How Canterbury’s jazz adventurer turned out a hit Monkees cover, tiring out Pink Floyd’s drummer and battling Top Of The Pops in the process… “The show side of pop? I can’t be bothered!” Originally published in Uncut’s February 2014 issue (Take 201). Words: Tom Pinnock
From the psych pop of early Soft Machine to the cerebral jazz-fusion of Matching Mole, by 1974 Robert Wyatt was intent on following his own singular muse. You would imagine, though, that even Wyatt’s closest collaborators were shocked when he decided to release a cover of The Monkees’ Neil-Diamond-penned “I’m A Believer” as his debut solo single. “No, Robert has always been most peculiar,” laughs Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason, who produced and played drums on the recording, “so nothing very much surprises me with him.”
Wyatt has been in a wheelchair since June 1, 1973, when he fell out of a window at a Maida Vale party. But rather than hindering him creatively, his paralysis allowed the drummer to put down his sticks and concentrate on singing, keyboards and songwriting, crafting the experimental, pastoral Rock Bottom, produced by Mason and featuring Fred Frith and Richard Sinclair.
Far from starting a more commercial era in his career, though, things didn’t run smoothly after the release of “I’m A Believer”. An appearance on Top Of The Pops led to arguments with the show’s producer and threats of a ban, then Virgin refused to release his follow-up single. The irrepressible Wyatt wouldn’t have had it any other way, though – the only reservation he has about the track is his own “jigging about” when miming on TV.
“If you’re going to do it, do it properly, like Wilko Johnson… I just thought, note to self, don’t do that anymore. But we all learn from our mistakes,” he says, mock-philosophically. “That well-known saying – well, not that well-known, because I made it up – ‘we live and learn, but in that order, unfortunately.’”
ROBERT WYATT: I’d said in NME or Melody Maker that I really liked pop music – to me, it’s the folk music of the industrial age, it’s what people sing and dance to on a Saturday night. Simon Draper at Virgin, he saw this and he called my bluff, saying “Would you do a pop song?” I’d intended to do “Last Train To Clarksville”, ’cause I like that, but I got muddled up.
NICK MASON: I met Robert at UFO, then we did some gigs together – we certainly spent time together in New York when Soft Machine were touring with Hendrix. We were all holed up in the same hotel there in 1968. Then I produced Rock Bottom.
DAVE MACRAE: Was I surprised Robert was doing a Monkees song? Working with Robert, surprises were the norm! He has great mental energy, always looking for new ways to express his ideas.
RICHARD SINCLAIR: In The Wilde Flowers with Robert, I remember doing things like Chuck Berry numbers, so “I’m A Believer” wasn’t anything unusual from Robert. He always wanted to be a popular singing artist. Blond-haired, quite good-looking, bouncing about – he liked that idea of entertainment, still does!