Seaweed tangled in our home from home…

A couple of days last week, tucked neatly away in a provincial coaching house, were sound-tracked by a return to what I now see is one of my very favourite records (although weirdly I have not always done so). At this point, regular readers may want to pass on to the next item on their “to read” list, I’m banging on about Robert Wyatt again…

Rock Bottom

I don’t need to say anything about the opening track (there’s a good Blog post about it, not mine, here) – everyone’s favourite Wyatt track, much coveted, much covered and the lucky subject of a certain Blog (although to be more fair than is strictly necessary, the choice was deliberately random – I’d listened to it the morning I started off on this long, strange pilgrimage, a spotted handkerchief of favourite lyrics bundled up and slung rakishly over my shoulder…). In fact, for a good time, I overlooked much of the rest of the album, such was my fascination and love of its lead song.

Soft and daft really, there’s so much other stuff to dwell on, so many other high water marks and beguiling shallows to settle on and spend an afternoon paddling aimlessly around in.

To fill in, Wyatt had disbanded Matching Mole in September 1973, after a tour supporting Soft Machine, and began writing material for the record that would become his second solo album. All of which was thrown into confusion when he broke his back falling from the 4th floor window of a Maida Vale flat during a party. An enthusiastic drinker and a spinning top of creative energy and self-destructive behaviour, friends had felt a metaphoric if not literal fall had long been on the cards. The accident obliged Wyatt to re-evaluate his lifestyle and forced him to change the direction and the outlets for his furious inventiveness. He has famously said that the accident saved his life.

Friends and musicians rallied around – Warren Beatty offered to pay his hospital bills; Julie Christie bought a flat for him and Alfie to live in (Alfie was Nicolas Roeg’s assistant on Don’t Look Now, and Wyatt apparently spent a fair amount of time bumming around the set); Pink Floyd and Soft Machine played benefit gigs for him. Rather charmingly, John Peel announced the news and exhorted all his listeners to write him cards and messages of good will.

 

The record that came out just a few months after his release from hospital, featured old chums from his Soft Machine days, including Hugh Hopper and Mike Oldfield, and also contributions from Fred Frith, Nick Mason, former “Wilde Flower” Richard Sinclair, and, of course, Ivor Cutler.

I’ve just spent a fond few moments buffeted and braced by the chaotic frenzy of “Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road” with its promenading bass and piano lines, its angry swirling trumpets and musical hall confusion – “Oh blimey, mercy me, woe are we!”. I love the forwards-backwards-forwards vocals, I love Cutler’s soft intrusive nonsense (“I want it, I want it, give it to me. I give it you back when I finish the lunchtea…”), I love Wyatt’s desperate incoherence. I think I read that the song was composed before the accident but it’s impossible not to hear the overwhelming turmoil of a hospital bed in the arrangement of it. It’s powerful and disturbing…

Equally strange and equally wondrous is second track, “A Last Straw”, meandering along at its own pace, deliberate and confidential, a product of time stretching lazily out in front of Wyatt at the prospect of his new world, and something of a contrast to the furious pace of both the “Little Red Riding Hood” tracks. I love the way he plays around with words relishing the sounds they make; and I especially love the way the track fades out with a solemn procession of notes up and down the keyboard, trudging off in turn.

I think I’ve said before, how much I admire folk who are prepared to be as out-and-out weird as they feel they should, regardless of ridicule and common sense. And there’s certainly something craftily ridiculous he’s doing in these songs (I’m just too dull-witted to figure it properly). It features throughout his records from the “Concise British Alphabet” tracks on Soft Machine Volume 2, through pretty much all of the Matching Mole stuff on to the backwards and absurdist lyrics on this record. I gather it’s linked to the idea of “pataphysics” that Wyatt filched from his time in Paris. French philosopher Alfred Jarry called it “the science of imaginary solutions” and it’s something about playing with different words, notes and letters, rejigging sequences and meaning, re-cutting and rearranging sense into nonsense, looking for obscure meanings, codes, jokes.

I’m also very keen on the two Alfie tracks. Again, they amble along at their own restrained pace, (the first opens with a refrain of “Alife” which manages to sound like both a metaphorical and a literal life support machine); again there’s linguistic foreplay, jazzy wordlessness and Goonish nonsense; again there’s an almost uncomfortable intimacy in its devotion; and once again both tracks mooch off into strange directions. They’re  heart-felt and heart-breakingly touching.

Just imagine if there was footage from French TV, recorded in, say, 1975, with the man on a grand piano, maybe with a few garish balloons tossed around for no apparent reason, maybe with a few clips of Alfie walking him the park, and an interview with the man discussing Rock Bottom and playing “Sea Song” and “Alife”…

Wouldn’t that be something special?

 

My admiration remains boundless…

The sun shines here all summer, it’s nice ’cause you can get quite brown

THIRDGATEF(I feel another Robert Wyatt post coming on…)

A chance glimpse of a friend’s CD collection after a night’s Christmas drinking brought forth a Robert Wyatt collection that got me thinking about the wonderful and awkward sounds of the Soft Machine once more. We put it on and “Moon in June” gambolled out of the speakers, its ungainly sprawl as enjoyable as ever, and it’s been floating about my head ever since. As luck would have it, my friends at eMusic were able to supply a copy of “ ’68”, with a new (to me) version of “Moon in June” and now it’s all kicked off…

Soft Machine

As a teenager, I was a regular visitor to Gloucester Record Library (a fabulous institution that, amazingly in these days of vulturous austerity and the dubious “Big Society”, still exists, sort of…). In those pre-income days, I spent quite a lot of spare time there, exploring racks of disks, with grimy plastic covers, more often than not coming away with something that looked like it might be worth a listen. I remember the time I came away with Soft Machine’s “Third” record, its mock brown paper cover and sparse track listing, giving away precious little. To find out at home that it was a double album and that each of the four tracks (none of them shorter than 18 minutes) took up a full side was, in those post-punk days, unpromising to say the least. On top of this, there were no guitars… Lawks!

Pretty quickly, though, I was hooked on Mike Ratledge’s spindly organ sound and the slowly unfurling horns of Elton Dean and colleagues. Less immediately enticing was the acquired taste that is Robert Wyatt’s fragile, unskilled vocals, but gradually, gently I became a fan of this too.

I’ve listened to “Third” fairly regularly ever since, rarely feeling that I’ve completely “got it” (still don’t, for that matter…) and, my interest re-triggered by “ ’68”, I fetched it off the shelf again last week. Still feels like a woozy, challenging listen that forces you to be flexible, patient, forgiving, even. It’s an ambitious and strange record, for sure.

My favourite track was always Hugh Hopper’s “Facelift” with its barnstorming combination of furious organ and saxophones, which was apparently basically a live recording with some tampering afterwards. It drones at times, swoops at others and swings pretty generously the rest of the time, till by the end, as the opening riff repeats forward and backwards, you feel like you’ve been on quite a journey. You can hear a pretty good version of it as the first part of this live concert from Paris (if you can ignore the occasional intrusion of fake applause crudely dubbed over it). Wyatt’s drumming, here, is magnificent – wristy, loose but disciplined – and worth wading through the rest of the concert for alone…

I’ve always been pretty uncomfortable with the idea of jazz-rock, and there’s a fair bit of That Sort of Thing in the rest of “Third”. The further the Softs went down that road the less exciting they became. I think this period catches them dabbling heavily in jazz for sure (Just say no, kids…) but still on the cusp of the psychedelic wave, with all the weirdness that went with that. In fact, there’s all sorts of other clever buggery going on here, even (and this may be because David Stubbs’ book is still fresh in my memory), to the point that I reckon I can hear traces of the metallic sounds of Neu and the art-chaos of Faust and Amon Düül…

Increasingly, though, it’s the meandering loveliness of “Moon in June”, that cuts through the fuzz for me. There are, of course, loads of different versions of the song out – the Softs have the largest back catalogue of live and archive recordings I think I’ve ever seen – three or four times the size of their official output.  Although it’s tempting to think that the “Third” version of “Moon” is the definitive one, the fact that there are so many versions (and they’re all pretty different) reflects the way Wyatt liked to cut and paste the song and take it in different directions.

Here’s a great improvised version for a John Peel session:

I think I read “Moon in June” was Wyatt’s last major contribution to Soft Machine and apparently the last song the band ever recorded with vocals. It’s essentially Wyatt’s letter from America and was largely recorded by himself because the rest of the band were apparently not very interested in it. Hopper’s fuzz bass and Ratledge’s insane solo were added later. Wyatt left in 1972, as Ratledge led the band off into the realms of the polo sweater, and that’ unwittingly is pretty much where I got off too.

His new band was Matching Mole, which I’m not really familiar with but I did come across this on YouTube from French TV also. It’s another great clip and it demonstrates more trademark eccentricity from the man (for it is he, ‘neath the knitted gimp mask) – both vocally as well as sartorially. It’s pretty good, but mostly notable for a demonstration of what an absolutely belting drummer the man was. I’m no sort of an expert on drumming but it seems to me his technique whilst being tight and incredibly muscular is also light, varied and always fascinating. Hard to take your eyes off him.

Here, watch:

What a guy…

Over an ocean away, like salmon…

Alfreda BengeI can occasionally be happily meandering along my own merry way. up, down and along whatever musical corridors I choose, be it 50s Cumbia, 70’s motoric or aggressively hip sounds from the pages of Pitchfork, when a song will stop me dead in my wanderings, courtesy of its beauty, cleverness or just plain majesty.

The fact that Robert Wyatt is often involved may not be a coincidence…

Maryan

 

Maryan is the third track from Wyatt’s 1997 “Shleep” album, a truly wonderful record that includes contributions from Paul Weller, Brian Eno (of course), Phil Manzanera and Wyatt’s soul mate Alfreda Benge (whose beautiful illustrations adorn the covers of this and all his records).

The whole album is reportedly the result of a successful recovery from a debilitating period of insomnia, and whether or not this is true, the prevailing mood of Maryan and many of the other tracks is of soothing release, the welcome arrival of a sense of peace and satisfaction.

The song itself  is seductive, idyllic and simple, taking you on something of a journey, through which you are paddled along by the delicate, insistent guitar work of Belgian guitarist, Philip Catherine. The melody is Catherine’s own, “Nairan”, and features on his 1974 album “September Man”.

 

The lyrics are all Robert Wyatt, however, and typically so, blending elegant images with awkward ugly humour. It’s tempting to think that Maryan might be a real person, awaiting his arrival, but I suspect not, “Maryan” being just one letter away from making the reverse of Nairam. It could, of course, be simultaneously person, place and concept or even, as one earnest blogger would have it “simply a kind of atonal note set off in a harmonic context “. Wyatt is a famously (intimidatingly) intelligent man and I for one am not about to make (even more of) a fool of myself, attempting to pin down a beautiful lyric such as this.

The shining heart of the song, however, is Wyatt’s trembling, frail vocals. The song begins prettily enough with rolling acoustic bass and his own gorgeous, slightly clumsy trumpet, over which Philip Catherine’s guitar babbles sweetly. The thrill I get (“I get” – it can’t just be me, can it?) when I hear the opening lyrics, double-tracked and surprisingly assertive, is right up there with any other musical highpoint I can right now think of.

I could really go off on one about “Maryan”, as I think I have done in the past about “Sea Song” and “Free Will and Testament” (another Shleep track) but let’s just leave it at that. Even in my  fractured world of Psychedelia and Freakbeat, Cumbia and Chicha, Krautrock and Psychfest occasionally moments of quiet loveliness do occasionally intrude…

Demented forces push me madly round a treadmill

Currently doing it for me…