Robert Wyatt Sings ‘Sea Song’

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.


Elvis Costello Sings ‘Shipbuilding’

Here’s a clip of Elvis Costello, performing his 1983 track ‘Shipbuilding’ which was originally included on the Punch the Clock album. This is a live version, featuring Costello’s long term backing band, the Attractions.

Elvis Costello
Elvis Costello

This song in many ways was the follow-up to the kind of style that Costello had achieved with his song “Almost Blue” which was included on the Imperial Bedroom album of the previous year. Like that song, this one had Chet Baker in mind melodically speaking, going one further by including Baker on the track, playing trumpet. This stylistic turn was emblematic of Costello’s wandering interest in exploring other styles, breaking out of his well-established ‘angry young man’ label which marked the first phase of his career. Ironically, this is a very angry song, perhaps one of his angriest.

In 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, a set of landmasses off of the South American continent, and home to a great many sheep. However, they were British sheep; the islands in question were still a part of the British Commonwealth. Reasons for a military response remain to be controversial to this day, but the British Navy was dispatched to the area, and battle commenced.

Daily rags in Britain worked up a media frenzy, the flames of nationalism in Britain were stoked, and ultimately lives were lost fighting to take back the islands thousands of miles away. While this was going on, many justifications for the war were centred around the promise of a job boom and industrial prosperity which war would bring to depressed areas.

The question ‘is it worth it? A new winter coat and shoes for the wife, and a bicycle on the boy’s birthday?’ was, for the time being, not being asked – at least in the Daily Mail. It wasn’t being asked by the military junta in Argentina either. They had invaded the islands in order to win the favour of nationalists who had argued the ownership over the Falklands for generations.

But this song demands that the question be answered. Is it worth it? Is it worth it to risk the lives of young men and women for economic and political gain? Is this really about defending a way of life? Or, was the whole thing an opportunity for the governments of both nations to distract their citizens from the inadequacies of their leadership, and turn the tide of uncertain political currents toward electoral dominance?

Who knew that this tune, and the questions found in it, would remain to be relevant over 25 years later?

In addition to Elvis’ version of the song, Robert Wyatt’s cover version is a favourite among many, his brittle-yet-angelic voice bringing out the sadness in the track perhaps to an arguably greater degree than Costello’s take on it.

Enjoy the clips.