Robert was rubbish at school. Rubbish at the trumpet too, for which he swapped his violin, vexing his father, who declared there were no great concertos for trumpet. Robert ventured to suggest Miles Davis with Gil Evans, but his father scoffed. When his trumpet teacher lost patience with him, too, he attempted suicide. Figuring he’d make a useless adult, he thought he’d save himself the trouble, and swallowed a bottle of pills. After he’d had his stomach pumped, his headmaster suggested that Robert possibly was unhappy.
Fleeing school at 16, he found he was also rubbish at Canterbury Art College, although he could make an easy quid there modelling nude. More importantly, he began drumming with pop groups that, unlike most, played extended improvisations, because that’s how Robert had heard it done on jazz records.
Robert Wyatt’s earliest listening had been to his parents’ Stravinsky and Bartok records. His brother turned him on to jazz, and he’d reached puberty before he discovered pop on cafe jukeboxes. This unconventional grounding meant he never put a lid on possibilities, so jazzy ideas naturally infused his pop-making. “I’m just grateful to my dad and my big brother for stretching my ears before I even started,” he told me in 2013. When he began singing, he tried emulating Van Morrison, and was rubbish at that, too. But when the band turned to originals he instantly found his own sound – like a muted trumpet, and influenced by players rather than singers.
By 1967 Wyatt’s drumming, singing and composing were pioneering the melding of jazz and rock in Soft Machine. Unhappy at pedestrian instrumentals being favoured over his vocals, he left in ’71 to form Matching Mole (a cunning pun on the French for Soft Machine), and pursue his charming, amusing take on jazz-rock, his playing brimming with warmth and lyricism rather than the usual braggadocian virtuosity.
Matching Mole had two jazz-loving rockers in bassist Bill MacCormick and guitarist Phil Miller, and a serious jazz pianist in Dave MacRae, who, having gone from New Zealand to the US via a lengthy spell in Australia, had just finished with Buddy Rich’s band. Wyatt, the glue, aimed for a purer expression than displays of craft, loving the childlike quality in the later work of Klee, Miro and Picasso. Obsessions with technology and technique held little moral or emotional meaning for one who preferred to trust his instincts. These were never about zapping people between the eyes: the work should be the focus, not the artist.
After Wyatt wrote virtually all the first Matching Mole album, he encouraged his colleagues to compose for the second, Little Red Record, resulting in such gems as Gloria Gloom, a lights-out terror by MacCormick, featuring Brian Eno conjuring up the ghosts of purgatory on his synthesizer, while Beckett-like spoken-word interludes fade in and out, and a thundering groove erupts. Then there’s the sheer silliness of Starting in the Middle of the Day We Can Drink Our Politics Away, Julie Christie delivering a hilarious spoken-word account of a middle-aged virgin visiting a prostitute (Miller’s Nan’s True Hole), and God Song (“Is this some sort of joke you’re playing? Is it cos we didn’t pray?”). MacRae’s use of effects make his Fender Rhodes piano as sonically malleable as an electric guitar, which dovetails with Wyatt’s singing and melodic drumming, often using mallets rather than sticks.
Having finished recording, they toured Europe supporting Soft Machine – to Robert’s irritation. At breakfast after the last gig he announced the band’s demise. The others were shell-shocked. MacCormick eventually badgered him into forming a new band, but on June 1, 1973, Wyatt fell from a fourth-floor window at a party, and was paralysed from the waist down. His drumming career over, he created the masterpiece that is Rock Bottom.
In contrast to what he called “the hectic life of a biped musician”, he only made more albums when so pregnant with ideas that he had to give birth. Since 2014 he just plays trumpet along with jazz records at home.
Little Red Record steams on YouTube.