DIFFERENT EVERY TIME – The Authorised Biography of Robert Wyatt – by Marcus O’Dair (Serpent’s Tail, 2014)

a wyatt bookI look for two things in a biography. Firstly, I like to learn something new and/or surprising about the subject; secondly, I want what I already know (or think I know) to be presented in a way that shares my enthusiasm. Marcus O’Dair‘s marvellous book scores top marks on both counts.

Based on extensive interviews with Robert Wyatt and most of the key people he’s worked with over the years, it is meticulously researched but never stuffy or overly academic.

The author (who is also a lecturer, broadcaster and musician) gives well-informed opinions but never seeks to force his point of view on the reader.

Robert’s story comes two parts – divided by the accident in 1973 that confined him to a wheelchair at the age of 28.

I realised how little I knew of his life as a “drummer biped” when he was a founder member of Soft Machine and, subsequently, Matching Mole.

Before the fall – Robert Wyatt drumming with Soft Machine.

For instance, I had no idea that Wyatt’s voice was so prominent on the first two Soft Machine albums or that those records were so good. Neither did I realise that this band was once rated as being on a par with Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd. These two bands frequently shared the stage at underground venues and were central to the psychedelic rock scene. In addition, Soft Machine toured extensively as support to The Jimi Hendrix Experience, principally in the USA.

Probably like a lot of fans, my introduction to Robert came via Soft Machine’s third album from 1970 (imaginatively entitled ‘Third’) and the astonishing 20 minute track Moon In June. This is one of those rare records which expand the possibilities of song and take pop music into fresh territories where it seems to have no boundaries. I put it on the same pedestal as The Beatles’ iconoclastic I Am The Walrus, and the whole of Captain Beefheart’s ‘Trout Mask Replica’.

I was pleased to read that Robert shares my dislike of instrumental jazz-rock fusion, a joyless genre that subsequent Wyatt-less Soft Machine albums embraced. He says: “to me fusion jazz was the worst of both worlds. It was rock rhythms, played in a rather effete way with noodling, very complicated solos on top”. He also reveals, only half-jokingly, that he refused to learn to read music so the rest of the band couldn’t tell him what to play.

Being essentially dismissed from his own band because of his preference for ‘real’ songs was a traumatic experience. At the time of his accident (falling out of a bathroom window at a party while drunk) his career had no clear direction. The devastating but, for music lovers, fortuitous effect of being paralysed from the waist down was that it forced him to abandon conventional band-based music and make the most of his more limited options. It is from this point onwards that he truly found his distinctive voice and the courage to use it.

Alfie Benge’s drawing for the cover of Rock Bottom.

O’Dair charts his consistently inspired solo career which began with Rock Bottom, an album which many (myself included) rate as his finest. This was released on 26th July 1974. On this day he also married Alfreda ‘Alfie’ Benge, a woman who deserves enormous credit both as Robert’s muse but as a vital source of support.

Alfie has stuck by her husband for five decades through thick and thin, sharing his triumphs but also putting up with self-destructive, stubborn tendencies.

In addition, she has also contributed lyrics to some of his finest songs and her wonderfully varied illustrations grace the sleeves of all the solo works.

Different Every Time follows Robert Wyatt’s ups and downs and provides an exhaustive (but not exhausting) guide to a body of work that has rightly earned him enormous respect with his peers. The icing on the cake is that he now has a fascinating and absorbing biography that does full justice to his unique and inspiring career.