Good morning and welcome once again to another edition of Breakfast On The Blog. Today we are taking a look at a musician that I have respected and admired for more than 45 years:
ROBERT WYATT – UN EXCENTRIQUE EXTRAODINAIRE
If you ask people who they think were some of the best drummers in the late 1960’s early 1970’s, you’ll hear names like Keith Moon, Ginger Baker, John Bonham, Mitch Mitchell, Cozy Powell, Bill Bruford, John Densmore, Ringo Starr, Nick Mason and a lot of studio session drummers who were all excellent, but one name will probably not be mentioned at all. And it could be that he was one of the greatest of them all. Robert Wyatt.
Before a tragic fall from a window in 1973 ended his time behind a drum kit and left him a paraplegic confined him to a wheelchair, Wyatt was one of the most powerfully creative and innovative drummers to emerge from the music revolution of the mid to late 1960’s. Most good drummers excel at keeping the beat behind the music, driving it forward and keeping it in gear. Some drummers, like Ginger Baker, John Bonham or Keith Moon were simply powerhouses of ego and thump, propelling their musicianship to places it hadn’t been before, taking things to the extreme. Others, like John Densmore, laid down a carpet of subtle influences that shaped the mood and direction of the music. Densmore always prided himself on being able to make Morrison dance like a puppet at certain moments in a song. And then there was Robert Wyatt.
Marcus O’Dair, writing in his new biography of Wyatt, about Robert’s style in 1965, said “Even then, Robert was a deeply musical drummer, playing the song rather than merely the beat, while his drummer’s sense of rhythm helped to develop his apparently casual vocal phrasing.” As the drummer of The Soft Machine, between 1967 and 1971, Wyatt had a style like no other drummer. He had a unique sense of feel, and he approached drumming with an inherent melodic content in his playing that few other drummers ever achieved. He didn’t just keep a beat and move the music; he filled it with rich spectrum of feeling and emotion underpinned by a very original and intricate technique. As Mike Zwerin wrote in a 1997 New York Times article, “Robert Wyatt raised the level of playing his instrument to the point that being described as a rock drummer was no longer pejorative. He was with a no-nonsense British band called The Soft Machine, named after a book by William Burroughs. They fused instrumental jazz and rock at least two years before Miles Davis. A CBS Records executive said that he couldn’t figure out if they were the label’s best-selling jazz band or its worst-selling rock group. Wyatt played the drums and sang lead vocals at the same time. Not many drummers could do that then (or now, for that matter), certainly not in 11/4 time.”
Wyatt continued his unique style of drumming after he left The Soft Machine in 1971 establishing his own band Matching Mole (a pun on machine molle – French for Soft Machine), releasing two albums before his accident in 1973 ended his days behind a kit. But it didn’t end his musical endeavours. Since then he has had a remarkable solo career and a long stint of collaborations. Too lengthy to go into detail here, his catalogue is well worth checking out. With a new authorised biography having been recently published and a new double CD retrospective of his career just released last week Robert Wyatt continues to make his presence felt. The biography is well worth reading and his music, well, that you have to decide for yourself. But I’ll give you a tip: Go for it. All the way. Paul Brad on the website Bandcamp wrote in 2013, in a review of a then newly released CD of some previously unreleased recordings Wyatt did in 1968, “(This is) a collection of “lost” but recently unearthed demos that deliver an immersive surge of creative ideas and energy, and blur free jazz with arts lab experimentalism. The demos illuminate the unique songwriting process of Soft Machine’s then 21 year old drummer/vocalist. Robert Wyatt is a reader, a thinker, a wordsmith. He’s self-effacing and funny. He’s a craftsman who has built on those Robert Wyatt- ‘68 recordings, layer upon layer, over decades.”
There is one somewhat sad footnote to relate. In the December issue of the British music magazine Uncut Wyatt says that he has stopped making music. “I thought, train drivers retire when they’re 65, so I will, as well,” Wyatt, now 69, told Uncut. “I would say I’ve stopped, it’s a better word than retired. Fifty years in the saddle, it’s not nothing. It’s completely unplanned, my life, and it’s just reached this particular point. Other things have happened – I’m more taken up by politics, to be honest, than music at the moment. Music tags along behind it. There is a pride in [stopping], I don’t want it to go off.” Wyatt has stopped for intervals before; perhaps the muse will motivate him once again in the not too distant future. On January 28th of next year he’ll be 70. That might just be a good enough reason to climb back into the locomotive for one last ride.
A photo of my original copy of Soft Machine’s second album, which I purchased in August 1969 on my way back home from working at the Woodstock Festival. Also available as a CD and also highly recommended.
An excerpt from the biography can be found here:
The Soft Machine Volume 2 complete:
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