“On Robert Wyatt”
by Squid’s Laurie Nankivell
To coincide with the recent release of Robert Wyatt’s compilation
“His Greatest Misses” on vinyl for the first time,
Squid’s Laurie Nankivell writes about his love for the incredible songwriter.
I recently picked up Robert Wyatt’s biography, Different Every Time whilst on a writing trip in Margate. A bleak but affirming week spent setting the tone for some new music; the biography was a good companion to have, gently inspiring me as he has done over the past 15 years.
My first memorable interaction with Robert’s music was hearing ‘At Last I Am Free’ belting out from the car stereo on the way to the Brecon Beacons for a camping trip, my dad loudly proclaiming, “Isn’t this the most jubilant song in the world!” as we passed atop the Welsh hills.
From then on Robert’s music has slowly crept its way into my life, informing and educating me as I began my own musical explorations. Robert’s career has been instrumental in shaping a lot of the bands I listen to today, and his continuous musical progression is something I aspire to.
His approach as a songwriter is inspiring in a variety of ways. Musically he’s never been afraid to push things in an experimental direction whilst his lyrics and bare falsetto often keep his brand of experimentalism within a very soulful yet political space, something that is oft tricky to navigate. His use of instruments, without ever being too virtuosic, is very musical especially his drumming. Some of my favourites from His Greatest Misses include ‘Little Red Robin Hood Hit The Road’; without a doubt one of the most enthralling pieces ever made, along with it’s partner ‘Little Red Riding Hood…’ on Rock Bottom which is a must listen if alone for Mongezi Feza’s palindromic trumpet playing, and ‘Sea Song’; a beautifully aquatic love song.
He’s also someone who writes politically, without being too on-the-nose or being known in the mainstream as a political songwriter whilst managing to convey as much meaning across as those writers. Songs such as Robert’s version of ‘Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’’ with its military-style chanting gives a stark look at ‘The Führer and its vermin’; ‘Gharbzadegi’, meaning ‘Westoxification’, ‘Westernitis’ or ‘Occidentosis’, pays homage to antiwar movements (specifically the invasion of Iran), whilst ‘The Age of Self’ reminding us that “If we forget our roots and where we stand, the movement will disintegrate like castles made of sand”, an apt message for current environmental and human rights movements that I try to work hard to remain a part of.
At the age of 28, after suffering an accident he became paraplegic and subsequently stopped performing live (apart from a handful of gigs as a performer and only one headline show), and began his career as a solo musician. It seems to me that Robert has managed to turn what could well have been a severe limitation into something capable of giving him even more musical sensitivity. It’s like Eno dealt him a lifelong ‘Oblique Strategy’, with remarkable results.
Robert’s immobility has been somewhat shared by the nation this year, and has meant we as a band have had a lot more time to think and reflect. I think this period of reflection has almost definitely had an effect on the shaping of our album, two songs were written wholly in lockdown and one of which I imagine it hard to have been written whilst on the road. Although not often spoken about explicitly as a band, both Robert and Soft Machine have made their way onto many van playlists listened to whilst touring.
I like to think that as a band we share some similarities with his music, both structurally in that our songs both don’t follow common song layouts and in being tasked with fitting unusual instrumentation within a predominantly guitar-heavy genre. Robert and I both share the interesting task of making a trumpet/cornet an elemental part of the composition, I like to think both in the knowledge we don’t have the technical capabilities (yet?) for it to be a virtuosic element to the song. I think these similarities made his song ‘Pigs… (In There)’ an obvious choice to cover for a session at the End Of The Road festival, along with its fantastically bleak and honest observation of battery farming, and we were all very happy to hear he liked it!
Thanks for all you’ve given so far.
“His Greatest Misses” is out now, via Domino Recording Co.
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