Robert Wyatt (born Robert Wyatt-Ellidge, 28 January 1945) is an English musician, and founding member of the influential Canterbury scene band Soft Machine, with a long and distinguished solo career. He is married to English painter and songwriter Alfreda Benge.
Wyatt was born in Bristol. His mother was Honor Wyatt, a journalist with the BBC; his father, George Ellidge, was an industrial psychologist who joined the family only when Wyatt was about six. This extended family also included his half-brother, actor Julian Glover, Honor Wyatt’s son. Wyatt attended the Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys, Canterbury and as a teenager lived with his parents in Lydden near Dover, where he was taught drums by visiting American jazz drummer George Neidorf.
In 1962, Wyatt and Neidorf moved to Majorca, living near the poet Robert Graves. The following year, Wyatt returned to England and joined the Daevid Allen Trio with Daevid Allen and Hugh Hopper. Allen subsequently left for France, and Wyatt and Hopper formed the Wilde Flowers, with Kevin Ayers, Richard Sinclair and Brian Hopper. Wyatt was initially the drummer in the Wilde Flowers, but following the departure of Ayers, he also became lead singer.
In 1966, the Wilde Flowers disintegrated, and Wyatt, along with Mike Ratledge, was invited to join Soft Machine by Kevin Ayers and Daevid Allen. Wyatt both drummed and shared vocals with Ayers, an unusual combination for a stage rock band. In 1970, after chaotic touring, three albums and increasing internal conflicts in Soft Machine, Wyatt released his first solo album, The End of an Ear, which combined his vocal and multi-instrumental talents with tape effects.
A year later, Wyatt left Soft Machine and, besides participating in the fusion bigband Centipede and drumming at the JazzFest Berlin‘s New Violin Summit, a live concert with violinists Jean-Luc Ponty, Don “Sugarcane” Harris, Michał Urbaniak and Nipso Brantner, guitarist Terje Rypdal, keyboardist Wolfgang Dauner and bassist Neville Whitehead, formed his own band Matching Mole (a pun, “machine molle” being French for ‘Soft Machine’), a largely instrumental outfit that recorded two albums. The band were about to embark on the recording of a third album when, on 1 June 1973, during a party for Gong’s Gilli Smyth and June Campbell Cramer (also known as Lady June) at the latter’s Maida Vale home, an inebriated Wyatt fell from a fourth-floor window. He was paralysed from the waist down and consequently uses a wheelchair. On 4 November that year, Pink Floyd performed two benefit concerts, in one day, at London’s Rainbow Theatre, supported by Soft Machine, and compered by John Peel. The concerts raised a reported £10,000 for Wyatt.
The injury led Wyatt to abandon the Matching Mole project, and his rock drumming (though he would continue to play drums and percussion in more of a “jazz” fashion, without the use of his feet). He promptly embarked on a solo career, and with musician friends (including Mike Oldfield, Ivor Cutler and Henry Cow guitarist Fred Frith) released his solo album Rock Bottom on 26 July 1974. The album, the title of which was an oblique reference to his paraplegia, was largely composed prior to Wyatt’s accident. The album was met with mostly positive reviews.
Two months later Wyatt put out a single, a cover version of “I’m a Believer“, which hit number 29 in the UK chart. Both were produced by Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason. There were strong arguments with the producer of Top of the Pops surrounding Wyatt’s performance of “I’m a Believer,” on the grounds that his use of a wheelchair ‘was not suitable for family viewing’, the producer wanting Wyatt to appear on a normal chair. Wyatt won the day and ‘lost his rag but not the wheelchair’. A contemporary issue of New Musical Express featured the band (a stand-in acting for Mason), all in wheelchairs, on its cover. Wyatt subsequently sang lead vocals on Mason’s first solo album Fictitious Sports in 1981 (with songwriting credits going to Carla Bley).
His follow-up single, a reggae ballad remake of Chris Andrews’s hit “Yesterday Man“, again produced by Mason, was eventually given a low-key release, “the boss at Virgin claiming that single was ‘lugubrious’, the delay and lack of promotion denting Wyatt’s chances of a follow-up hit.”
Wyatt’s next solo album, Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard (1975), produced by Wyatt apart from one track produced by Mason, was more jazz-led, with free jazz influences. Guest musicians included Brian Eno on guitar, synthesizer and “direct inject anti-jazz ray gun”. Wyatt went on to appear on the fifth release of Eno’s Obscure Records label, Jan Steele/John Cage: Voices and Instruments (1976), singing two Cage songs.
Throughout the rest of the 1970s Wyatt guested with various acts, including Henry Cow (documented on their Concerts album), Hatfield and the North, Carla Bley, Eno, Michael Mantler, and Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera, contributing lead vocals to lead track “Frontera”, from Manzanera’s 1975 solo debut Diamond Head. In 1976 he was featured vocalist on Michael Mantler‘s settings of the poems of Edward Gorey, appearing alongside Terje Rypdal (guitar) Carla Bley (piano, clavinet, synthesizer), Steve Swallow (bass) and Jack DeJohnette (drums) on the album ‘The Hapless Child and Other Stories’.
His solo work during the early 1980s was increasingly politicised, and Wyatt became a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. In 1983, his original version of Elvis Costello and Clive Langer‘s Falklands War-inspired song “Shipbuilding“, which followed a series of political cover-versions (collected as Nothing Can Stop Us), reached number 35 in the UK Singles Chart and number 2 in John Peel‘s Festive Fifty for tracks from that year. In 1984 Wyatt provided guest vocals, along with Tracey Thorn and Claudia Figueroa, on “Venceremos” (We Will Win), a song expressing political solidarity with Chilean people suffering under Pinochet‘s military dictatorship, released as a single by UK soul-jazz dance band Working Week, also included on an album released the following year.
In the late 1980s, after collaborations with other acts such as News from Babel, Scritti Politti, and Japanese recording artist Ryuichi Sakamoto, he and his wife Alfreda Benge spent a sabbatical in Spain, before returning in 1991 with a comeback album Dondestan. His 1997 album Shleep was also praised.
In 1999 he collaborated with the Italian singer Cristina Donà on her second album Nido. In the summer of 2000 her first EP Goccia was released and Wyatt made an appearance in the video of the title track.
The verb “Wyatting” appeared in some blogs and music magazines to describe the practice of playing unusual tracks on a pub jukebox to annoy the other pub goers, in particular Dondestan. Wyatt was quoted in 2006 in The Guardian as saying “I think it’s really funny” and “I’m very honoured at the idea of becoming a verb.” However, when asked if he would ever try it himself, he said: “I don’t really like disconcerting people, but even when I try to be normal I disconcert anyway.” However, Alfreda Benge said it made her angry “that Robert should be used as a means of clever dicks asserting their superiority in pubs … It’s so unlike Robert, because he’s so appreciative of the strengths of pop music. So that, I think, is a real unfairness. The man who coined it, I should like to punch him in the nose.”