Listen to this track, a melancholic love song from former Soft Machine drummer, and Matching Mole prime mover Robert Wyatt. It’s “Sea Song”, a mythical tale of idealized womanhood, with textures that alternate between the crystalline, the haunting, and the discordant. The song is taken from Wyatt’s landmark Rock Bottom album from 1974, his first project after an accident which rendered him a paraplegic.
Robert Wyatt’s connection with British progressive rock, and with the formation of Soft Machine with Kevin Ayers and Daevid Allen, was a key contribution to the post-psychedelic Canterbury scene, which also included the bands Caravan, and Gong. Soft Machine would prove to be somewhat unstable where consistent membership was concerned . But while the band were a going concern, they pushed the boundaries of rock music, injecting a strong vein of jazz and experimental textures. Wyatt served as drummer and singer, that combination of roles being out of the ordinary at the time. All the while, Wyatt had branched out on a number of musical excursions and had made a great many friends who would appear on his subsequent projects.
In June of 1973, at a party in Maide Vale in London, Wyatt fell from third floor window, breaking his spine and leaving him paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life. Before this event, he had written much of what he intended to be the next Matching Mole record, his follow-up band to Soft Machine. Since he had extended time in the hospital to craft the material, Wyatt decided to put out a solo album instead of a band record. “Sea Song” was one track that came out of this process.
I don’t think there has ever been a song that is so unsettling as it is poignant. Wyatt’s keening and decidedly English tenor is at the center of it, always a beautifully brittle instrument . Sparse keyboards create an otherworldly, atmospheric, and downright ghostly sonic backdrop, which evokes the feel of a lost folk song as filtered through an ambient jazz arrangement. Lyrically, the imagery of a mythical female sea creature is certainly in line with its time, even if that mythic imagery is also coupled with the lines “Joking apart, when you’re drunk, you’re terrific when you’re drunk”, which brings it out of pure fantasy, and makes it a well-observed, down-to-earth love song.
Rock Bottom, was produced by Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason, another post-psychedelia band’s drummer, perhaps appropriately. The album established Wyatt as a respected solo artist. Many critics recognized the album as a singular achievement. It even sold well!
Later in the year, he would also release a straight up cover version of the Monkees’ “I’m A Believer”, arguably another tribute to idealized womanhood albeit in a different vein. This was proof too that Wyatt felt empowered to follow his instincts as a solo artist in whichever direction it took him. It is an approach that he has maintained since, releasing albums when it occurs to him to do so, and splitting his time with other artistic pursuits and political activism.
More recently, “Sea Song” was recorded by Northumbrian folk band Rachel Unthank & the Winterset, perhaps illustrating the reach of his influence as well.
For more information about Robert Wyatt, check out the Robert Wyatt MySpace page.