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‘Always finding nice things in a tragic situation’ - Robert Wyatt at 75

MILES ELLINGHAM meets the unique left-wing singer with his partner and muse Alfreda Benge at their Lincolnshire redoubt

PULLING into the market town of Louth after a two-hour bus ride through the green speckled Lincolnshire countryside, you feel thrown back in time to an earlier England, one that feels very far from the “music industry.”

It seems fitting that for the past two decades this has been the home of avant-garde cult musician Robert Wyatt and his partner Alfie Benge.

Today Wyatt will be 75 — which is something to celebrate, after a six-decade musical career that began as a teenager in the so-called “Canterbury scene.”

The scene (posthumously titled or, as Wyatt would have it, invented) was formed around Wyatt’s group, Soft Machine, who, with Pink Floyd, were the resident bands at London’s legendary hippie club UFO and went on to tour the US with Hendrix.

Wyatt was the drummer (he learnt to play in Robert Graves’s garden in Mallorca) and shared vocal duties with Kevin Ayers and, for a time, Daevid Allen.

But that is distant history. Wyatt has been a solo artist since a life-changing accident in 1973 that left him in a wheelchair and led to a shift in direction to vocalist-composer.

The following year saw his extraordinary, mesmeric record, Rock Bottom, which still makes any 100 best albums lists worth their salt.

And then came nearly 50 years of uncompromisingly political music that soundtracked international concerns from apartheid and the miners’ strike to Palestinian rights, through reinterpretations of such songs as Strange Fruit and Chic’s At Last I Am Free and, most famously, Shipbuilding (written for him by Elvis Costello), as well as seven further albums of his own compositions.

I can remember when I first heard Wyatt’s music. It was always present in the house as I grew up, as, like some kindly ghost, Wyatt’s lilting cadence would haunt my musical education, always stranger than the rest, always different.

Arriving in Louth, it was Wyatt who opened the door to me and took me through into his study, where we chatted over cups of tea and a big bowl of soup.

“I really identified with the painters of the early 20th century,” begins Wyatt, leaning forward in his electric wheelchair, “and I grew to envy how they worked: just make something in the studio, put it up in the exhibition and bugger off. I felt I was trying to change the musical idiom and make it more like painting.”

Wyatt’s a wonderful interviewee and you get the feeling that he’s always approaching an answer for the first time — he’ll sit in silence with a pained look until he finds his words.

However, his meandering train of thought is more difficult to render in print, and, this being an interview at 75, I nudge him back in time, asking how he had experienced the 1960s, forming Soft Machine and touring the US with Hendrix.

“I look back very fondly on that time, you know. Kevin [Ayers] wrote these lovely songs and Daevid [Allen] was a beatnik, so he brought all the literary and philosophical influences.

“We were very interested in the work of Alfred Jarry and the self-aware humour of pataphysics. We became instrumentalists but we weren’t comfortable with the hippy consensus, we preferred to use jazz musicians as a guide.”

Why was that?

“Well, the hippies came from this folkloric tradition, and I always thought that they tended towards a dismissal of black culture at the time. I got the feeling they sneered at stuff like Gloria Gaynor or Motown.

“Not all of them, of course — and Dylan was great … but I just saw a load of people who were so stoned that they thought the Grateful Dead was a good band.”

But what was it like living that way, among what we might call “rock stars?”

“Well it’s funny you should say that, actually one of the papers came to interview Soft Machine just before the America tour and when they saw us, they said: ‘Oh, you’re just some little hobbits…’

“So, I’m not sure we were ever really accepted. We played for people who were much more into the goal of ‘far-outness’ than we were in our lifestyles. We — well I, at least — spent most of the ’60s oddly domesticated, in my little Dulwich back-to-back.”

Did you sense any rebellion in the 1960s counterculture overall?

“Not rebellion, really. More like what the French would call ‘epater la bourgeoisie’ — a shock to the system, yes, but no systemic change, not where it mattered.”

Did you really punch [legendary US music promoter] Bill Graham in the face?

Wyatt laughs with a childlike sheepishness. “Well, I wasn’t used to that kind of ballsy American ‘get your ass over here’ and ‘You’ll never play in this town again!’ I don’t think we had a fight but there was certainly a disagreement.

“I told him that I didn’t give a shit about playing at his silly little club [San Francisco’s Fillmore] and that made him upset.”

I get the feeling Wyatt doesn’t enjoy confrontation but is plagued with a sense of justice.

Alfreda Benge, known to all as Alfie, is more than just a partner to Wyatt.

She has been his collaborator for 50 years, designing every album cover of his solo career and often writing lyrics for his songs. While she taps away, talking politics on Twitter, at her laptop, I ask her if she remembers how they met.

“I liked musicians,” she says, squinting. “They didn’t have to get up in the mornings, you see. As to how I met Robert, I got to know a young drummer who ended up with Robert’s wife.

“And I ended up seeing Robert play at [London’s] Rainbow Theatre.

“We didn’t really notice each other,” she goes on, ignoring protestation from Wyatt, “and Robert was always with these tall, glamorous women, so I never really considered him — because I thought I wasn’t, you know, one of them.

“Anyway, I ended up leaving him a note that said: ‘Dear Robert, how about it?’ and we went off to see The Kinks together. Things just went along from there, really.”

Benge’s arrival on the scene marked a change in Wyatt’s career. Not only would she radically galvanise his politics but much of his post-accident album Rock Bottom was addressed to her: the otherworldly Sea Song, notably, and the paired songs Alife and Alifib (so-named, said Wyatt, because one was in E and the other was in B).

Wyatt’s accident, he says, changed not just how he made music — he could no longer be a drummer with a band (leaving Soft Machine he had formed Matching Mole) — but resulted in a whole shift in consciousness.

This is readily apparent in the faraway dreamscape of Rock Bottom, which he’d started writing earlier in the year in Venice — accompanying Benge, who was working on Nicholas Roeg’s classic film Don’t Look Now — and subsequently finished in hospital.

“I was always finding nice things in what it meant to be in a tragic situation,” says Wyatt. “I found that lying in bed in hospital with somebody else making the beds and bringing the breakfast was an ideal way to write without the pressures of daily life.”

And no longer having to lead a band was liberating, too.

“Just getting people to come in and play — it isn’t like getting married to them, but they can do nice things for you on the spot.”

How did you find that “daydream” sound? It’s quite an aesthetic departure from the earlier work.

“Well, I think I do live in a sort of daydream. When I was writing it, I kept picturing these early 20th-century paintings that I always loved, landscapes and things, then I found myself mapping the sonic equivalent to these paintings. Also, Alfie introduced me to Astral Weeks, by Van Morrison, which really influenced me.”

And after that you went on to cover the Monkees’ I’m a Believer. How did that happen?

“Again, I didn’t like the class snobbery of how the rock world looked at pop music. I have a great admiration for pop music. I see it as industrial-era folk music really — despite the perniciousness of the industry. Though I should say Rough Trade was very good to me with all those singles they wanted.”

Wyatt produced an array of singles for Rough Trade throughout the 1980s and his recording of Shipbuilding, written for him by Elvis Costello and Clive Langer, is both timeless and redolent of its age: a profoundly political song about making battleships for the Falklands war.

Those years also saw him cover songs by Cuban and Latin American revolutionaries, singing in Spanish as naturally and idiosyncratically as in English, and another memorable partnership: with Jerry Dammers of The Specials, on The Wind of Change.

They were followed by his own hyperpoliticised album Old Rottenhat (1985), a reaction to hearing one of his songs on Radio Europe or Voice of America — what Wyatt calls “one of those propaganda channels” — and wanting to write songs that could not be misinterpreted.

It was this period in which Wyatt and Benge became active members of the Communist Party.

As Benge explains: “We were very pissed off with the Labour Party at the time. It was just before the Iranian revolution, when David Owen was still being nice about the Shah.

“My dad was a member of the Communist Party but I was always more of an anarchist — it was Robert who joined first.”

Why did he join?

Wyatt, thinks for a second. “I think I saw it as a haven from any kind of racism. There was still a lot of racism among left-leaning middle-class dinner parties.

“It seemed to me that the Communist Party was ideologically anti-racist at its core. The Communist Party were also doing good work in South Africa.”

You didn’t consider joining the Socialist Workers Party, or something like that?

“No,” says Benge, “I mean, we did know lots of Trots and got a lot of Trot newspapers. They would say they were internationalist but they weren’t — because they think no-one has got it right, and end up hating all the same governments that Nato hates. That being said, during the miners’ strike they did wonderful work.”

So why did you leave the Communist Party?

“We left when we moved to Lincolnshire. It just wasn’t feasible any more, we couldn’t get to any of the meetings and I think we were two of the three communists in Lincolnshire. And we were disappointed with the Blair administration: how they’d pushed the left to the sidelines. All the New Labour stuff — about which there was nothing new.”

When Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party, however, Benge and Wyatt became enthusiastic supporters. Wyatt even overcame his long history of stage fright to perform at a Momentum benefit, accompanied by Paul Weller, another serendipitous musical collaborator, at which he was introduced on stage by Corbyn.

We were talking only a week after Labour’s disastrous election defeat and Benge and Wyatt were clearly feeling the pain. Nonetheless, Wyatt’s take was, as usual, left-field. “We’ve witnessed a real phenomenon,” he says. “I am not a current affairs chap — I get too hurt by it — but I’d like to stress that I didn’t vote for Corbyn because I thought he could win, but because he was right.

“Honestly, he’s one of the bravest Englishmen since Captain Oates. He reflected the urgent desire to take that humanitarian spirit to the top and he held fast in the face of a really pernicious smear campaign. I’ll always be immensely proud that my last-ever gig was a fundraiser for his movement. It was a great honour to bow out that way.”

So Robert, having retired, is there any new music that gives you hope for the future?

“There are some great young jazz groups that I listen to. There’s this one group, Nerija, that I enjoy. And I’ve been finding Russian bands on YouTube — like Otava Yo, who make these wonderful music videos.

“But I think the idea of newness is jaded and, as an ‘avant-garde singer’ I often feel that the prefix is overrated. I’m more concerned with preventing things from vanishing, to be honest. Maybe It’s just my age, my Time Team attitude.”

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