here. Not easy to sing the lyrics by E.E. Cummings without accompaniment to Cage's melody for one who couldn't read notes. He had to learn the song in the studio the trial and error way. Eno is quoted about this in the new biography: 'Robert just brought such tenderness to it. He took what was meant to be an exemplary piece of diagrammatic modern music and he turned it into something so sensitive and beautiful.' Fascinating stuff and great to experience this side of our man on a collection like this.
Robert and guitarist Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music has known each other since the late 1960s. It was Phil who persuaded Robert to record anew for free and for as long as he pleased in his own studio in 1996, that was the start of what might be characterised as Robert's third comeback as a solo artist, returning with Shleep in 1997. "Frontera is the first time the two
of them teamed up in a studio", I guess, the opening song sung by Robert from Phil's first and excellent solo album Diamond Head back in 1975. Phil wasn't happy with the lyrics he'd
written and asked Robert to write something in Spanish. Robert found words in a Spanish dictionary and put them together quite randomly. It's gibberish, but funny little tight pop-rocker
with a slight Latin flavour (Phil is half Columbian). As mentioned above, Robert later rerecorded the song and added new lyrics for his Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard album and called
it "Team Spirit". Of the newer contributions here are one with Hot Chip, the quite hot electronic combo. Their most successful album so far, at home in Britain at least, is Made In The
Dark released in early 2008. Soon after its release the band added new recordings with Robert to three songs from the album. They were released on a four track EP called Hot Chip With Robert Wyatt And Geese (the latter being the duo Emma Smith and Vincent Sipprell that remixed two of the songs). The songs are relaxed, chill-out stuff far from the dance floor fillers Hot Chip is notorious for. "We're Looking For A Lot Of Love" represented here is the strangest of the three, quite fluid with lots of backwards sounds and voices. Roberts calm vocals is one of the few ingredients that keep it cohesive. "Richardson Road" by Grasscut is another newcomer, released in 2012. Very nice, very English, with 'suburban pleasures'. Robert only adds shorts bit of vocals in between the main, but the piano and cornet playing have his stamp all over the song. A beautiful melancholic cornet solo, and with biographer O'Dair on hardly audible double bass.
In 2007 Robert participated on the album Welcome to the Voice, a modern opera, or just work, by Steve Nieve and Muriel Téodori released on the classical Deutsche Gramophon label. Steve is the pianist from Elvis Costello's Attractions and Imposters. Robert and Elvis are among the guest vocalists along with Sting, opera singer Barbara Bonney and more. Steve's more ordinary song-based 2014-album Together includes some of the same guest singers and even more. Robert teams up with Steve's partner Muriel Téodori again in "La Plus Belle Langue". It's another beautiful little ballad sung in French. I'm immediately transported to the left bank of La Seine. I guess Robert and Steve Nieve participated for the first time in 1982 when Steve played piano on Robert's fourth Rough Trade single, "Shipbuilding", the quiet protest against Maggie Thatcher's Falklands War written by Clive Langer and Elvis Costello. Clive wrote the song specifically for Robert, but wasn't satisfied with the lyrics he'd written and brought in Elvis. Elvis wrote what, according to Wikipedia, he has described as 'the best lyrics I've ever written'. It tells the story of the unemployed father that might get his job back when the shipyard reopens to build new ships because of the war. Only to see his son join the navy and risk being killed as a result of the shipbuilding. Afterwards it was planned to record the song with four different vocalists singing the song and released as an EP. The first version sung by Elvis had already been recorded when Robert was brought in. Robert's version worked so well that the plan was changed and it was released as a Robert Wyatt single. This is probably the reason why it ended up on the Benign Dictatorships side/album of Different Every Time and not, at first glance, the more logical Ex Machina. Anyway, it is a great example of a political song that stands firm on its own right. This is certainly not only political slogans set to music. It went to no. 35 in the British charts and was Robert's second and so far last single close to a hit. I don't think it's Robert's greatest effort, not quite, but it's still a moving song, more than 32 years after its initial release.
About time to finish... I'm not sure if this collection is any better or more representative than for instance the ones that was released in 1994 in connection with the previous, sort of,
Wyatt biography, Mike King's Wrong Movements - A Robert Wyatt History (SAF Publishing). They were called Flotsam Jetsam (Rough Trade, with quite a few rarities) and Going Back A Bit, A Little History Of Robert Wyatt (Virgin Records, that emphasised the early 70s and early 80s). Well, maybe it is, although the best might be His Greatest Misses (Hannibal 2004) with a selection from his entire solo career. I read an interview with Robert last year where he stated something like if he could've made a career to turn people on to the music of John Coltrane (I think it was), that would've been as satisfying a life as could be. I guess I'd say the same, only substituting Coltrane with Robert Wyatt. It doesn't really matter which of the normal albums or collections of his songs I recommend. Different Every Time, the CD version at least and probably also downloadable versions, are cheap and easy ways into the wonderful musical world of Robert Wyatt. If this one creeps under your skin, there's a vast treasure chest waiting to be opened. Go for it!
One last matter... Robert stated in an interview in connection with the release of the biography last autumn that he was ready to retire from music and concentrate on politics. He has
threatened to the same earlier. This is from another 1972 Matching Mole lyric ("Gloria Gloom"):
'Like so many of you
I've got my doubts about how much to contribute
To the already rich among us...
How long can I pretend that music's more relevant
Than fighting for a socialist world?'
Well, the man celebrated his 70th birthday on 28 January. He might be harder to persuade to do differently this time. But, a friend of mine some time in the early 1980s got to meet Robert after a concert with The Raincoats (one of the Rough Trade acts he lent his voice to in those days). When Robert heard my friend was Norwegian, Robert mentioned he had very good memories from collaborating with Terje Rypdal (they did so at least twice: at a jazz festival in Berlin in 1971 and on Michael Mantler's The Hapless Child mentioned above). Terje Rypdal said about the same about Robert in an interview some years later. Now, what about doing something about it, you elderly men, before retirement?
Copyright © 2015 JP