Playlist: Robert Wyatt

The beloved eccentric and progressive jazz musician explains what Stevie Wonder does to his heart and what Benjamin Britten does to his head

Skokiaan by Louis Armstrong
This was the first thing I heard from over the Atlantic, when I was little. It was a 78; they had things called 78s in those days, which were the equivalent of singles today. It was quite a commercial song at the time, which I found out later was about an illegal drink in South Africa: hooch. I think it's interesting that he was making popular a South African song at this time (1954). I don't know what Armstrong knew of its history but it was a very amiable song that introduced me to other types of music. It was also one of my early introductions to what was called black music in those days.

Pierrot Lunaire by Schoenberg
Schoenberg was pretty much responsible for the twelve-tone system, breaking up harmony all together and seeing what happened next - although Anton Webern is actually my favourite twelve-tone composer.
This is a piece of sprecht-song (speech-singing). I was intrigued by this. Ever since I first heard it, I've been trying to work out what's going on with the voice, why you call some things singing and other things talking. People have said it's possible that, in terms of human evolution, singing predates talking. It makes sense when you thing of the noises people make, like when you reassure children. I used to have a four- or five-octave range but now I sing lower. My voice is light rather than high. I can do a more testosterone-y male voice but, to be honest, I can't be bothered. I like singing you can see through.

Little Sweep by Benjamin Britten
When I was a youngster I participated in an opera Benjamin Britten had written for children. It was quite hard, but not too hard that I couldn't sing along. This tune is actually in 5/4 time but children can pick stuff up fast, like with dialects. It would probably be considered strange, or part of an elite context, but it wasn't. Britten was a people's composer; I think he was influenced by Dickens' ideas about exploited people, in this case a chimney sweep. I suppose it might even have contributed to my own leftwing viewpoints, though I didn't really become politically alert and anxious until the late-70s when it looked like all the things my parent's generation had fought for were being betrayed and the idea of collective responsibility was being pooh-poohed in general. I thought it was great what Bernard Shaw said, "Only the mediocre are scared of egalitarianism".

Rio de Janeiro Blue by Randy Crawford
This is a personal one for me. It's a sentimental song, "You've gone away and I've got a feeing this is going to be the last of you". There have been times in the past, whenever Alfie, my wife, has gone away, when I'd get drunk and play this record. It's the record of Alfie's absence.

You Are the Sunshine of My Life by Stevie Wonder
This was our honeymoon song. I remember us listening to this in Alfie's flat in 1972. There were two or three fantastic Stevie Wonder LPs around at the time. It's the main record I remember from the period when the two of us got together. People are surprised at what a happy period it was because we got married just as I got out of hospital. People think it must've been a doomy period, but I don't remember it as such. With the help of some friends we found a place that was wheelchair accessible and moved in together. We didn't start writing together immediately; Alfie's contribution early on was visual arts, drawing and writing. It wasn't till much later, maybe the 1980s, when I started nicking her writing and sticking it into songs. I'd started writing more tunes than I had words for. She's written about 16 songs for me, and several for other people like Bertrand Burgalat and Monica Vasconcelos.

Rock Bottom by Robert Wyatt

When I was in hospital after the accident in 1973 [which left Wyatt paralysed] , I was writing stuff in my head. I'd started writing what became Rock Bottom and, after a few months, when I was up in my wheelchair, I found an old piano in the visitors' room, which luckily never had any visitors in it. I was trying to remember what I was writing so I wouldn't forget it when I left hospital. I was listening to the record I hadn't made yet, running these things over in my head so I wouldn't forget them as I had no access to recording or anything like that. In fact, it's a great way to write, to constantly go over things in your head. It got to the point where I felt I'd already listened to it before I'd even recorded it.

The Internationale
Everybody's got to have their own national anthem and this is mine. It's really an Onward Christian Soldiers for commies. People see nothing except for the enormous failures of the movement but I see a whole lot more than that. You can say that any set of beliefs has been misrepresented in the most appalling ways. Generally speaking, look at the history of western colonialism around the world, entire continents and civilisations buggered. The millions of people killed and battered around in south-east Asia and the antipodes, Africa, South America. And they're still at it; I just read recently that the US is desperately trying to undercut Evo Morales, Bolivia's first indigenous president. For God's sake, can't they just piss off. I see no humility or decency in any of these leaders that claim to be Christian. It's funny though, when Alfie went to Nicaragua, the two most common names for communists were Elvis and Jesus.

As told to Charlie Gilmour

The GuardianTramp

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