Robert Wyatt (born Robert Wyatt-Ellidge, 28 January 1945, Bristol) is an English musician, and founding member of the influential Canterbury scene band Soft Machine, with a long and distinguished solo career. He is married to English painter and songwriter Alfreda Benge.
Wyatt's mother was Honor Wyatt, a journalist with the BBC; his father, George Ellidge, was an industrial psychologist who joined the family only when Wyatt was about six. This extended family also included his half-brother, actor Julian Glover, Honor Wyatt's son. Wyatt attended the Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys, Canterbury and as a teenager lived with his parents in Lydden near Dover, where he was taught drums by visiting American jazz drummer George Neidorf.
In 1962, Wyatt and Neidorf moved to Majorca, living near the poet Robert Graves. The following year, Wyatt returned to England and joined the Daevid Allen Trio with Daevid Allen and Hugh Hopper. Allen subsequently left for France, and Wyatt and Hopper formed The Wilde Flowers, with Kevin Ayers, Richard Sinclair and Brian Hopper. Wyatt was initially the drummer in the Wilde Flowers, but following the departure of Ayers, he also became lead singer.
Soft Machine and Matching Mole
In 1966, the Wilde Flowers disintegrated, and Wyatt, along with Mike Ratledge, was invited to join Soft Machine by Kevin Ayers and Daevid Allen. Wyatt both drummed and shared vocals with Ayers, an unusual combination for a stage rock band. In 1970, after chaotic touring, three albums and increasing internal conflicts in Soft Machine, Wyatt released his first solo album, The End of an Ear, which combined his vocal and multi-instrumental talents with tape effects.
A year later, Wyatt left Soft Machine and, besides participating in the fusion bigband Centipede and drumming at the JazzFest Berlin's New Violin Summit, a live concert with violinists Jean-Luc Ponty, Don "Sugarcane" Harris, Michał Urbaniak and Nipso Brantner, guitarist Terje Rypdal, keyboardist Wolfgang Dauner and bassist Neville Whitehead, formed his own band Matching Mole (a pun on "machine molle", French for 'Soft Machine'), a largely instrumental outfit that recorded two albums. The band were about to embark on the recording of a third album when, on 1 June 1973, during a party for Gong's Gilli Smyth and June Campbell Cramer (also known as Lady June) at the latter's Maida Vale home, an inebriated Wyatt fell from a fourth-floor window. He was paralysed from the waist down and consequently uses a wheelchair. On 4 November that year, Pink Floyd performed two benefit concerts, in one day, at London's Rainbow Theatre, supported by Soft Machine, and compered by John Peel. The concerts raised a reported £10,000 for Wyatt.
The injury led Wyatt to abandon the Matching Mole project, and his rock drumming (though he would continue to play drums and percussion in more of a "jazz" fashion, without the use of his feet). He promptly embarked on a solo career, and with musician friends (including Mike Oldfield, Ivor Cutler and Henry Cow guitarist Fred Frith) released his solo album Rock Bottom on 26 July 1974. Two months later Wyatt put out a single, a cover version of "I'm a Believer", which hit number 29 in the UK chart. Both were produced by Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason. There were strong arguments with the producer of Top of the Pops surrounding Wyatt's performance of "I'm a Believer," on the grounds that his use of a wheelchair 'was not suitable for family viewing', the producer wanting Wyatt to appear on a normal chair. Wyatt won the day and 'lost his rag but not the wheel chair'. A contemporary issue of New Musical Express featured the band (a stand-in acting for Mason), all in wheelchairs, on its cover. Wyatt subsequently sang lead vocals on Mason's first solo album Fictitious Sports in 1981 (with songwriting credits going to Carla Bley).
His follow-up single, a reggae ballad remake of Chris Andrews's hit "Yesterday Man", again produced by Mason, was nearly released by Virgin, but at the last minute it was shelved, "the boss at Virgin claiming that single was 'lugubrious', robbing Wyatt of a possible follow-up hit."
Wyatt's next solo album, Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard (1975), produced by Wyatt apart from one track produced by Mason, was more jazz-led, with free jazz influences. Guest musicians included Brian Eno on guitar, synthesizer and "direct inject anti-jazz ray gun". Wyatt went on to appear on the fifth release of Eno's Obscure Records label, Jan Steele / John Cage: Voices and Instruments (1976), singing two Cage songs.
Throughout the rest of the 1970s Wyatt guested with various acts, including Henry Cow (documented on their Henry Cow Concerts album), Hatfield and the North, Carla Bley, Eno, Michael Mantler, and Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera, contributing lead vocals to lead track "Frontera", from Manzanera's 1975 solo debut Diamond Head. His solo work during the early 1980s was increasingly politicised, and Wyatt became a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. In 1983, his original version of Elvis Costello and Clive Langer's Falklands War-inspired song "Shipbuilding", which followed a series of political cover-versions (collected as Nothing Can Stop Us), reached number 35 in the UK singles chart and number 2 in John Peel's Festive Fifty for tracks from that year.
In the late 1980s, after collaborations with other acts such as News from Babel, Scritti Politti, and Japanese recording artist Ryuichi Sakamoto, he and his wife Alfreda Benge spent a sabbatical in Spain, before returning in 1991 with a comeback album Dondestan. His 1997 album Shleep was also praised.
In 1999 he collaborated with the Italian singer Cristina Donà on her second album Nido. In the summer of 2000 her first EP Goccia was released and Wyatt made an appearance in the video of the title track.
Wyatt contributed "Masters of the Field", as well as "The Highest Gander", "La Forêt Rouge" and "Hors Champ" to the soundtrack of the 2001 film Winged Migration. He can be seen in the DVD's Special Features section, and is praised by the film's composer Bruno Coulais as being a big influence in his younger days.
Influence on other artists
The Tears for Fears song "I Believe" from their 1985 album Songs from the Big Chair was originally written by bandmember Roland Orzabal for Wyatt, and is dedicated to him. As a further tribute to Wyatt, on the B-side of the single, Orzabal performs a cover version of "Sea Song", from the Rock Bottom album. This recording later appeared on the compilation album Saturnine Martial & Lunatic and the remastered versions of Songs from the Big Chair.
"Sea Song" was also covered by Rachel Unthank and the Winterset on their 2007 album The Bairns, and The Guardian's David Peschek said of the cover: "That’s the best version of that I’ve ever heard". In November 2011, The Unthanks released a live album, The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons, and Wyatt is quoted on the cover of the album as saying "I love the idea. It makes me happy just thinking about it."
In June 2001 Wyatt was curator of the Meltdown festival, and sang "Comfortably Numb" with David Gilmour at the festival. It was recorded on Gilmour's DVD David Gilmour in Concert.
In 2004 Wyatt collaborated with Björk on the song "Submarine" which was released on her fifth album Medúlla. He sang and played cornet and percussion with David Gilmour on Gilmour's album On an Island, and read passages from the novels of Haruki Murakami for Max Richter's album Songs from Before. In 2006 Wyatt collaborated with Steve Nieve and Muriel Teodori on the opera Welcome to the Voice interpreting the character 'the Friend', both singing and playing pocket trumpet.
Wyatt released Comicopera in October 2007 on Domino Records, who went on to re-release Drury Lane, Rock Bottom, Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard, Nothing Can Stop Us, Old Rottenhat, Dondestan, Shleep, EPs and Cuckooland on CD and vinyl the following year. In 2009 he appeared on the album Around Robert Wyatt by the French Orchestre National de Jazz.
Wyatt was one of the guest editors of BBC Radio 4's Today programme, working on the 1 January 2010 programme. Among other things he advocated greater prominence for amateur choirs, and admitted to a preference for them over professional choirs "because there's a greater sense of commitment and meaning in their singing."
The verb "Wyatting" appeared in some blogs and music magazines to describe the practice of playing unusual tracks on a pub jukebox to annoy the other pub goers. Wyatt was quoted in The Guardian as saying "I think it's really funny" and "I'm very honoured at the idea of becoming a verb." However, when asked if he would ever try it himself, he said: "I don't really like disconcerting people, but even when I try to be normal I disconcert anyway."
- The End of an Ear (1970)
- Rock Bottom (1974)
- Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard (1975)
- Old Rottenhat (1985)
- Dondestan (1991)
- Shleep (1997)
- Cuckooland (2003)
- Comicopera (2007)
- The Animals Film (1982, soundtrack)
- Dondestan (Revisited) (1998)
- Orchestre National de Jazz Daniel Yvinec / Around Robert Wyatt (2009)
- For the Ghosts Within with Gilad Atzmon and Ros Stephen (2010)
- Theatre Royal Drury Lane 8 September 1974 (2005)
- Radio Experiment Rome, February 1981 (2009)
- Nothing Can Stop Us (1982, singles compilation; 1983 Australian edition includes "Shipbuilding")
- Mid-Eighties (1993; includes the whole of Old Rottenhat)
- Flotsam Jetsam (1994)
- Going Back a Bit: A Little History of Robert Wyatt (1994)
- Eps (1999)
- Solar Flares Burn for You (2003)
- His Greatest Misses (2004, compilation)
- '68 (2013)
- The Peel Sessions (1974, "Alifib"/"Soup Song"/"Sea Song"/"I'm a Believer")
- Work In Progress (1984, "Biko"/"Amber and the Amberines"/"Yolanda"/"Te Recuerdo Amanda")
- 4 Tracks EP (1984, "I'm a Believer"/"Yesterday Man"/"Team Spirit"/"Memories")
- A Short Break (1996, EP)
- Airplay (2002, "Fridge"/"When Access Was a Noun "/"Salt-Ivy"/"Signed Curtain")
- "I'm a Believer"/"Memories" (1974)
- "Yesterday Man"/"I'm a Believer" (1974)
- "Yesterday Man"/"Sonia" (1977)
- "Arauco"/"Caimanera" (1980)
- "At Last I'm Free"/"Strange Fruit" (1980)
- "Stalin Wasn't Stallin'"/"Stalingrad" (1981)
- "Grass"/"Trade Union" (1981)
- "Shipbuilding"/"Memories of You"/"'Round Midnight" (1982)
- "The Wind of Change"/"Namibia"(1984) (as "Robert Wyatt with the SWAPO Singers")
- "The Age of Self"/"Raise Your Banners High" (1984)
- "Chairman Mao" (1987)
- "Free Will and Testament"/"The Sight of the Wind" (1997)
- "Heaps of Sheeps"/"A Sunday in Madrid" (1997)
- Backing vocals on The Animals' Love Is (1968)
- Drums on most of Kevin Ayers's Joy of a Toy (1969)
- Drums on two tracks of Syd Barrett's The Madcap Laughs (1970)
- Harmony vocals on "Whatevershebringswesing" on Kevin Ayers's Whatevershebringswesing (1971)
- Drums and vocals on Daevid Allen's Banana Moon (1971)
- Drums on Keith Tippett's Septober Energy (1971)
- Harmony vocals on "Hymn" on Kevin Ayers's Bananamour (1973)
- Percussion on Kevin Ayers's June 1, 1974 (1974)
- Percussion and backing vocals on Brian Eno's Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974)
- 2nd lead vocals on "Calyx" on Hatfield and the North's Hatfield and the North (1974)
- Vocals on Michael Mantler's The Hapless Child (1975/76)
- Vocals on John Cage's "Experiences No. 2" and The Wonderful Widow Of Eighteen Springs on Jan Steele/John Cage's Voices and Instruments (1976)
- Vocals on Michael Mantler's Silence (1976)
- Vocals on "Bad Alchemy" and "Little Red Riding Hood Hits the Road" on Henry Cow's Concerts (1976)
- Piano on "1/1" on Brian Eno's Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978)
- Recorded a one-minute piano/vocal version of "Strangers In The Night" for the compilation album Miniatures – a sequence of tiny masterpieces produced by Morgan Fisher (1980)
- Drums on Kevin Coyne's Sanity Stomp (1980)
- Vocals on Nick Mason's Fictitious Sports (1981)
- Keyboards on Scritti Politti's Songs to Remember (1982)
- Wyatt released an EP entitled Summer Into Winter in collaboration with Ben Watt (1982)
- Vocals on two tracks on The Last Nightingale (1984)
- Vocals on four tracks on News from Babel's Letters Home (1986)
- Vocals on three tracks on Michael Mantler's Many Have No Speech (1987)
- Vocals on Ultramarine's United Kingdoms (1993)
- Vocals on one track on Michael Mantler's The School of Understanding (1996)
- Vocals on three tracks on John Greaves's Songs (1996)
- Vocals on Michael Mantler's Hide and Seek (2000)
- Vocals on Pascal Comelade's September Song EP (2000)
- Vocals on one track on Anja Garbarek's Smiling & Waving (2001)
- Vocals on two tracks on Bruno Coulais's motion picture soundtrack Travelling Birds (2001)
- Cover version of "Love" on Uncut Presents: Instant Karma 2002; a Tribute to John Lennon (2002)
- Vocals on "Submarine" on Björk's Medúlla (2004)
- Vocals on six tracks on Michael Mantler's Review (compilation – 2006)
- Cornet on the song "Then I Close My Eyes" on David Gilmour's On an Island (2006)
- Vocals on the song "Flies" with Brian Eno on Plague Songs (compilation – 2006)
- Wyattron on "Cold Shoulder" on Kevin Ayers's The Unfairground (2007)
- Vocals on "This Summer Night" on Bertrand Burgalat's Chéri B.B (2007) – released in 2008 as a limited edition 12" vinyl single (500 copies only)
- Vocals and shared songwriting credits on two tracks on Monica Vasconcelos's Hih (2008)
- Backing vocals on "I Keep Faith" on Billy Bragg's Mr. Love & Justice (2008)
- Drums on 2 songs on Everything That Happens Will Happen Today by David Byrne and Brian Eno (2008)
- "Camouflage" in collaboration with Barbara Morgenstern on her album BM (2008)
- Trumpet and piano on "A Song for Alice" on Paul Weller's 22 Dreams album (2008)
- Vocals on Hot Chip (featuring Geese) EP (not the LP of the same name) Made in the Dark (2009)
- Vocals (partly lead, partly backing) and trumpet on some tracks on Jeanette Lindström's Attitude and Orbit Control (2009)
Text by Robert Wyatt and illustrations by Jean-Michel Marchetti:
- 1997 MW, Æncrages & Co publishing
- 1998 M2W, Æncrages & Co publishing
- 2000 MW3, Æncrages & Co publishing
- 2003 M4W, Æncrages & Co publishing
- 2008 MBW (with Alfreda Benge), Æncrages & Co publishing
Books about Robert Wyatt
- 1994 Robert Wyatt : Wrong Movements, by Michael King, SAF Publishing (Canada) ISBN 0-946719-10-1 ISBN 978-0-946719-10-5
- Robert Wyatt at myspace.com
- A Robert Wyatt discography
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Image from Discogs