The Rotters’ Club author Jonathan Coe in the introduction in a telling phrase writes: “More and more, Robert Wyatt sounds like the voice of sanity. Sane songs for insane times.”
Marcus O’Dair’s organisation of the book, like a piece of vinyl spread over two sides, follows on the first side what O’Dair calls “the drummer biped” time in Wyatt’s life; the second, after the life-changing accident Wyatt suffered, “Ex Machina.”
A tale of happy childhood to begin with, an evocative picture of Wyatt with his parents sketching at a bombsite, and much humour, Wyatt liking Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, Wyatt’s dad George introducing his son to jazz (Fats Waller and Ellington) and Wyatt exposed to foreign travel as a young person, even meeting the Cubist painter Georges Braque. A rebel at school, when the family moved to Kent, near Canterbury, he and his friends would develop their interest in music at parties and the personnel of The Soft Machine would come together.
O’Dair handles Wyatt’s youthful overdose and the issue of depression in no-nonsense but compassionate fashion. The sojourn with Robert Graves in Mallorca is interesting and then suddenly we’re into early gigging including unsuccessful nights at Peter Cook’s Establishment club, the birthplace of the 1960s satire boom. The death of Wyatt’s father was an unexpected blow to the young musician the stages of man in his own life the wheel turning in a different way with the birth of his son Sam in 1966. Not much of a dad himself by his own admission Wyatt’s musical approach was changing. West Dulwich rather than Kent was to be the focus of operations now that Mike Ratledge down from Oxford was fully on board. Mister Head later in 1966 became The Soft Machine, the name borrowed from a William Burroughs novel and approved by the writer himself, the band playing quite a bit of adapted Wilde Flowers material at first.
The text of Different Every Time is quite often illustrated by period photos, some very much capturing, without too much of a leap of the imagination, the period, although O’Dair restricts himself from providing too much background detail beyond the facts and the words of his interviewees. The narrative invites you into a world that was steeped in bohemia and the counter-culture. The Soft Machine’s recording career didn’t get off to a great start, with possibly a payola punishment hampering radio play one fascinating detail. But the scene at the UFO club was different and if anything made the band, taking up the reins from Pink Floyd. There’s great detail here, the Sensual Laboratory visual element adding to the musical input.
Chapter four begins with dreams of conquering America and the book really begins to zip along. Soft Machine toured with Hendrix and went into the studio to record their debut with producer Tom Wilson; and the following chapter dwells on Wyatt’s interest in pataphysics and moves on to second album Volume Two Hugh Hopper fully installed. O’Dair also mentions how the Soft Machine backed Syd Barrett on The Madcap Laughs at this time and the Softs even played the Proms. In 1970 now on Columbia they record what O’Dair says by fan consensus is the band’s masterpiece and best selling album Third “kind of pop songs strung together into a suite,” but “still very eventful,” as Wyatt describes it. Yet Wyatt was becoming disillusioned with Soft Machine and his days in the band were numbered. Moonlighting with Kevin Ayers’ The Whole World (the band also included Mike Oldfield and Lol Coxhill) was part of Wyatt’s escape plan as Soft Machine friendships began to dissolve. He also played with Keith Tippett’s Centipede and there’s a fantastically atmospheric, if grainy, picture of this fabled big band at the Lyceum in chapter seven.
Wyatt also recorded his solo debut for Columbia, The End of an Ear, which didn’t go down well with the label, the “aural wildlife park,” as Wyatt described it, not finding many supporters at Columbia. It wasn’t a happy time. Wyatt’s wife Pam left him for Pip Pyle and years later Wyatt discovered he had a daughter Alice who he had assumed was Pip’s daughter but was actually his. The split with Soft Machine was painful as the other band members sided against him and Wyatt’s drinking became worse. He left the band in 1971.
Wyatt tried to kill himself by cutting his wrists but recovered with the support of Linda Lewis although his relationship with Caroline Coon would end. Without a definite place to live he shifted around from place to place. He founded the four-piece Matching Mole and recorded a debut. His forlorn love letter to Coon, ‘Oh Caroline’ was one of his best pieces of work by this stage even if Wyatt is uncomfortable about it. O’Dair manages to sew in Wyatt’s co-operative words to his narration cleverly so the book reads as if he is one of the ear and eyewitnesses to an era and that gives the narration extra credibility even though of course O’Dair is batting on Wyatt’s behalf. It’s no way a hagiography, though.
Things began to improve for Wyatt when Alfreda Benge came into his life but the end of Matching Mole wasn’t far off. Wyatt was also moving more to the left politically, Matching Mole as Maoist revolutionaries was even the design concept of Little Red Record!
The first ‘Side’ of the book finishes with Wyatt’s fall, when he broke the twelfth vertebra of his back, on 1 June 1973: life would never be quite the same. Releasing Rock Bottom the following year was the beginning of a new phase in his life and in his music. He couldn’t play the drums any longer so voice would be his singular instrument although he would continue to contribute other instruments to his records. O’Dair describes Rock Bottom as Wyatt’s “first mature record”, the lyrics on the song’s albums predating the accident, influenced by Astral Weeks and much jazz and rock besides. Alfie started to co-write songs and managing Wyatt her role has became increasingly important over the years, O’Dair comparing their working relationship to that of Kathleen Brennan and Tom Waits. Wyatt was happy at first to be on Virgin Records and many of the other artists on the label often with strong Canterbury links were kindred spirits. Rock Bottom was well received, and Wyatt even had a pop hit with his version of Neil Diamond’s ‘I’m a Believer’ one of only two hits of his career staggeringly enough (the other ‘Shipbuilding’). A Drury Lane show was a triumph and Wyatt made the cover of the NME. Yet O’Dair mentions in one fascinating intimate detail a recurring dream Wyatt has of Miles Davis laughing at Wyatt, just one example of his enduring artistic humility.
The book manages to combine discographical discussion, more descriptive and fact-laden than analytical, with personal changes in Wyatt’s life, a useful combination, and only sometimes gets bogged down in minutiae, for instance in the ‘I’m a Believer’ chapter. The album Ruth is Stranger Than Richard didn’t go down so well with the critics but it’s an album O’Dair says Wyatt would become increasingly fond of. Wyatt struggled a great deal at this difficult period of his life, the death of his friend Mongezi Feza also affecting him. Hostile to Richard Branson he left Virgin but turned to work with Brian Eno and with Mike Mantler and Carla Bley and taking more time out from music immersed himself in film and politics eventually joining the Communist Party of Great Britain, Oxfam and Survival International pamphlets inspiring his membership as much as Marx and Engels, O’Dair says. Fundamentally Wyatt knew that the party “was a sweet little party of broken dreams.”
Signing to Rough Trade brought Wyatt back to musical activity with a bunch of singles even covering Chic’s ‘At Last I Am Free’, the politics influencing ‘Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’’ and ‘Trade Union’, and then the album Nothing Can Stop Us followed by music for an animal rights film.
Singing Elvis Costello and Clive Langer’s ‘Shipbuilding’ was one of the great moments in his career released in August 1982 just after the Falklands war had ended eventually making it into the top 40 on re-release. A serial collaborator he also worked with Jerry Dammers raising awareness and funds for SWAPO, the Namibian resistance movement fighting South African occupation on ‘The Wind of Change’. Old Rottenhat was another political record, one meant to redress the media balance worryingly distorted by the right wing press. The album was dedicated to an MI5 officer jailed for passing official secrets.
Wyatt and Alfie noved to Louth in Lincolnshire in the 1980s and a new part of their life began. Dondestan released in 1991 was less relentlessly political, O’Dair says. The album went down well but the mid-90s saw Wyatt in a sense disappear, remerging to work with Paul Weller and beginning a wonderful new phase with jazz album Shleep, Annie Whitehead and Evan Parker shaking things up.
Curating Meltdown in 2001 was a milestone David Gilmour even coaxing Wyatt to sing on ‘Comfortably Numb’. And in recent years Wyatt has become teetotal, his entire solo catalogue has been reissued, and he even sat in to become guest editor of Radio 4’s Today programme one Christmas! Warning: you may well be listening, re-listening, discovering, and re-discovering Robert Wyatt albums for weeks and possibly months to come after reading this superb, extremely well-written and researched biography of this quite remarkable man. Stephen Graham