Having somehow eluded me for years, I finally picked up Robert Wyatt's first major solo album the other day. Going for a song in Cash Express. His sleeve notes make poignant reading.
He conceived the strange, angular songs for Rock Bottom while camped out on a tiny island in the Venice Lagoon. His wife-to-be, the artist Alfreda 'Alfie' Benge, was working on a film at the time, which just happened to be Nic Roeg's chilling Don't Look Now. Wyatt had recently left Soft Machine and was probably dreaming up material for his subsequent band, Matching Mole.
The theme of the film, according to its director, was that of we are not prepared – for life's unforeseen disasters. The following summer, on the night before Wyatt's next band was due to have its first rehearsal, he fell from a fourth-floor window and broke his spine. After three months spent lying on his back in hospital and after a long period of readjustment and rehabilitation, Rock Bottom came out in July 1974, and, as Wyatt puts it in his customary throw-away deadpan style, 'I married Alfie, and we lived happily ever after'. In Louth, Lincolnshire, of all places.
Musically, Wyatt became one of the UK's great unclassifiable eccentrics, concentrating on keyboards and those singular piping vocals that distinguish all his quirky songs. He wouldn't play the drums again, which was a loss. Listening again to the Soft Machine's double third album, packaged in mock plain brown paper and imaginatively entitled Third, it's clear that he was a pretty good drummer.
I bought the album in the year it came out, 1970, and remember how desperate I was to catch their performance that August at the Proms. In the end, for some reason, I negotiated watching it at the house full of Catholic girls, directly across the back alleyway (or entry as it was known in Belfast), that separated our two back gardens. I remember watching Robert Wyatt thrashing around on the drums, bare-chested if I remember correctly as befitted his anti-establishmentarian take on life, whiplashed by his flailing lank blonde hair.
On Third, the four principal members of the group are augmented to a core of eight for an album consisting of four extended compositions. Side 1 is Hugh Hopper's 'Facelift'. Given the studious-looking bass player's avant-garde jazz proclivities, it's not surprising that this live track starts with a long reverberating organ note followed by a terrible caterwauling. It has its moments, but doesn't really get much better. Its principal virtue really is to underline the luxury of choice. With one track per side, you didn't even need to lift the arm and then try to drop it with deadly accuracy on the single groove between tracks. You can just skip it altogether. It's the one musical blemish on an album that has otherwise passed the test of time with flying colours.
The first of two compositions by keyboards player, Mike Ratledge, follows. With his long dark hair, tatty jumper and miniaturised shades, Ratledge personified a 'head': one of those thoughtful, intellectual hippy types totally absorbed by his music. He certainly gave plenty of thought to 'Slightly All the Time', which in some ways, with its beautiful melody and audacious switches of time signature, is the most satisfying piece on the album. Jimmy Hastings, older brother of Caravan's Pye, pops up on flute to emphasise what a closely knit bunch of freaks was the fabled Canterbury Set.
Side 4 is the same composer's 'Out-Bloody-Rageous', the piece I remember them playing live at the Albert Hall that year. It features a long minimalist intro played on the organ, which would lead me quite quickly to American composer Terry Riley's A Rainbow in Curved Air – and thence to the wonderful world of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Then a couple of notes on an acoustic piano usher in an extended passage played at a jaunty trot that features a fabulous solo on the Lowrey organ, with the same distinctive reedy sound in which Dave Sinclair of Caravan also specialised. It then merges into a stately quasi-Mingus piece that features first Nick Evans on trombone and then Elton Dean on alto sax, before Ratledge's brisk repetitive piano refrain ends the piece as it started with a minimalist motif.
Robert Wyatt's 'Moon in June' is the filling between the Ratledge sandwich. Half of it is pure whimsical Wyatt – 'Before we go on to the next bar of our song'; 'Oh, but I miss the rain, ticky-ticky-tacky/And I wish that I were home again...' The other half is more 'conventional' Soft Machine instrumental material, ending with some extraordinary violin from Rob Spall that sounds like it's being played or recorded backwards.
Many, many moons in June later, I met a family from Louth, Lincolnshire, who were staying in a holiday home near here that I managed for some friends. I spoke to the pater familias about Louth and asked him whether he had ever seen Robert Wyatt. Yes, he'd seen him many times in his wheelchair. He was quite the local celebrity. I asked him if he would say hello to the local celebrity next time he spotted him out taking the bracing east coast air. Would he mind telling him perhaps that he had a fan in deepest rural France?
He said he would. I doubt if he did, though. And anyway, it probably wouldn't have been that surprising. The French revere Robert Wyatt. Is it perhaps because he might appear so quintessentially Breeteesh?