Born Robert Wyatt Ellidge, January 28, 1945, in Bristol, England; son of Honor Wyatt (a broadcaster and teacher) and George Ellidge (an industrial psychologist); married Pam Howard c. 1960, divorced c. 1971, married Afreda Benge (an artist) July 26, 1974; children: one son Samuel. Addresses: Record company--Thirsty Ear, 274 Madison Ave, Suite 804, New York, NY 10016.

Robert Wyatt is one of the key members of the Canterbury school of British progressive rock. One of pop music's most thought-provoking lyricists, he has developed his unique musical style without bowing to commercial pressures. Wyatt's childhood home was filled with music. He attended the Simon Langton Grammar School in Canterbury; among his schoolmates were the Hopper brothers, Hugh and Brian, Michael Ratledge, and the Sinclair cousins, Richard and David.

During the early 1960s, Hugh Hopper, the Sinclairs, and Wyatt, along with another school friend Kevin Ayers, spent their time at Wyatt's parents' mansion reading poetry, listening to jazz, and practicing music. The Wyatts took boarders; the most significant was Australian Daevid Allen. Despite being six years older, Daevid got along well with Robert through a mutual love of jazz and similar iconoclastic spirits. After Allen emigrated to Paris in 1964, Wyatt and friends formed a rock band, The Wilde Flowers.

In 1966, Daevid Allen returned from a trip to Majorca with Kevin Ayers intending to form The Soft Machine, a rock band financed by an eccentric millionaire they met on the island. Wyatt was convinced to leave The Wilde Flowers and join as drummer and vocalist, while recent Oxford graduate Ratledge became the organist. The quartet released its debut single "Love Makes Sweet Music" in 1967, while the remaining Wilde Flowers renamed themselves Caravan.

The Soft Machine toured throughout Europe in 1967, building a long-lasting Continental following for the band. Allen was forced to leave the group due to visa problems and returned to England. He eventually formed [psychedelic-progressive rock band] Gong. As a trio, the Soft Machine was the opening act for two world tours with Jimi Hendrix. Following the release of its self-titled debut album, Ayers left and was replaced by Hugh Hopper.

In 1969, The Soft Machine was augmented by a four piece horn section. Due to the financial difficulties in supporting a seven-piece band, three members left, though sax player Elton Dean became a permanent addition. The Soft Machine was shifting toward a jazzier sound and de-emphasizing vocals, much to Wyatt's chagrin. "Moon In June," Wyatt's sidelong piece on the band's Third album, was almost entirely a solo recording. Dissatisfied with the direction of The Soft Machine's music after the Fourth album, Wyatt departed in 1971 to form Matching Mole, named for the French pronunciation of "Soft Machine."

Matching Mole released two acclaimed albums and toured England and Europe incessantly until Wyatt dissolved the band in late 1972 due to financial difficulties and the stress of leading a band. He was in the process of reforming Matching Mole when, during a party on June 1, 1973, he fell drunkenly from a fourth floor window and broke his spine; this accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. In Wrong Movements , Wyatt explains his perspective on the event, "People think I must have problems talking about my accident.... What I have problems talking about is what happened before the accident.... My adolescent self, the drummer biped, I don't remember him and I don't understand him.... I see the accident now as being a sort of neat division line between my adolescence and the rest of my life."

Without the use of his legs, Robert concentrated on singing and playing keyboards. Rock Bottom , released in 1974, is a landmark progressive rock album. Unlike previous efforts, Rock Bottom 's arrangements are given plenty of breathing space, and possess a clarity rarely heard before in his music. Many listeners thought that Rock Bottom was a sad album, since it was recorded soon after his accident, however, most of the material was written before his fall. A version of "I'm A Believer" became a surprise chart hit in Britain that year. He appeared on the BBC TV show Top of the Pops but was disgusted by the producer's reluctance to have a performer in a wheelchair.

Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard is a jazzier sounding album than Rock Bottom . In the mid-1970s, Wyatt went into semi-retirement, disillusioned by the music business. He explained to Creem , "You were getting to funny stages, where people who deliberately maimed themselves on-stage were selling themselves as brave and courageous, whereas you had someone like Victor Jara in Chile, who because he sang for democracy in Chile, was tortured to death. If we're going to talk about brave rebels in the music business, let's talk about Victor Jara, not people who mutilate themselves on groovy videos."

Wyatt returned to the public eye in 1980 with four singles, later compiled as Nothing Will Stop Us , each pairing songs dealing with freedom. In 1982, inspired by those singles, Elvis Costello wrote an anti-war song about the Falkland Islands conflict, "Shipbuilding", which he thought would be the perfect vehicle for Robert Wyatt. Costello produced Wyatt, backed by his band the Attractions, and the result was Robert's second United Kingdom-charting single.

In 1985, Robert Wyatt participated in a project with the South-West African People's Organization. "Winds of Change" was released to bring attention to the liberation movement of Namibia, which had been illegally occupied by South Africa. Robert commented about the political nature of his recent work in Wrong Movements , "I want to show you something which is my finger pointing.... Now there are two interesting things about a pointing finger. First of all, you can look at the finger, and secondly, you can look at where the finger is pointing.... I would only be happy if people looked at what I was pointing at."

Aside from numerous cameo appearances, Robert Wyatt was absent from the music business for several years following his 1991 recording Dondestan . He made a welcome return to the public eye in 1997 with Shleep . The album, named for a fit of insomnia during which he wrote the album's lyrics, arrived like a thought-provoking letter from an old friend who doesn't write often. Wyatt's lyrical candor and championing of the underdog has gained him an appreciative worldwide following and respect among his musician peers.

by Jim Powers

Robert Wyatt's Career

Began playing drums c. 1961; formed band The Wilde Flowers c. 1963; joined band The Soft Machine c. 1966; released albums and toured with Soft Machine c. 1967-71; played drums with bands Kevin Ayers and The Whole World, Symbiosis, Centipede, and The Amazing Band, c. 1971; left The Soft Machine c. 1971; founded Matching Mole c. 1972; disbanded Matching Mole c. 1972; fell from window and broke spine, paralyzed from waist down c. 1973; released Rock Bottom on Virgin c. 1974; recorded for Rough Trade c. 1980-91; recorded for Thirsty Ear c. 1998.

Robert Wyatt's Awards

Meilleur Disque, Leisure For Youth Best Record of The Year Award, France, 1969 for Soft Machine, Volume Two; Academie Charles Cros Grand Prix du Disque Record of The Year Award, France, 1974 for Rock Bottom.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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