It was thanks to a rather furious online bookshop review that I realised how much time I’d wasted by not listening to Soft Machine.
Looking for a bookshop in Toronto, I read of one that was staffed by “confused people who are probably on heroin”. Buying a stack of counter-cultural peculiarities, I asked what music they were playing. It was Soft Machine’s first album. Then, I went to do a show with an astronaut. Life’s alright.
Radio 3 is celebrating Soft Machine’s original drummer and a solo artist for many years since, Robert Wyatt, with a Late Junction recorded in his home. It is a lovely, relaxed conversation with Verity Sharp, broken up with smatterings of off microphone kitchen conversation as coffee is made and cheese is mulled over.
Robert Wyatt lives in the market town of Louth having given up on Twickenham many years ago, partly down to its restrictions. These included the problems of neighbours complaining about the noise when Brian Eno came around and they started creating sounds and music. How many would dream of their neighbourhood noise disturbance being Eno and Wyatt?
When Björk came to Louth to record, Wyatt was frozen with fear so sent her into town. She created the sort of spectacle that becomes saloon bar chatter for decades.
How many would dream of their neighbourhood noise disturbance being Brian Eno and Robert Wyatt?
Wyatt lives with his wife, Alfie, who is often his lyricist. “In the early days I didn’t really care what the words were, it was just to give my voice something to do,” he recalled, but reading some of Alfie’s journals, he saw how her thoughts and words could fit so perfectly with his music. Their work Shrinkrap is a particular delight.
The programme mixes Wyatt’s works with other musical inspirations. Though often lauded for his experimental work, he is also careful to heed the words of Charles Mingus: “The further music gets from song and dance, the further it gets from anything very much”. Wyatt is aware of the musical hierarchy of snootiness, that classical looks down on jazz while jazz thinks itself above rock‘n’roll. His thinking is not so restrictive.
Over the 90 minutes, we hear operatic tenor Peter Pears singing Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings; The Jimi Hendrix Experience; Balinese Monkey Chant and Ivor Cutler. One of the great musical eccentrics, Cutler would come to Wyatt’s house and they would play Bulgarian folk music – this not being Twickenham, no one would complain. The Cutler choice is the astutely titled “Good Morning! How Are You! Shut Up!”
He also talks of his political work, he would rather not sing about it, but he feels he has to as the sense of injustice in life is too great.
This is radio to eavesdrop on and learn from.