Thursday, April 22, 2004

TOP 50 ALBUMS OF ALL TIME: # 42

ROBERT WYATT – Old Rottenhat LP

There are people who probably think Old Rottenhat to be a peculiar entry for a Top 50 list, not because it’s Robert Wyatt or because it’s a bad album, but simply because there aren’t many people who hail this as Wyatt’s best. It’s seen as the equivalent of listing Desire as your favourite Dylan album or something. I mean, it’s not a bad disc, but why the hell choose that?! Maybe so, but Old Rottenhat is still the Wyatt album for me.

Now that last comment is a pretty big statement from myself, coz I’m a Wyatt fan par excellence and, much like Brian Eno, I’ve somehow managed to amass nearly everything he’s ever done: all the solo albums and EPs, the Soft Machine LPs, the two Matching Mole discs and even similarly great records he’s appeared on, such as Eno’s Music For Airports. Not to toot my own horn (like the rest of the goddamn world really cares about Robert Wyatt), but I think that at least gives me a fairly educated view on the man.

Roughly ten years ago was when I first began investigating the world of Robert Wyatt. After reading incessant namedropping of his music from the usual suspects (Vertical Slit’s Jim Shepard, Ubu’s Dave Thomas, Chris Cutler/Fred Frith) for many a year, I was lucky to spot a cheap, secondhand vinyl copy of the old Virgin twofer, Rock Bottom / Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard. Upon the initial couple of spins, neither disc made much sense to me. It was definitely strange, unique, but what the hell to make of it? Looong songs, barely any percussion, all accompanied with lots of keyboard drones and Wyatt’s patented, falsetto wail. Damnit! Aren’t I supposed to really dig this guy? Of course! So I stuck to the program and drilled the records into my head over subsequent weeks. I’m lucky I discovered him when I did, because I simply don’t have that kind of patience (or “attitude”) any more. If music doesn’t make any sense to me within the first minute – and believe me, I’m a pretty tolerant guy: you should hear the godawful shit I listen to – it’s out the window.

So anyway, gradually my brain evolved to the stage where it comprehended Wyatt’s music. It soon liked it and then became rather obsessed with it. There’s really nothing to “get”, it’s just Bob’s shtick: a beautifully weird blend of psychedelic rock, free-form jazz, “avant-garde” composition and good ol’ pop songsmithery. I don’t know how much he really thinks about his music when he’s writing it, because there’s no-one else on the planet who sounds like him, but for some reason I can’t imagine a Robert Wyatt disc sounding like anything other than an album of his very own. He’s certainly had his aesthetic contemporaries, people like Tim Buckley, John Martyn, Can, Miles Davis – artists trying to make a “One World” musical blend where every genre – though namely acid-rock, free jazz, African and electronic sounds – blend into one, but then again, I’m never going to mistake a Tim Buckley or Can LP for one of Robert Wyatt’s.

Over the following years I developed a further taste for Wyatt’s ouvre: Nothing Can Stop Us, Shleep, Dondestan, his incredible debut, End Of An Ear, though it wasn’t until 1999 when I stumbled across this. I was due to leave for a possibly extended trip to the US that week and had boxed up just about everything valuable I owned and promptly offloaded it all at my parents’ house. Record buying was not on the menu… but wait a sec, let’s just see what’s in this Secondhand bin… Hmmm, only $5… Well, I really shouldn’t… Sir, it’s a deal! So, yeah, you can’t keep a good man down, or maybe you just can’t stop me from blowing wads of cash on goddamn music, but I buckled under the immense pressure of a Bob Wyatt disc I didn’t yet own sitting there in the corner looking all lonely with only a $5 price tag to comfort it, so I let it out of its misery and gave it a nice home. In my parents’ spare room for a couple of months.

I don’t think I actually came around to listening to this ‘til probably four or five months later (even though I was only in the ‘States for just over two months), but it hit home instantly: this was the Robert Wyatt album I’d been waiting for. Though recorded and released in 1985 – Oh, what a horrible time for British music (and kind of a weird flashback year for me; I mean, my ear-candy ca. 1985 was the Sex Pistols and the Return of the Living Dead soundtrack(!). Hey, you gotta start somewhere) – this is Wyatt at his best. Not only is it his peak blend of Rock Bottom-style extended song structure with more concise pop leanings, but it also contains his two best ever songs: “The British Road”, a political polemic pepped along with a motorik, metallic beat, and “P.L.A.” (or “Poor Little Alfie”) his stripped-back ode to his long-time partner/wife(?), Alfreda Benge. Much like Neil Young’s On the Beach, in which I keep on coming back just to hear “Ambulance Blues” one more time, these songs are always the first to touch needle. The fluff surrounding it’s pretty damn cool, too.

PROS: Put a stack of Robert Wyatt LPs in a pile and take one out. Very likely, you’ll have a great album in your hands. Along with the likes of Mark E. Smith, Scott Walker and Stephen Stapleton, he’s one of the very few Brits from the last 25 years I can really rely on.
CONS: Your enthusiasm for Labourite Marxism may gauge your love for some of Wyatt’s lyrical matter, though for me it’s not really an issue. Wyatt’s music also ain’t easily graspable. Rarely are there any instantaneous pop hooks or seething slabs of noise: his music cuts somewhere down the middle.
RELATED RELEASES: For my two cents, you absolutely need the following: 1990’s Dondestan (now released on Ryko as Dondestan (Revisited)); his amazing 1970 debut, End of An Ear (a staggering cut-up in spirit with Sun Ra, Tim Buckley ca. Starsailor and Can’s Tago Mago); and the 2003 Cuneiform compilation, Solar Flares Burn For You, which features old demo material and various extended experimental pieces

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