My choice this week is in a compilation album. Whether that break the rules of Record Club or not I don’t know. Rules are not something that Mr Wyatt would pay much attention to. I see Robert as as the alternative to the alternative, having no frame of reference nor yardstick against which he can be measured. From his very first solo outing ‘ The End of An Ear’ he has sought to define his own train of thought. Even here, as he interprets a range of different covers of well-known artists, he does it in a way that is uncharacteristic even of himself, and yet with deference to the originals.
Until recently I only owned two Wyatt albums – ‘Ruth is Stranger Than Richard’ and ‘Rock Bottom’ – both of which I love dearly. I also have a connection to the artist (standing joke in DRC) in that I’m a good friend and former work colleague of his nephew. Recently his nephew posted some pictures of a family wedding on social media, and sure enough there was a picture of Uncle Robert. He had a flowing white beard, looking wizard-like with eyes glowing bright as one with far too much creativity and light to be human. Statuesque. Still. It is perhaps this stillness and unique style that has, down the years, made Robert Wyatt stand out as a lighthouse of British talent. Home grown eclecticism at its best. At least that’s how I see it. Other’s in our group may beg to differ.
‘Nothing Can Stop Us’ compiles covers and reworkings of recordings made (B-sides and others) from the 1970s and early 80s. The only original and new recording is the first track ‘Born Again Cretin’ which, with it’s characteristic Wyatt vocal warbles and baby-like ‘goo-goo’ sounds announces he’s back after almost a 10 year hiatus (released in 1982 this was the first recording since 1975) into a new world. Punk has almost dispatched itself. Disco done and Wyatt is here to sing to the world at a time when the UK was once again sadly aiming to recreate its imperialist past. This album spawned the single ‘Shipbuilding’, an anti-Falklands war song, lamenting the decline of the shipbuilding industry and the boys instead fighting an unjust war. This song does not feature on the album, but another Ivor Cutler number ‘Grass’ (originally ‘Go Sit Upon the Grass’ and recorded in 1975). It’s a slightly disturbing song, and Wyatt manages to capture the sublime violence beautifully
“Go and sit upon the grass
And I shall come and sit beside you
Go and sit upon the grass
And I shall come and sit beside you
And do not mind if I thump you when I’m talking to you
Do not mind if I thump you when I’m talking to you
I’ve something important to say”
Other more mainstream covers are well-executed. Chic’s ‘At Last I am Free’ reveals the pathos of Nile Rogers’ original, giving it an almost reinvigorated political edge. The line “I can hardly see in front of me” evokes blinding tears of joy. Maybe because this track follows ‘Born Again Cretin’, which echoes the heartless views of apartheid South Africa, and the Thatcherite UK government’s stance on Mandela
“So let Mandela rot in prison
Someone should tell him how lucky he is”
that we may even imagine the leader himself being released from chains, blinking through his tears into the light? In 1982 this was a bold and brave album indeed. On ‘Strange Fruit’ his tender vocal and gentle piano pay homage to the Billie Holliday original, but in a way that still capture the haunting images of black people hanging in the summer trees. Unnerving and yet altogether a reminder of terrible times and continued racial prejudice.
Other fights for freedom are raised to the podium. ‘Caimanera/Guantanamera’ is a Cuban song of independence – with Caimanera’s proximity to Guantanamo Bay we can all sing along to this one. My kids do! ‘Stalin wasn’t Stallin’ is a great Horrible Histories-esque folk compaction of 20th Century conflict
“Stalin wasn’t stallin’
When he told the beast of Berlin
That they’d never rest contented
Till they had driven him from the land
So he called the Yanks and English
And proceeded to extinguish
The Führer and its vermin
This is how it all began”
Wyatt, so generous that he is, even allows the use of his vinyl space to give a song over to another other artists, without his contribution. At the end of the album we are treated to a rendition of ‘Trade Union’ originally penned by Abdus Salique, and sung here in traditional Bangladeshi style. The song is a call to arms for Bangladeshi workers who were suffering appalling treatment in East London factories in the late 1970s. Wyatt is not averse to the causes of his day, and his rendition of ‘ Red Flag’ is not, as some have assumed, an allegiance to the Labour Party, but true to the original a socialist call for unity that has been sung by Irish workers, South African miners and oppressed radical working classes since the 19th century.
So, in these febrile times, when the ruling classes seek to divide and conquer, raise your first, stand firm and still. This album is a true iron fist in a velvet glove, true in its word today as it was then. Aye comrade.