Soundtrack of my life: Robert Wyatt

The prog-rock pioneer on his love of jazz, falsetto singing, the thrill of meeting Bulgarian folk singers and why Pharrell Williams is as good as any of the 60s soul greats

Robert Wyatt was born in Bristol in 1945 to a psychologist father and BBC producer mother. At 21, he joined prog pioneers Soft Machine; at 25 formed his own group, Matching Mole; at 29, he fell out of a fourth-floor window while drunk, at a party, permanently paralysing himself from the waist down. His solo career proper began a year later, with 1974’s dreamlike Rock Bottom. He has had two top 40 hits: a cover of the Monkees’ I’m a Believer, which he fought to sing in his wheelchair on Top of the Pops, and the song Elvis Costello wrote for him, Shipbuilding, which became Rough Trade’s first top 40 hit. In recent years, he has collaborated with Björk, Paul Weller, Hot Chip and Brian Eno, continuing a relationship that began when he co-wrote 1/1, the piano track on Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports. Wyatt’s authorised biography, Different Every Time, is published next week by Serpent’s Tail, and a compilation of the same name follows in November on Domino. He celebrates his 70th birthday in January

The EP that featured Every Day I Have the Blues by Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Williams with Count Basie.


Every Day I Have the Blues by Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Williams with Count Basie (1956)

In the 50s, young people were rebelling against their mothers and fathers. Not me. I inherited a love of mainstream jazz from my father, whose youth was rudely interrupted by having to serve in the second world war. He loved Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Count Basie’s band, who I thought were wonderful. His arrangements weren’t complicated or sophisticated, because most of his band couldn’t read music, but their simplicity was fantastic. This is from the first EP I bought, four tracks on a piece of plastic. I still think this is a knockout duet.

Ooo Baby Baby by the Miracles.


Ooo Baby Baby by the Miracles (1965)

I used to have a very high range, but not any more. That’s the cigs and so on. But in the 1960s, even someone as quintessentially English as me loved Motown. I’d play this in breaks between rehearsals with Soft Machine, probably on my Dansette. I found it nice to hear songs and how they were done. Also, there were so many testosterone-fuelled voices back then, mainly because of the influence of the blues, but Smokey’s light falsetto was different. It came from a line of African-American music that’s gentler, but just as crucial – from the tenderness of doo-wop, and from gospel, to which so many things return. I have so little testosterone that I’m verging on being a different sex altogether. Ooo Baby Baby’s got no guitars in it either and I love that. English rock is all about beer and guitars. That’s why I don’t really fit in. I’m much more wine and keyboards.

Sunshine Of My Life by Stevie Wonder (1974).


You Are the Sunshine of My Life by Stevie Wonder (1974)

The reason that I stayed with Alfie [his wife, English artist Alfreda Benge] more than one night was that there wasn’t enough time to play her record collection! We celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary this year, so I suppose we’ll have to divorce when it finally runs out. When we were first together, we both loved Sly and the Family Stone’s Stand! – it had a bit of Hendrix about it, but mixed more with jazz. It was so fantastically inventive. Then came our love of Stevie Wonder, who was such a wonderful musician from day one. So many blind musicians are, because education at specialist schools in America is often more advanced and sophisticated. Also, those musicians are just concentrating on sound. This song reminds me of mine and Alfie’s honeymoon and the feeling you get when you finally find a friend. It makes you realise how lonely you were before.

Ostana Kera, Kleto Sirache by Kalinka Vulcheva.


Ostana Kera, Kleto Sirache by Kalinka Vulcheva (1974)

In the 70s, being a communist basically meant going to charity fundraisers all the time, for striking Turkish miners, striking British miners, anti-apartheid. I remember going to one for [socialist newspaper] the Morning Star, and you’d get records at these things from eastern Europe and Cuba. My favourites were by a Bulgarian folk singer called Kalinka Vulcheva, who had an extraordinary voice and style of singing, very beautiful and unusual. I met her after the cold war, at a folk concert in Whitby, quite by chance. Alfie spotted her – Robert! It’s Kalinka Vulcheva! – and I shivered at the thrill of meeting her. She panicked when I asked for her autograph because she could only write it in Cyrillic. To hear things from across the world, and then meet the person with that voice, was quite something.

British composer Benjamin Britten, with tenor Peter Pears.


Folk song arrangements by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears (1948)

This was something in my dad’s collection again, on a 78. A 78! His was of Scottish songs, from recordings Britten did with the tenor Peter Pears. The tunes in them are wonderful, but the chords sound so strange to us now – and that strangeness is what interested Britten. The thing about avant-garde musicians is they’re not just about looking forward. They also look back, far beyond that which other people do. It’s like looking at primitive paintings and trying to speak their language.

Happy by Pharrell Williams.


Happy by Pharrell Williams (2013)

When I’m not watching Russia Today, obviously, I’m watching pop TV. Even my son’s embarrassed by the infantilism of my tastes, but there’s some good stuff out there now. Pharrell Williams’s Happy – that’s absolutely fucking knockout. Williams is as good as any 60s soul singer and the song is brilliantly put together. It’s a great drum track, and there are only four chords or so, but they’re just enough. It’s really subtly done, absolutely spot-on. My granddaughter tells me I should totally disapprove of that other song he did, though. With someone else... something lines? Blurred Lines! That’s the one. Take it from me that I don’t like that one at all.


Interview by Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

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