Anglo-Saxon attitudes

Music - Richard Cook on the wit and wisdom of Robert Wyatt

Many of the main events in this year's London Jazz Festival make up a motley agglomeration of concerts that seem to have little or nothing to do with jazz as most of us know it. But one show is a deserved tribute to a genuine crossover spirit, someone who inculcated more jazz into rock than most British musicians have ever managed. Robert Wyatt has his songs performed by a typically unlikely band of players - Phil Manzanera, Annie Whitehead, Julie Tippetts, George Khan and others - and although Wyatt himself will not be joining them, it promises a reincarnation of his wry, lonely kind of fusion, not only of jazz with rock but of a particular Englishness with an international view.

Robert Wyatt became most famous for playing and singing in a band, Soft Machine, which was the closest British music has ever come to making an unaffected blend of rock energy and absurdism with jazz intellect and spontaneity. The Softs were something like superstars of the avant-garde in their day, playing a midnight Prom, touring with Jimi Hendrix and cutting an album - the imperishable Third - which must have sat in countless record collections next to James Taylor and Ten Years After albums. Wyatt played drums and sang stream-of-consciousness lyrics which sounded all the more bizarre because he refused to compromise his Bristol vowels: he Anglicised every line. His drumming was foreshortened by an accident that has, ever since, bound him to a wheelchair, but his intermittent solo career has been a source of stoic pleasure ever since. It amounts to only a handful of albums, some improbable singles and the occasional guest appearance, but the very paucity of music means that, as with Nick Drake and Scott Walker, the rarity of the material only heightens its impact.

There are few albums as individual and addictive as Rock Bottom, the record he made after his accident, a painful but transcendent song-cycle that sounds as much like a threnody for a green, disappearing England as a personal musing. The year it was released, he also cut a rumbling version of the old Monkees hit "I'm A Believer" which, in a famous spat, led to the producers of Top Of The Pops expressing disquiet at being asked to allow a disabled musician on to their programme. It took him almost ten years to secure another chart placing, with a mournful treatment of Elvis Costello's Falklands riposte, "Shipbuilding". In the meantime there had been the most right-on series of singles imaginable, with versions of "Arauco" and "Stalin Wasn't Stalling" for the Rough Trade label. Wyatt was always proud of his CP membership (Danny Baker used to call him a "Communist-carrying card") and he once pointed out to me with some pride that the Morning Star's racing tipster was among the most successful in Fleet Street.

He rather drifted out of sight from the mid-1980s onwards and decamped from his beloved Twickenham to Lincolnshire. Last year, though, he finally released another fully-fledged album of his own, Shleep, which restored this whimsical competitor to something like his old status. His voice had settled down into an ancient but simultaneously childish chirrup, a very wise old bird reflecting on a life of rueful Anglo-Saxon subversion. Wyatt's music is the most natural bridging point between rock, pop, and jazz because he never saw that the virtues of each music ever had to be incompatible. He once remembered how, as a teenager, he heard some tunes by Mose Allison and wondered to himself how music could be any better than this. When he was in Soft Machine, he still liked to talk about Motown and Northern Soul records. These days, this would be a merely fashionable eclecticism; for Wyatt, it was simply the right way to appreciate music. Let's hope his band has a good night.

"The Songs of Robert Wyatt" is at the Royal Festival Hall on 17 November

This article first appeared in the 15 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Guns and the Dome