Monday, February 5, 2024

Cruel World 2023: Siouxsie, Iggy Pop, Human League, Billy Idol, Gang of Four, Gary Numan, Love and Rockets

CRUEL WORLD 2023

director's cut, Los Angeles Times, May 22, 2023

by Simon Reynolds

The day before Cruel World, the promoters tweeted out a weather advisory: “mostly sunny, high of 79, 100% chance of angst and despair. See you there.” 

In the event, the weather had other ideas. 

But on Saturday a horde of mope-rockers and Goths clad in sun-absorbing black descended upon Brookside at the Rosebowl, Pasadena. 

Quite possibly this was the densest concentration of fishnet in human history.

For many, the main draw was headliner Siouxsie, the Godmother of Goth, playing her first American concert in fifteen years. Indeed, Siouxsie merch was completely sold out by 4pm.  Other attractions for the dark-clad and doom-minded included Love and Rockets, an offshoot of Bauhaus (Goth godfathers and a highlight of 2022’s inaugural Cruel World) and Echo and the Bunnymen, who were originally lined up to play last year.

Cruel World has fun with the idea of misery as a shared alt-rock worldview. The festival’s three stages are named Outsiders, Sad Girls, and Lost Boys. There’s also a dance area, deejayed by someone called Club Doom Dave. Then there’s the name itself, derived from the suicidal kiss-off  “goodbye, cruel world”.

In Goth, the cruelty of the world doesn’t have a political dimension: it’s not a reference to economic inequality or the literally hateful policies being enacted all around this country. “Cruel” is a more timeless existentialist accusation about a sadness inherent to life itself. 

The connection between the bands and their fans was forged during adolescence, that time when sensitive souls start having deep thoughts. Yet most of this largely middle-aged crowd must surely now be well-adjusted and comfortable in their skin (not to mention comfortably off, given ticket prices that range from $159 to $799). Many even brought morose, awkward teenagers of their own.

The key to Goth’s transgenerational appeal is its odd blend of glum and glam. Before the term Goth settled into place, the emerging movement was briefly known as “positive punk.” That might seem an odd adjective given the dark worldview, but the positive part is the element of dress-up and cos-play, the sheer effort that goes into self-beautification. 

It’s a perennially seductive style whose sepulchral glamor appeals as an alternative to mainstream ideals of blondeness and tanned health—especially in SoCal.  The leather caps and steel chains, the heavy black eyeliner and whiteface make-up, the holey fishnets and ratted hair – these also serve as a beacon to fellow misfits, a way off finding your tribe while scaring off the normals. It’s a forbidding look that also suggests the forbidden –  a taste for sin and kink, with a hint of demonic cruelty. 

Yet despite the ungodly appearance, it’s probably the most gentle of youth subcultures: visually, a kick in the eye, but in truth, it’s Goths and their emo descendants who are often victims of violence rather than the other way round.

 Ironically, my favorite garment at Cruel World was a simple T-shirt bearing the slogan “No, I Don’t Want To Hear the New Stuff.” The wearer told me he’d printed it up in a special edition-of-one.






















The T-shirt speaks to the expectations of the fans who attends festivals like these that are full of legacy acts.  Our beloved artists like to believe they’ve only got better with age and still have new things to say. But we just want to hear the favorites that remind us of our youth.

Gary Numan didn’t seem to have gotten the memo. Despite making his name with doomy dystopian electropop, he stubbornly treated the audience to a heaping portion of late period stuff: grinding industrial rock from a phase when he appeared to be following the lead of Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson. Ironically, his earliest work as Tubeway Army featured much better guitar riffs. Numan did play his classic “Cars.” And you have to appreciate the effort he’s putting into looking the same as he did in his heavy-rotation MTV days. 



Not everyone attending Cruel World was a Goth and angst wasn’t the only thing on the menu. Squeeze (a last minute replacement for Adam Ant) sounded as cheery and ebullient as ever. Still boyish-looking at 65, Glenn Tilbrook sang the group’s post-Beatles classics like “Pulling Mussels From A Shell” with ageless sweetness.

Billy Idol is looking a little craggy these days and the rebel-sneer lip doesn’t curl up like it used to. But he was in fine voice and roused the second-stage crowd with hits like “Dancing By Myself” and “Rebel Yell,” interspersed with consummate showman patter. 

ABC and The Human League also come from that early MTV moment of the Second British Invasion, what people in the UK called New Pop: postpunk artists who glossed up and crossed over. Both hail from Sheffield in the north east of England,  an original bastion of Goth, but have no truck with miserabilism, writing songs  (“Tears Are Not Enough” and “Blind Youth” respectively) that are militantly optimistic. 

Then there’s Gang of Four, whose bleakness, inspired by the ravages of capitalism, is quite different from Goth’s, and who offset it with a grim resoluteness. They were as powerful a live band as ever, with singer Jon King exerting himself so vigorously he had to sit on the monitor at the front of stage between songs to catch his breath.

Drifting nearer the dark side, Echo and the Bunnymen have songs about death (“The Cutter”) and despair (“All My Colours”). But they are delivered with such drive and dazzle, the effect is uplifting. On songs like “Rescue,” Ian McCulloch’s sonorous baritone recalls Jim Morrison at his most majestic. Most of the Bunnymen’s songs traffic in windswept romanticism full of elemental imagery (titles like “Seven Seas” and  “The Killing Moon” – the latter prefaced with typical McCulloch swagger as “the greatest song ever written”). But politics figured briefly with “Never Stop,” a song of defiance originally released as a single at the height of Thatcherism. At Cruel World, this was prefaced by caustic comments from McCulloch about the late Conservative Prime Minister and her heartless proposal of a policy of “managed decline” for his once bustling hometown of Liverpool.  The Bunnymen didn’t go in much for stage craft:  there were some thin wisps of dry ice but the video screens were off and there were no back projections;  McCulloch stood stock still throughout. But the songs and the singing were more than enough.

Among the songs the Bunnymen played  was “Lips Like Sugar”, the nearest the band ever came to a hit in America. It’s always struck me as a killer chorus looking for a verse and pre-chorus.  Love and Rockets likewise similarly feel like a great guitarist looking for a matching rhythm section and some decent tunes.  As at last year’s Cruel World Bauhaus performance, Daniel Ash’s gnarly but intricately textured racket was a highlight.  But singers Ash and bassist Daniel J, lack the commanding presence of Peter Murphy. Their T.Rex  aping MTV hit “So Alive” retains its slight charm,  but the cover of  The Temptations’s “Ball of Confusion” remains perplexingly surplus to requirements.  



And then came the promised angst and despair – Cruel Nature struck. Midway through a taut and joyous set by The Human League on one stage and Iggy Pop’s middle-schooler grandson doing a funny little dance during “The Passenger” on another, the show came to an abrupt halt. The audience was instructed to leave the festival site and seek shelter because of an approaching lightning storm. Those nearest the main exit dispersed in orderly fashion and relative good humor, but for those deeper into the Brookside grounds, getting out was a more frustrating and protracted process.

And then the even crueler twist: the threatened bolts of lightning, the thunder, rain and pea-sized hailstones, never reached Pasadena.



To their and the artists's credit, Cruel World managed to reschedule the performances of Iggy Pop and Siouxsie for the following night. But this was scant consolation for those already flying or driving long distance journeys back to their hometowns across the country. Indeed, the fact that Siouxsie and Iggy would now be able to play longer sets arguably just added salt to the wound.

 “Déjà vu, baby!”  Iggy’s dazed-and-amazed greeting to the crowd acknowledged the Groundhog Day vibe of us all reassembling at the same place the next day.   

I first saw Iggy live in 1988 and he seemed venerable even then, a rock’n’roll survivor, albeit with implausibly limitless reserves of energy.  35 years later, he’s still ridiculously dynamic for a 76-year-old. Bounding around the stage with a disconcerting lope that suggests something’s off with his hip, he simultaneously owns his ancientness and defies it. His shirtless physique is fascinating in its combination of muscle and wrinkle. The skin looks like a topographical map of the Rockies. It’s like Iggy’s been carved into rock’s equivalent of Rushmore – and then broke loose to keep on marauding stages across the world.  























It’s clear that he’s not doing it for the money, but for the sheer joy of it. Iggy also understands the strength of his own material, sticking largely to Stooges and early solo highpoints.  













He can’t quite summon the lung-power for the cyclone-howl that splits apart the original “TV Eye”, so during that section sticks the microphone into his waistband where it pokes out suggestively. 



But for the most part, ably supported by his band, Iggy powers through deathless classics like “Raw Power,”  “Gimme Danger” , “Sick of You”, “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, “Search and Destroy”.   Clearly, a man determined to rock until he drops.

Dusk descends and finally the Goddess of Goth takes the stage. Siouxsie relives the trauma of the previous night,  joking that she told the fire department that the lightning was “just part of our fuckin’ light show.” 

Initially cloaked in a Medieval-looking hood, she’s wearing a silver jump-suit that shimmers in the light. Her voice has grown deeper with the decades but this lends her singing even more baleful authority, evoking some kind of vengeful spirit of matriarchy. 

 The set starts with “Nightshift” and “Arabian Knights”, both from Juju, the 1981 album that is Goth’s Rosetta Stone.  Two further Juju songs, “Sin In My Heart”, for which Siouxsie straps on a guitar, and “Spellbound”, are played later, underscoring the genre-foundational nature of the record. 

It’s Siouxsie without the Banshees – guitarist John McGeoch is dead, drummer Budgie is now Siouxsie’s ex-spouse, and who knows if bassist and band co-founder Steve Severin was invited or consulted? But the Banshees-surrogates onstage do a fine job duplicating the glassy guitar, the pummel-drone of the bass, and the tumbly-tribal rhythms. 

But then Siouxsie repeats the Numan Error. Instead of using her extended set time to disinter classics from A Kiss in the Dreamhouse or play the Goth National Anthem “Fireworks,” she plays no less than four songs from the solo album Mantaray. There’s a tune off the Batman Returns soundtrack and a pair of duds from 1986’s sparkless Tinderbox. 

One unusual choice that entrances is “But Not Them” from her percussion-and-voice side project The Creatures.  It’s noticeable that the video projections oscillate in quality and imagination in parallel with the tunes – “Christine” comes with a mesmerizing psychedelic kaleidoscope, whereas Batman tune “Face To Face” clunkily deploys cat’s eyes. 



Siouxsie’s return was a qualified triumph: there was a touch too much turgid dirge in the setlist, and as her energy levels flagged, the voice grew unwieldy and the enchantress-style arm movements started to seem perfunctory. 

But with a glorious rendition of of “Happy House” and the stunning encores “Spellbound” and “Israel”, the idol earned her ovation.     




Tuesday, January 30, 2024

happy birthday Robert Wyatt

Robert Wyatt

Going Back A Bit - A Little History of Robert Wyatt (Virgin)

Melody Maker, 1994

by Simon Reynolds

At last, a long-overdue anthology of stuff and nonsense by one of the great eccentrics of English art-rock, Robert Wyatt. A miscellany of bits and bobs from solo albums and the shortlived outfit Matching Mole, its main selling-point, O punter, is that it makes available again, CD-sharp, 5/6 of his all-time 1974 classic Rock Bottom. But infuriatingly, not only is the album's original sequence jumbled up, for no apparent reason, but one track is shunted onto the second disc, so that you can't even reprogram it into the correct sequence. And one of the best is left off altogether.

With most albums this wouldn't matter a jot, but Rock Bottom is structured around a compelling emotional/musical narrative – it's a complex allegory of Wyatt's disablement (he tumbled out of a window during a wild party), his subsequent emotional regression, and his slow recovery. Even in the wrong order, Rock Bottom dazzles: it's a masterpiece of oceanic rock to rival Buckley's Starsailor, A.R. Kane's 69, maybe even Davis' In A Silent Way. On 'Last Straw', aqueous keyboards, refractory guitars and imagery like "seaweed tangled in a home from home" conjure up a poignant vision of the amniotic heaven of the briny deep. 'Sea Song' begins as an eerie serenade to a mermaid, then Wyatt spirals off into soul-harrowing scat-falsetto aquabatics.

'Alifib' is Wyatt at his lowest ebb, gasping out tiny breaths of anguish amidst a lachrymal sound-web of harmonium, while 'Alifie' sees him reduced to baby-talk drivel as his dependence on his wife Alfie deepens. "I can't forsake you or forsqueak you, Alifie, my larder", dribbles Wyatt; eventually she puts her foot down – 'I'm NOT your larder'. This is the turning point, the first step on the road to recovery, and the (original) album ends with the wonderful eco-terrorist ditty 'Little Red Riding Hood', with Ivor Cutler ranting about how he lies down in the road to stop the cars: "yeah me and the hedgehog busting tyres all day long".

Wyatt emerged, via the Soft Machine, from the late '60s/early '70s Canterbury scene, along with Caravan, Gong, Kevin Ayers, Egg etc. As well as an interest in bending rock form in all manner of jazzy-folky-weirdy ways, what these groups shared was a very English whimsy – at once their charm and their liability. And so on the 13 minute 'Moon In June', Wyatt extemporises about the joys of doing a session for the Beeb, while 'Soup Song' is sung from the point of view of one of its reluctant ingredients, a slice of bacon. Even Wyatt's lovesongs are skewered by irony. In the wonderfully sentimental 'O Caroline', Wyatt warns his sweetheart "if you call this sentimental crap you'll make me mad", while 'Calyx' is full of oddly phrased praise: "close inspection reveals you're in perfect nick".

Wyatt's wonderful voice is why he gets away with it whereas, say, Kevin Ayers mostly grates: he always sounds simultaneously wry and earnest, ironic and heart-felt. Damp, lugubrious, resolutely colloquial, totally unrock'n'roll (like a cross between Peter Skellern and Roland Kirk), Wyatt's voice could be the closest thing to an authentic "English soul" this nation's produced.



Robert Wyatt & Friends

Theatre Royal Drury Lane 8th September 1974
Observer Music Monthly, November 20th 2005

by Simon Reynolds

Long bootlegged, this glorious live album documents an intriguing moment in UK rock history, when the rock mainstream and the outer-limits vanguard were in bed together.  Three decades on, it’s hard to imagine a contemporary equivalent to the supergroup that Wyatt convened in September 1974: multiplatinum-selling musos Mike Oldfield and Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason rubbed shoulders with out-jazz players Julie Tippetts  and Mongezi Feza, and with avant-proggers such as Henry Cow’s Fred Frith, Hatfield and the North’s Dave Stewart, and Soft Machine alumnus Hugh Hopper. There’s also a cameo appearance from Ivor Cutler,  John Peel’s favorite comic eccentric. Peelie himself features as the show’s compere, informing the long-haired, afghan-wearing audience that the musicians will be uncharacteristically sober tonight, because the door to the Theatre Royal bar has been locked for fire-and-safety reasons.  


The wondrously woozy music played that evening must have been intoxication enough, surely, for performer and listener alike. After the Dada-esque sound-daubings of “Dedicated To You But You Weren’t Listening”, the bulk of the set consists of a run-through of Rock Bottom, the Wyatt album released earlier that summer, a crushingly poignant masterpiece shadowed by the singer’s paralysis following his fourth-floor tumble during a wild party. “Sea Song”,  as mysterious and beautiful an oceanic love ballad as Tim Buckley’s “Song To the Siren,” opens up into a fabulous extended improvisation, a malevolent meander of fuzz-bass and glittering keyboards that’s something like an Anglicized Bitches Brew. Wyatt’s falsetto spirals up into ecstastic scat arabesques, as though his spirit is trying to escape his shattered body.  “Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road” --its title a whimsy-cloaked allusion to the accident--is equally stunning. Feza’s trumpet again channels Miles, while Wyatt’s delirium of anguish is only slightly softened by the English bathos of lines like “oh dearie me, what in heaven’s name..”  The singer actually miauows at the start of “Alifib,” a gorgeous quilt of shimmering keys and glistening guitar (courtesy of Oldfield, then regularly voted the top instrumentalist in the UK by music paper readers). The feline thread is picked up with “Instant Pussy,” originally recorded by Wyatt’s short-lived band Matching Mole and featuring yet more gorgeous abstract vocalese from the wheelchair-bound bound singer. “Calyx”, a different sort of love song, features killer lines like “close inspection reveals you’re in perfect nick”, and the set ends with a rampant, edge-of-chaos take on  “I’m A Believer,” the Monkees cover that took Wyatt into the UK hit parade. 

Alarming but true: the best record released in 2005 is a time capsule from 31 years ago.








































KEVIN AYERS and ROBERT WYATT
unpublished piece owing to miscommunication across Guardian departments, fuckers

by Simon Reynolds


“I could hardly recognise him at first,” says Kevin Ayers. ”But there, under that great beard, was Robert and he hadn't changed a bit.” The singer is recalling his reunion after over thirty years separation, with Robert Wyatt, his former band mate in The Soft Machine. “As wonderful as it was odd”, the meeting took place in the summer of 2006 while Ayers was recording his comeback album, The Unfairground, his first record since 1992. In odd, wonderful synchrony. it came out last month only weeks before Wyatt’s own Comicopera.

Intense friendships always seem like they’ll last forever, but time and the way of the world wears them away. Suddenly, decades have passed since you last saw that inseparable soul-mate. Wyatt and Ayers were co-founders of The Soft Machine, in their heyday second only to Pink Floyd as a psychedelic trip band at the swirling kaleidoscopic heart of Swinging’ London. But after their debut album and a gruelling tour of America supporting the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Ayers went off to start a solo career. Many thought he was set to be a big star, his tousled blonde mane and debonair charm making him the missing link between Syd Barrett and Bryan Ferry. “I think Kevin got waylaid by us nutters,” says Wyatt, meaning The Soft Machine and its anarcho-surrealist mish-mash of jazz and acid rock. “There was a window there, a moment when Kevin, with his songs, could have been up there in the charts, as a Donovan type figure.” Ayers is bemused by this notion that he was diverted from his true destiny. “Donovan? Good heavens. I am glad that I ended up as Kevin Ayers! And the people from Soft Machine were a big part of that.”

Wyatt and Ayers originally met in 1961. “Someone had told Kevin, ‘oh there’s one other bloke in East Kent with long hair,” says Wyatt. “You’d get on.” They did. “Robert is an incredibly important figure in my life,” says Ayers. “He got me started. I liked him and he was doing music so I wanted to do music too. Robert was extraordinary, full of ideas and able to talk about art and books. I had never been in that sort of atmosphere.” Daevid Allen, a wandering Australian beatnik, was lodging with Robert’s mother--the infinitely tolerant and artistically supportive Honor Wyatt, a journalist. He befriended the teenagers, precociously turning them on the hippie values of drugs, sex and free spirited nomadism. He whisked Ayers off to Balearic bohemian paradise of Ibiza, where “one could get by with absolutely no money.” Recalls Ayers, “we hitchhiked down there and lived off fruit from the trees and fish we would catch.”

Allen, Ayers, and Wyatt formed The Soft Machine with Mike Ratledge, a keyboard-playing prefect Wyatt had known at school in Canterbury. One of the great myths of The Soft Machine is that they were the product of a progressive school favored by Canterbury’s artists and intellectuals. “Actually, the Simon Langton School is a totally respectable, conservative grammar school,” says Wyatt, who remembers struggling academically and getting regular canings. He left at sixteen with no qualifications, having swallowed a whole bottle of his father’s multiple sclerosis pills because he was “terrified of having to go back to school”. Still it is true that the Soft Machine came from highbrow, arty backgrounds. “Robert was very lucky to have had parents who were interested in ideas and very open, you could talk with them about anything and they would listen,” recalls Ayers, describing the Wyatt household in Lydden as “an absolute refuge.”. Later, after Wyatt’s father died, his mother bought a small semi-detached house in West Dulwich and the entire band--plus girlfriends--lived there. “It was when the group were starting out,” recalls Wyatt. “I don’t how we all fitted in there. But we did and we made our racket and my mum was fine about it.” Says Ayers, “There were plenty of dishes piling up in the sinks and unmade beds. But everyone was being creative in one way or another, or being intellectual or questioning and this came out in various forms such as poetry or art, but most of all music. Soft Machine was the only family I felt I ever had. We were a group of middle class boys from literate backgrounds, into jazz and beat writers, and we went off together on this incredible ride.”

The Soft Machine weren’t the first scions of the haute bourgeoisie to enter the rock world. But crucially, they were the first not to conceal their education or their accents. Indeed, alongside the equally well brought up Syd Barrett, Ayers was the first English rock vocalist not to sing in an American accent. Wyatt, who sang as well as drummed, followed suit on the group’s second album. “At first I was all, “waaugh, bab-eee,” he says, mimicking a standard American rock voice. But then Wyatt developed his own idiosyncratic style of falsetto singing, a wondrous blend of frailty and agility, melancholy and whimsy. “It sounded like me talking, only with notes.”

The Soft Machine immediately became central figures on the London psychedelic scene. Yet in many ways their orientation was always jazz rather than rock. Wyatt even describes himself as a Fifties person who felt “bemused because the ‘rich flowering of culture’ in the Sixties was really just the mainstreaming of all these things that had been underground in the Fifties, like drugs.” Beyond specific ideas to do with harmony, rhythm and improvisation, what they derived from jazz was “a kind of recklessness”, a spirit of discovery captured in Miles Davis’s instruction to his musicians: “play beyond what you know”. This freeform approach, combined with rock-derived but unheard-of-in-proper-jazz techniques like distortion and effects, made The Soft Machine ideal for the sensory overload aesthetic of clubs like UFO, where they played seemingly every other week in 1966-67.

But Ayers’s pop sensibility was increasingly at odds with where The Soft Machine’s music was going, which was long, abstract pieces. ““Kevin had bravely soldiered on as bass guitarist in what had become really an instrumental band,” says Wyatt. “He’d accumulated this stash of songs, but there really wasn’t room for them in the band anymore.” The tour of America with Hendrix divided the band further: Wyatt enjoyed going on the piss and the pull with Mitch and Noel of the Experience, Ayers found the whole rampage of buses, booze and birds a gruelling affront to his sensibilities. The group split up on its return. When they reformed, they invited Hugh Hopper, another alumnus of Simon Langton, to be the bass player. Wyatt enjoyed drumming in a wild, freeform style unsuitable for backing pop songs and happily went along with the jazz-rock direction. But after three more albums, he too was squeezed out as the Soft Machine became an increasingly uptight fusion outfit with little room for playfulness.


As important as The Soft Machine was to their development, few would disagree that Wyatt and Ayers came into their own as solo artists. Initially, Wyatt formed his own Softs in the form of Matching Mole, but after a drunken tumble from a high window left him paralysed below the waist, he had to give up drumming and the gang mindset of the performing band, and reinvent himself as a studio-bound artist. Started before the accident but finished and informed by that shattering trauma, 1973’s Rock Bottom is Wyatt’s masterpiece. From “Sea Song” (an oblique portrait of his new love and lifelong partner-to-be Alfreda Benge, a.k.a Alfie ) to “Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road” (which exorcised his post-paralysis anguish via bathos-laden turns of phrase like “oh dearie me”), the album combines experimentation, emotion and melody with an exquisite delicacy.

Meanwhile, starting with 1969’s Joy of A Toy, Ayers launched an equally enthralling career, his output ranging from light-hearted ditties like “Clarence In Wonderland” to nihilistic noise-scapes like “Song from the Bottom of A Well”. Another highpoint was “Decadence”, a rippling, rhapsodic paean to his friend and fellow-traveler in hedonism, Nico, an ice queen “suffering from wear and tear” who perpetually slips back into “liquid night” despite the out-stretched arms of her lovers. “I never kiss and tell,” he says tartly when asked if he and Nico were ever involved.

Ayers and Wyatt belonged to a milieu of English mavericks who recorded for “progressive” labels like Harvest, Island, Charisma, and Virgin. Sharing a similar sensibility of gentle humour and genteel experimentalism, this was an incestuous scene, the musicians frequently collaborating or guesting on each other’s albums. The labels, similarly, exuded a longhaired, we’re-only-playing-at-being-a-record-company vibe. Virgin seemed more like an arts council for weirdos than the Industry. “It wasn’t really that idealistic,” says Wyatt. It’s just that “the Railway Enthusiast”--his nickname for Branson--“had noticed there was a market for bands who could sell albums without hit singles, based around the college gig circuit.” Ironically, Virgin would later maneuver Wyatt into recording a single--a cover of the Monkees’ “I’m A Believer”--which actually did become a hit and got the wheelchair-bound singer onto Top of the Pops.

Ayers, who’d left the laidback Harvest, was facing similar pressures. His new label Island were convinced they could turn him into a big star. “It really messed me up and I lost complete confidence in what I was doing.” It was the start of an unhappy period of desultory recordings and feeling disconnected from the music scene, with Ayers alternating between his houseboat in Maida Vale and long sojourns abroad.

When punk arrived, the progressive scene was deemed the domain of “boring old farts”. The new dogma declared that rock had been enfeebled by its attempts at maturity and sophistication. It was time for a rejuvenating jolt of teenage proletarian energy. The Fall’s Mark E. Smith singled out the Canterbury Scene--The Soft Machine and all the welter of bands and solo artists it spawned--when he declared “rock was ruined when the students took it over”. Wyatt sympathizes with this attitude, which with typical kindliness he interprets as “a sincere attempt to reassert that rock music was a music whose vitality came from the bottom up in terms of social power structures”. Still, there was a moment there in 1976-77 when the mellow meandering of a whole generation of artists--everyone from Brian Eno to John Martyn--was deemed irrelevant.



A few years later, the middle class cadres within punk stopped worrying so much about maintaining their fake-prole accents and hiding their Hatfield and the North albums. Punk turned into postpunk and the students took over again (had they ever really been dislodged?). Many of the new bands looked back to the music they’d been listening to before The Ramones and “Anarchy in the UK”. These groups, such as Scritti Politti (whose vocalist Green was hugely indebted to Wyatt’s “English soul”), wanted to move beyond straightahead punk, beyond rock itself, and the Canterbury Sound was a suggestive example of a concerted attempt to un-rock rock. Wyatt was coaxed back into recording by Geoff Travis, the boss of Rough Trade (home to Scritti). “Virgin were cross and said I couldn’t do albums for another label, so we decided to do a series of singles, cover versions.”

During his period of disengagement from music, Wyatt had become politically engaged: he started tuning into foreign radio stations, including Radio Moscow, and reading the Morning Star. Eventually he joined the Communist Party because its internationalism fit his own “xenophilia”. He explains, “if anybody starts to build up a heat against Johnny Foreigner, sort that chap out, my instincts are to take sides with Johnny Foreigner. They used to call it being a traitor but actually I’m just a xenophile.” The Rough Trade singles included versions of Latin American revolutionary songs, a pro-Stalin ditty from 1940s America, a tune called “Trade Union” by a Bengali group based in Brick Lane, and most famously, Elvis Costello and Clive Langer’s anti-Falklands War ballad “Shipbuilding”.

Ayers is a xenophile if anybody is. He spent his early childhood in Malaysia, “running around a beach and completely lost in my own world “. When his family returned to Herne Bay, the twin culture shock of England’s grey-skied, grey-faced repression and being plunged into boarding school aged 12 was a massive trauma. Ironically, for an artist who is regarded as quintessentially English, Ayers has spent most of his life since that “homecoming” trying to escape England, traveling all over the world and eventually settling in France. “Sunnier climes have always been more compatible to me--people there are so much more relaxed and have time for the good things in life like good food and wine.”

* * *

In 1992 Ayers declared, “Between the ages of 17 and 40 I had a great time, no grounds for complaint whatsoever. My problem is just that I don't know what to do with the rest of my life." For both of the ex-Softs, the Eighties and Nineties were…. variable. Wyatt alternated between sporadic recording and periods of depression, partly induced by “the political weather… you can get a very cold draught sometimes.” Both artists have had struggles with alcohol, culminating this year with Wyatt going sober and quitting the potions he’d always seen as essential to loosening his creativity. Comicopera’s first “act” partly concerns the deleterious effects of his drinking on his relationship with Alfie (who wrote a lot of lyrics on the album), a syndrome she has described as “bereavement within a marriage.”

Both Comicopera and The Unfairground deal with aging, that sense of twilight memorably captured by Dylan a few years ago with the lines “it’s not dark yet/but it’s getting there.” Serenity and wisdom have eluded both artists. In one song, Wyatt sings, at once wry and deadly earnest, of envying Christians and Moslems for their certainty, their confidence that God has got their back. After the first act dealing with personal relationships, and a second moving out into the real world of politics and war, the final section sees Wyatt casting around for “solutions” via a series of cover versions that touch on spirituality, revolution, surrealism, and free improvisation. The Unfairground, meanwhile, exudes a worldweary confusion distilled in the line “I don’t understand anything as I grow older/Nothing seems to be any clearer”.

“When you get to a certain age the inevitable crumbling becomes very real,” Ayers admits. “It’s how you deal with that is the challenge. Robert said to me a very long time ago that I was the sort of person who would end up an old man on a park bench feeding ducks and wondering why people weren't nicer to each other!” Yet for all its bleakness, The Unfairground sounds sprightly and springheeled: falling in love was a major catalyst for Ayers even making a record again. And Comicopera’s sheer delight in strange and marvellous combinations of sounds is a tonic. In the end, there aren’t answers but there are consolations, the highest (and healthiest) being music and friendship. Both The Unfairground and Comicopera involved a company of musician pals: Ayers called on 26talents, among them folk singer Bridget St. John and Hugh Hopper, while Wyatt’s “imaginary gang” contained such seeming incompatibles as Brian Eno and Paul Weller. “I say imaginary cos they were never in the same room at the same time,” he chuckles. “I do believe in doing that, but I’ve found that often grumpiness ensues.”

Parts of The Unfairground were recorded at the same studio, owned by Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera, where Wyatt recorded Comicopera. Hence the reunion last summer. “It was really great to see him again,” says Wyatt. “He’s gone through a lot of problems, battling the demons. And he’s looking battered, but he’s survived. And it was nice because I had the opportunity to say ‘Look, Kevin thanks very much for your tunes at the beginning’. Without his natural ability to write proper songs, The Soft Machine would have been hard pressed to cobble together much convincing original material of our own.”

Wyatt actually appears briefly on his old friend’s record, albeit as a disembodied vocal texture, sampled and listed in the credits as The Wyattron. “It’s not Robert, but it is a memory of Robert,” says Ayers. “And that makes a lot of sense to me, as that is what I have.”


Wyatt and Ultramarine 
































^^^^^^^^^

other stray fragments on Wyatt: 

from Sex Revolts


Laziness was subversive in the (idle) hands of the counterculture; work
was to be replaced by 'play power'. The Soft Machine are classic examples of
late '60s layabouts...  Kevin Ayers called one of his backing bands the Soporifics and wrote
songs like 'Butterfly Dance' in which he declared that 'everything is play'. In
'Diminished But Not Finished', he renounces all ideologies in favour of an
agnostic self-indulgence.  His whole oeuvre is bathed in a sun-kissed
insouciance; it seems to take place, as Dave Maready put it, in 'an endless
summer on someone's else's money circa 1970'. The pinnacle of his hermetic
hedonism is 'Song From the Bottom Of a Well': for Ayers, the universe is just
'a comfortable bath'. He happily drowns himself in the womblike well, laughing
at a world whose toil and turmoil seems absurd. Robert Wyatt's solo albums also
courted infantile regression.  But even after his conversion to militant 
Communism, Wyatt could still confess, 'I've always been one to shirk responsibilities if 
there was an opportunity' and 'my ideal state of life would be one of total 
inactivity.... I don't approve of these people charging about all the time'.....

In Rock Bottom (1974), Robert Wyatt created one of rock's most astonishing
and poignant visions of an undersea paradise. Like ambient, Rock Bottom was
conceived in a hospital; an intoxicated Wyatt had tumbled from an upstairs
window during a wild party at his home and broken his back.  The album aches
with the anguish of disablement (Wyatt has spent the rest of his life in a
wheelchair), while its woozy, refractory sound simulates the effects of heavy
anaesthetic.  The title, Rock Bottom, plays both on the idea of reaching an
emotional abyss, and some kind of escape to a subaquatic sanctuary (an
environment where Wyatt's mobility and grace could be recovered, in the
absence of gravity). The cover depicts a seascape in cross-section: Wyatt's
head and torso bob above the surface and he holds a bunch of balloons in his
hand, but under the surface we can see that he hasn't got any legs, just
tentacles or fronds of seaweed.

    The opening 'Sea Song' sees Wyatt serenading his mermaid lover.  Their
trysts take place with the rising of the full-moon, its tidal pull impelling
her blood to him: they are both moonstruck lunatics. Then Wyatt spirals up and
off into tremulous, bubbling scat, a voluptuous agony of freeform vocal plasma
midway between muezzin prayer wail and orgasmic shudders--a carnal polyphony
that rivals Tim Buckley's Starsailor. In 'A Last Straw', the oceanfloor is 'a
home from home'. The oozy, aqueous synths, refractory horns, and imagery of
taking refuge inside the mammary gland suggest that the briny deep Wyatt
describes is really the 'inner ocean' of the female body.

'Alifib' reaches the nadir of despair, vocally reduced to wracked,
barely-there exhalations. This track and its sequel, 'Alife', are wordplays on
his wife's name, Alfie: Wyatt, in his abject dependency, has regressed to the
condition of a nursling at the breast. He calls her 'my larder': his neediness
is oral, a craving for the limitless plenitude of the infantile phase. Sense
degenerates into dribbled babytalk, as the music grows ever more sinister and
miasmic. He's reached rock bottom, his lowest ebb, and a sax takes over,
babbling free-form primal scream therapy. But then a woman's voice speaks
firmly: 'I'm not your larder'.  It's Alfie, putting her foot down, and
signalling Wyatt's re-emergence from the foetal position, his coming to terms.

^^^^^^^^^^

from another project as yet unborn 

Robert Wyatt, Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard

A motley meander compared to its immaculately immersive predecessor Rock Bottom, this 1975 album ranges from the woozy “Solar Flares” (the soundtrack to a short experimental film) to the melodically fragmented “Muddy Mouse”, on which Wyatt vocally mimics the sound of a muted trumpet to exquisite effect. “Soup Song” is a deliciously daft ditty sung from the point of view of one of the broth’s reluctant ingredients, a slice of bacon.

Matching Mole, Live In Concert

Formed by Wyatt after leaving Soft Machine, Matching Mole continues that group’s original playful spirit – the name itself is a sly twist on “machine molle”, French for  “soft machine”. The highlight here is the first half of “Instant Pussy”, a lattice of wordless warbles from Wyatt layered over gently shimmering keyboards. The rest is gnarly and frenetic jazz-rock akin to Mahavishnu Orchestra. 



bloggage on the Canterbury scene



the pre-punk Virgin Records story


snippet on "Grass", one of Wyatt's series of Rough Trade singles 

 Violence of a different sort is the subject of "Grass", a darkly witty allegory about authoritarianism originally written by the late, great Ivor Cutler but covered here by Robert Wyatt, a pre-punk innovator who thrived in a postpunk world of anything-goes. Backed by the shimmering tablas and shehnai of East London Bangladeshi outfit Dishari Shilpee Gosth, Wyatt plays the role of guru imparting wisdom to an acolyte, the power relation underlined by lines like “while we talk I'll hit your head with a nail to make you understand me / I have something important to say."




Now this track, as heard on the NME / Rough Trade C81 cassette, might be the first thing I ever heard by Robert Wyatt




Mind you, possible that I heard one or other of the Rough Trade singles on Peel - "Caimenera", even "Stalin Wasn't Stalling" or "At Last I Am Free"

Wyatt appears twice on C81 - his keyboards flicker through Scritti "The 'Sweetest Girl'", the curling synth for sure is him, maybe the piano too?




The first record I ever bought by Wyatt was "Shipbuilding". Great 7 inch single sleeve. 







On one of the send-off-for-cheap NME cassettes, Mighty Reel, there's a lovely version of "Round Midnight" by Wyatt. 



Same cassette starts with a fab tune by King Sunny Ade... NME expanding minds in those days






Me and Mr. Wyatt, in the green room (green tent?) at  the Hay Literary Festival, 2007, prior to me interviewing  him live onstage. Pix by Richard King. 

I had no idea I was such a gesticulator until I saw this photo.




Oddly enough, on Sunday night - after midnight, so technically Monday, certainly Monday UK time - I started watching this doc on YouTube about Robert Wyatt. Unawares that it was actually his birthday. 



Not a doc about Wyatt but one for which he did the soundtrack - the Animals Film - and if you like the "Born Again Cretin" moan-mode, this has some lovely wordless 'voice as muted trumpet' alongside eerie detuned synth smearage and chaotic drum smashige... 


one of his most avant outings in some ways, wonder why it's never been reissued (perhaps it was and I didn't notice? ). My memory is so terrible I can't recall if I picked this second-hand on vinyl or not....  if not, more fool me...  

The film, by Victor Schonfeld & Myriam Alaux, is about human exploitation and mistreatment of animals.... and also animal rights activists... narrated by the Wyatt-Benge family friend Julie Christie, who gave them a house or flat after the accident...