Robert Wyatt: From Soft Machine to Solo Artist

One of the most idiosyncratic figures of the late 60s British music scene was the multi-instrumentalist jazz fusion anomaly Robert Wyatt. Originally starting out with the now-borderline mythical group the Wilde Flowers, Wyatt and Kevin Ayers formed Soft Machine, arguably the most important band of the Canterbury scene. Their debut album contained little Wyatt-penned material, instead focusing on the psychedelic vignettes of Ayers, tinged with the jazz influence of Hopper’s bass and Wyatt’s animalistic drumming.

It wasn’t until the group’s aptly named album Third that Wyatt truly announced his presence, with his swan song for the group, ‘Moon’, in June. A delicate piece which can be seen as a precursor to his solo work, it is almost entirely performed by Wyatt, his vulnerable voice sinking into the cacophony of bleeting organs and strutting bass lines in a nightmarish blend of the Nice and Ornette Coleman, forming the shape of prog to come.

After conflicts with the group about his alcoholism as well as increasing musical differences, Wyatt released his first solo album in 1970, The End of an Ear. A bizarre mix of free jazz improvisation combined with early tape manipulation, the album showed Wyatt fully embracing the surrealist approach that defined his Soft Machine work, and whilst the recording was juvenile, Wyatt continued to explore this aggressive instrumental direction for three more years with new outfit Matching Mole, although to less success than his previous band.

Tragically, in 1973 Wyatt became paralysed from the waist down after a fall from a second floor window. Whilst traumatic, this event fortunately added more coherence to his music, as he was no longer able to continue his manic drumming and self-indulgence, leading to his melancholic magnum opus Rock Bottom. The album is a more sombre affair than the delirious psychedelia of his earlier work but acts as a showcase for his broad musical talents, using more traditional song structures with ‘Sea Song’, juxtaposed with cathartic expressionist pieces like ‘Alife’, tied together by the sparse production of Nick Mason who allows the music to ebb and flow between Wyatt’s meek Bristolian cries.

Rock Bottom is perhaps Wyatt’s final masterpiece, amalgamating the styles and influences that defined his previous body of work, along with his trademark Dadaist lexicon to create this emotional monolith, singing as if he himself is simply lost in this sea of introspection. Wyatt himself continues to make albums, but ultimately it is these colossal works of pure vulnerability that have defined Wyatt’s career, his music now cast forever to be mentioned in the same breath as other avant-garde songwriters like Tim Buckley or Captain Beefheart: to be enjoyed, learned from, empathised with, but never fully understood.

Max Smith

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