Different Every Time – the authorized biography of Robert Wyatt
By Marcus O’Dair
Pubs Serpents Tail
From the cover of this book Robert’s gloriously bearded face stares out at you like an Old Testament God. But its seemingly judgmental and deadly serious expression conceals a man of great generosity and tolerance, with a prodigious talent and mischievous wit.
Once a minor star in the celestial heaven of popular music, he metamorphosed to become an iconic, widely admired and influential pater familias of the popular music scene.
His background story is well-known – as drummer and vocalist with the band Soft Machine during the sixties, moving on to form his own radical group Matching Mole, before, in June 1973, tragically falling out of a fourth floor window in a state of alcohol-induced stupor and breaking his back. He was then only 28 years old, and since then has been confined to a wheelchair, but hasn’t let that stop him making music, despite periods of depression and despair.
Together with his indefatigable and also hugely talented partner, Elfrieda (Alfie) Benge – as his manager and sometime lyricist – he has ploughed his own musical furrow with a stubborn determination. Over the years his unique style of music-making has attracted many other diverse figures from the pop, classical and jazz world to collaborate with him, from Brian Eno and Elvis Costello to the eccentric, but super-talented, Ivor Cutler, Paul Weller and Björk, to name only some. During his Soft Machine days he also toured with Jimi Hendrix in the States.
His music certainly can’t be pigeonholed, crossing the boundaries of pop, jazz and classical – a hotch potch of musical influences – but in the end with the unmistakable stamp of Robert Wyatt. But what marks him out as different from most popular musicians is his strong humanitarian and left-wing political views on which he refuses to compromise.
Jonathan Coe in his introduction sums it up when he writes: ‘More and more, Robert Wyatt sounds like the voice of sanity. Sane songs for insane times. No wonder that I, and countless others, have been inspired and uplifted by them for so long, and will remain forever grateful.’
The Soft Machine was the first rock band to perform at the Proms in 1970, even though that performance was not one of its most memorable ones.
After leaving Soft Machine, he set up a new group called Matching Mole. And although he couldn’t read musical notation at this time, he was still able to produce innovative music which, he says, he conceives in visual terms.
In August 1972, Matching Mole went into the studio to record their second album, Little Red Record, with its title’s allusion to Mao’s Little Red Book and with a cover to match its ultra left aspirations. Those early days of political engagement were inchoate and, looking back, even for Robert perhaps, slightly embarrassing. However he went on not only to mature musically but also politically. He still regards Marxism ‘as the least silly way of analyzing world events – what a marvelous way of putting it! Over the years, he had drifted slowly from a Liberal, Fabian Society type of background to the far left, where he remains. Both Alfie and Robert were initially in the Labour Party, but after the disappointments of the Callaghan government and the general world situation, they joined the Communist Party in 1979, attracted by its clear class stance and its internationalism.
Talking about his ideas on socialism, he says: ‘I just took this imagery of what seemed to me a perfectly reasonable idea, of which the failures were being highlighted so as to discredit the whole idea … To me culture is pudding. It’s lovely, and I’ll always eat one. But to me, on its own, it’s not a full life’s diet for the brain. And the politics, to me, is indeed the protein’. But politics for Robert is also a ‘secular religion’. But he hasn’t let his fascination with Marxism rob him of his wicked sense of humour.
In 1974 soon after he was released from hospital, he and Alfie got married, despite facing a seemingly dire economic future. Thanks to the generosity of friends – the actor, Julie Christie, bought a house for them and Pink Floyd did a benefit gig among many others. Warren Beatty, Julie Christie’s then partner, who, after had even offered to pay for private healthcare treatment, but Robert declined, preferring to stay in Stoke Mandeville hospital under NHS care. The renowned DJ John Peel was a keen admirer of both Soft Machine and Matching Mole; he also became one of Robert’s close friends and gave generous support.
In the 70’s his enforced sedentary existence encouraged him to read more and watch films. He and Alfie started devouring left wing literature, watched Open University programmes on TV and went to the London Film Festival. In this way he underwent a late educational spring.
Although Soft Machine and Matching Mole had been signed to the Virgin label, Robert decided to leave of his own accord – the only one to have left Virgin in this way, he says. He then signed up with Geoff Travis’s independent label Rough Trade which was run as a co-operative and which issued almost all his later albums.
During his period in the Communist Party, he took part in a benefit concert at London’s the Roundhouse for the Clyde shipyard workers, he became involved in the Art against Racism and Fascism movement, and supported the big 1984-5 miners’ strike as well as working with Jerry Dammers from the Specials to produce the record, The Wind of Change, to raise money for the Namibian freedom struggle (led by SWAPO).
In 2004 he was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize – Britain’s most prestigious popular music award and in 2005 won Mojo magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Although no longer a member of the Communist Party, he is still very much a convinced leftie and still reads the Morning Star.
O’Dair relates an epic story of a fascinating, humble but heroic individual. It is exceedingly well written with an honest determination to get under the skin of its subject, but without any unnecessary fawning or dodging of awkward facts. While understandably focusing largely on Wyatt’s musical development, it doesn’t underplay the role politics have played in his life and work.