Saturday, October 10, 2015

Different Every Time: Wyatt biography

I woke up one morning recently wondering if the recent Robert Wyatt biography by Marcus O'Dair was out in paperback yet. I'd gone to the launch event on the South Bank earlier this year and had even been introduced to Robert, but had been waiting for the right time to read the book (having had a considerable reading stack to get through, as usual). The same day I checked my email and found that Mark Ellingham of Serpents Tail Press had contacted me out of the blue, having apparently been enjoying my Canterbury Sans Frontières podcasts, and asked if I wanted a free copy of the new paperback edition!! Naturally I did, and it arrived two days later, complete with a bookplate signed by Robert and his wife Alfie (she's his muse, manager, some-time lyricist and has done all of the artwork for all of his solo releases since Rock Bottom).

I've been enjoying reading this book so much that I'm rationing it so that it lasts longer! It's beautifully written — the author has made himself completely invisible in the text, he has clearly dedicated himself fully to serving the subject matter, and fully deserves all the praise he's received for this book. I'm filling in a lot of minor gaps in my knowledge of RW's life and work, discovering recordings I didn't know about.

Here are a few things I didn't know about:

This short film "Solar Flares Burn For You" has an experimental, droney soundtrack composed by Wyatt, recorded at Nick Mason's house in spring '73. The last few minutes start to resemble the track of the same title which showed up on his Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard album.

Matching Mole were considering recording this George Harrison song on their first album (as well as Gil Evans' "Las Vegas Tango" which Wyatt had included a version of on End of an Ear in 1970). I'd somehow never heard it before, and I'm now obsessed with it:

In April '73, Wyatt was playing free jazz with saxophonist Gary Windo, Matching Mole's keyboard player Dave MacRae and bass virtuoso Ron Mathewson as WMWM. A recording survives, worth listening through the rather distracting digital distortion:

He's only performed on stage a handful of times since his legendary Drury Lane concert in September 1974. One of these, I learned, was at a Raincoats concert, presumably about '82. As a Rough Trade labelmate and musical kindred spirit, he'd guested on The Raincoats' Odyshape album (one of my very favourites), and many years later booked them when he was curating the Meltdown Festival on the Southbank. But at this concert they got him up to sing one song, "Born Again Cretin", one of his very few compositions in the fallow '74—'84 period. O'Dair relates that he brought the house down, despite suffering terrible stagefright. As far as I can tell, no recording exists of this, but I did find this, which was from his appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test on BBC TV (a programme originally devised by Kevin Ayers' dad Rowan, as it happens) during which he's better remembered for performing "Shipbuilding", one of only two "hit" singles he's released. I'm guessing the BBC have taped over the footage, as it's never surfaced, but it sounds like someone helpfully recorded the audio off their TV:


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