Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


WYATT, Robert

(b Robert Ellidge, 28 January 1945, Bristol, England) Singer, songwriter. He co-founded, arranged and played drums with jazz-rock group Soft Machine '66-71, passionate about jazz and pop but not impatient with the vague fusion the others fumbled towards. He formed Matching Mole (a pun on the French for 'soft machine'), made albums Matching Mole '72 and Matching Mole's Little Red Record '73 on CBS; he had begun playing keyboards on Soft Machine's 'Moon In June' and on his first solo album The End Of An Ear '71 on CBS; he broke his back in a fall '73, and subsequently concentrated more on keyboards on Rock Bottom and Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard '74-5 on Virgin. He had a surprise top 30 UK hit '74 with a cover of the Monkees' 'I'm A Believer' (but was banned from Top Of The Pops for fear the TV audience would be put off by his wheelchair).

Increasingly political and ignoring the usual career concerns, he receded from the music business until a series of singles for Rough Trade (compiled on Nothing Can Stop Us) including 'Strange Fruit' (with Ernest Mothle on double bass), Cuban 'Caimanera' (with Harry Beckett on flugelhorn), 'The Red Flag', 'Stalin Wasn't Stallin' ' (first recorded '43 by the Golden Gate Quartet), his own 'Born Again Cretin'. Then albums on Rough Trade: The Animals Soundtrack '82 for Victor Schonfield's film about abuse of animals; 12-inch EP Work In Progress '83 included 'Amber And The Amberines' (with Hugh Hopper), covers of 'Biko', 'Yolanda' and 'Te Recuerdo' (by Peter Gabriel, Pablo Milanes and Victor Jara respectively); Old Rotten Hat '85 had material such as 'The United States Of Amnesia', 'Alliance' and 'Gharbzadegi'. His minimalist style and delivery tackle issues head-on without succumbing to sloganizing. More singles included 'Shipbuilding' '83 (reached UK top 40; song by Elvis Costello and Clive Langer was a comment on the Falklands war), Jackson Kaujeua's 'The Wind Of Change' '85 (with Jerry Dammers and the S.W.A.P.O. Singers, addressing apartheid), 'The Last Nightingale' '84 on Recommended, a collaboration to raise money for the miners' strike of '84-5. Twelve-inch EP Robert Wyatt '87 on Strange Fruit was one of a series from John Peel radio shows, four solo tracks including a live version of 'I'm A Believer' from '74 and the sound of the BBC's piano, Hammond organ and marimbas.

Later albums and compilations were Dondestan '91, Mid-Eighties '93 and Flotsam And Jetsam '94 on Rough Trade; EP A Short Break '92 on Voice Print UK/Blue Plate USA; Going Back A Bit '94 on Virgin was a two-CD compilation from 25 years' work by a serious yet warm and witty man who had made a conscious decision to hang on to his integrity even before he fell out of a window. Shleep '97 on Hannibal was new material, taking up where Dondestan left off. Wyatt's output has been highly regarded and influential, but not prodigious. 'I am a real Minimalist, because I don't do very much. I know some minimalists who call themselves minimalist but they do loads of minimalism. That is cheating. I really don't do very much.'

There was a biography, Wrong Movements, by MIchael King, but Marcus O'Dair's Different Every Time 2014 received a rave review in the Times Literary Supplement by Wesley Stace, who says that 'the musical collaborators are all present...but it's the glimpses beyond that give the book its vitality', glimpses of a great many influences sought out by Wyatt, from Georges Braque to Robert Graves to Wyatt's cousin, Woodrow Wyatt, a newspaper columnist whose conservative views were part of the reason he joined the Communist party. Wyatt's wife, Alfreda Benge, has been his partner in many more ways than one. She was working on the set of Nicholas Roeg's film Don't Look Now in Venice at the time he was writing Rock Bottom; Stace speculates 'Perhaps that's where "Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road" got its title.' She has contributed lyrics, attended most recording sessions, and designed every Wyatt record cover since Rock Bottom. Phil Manzanera (of Roxy Music) said, 'There is no Robert without Alfie.' O'Dair tells the whole story.