Robert Wyatt reimagined by the North Sea Radio Orchestra

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There is the younger Robert Wyatt and there is the older Robert Wyatt. 

The younger Wyatt introduces himself amply in the Soft Machine tune ‘Why Am I So Short?’:

“I’ve got a drum kit and some sticks

So when I’m drunk or in a fit

I find it easy to express myself

I hit the drums so hard I break all my heads

And then I end the day in one of my beds”

The older Wyatt is a unique personality. Soft and generous yet unflinchingly always on the side of the underdog. Constantly joking, and making excuses for his shortcomings, yet always serious and purposeful. His honesty and uncompromising stance has carried Wyatt across fashions and musical styles and kept him relevant across generations and genres.

But in between there is a dark inferno. If the young Wyatt was very much a free spirit, spirits were also flowing freely. At a birthday party for Gilli Smyth and Lady June on June 1st 1973, Wyatt, drunk beyond control, fell out from a window some floors up and was paralysed from the waist down. He has been in a wheelchair ever since and will never feel the ease of expressing himself behind a drum kit again.

And between the young and the old man lies also the album that he wrote while in hospital. Full of agony and unreleased tension, ‘Rock Bottom’ is a cornerstone in any serious modern music collection. An irrefutable masterpiece that sounds like nothing else before or since.

The North Sea Radio Orchestra performed the album in its entirety at the Conservatorio Nicolini in Piacenza for the ”Musiche Nuove a Piacenza” festival on November 30, 2018. And, with Wyatt’s blessings, that concert is now being released on Dark Companion Records as an album called ‘Folly Bololey: Songs from Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom’.

The album opens with ‘Sea Song’ just like on the 1974 original. The first impression I have – particularly after watching the promo video showing what looks like an encore of that specific song filmed at the event – is that this must be a studio take and not a live take.

On the video Annie Barbazza and John Greaves share vocals, but on the record, Barbazza is the only vocalist. Secondly, there is no audible clapping or any other hint that an audience is present on this or in fact any of the tracks on the record, giving the distinct impression of a live in studio setting rather than, as is really the case, a concert in front of a full – and, judging from the YouTube clip, very actively engaged – audience.

But this is the blessing – or the curse, if you are so inclined – of modern editing software. You can change almost anything also after the fact, and here the audience has been edited out. While it does make the sound clearer, it also creates a somewhat artificial atmosphere, and in some cases exposes also moments of hesitation in a way that would not have happened in a studio.

Notably missing in action from this incarnation of the North Sea Radio Orchestra is bandleader Craig Fortnam’s wife Sharron. Although I have no idea as to the actual reason, it is easy to imagine that she found replacing Robert Wyatt’s vocals with her own a too daunting task.

Instead, vocals are handled by Annie Barbazza, who has previously released a homage to the music of Greg Lake as well as a playlist album of covers from various artists primarily from the 60s and 70s. She does a great job here, but given that Wyatt’s original vocals are so extremely special, I can honestly say that you won’t come to this album to be blown away by the singing.

Another temporary band member for this concert is John Greaves, who with his background in Henry Cow is of course a welcome addition in this context. Apart from bass guitar he is also chipping in with vocals, as well as the spoken word parts that were originally handled by Ivor Cutler. But even though Cutler might not be a Robert Wyatt, it is difficult to come up with anyone who could handle those parts as brilliantly as he does (well, maybe Stanley Unwin, but then that’s it). In fact, Cutler was given a three-album record deal with Virgin just based on his performance on ‘Rock Bottom’. So again, replacing him with John Greaves is great but not exceptional.

Instead, the vocals rather act as a guide to let you find your bearings in an otherwise totally new soundscape for these songs. And that is the real beauty: This very different recording lets you discover aspects of Wyatt’s music than you do not even consider when his strong personal presence there.

More specifically you can look at the compositions themselves and judge them for what they are, namely adventurous art rock songs of high calibre. Also, whereas the original album is performed with a hypnotic, almost alien pulse and naked intimacy, here the melodic twists and turns are revealed in the brighter light afforded by an orchestra that combines rock music instruments with a string section as well as clarinets, vibes, recorders and keyboards.

It is quite an experience to hear the album from this perspective. And I cannot think of anyone better to guide me through the music of Robert Wyatt in this way than the North Sea Radio Orchestra, who in their own music display a similarly English sadness and yearning melancholia.

Even though the audience as already mentioned has been edited out from the album, it becomes more obvious that this after all is a concert performance, when we at the end of the album are treated to four bonus tracks from across Wyatt’s career. Calling it a hit parade may be exaggerating things a bit since Wyatt isn’t much of a hit maker. But we do get the usual suspects. And while the songs are great and the performances of high quality, it feels a bit strange to me to hear these songs presented with the same toolbox. The initial shock of hearing ‘Rock Bottom’ in such different light gets a bit painted over with a samey feeling. And covering Wyatt covering ‘Shipbuidling’ doesn’t feel like the most essential thing, even though I do think Wyatt’s version is better than Elvis Costello’s. However, these are bonus tracks, so these quibbles are just minor.

And it is difficult not get a warm smile on your face when you hear John Greaves sing the altered lyrics on final track, ‘O Caroline’, originally performed with the Matching Mole:

“Annie’s on Farfisa

I will play the base

North Sea Radio Orchestra will add a touch of grace

I just can’t help thinking that if you were here with us

You’d sing this song most sweetly, with a minimum of fuss

We love you still Caroline”

In short, a heartfelt and worthy celebration of the inimitable Robert Wyatt, by an equally worthy North Sea Radio Orchestra. We love you all.

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