A Short Bio:
Although he has consistently rejected the concept of a 'Canterbury scene' over the years, Robert Wyatt is certainly one of the artists universally associated with it. After all, he was a member of both the Wilde Flowers, the seminal rock'n'roll outfit that started it all in the mid-Sixties, and Soft Machine, one of its two offshoots with Caravan. But of course, for the last twenty-five years, Wyatt has led a critically acclaimed solo career that, for all sorts of reasons, has set him apart from his former colleagues.
After spending his first five years in Bristol, the young Robert Ellidge (as he was then known) moved to West Dulwich with his parents George Ellidge, an industrial psychologist, and Honor Wyatt, a teacher and broadcaster, and their three other children from previous marriages - George's son Mark, later a renowned photographer, and Honor's son Julian Glover, later an actor, and daughter Prudence. However, when George Ellidge was diagnosed as being stricken with multiple sclerosis, the family moved from South London to Lydden, Kent, ten miles South of Canterbury (Ellidge eventually died in 1963).
During his second year at the Simon Langton School, Robert Ellidge met Hugh Hopper, at that point not even an aspiring bass player, and later through him his elder brother Brian, and Brian's classmate Mike Ratledge. His interest in music was quickly developing at that point, resulting in the formation of a skiffle group with school friends in 1957, as well as jazz club talks at lunchtime. By the turn of the decade, informal practising sessions took place at Robert's parents' Wellington House, with the Hopper brothers and Ratledge joining the quickly improving drummer.
In order to pay the rent of their fourteen room Georgian home, George and Honor used to take in lodgers from all over the world. Two of them would prove decisive in the start of Robert's career. Australian hippie Daevid Allen arrived in late 1960 with an extensive collection of jazz records and an inspiring, unconvential lifestyle and philosophy. Allen in turn brought American jazz drummer George Niedorf, who was recruited as teacher for Robert. In the Spring of 1962, Robert decided he'd had enough of school and went off to the Spanish island of Majorca with Niedorf, staying at the home of a friend of his mother's, famous poet/author Robert Graves.
Early in 1963, both Robert Wyatt and Hugh Hopper joined Daevid Allen in his London flat to start a free-jazz trio, which gigged sporadically during the Spring and Summer, until Allen decided to move to Paris. Back in Kent, the future Soft Machine rhythm section resumed their musical experiments at Wellington House. After one more Majorcan sojourn in the Summer of 1964, Wyatt joined the Hopper brothers, young guitarist Richard Sinclair and singer Kevin Ayers, in their new band venture, the Wilde Flowers.
Following the departures of Ayers and his shortlived replacement, Graham Flight, Wyatt took centre stage, becoming the Wilde Flowers' lead vocalist while future Caravan drummer Richard Coughlan replaced him. But when he formed Soft Machine in the Summer of 1966 with Kevin Ayers, Daevid Allen and Mike Ratledge, he chose to do both, which became a major attraction for the audiences, but led to an inner conflict between his singer and drummer selves which was only really solved by a tragic twist of fate seven years later.
Following two exhausting US tours opening for the Jimi Hendrix Experience that took up most of 1968, Soft Machine disintegrated and Wyatt stayed in California to guest on various recording sessions and record his first solo demos. These included an early version of "The Moon In June", and a Brian Hopper song, "Slow Walkin' Talk", which featured a bass part by Hendrix. The song was later transformed into "Soup Song" on the Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard album. Both demos can be found on the 1994 compilation Flotsam And Jetsam, released in conjunction with Mike King's biography "Wrong Movements".
Eventually, Soft Machine reformed with Hugh Hopper replacing Kevin Ayers, and later on Wyatt was very influential in adding a brass section to the trio line-up. This proved a good move for his drummer self, but a very bad move for Wyatt the pop singer. Hopper and Ratledge's reluctance to play on his vocal showcase "The Moon In June" during the sessions for Third led to him playing most of the instruments himself (mostly keyboards as well as drums) except for a short instrumental section. While frustrated at the turn of events, Wyatt felt very excited by the freedom allowed by the solo context.
This resulted, a few months later, in his first solo album The End Of An Ear. The mention on the sleeve that he was "an out-of-work pop singer, currently on drums with Soft Machine" was misleading, as the music is possibly even further removed to pop than anything released by latter-day Softs. True, Wyatt uses his various skills as vocalist, drummer and keyboard player, but in a very experimental mode, using altered tape speeds, repetitive fragments combined in a very surreal manner, with occasional contributions from guests such as Elton Dean and David Sinclair.
After parting company with Soft Machine for good a year later, Robert Wyatt embarked on a new band project : his own Matching Mole, the name of which was a pun on the French translation for 'soft machine'. Many expected it to at last showcase Wyatt's singing and songwriting talents, not least David Sinclair who had joined with precisely this in mind. But there was only one such song on the album, the moving mellotron-flavoured ballad "O Caroline", and only two-thirds into the first side, singing was almost completely abandoned in favour of an instrumental approach. Wyatt wanted the group to function as a democratic entity, and this was confirmed by the second album, Little Red Record, consisted of tracks composed by the other band members - Phil Miller, Dave MacRae and Bill MacCormick -, Wyatt's only contribution to the writing being the lyrics, most notably on the classic "God Song".
Matching Mole broke up in September 1972, after which Wyatt embarked on a collaboration with Francis Monkman, resulting in a BBC session, but this was interrupted when Wyatt followed his girlfriend (later wife) Alfreda Benge on a professional trip in Italy. During this period, he wrote a lot of what later became Rock Bottom. Back in London, he was convinced by Bill MacCormick to start a new Matching Mole, which was to also featured Monkman and saxophonist Gary Windo, with whom Wyatt played occasional jazz gigs at the time in a quartet that also featured Dave MacRae. Sadly, it was never to be. On June 1st, 1973, Wyatt fell from a third floor window during a particularly drunken party in London, which left him paralyzed from the waist down.
Rock Bottom was recorded early in 1974, three onths after Wyatt's release from hospital, using the Manor Mobile and the expert hands of Pink Floyd's Nick Mason (an old friend) for production duties. The cast of musicians was closer to a real band than it would be on subsequent albums : bass players (Richard Sinclair and Hugh Hopper), a drummer with a very similar style to his (Laurie Allan of Gong) and lots of soloists (Mike Oldfield on guitar, Fred Frith on viola, Gary Windo on sax and Ivor Cutler and Alfreda Benge as 'speakers'). The results were simply incredible, entirely different to anything heard previously or since. Wyatt's unusual vocals and keyboard playing created a very special, unearthly atmosphere, a mix of melancholy, humour and strangeness. The playing was excellent : Hugh Hopper's very emotional bass solo on "Alifib", Gary Windo's tortured tenor sax on "Alifie", Wyatt's own vocal solo on "Sea Song"...
The album was received with unanimous praise from the critics, and received several prizes, notably the Grand Prix de l'Académie Charles Cros in France. Virgin organized a special concert in August, 1974 at the Drury Lane Theatre in London, to celebrate its release. Musicians on stage included Dave Stewart, Hugh Hopper, Laurie Allan, Nick Mason, Fred Frith, Gary Windo, Mike Oldfield... Previously, Wyatt had taken part in the famous June 1, 1974 concert by Kevin Ayers, John Cale, Brian Eno and Nico. He played percussion with Ayers, alongside Mike Oldfield.
Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard (1975) was a very different album to Rock Bottom. It displayed Wyatt's interest in jazz, and in particular Ornette Coleman's free-jazz and Chris McGregor's work with South African musicians, among whom trumpet player Mongezi Feza (who had appeared on Rock Bottom and would unfortunately die shortly afterwards). The album included versions of Charlie Haden's "Song For Che", from his influential Liberation Music Orchestra of 1969, and Feza's own "Sonia", already something of a jazz 'hit' at the time. And of course there were songs : "Soup Song", a new version of Brian Hopper's "Slow Walkin' Talk" from the Wilde Flowers, with great lyrics by Wyatt; "Team Spirit" co-written by Bill MacCormick and Phil Manzanera; and the magnificent "Muddy Mouth", a 'mouth'/piano duet with Fred Frith.
By the time Ruth... was released, a brief Robert Wyatt/Henry Cow tour of Europe was undertaken. Only three gigs took place, in London, Paris and Rome : these were to be Wyatt's last major public appearances. For the next five years, almost nothing would be hear from him, except for a few guest appearances on Michael Mantler's Hapless Child and Silence albums, and Nick Mason's Fictitious Sports (actually a Carla Bley album using Mason's popularity as drummer with Pink Floyd).
Robert Wyatt's 'comeback', in the early 80's, was more or less masterminded by Geoff Travis, head of the independant Rough Trade label. His idea was to have him to record some covers (following in the vein of his chart success of 1974, "I'm A Believer"?), for a series of singles. Between 1980 and 1982, five singles were released : "Arauco"/"Caimanera", "At Last I Am Free"/"Strange Fruit", "Stalin Wasn't Stallin'"/"Stalingrad", "Grass"/"Trade Union" and "Shipbuilding"/"Memories Of You", the latter (Elvis Costello's anti-Falklands War protest song) being a huge hit. A compilation of all these songs (plus "Born Again Cretin" and "Red Flag") was issued in 1982 with the title Nothing Can Stop Us.
The early 80's proved Wyatt's most productive years, with the release of an EP, Work In Progress (1984) and a full-length album, Old Rottenhat (1985), with only original compositions. Both had a more synthetic sound and were performed by Wyatt alone on keyboards and percussion. During this period, he also guested on Chris Cutler and Lindsay Cooper's News From Babel's Letters Home (1986) and the Last Nightingale (1984) project, a tribute to the British coal-miners, then on a hard strike against the conservative government of Margaret Thatcher. But in 1986, another unexpected five-year silence began, during which Wyatt and his wife temporarily moved to Spain, where Alfie wrote a series poems which later inspired Robert's 1991 comeback album, the superb Dondestan, which critics unanimously praised as his finest effort since Rock Bottom.
In 1991-92, Robert Wyatt attracted a lot of media attention, and probably answered more interviews than anytime before in his career. Journalists visited him in his Lincolnshire home expecting to meet some sort of guru or antique from a long-forgotten era ("this guy played with Hendrix, you know!")... Maybe Wyatt grew up tired of this in the end, as in spite of a low-key, home-made mini-album in 1992, A Short Break, he remained silent for the next few years, only appearing on others' albums, such as Ultramarine's United Kingdoms (1993) and John Greaves' Songs (1995).
Eventually, Wyatt started work on a new album in late 1996, having been offered free studio time by Phil Manzanera. For the first time since Nothing Can Stop Us, several guest musicians played on what became Shleep, released on the Hannibal label in September 1997. With this album, Wyatt has gained more media exposure than ever before, and many consider Shleep to be one of his very finest efforts. There isn't talk of a new solo album as yet, but 1999 brought Wyatt's fans fresh news, with a short series of concerts by the ensemble Soup Songs, formed by trombinist Annie Whitehead to perform songs from his solo repertoire. Wyatt was present at both British performances.
Apart from the usual guest appearances on other people's albums (most notably Pascal Comelade, Anja Garbarek and Bruno Coulais's soundtrack for the French film Winged Migration), Wyatt was mostly quiet for the next few years, although he was asked to select artists for the 2001 edition of the prestigious Meltdown festival, held in London's Queen Elizabeth Hall during June of that year. Wyatt himself didn't perform (except for a couple of invisible 'cameos' during the David Gilmour and Soupsongs concerts), but attended all of the three-week series of performances.
In 2002-03 Robert Wyatt was busy recording a new studio album, with such prestigious guests as Brian Eno, David Gilmour and Karen Mantler. The results, entitled Cuckooland (Rykodisc), were released in September 2003 to the usual barrage of critical acclaim, coinciding with an archival release, Solar Flares Burn For You (Cuneiform), consisting of his solo BBC sessions from 1972 and 1974 plus other old and new material. In early 2003, Wyatt was also the subject of a well-received one-hour documentary on BBC TV, "Free Will And Testament", for which he performed five songs 'live in the studio' with Annie Whitehead's SoupSongs band. In 2006 he appeared on stage playing cornet at David Gilmour's London concerts. In 2007 he released his latest solo album to date, Comicopera.