July 19, 2024

The North Sea Radio Orchestra – “Folly Bololey: Songs from Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom” A playful, joyful tribute


Robert Wyatt’s songs are lovely. Light as air, free and jazzy, playful and as real as life. Whether ephemeral yet deep love songs to his partner / wife, free-association sing-song stories or, as he would move to later, hard hitting political songs, these songs speak to the heart. Which is why it is wonderful to hear Robert Wyatt’s songs covered (you should know Elvis Costello’s heartbreaking cover of Shipbuilding).

Wyatt’s songs are effectively jazz, in their playing with metre and musical form, which is why covers tend to jazz. There was a previous project in 2000, Soupsongs, with Julie Tippett, Annie Whitehead, Didier Malherbe, Harry Beckett and others that was toured and recorded live. I went to one night and Wyatt was there, quietly tucked in the shadows. This project is similar in concept and, also with Robert’s blessing, covers Wyatt’s 1974 album, Rock Bottom, in a jazz and rock style, full of jazzy style and lightness of touch. It too was recorded live, this time at a festival in Italy, with Wyatt’s blessing. Rock Bottom isn’t long and to fill the CD we are treated to four additional songs, including the aforementioned Shipbuilding and lovely liberties taken as they tweak the lyrics to O Caroline (much as Wyatt memorably did on a Peel session where he improvised a song about playing a Peel session).

The original is a classic. The songs were mostly written in Venice while his wife to be, Alfreda Benge, was working on Nic Roeg’s unsettling Don’t Look Now. Deep, personal and dealing with pain and loss amongst love and other things, these tend to the more serious end of his lyrics. Between writing the songs and recording them, Robert Wyatt became a paraplegic when he fell out of a window at a party. Months in bed and a total change of life gave him time to entirely imagine the album in his head.

This album is a lovely document of an intimate concert and isn’t a re-imagining, more a celebration. Of necessity it is substantially different to the album, lacking Robert’s quavery voice, Mike Oldfield’s multi-overdubbed guitar and Ivor Cutler’s inimitable reading voice but it is an essential addition to a fan’s collection. John Greaves, Annie Barbazza and a large band / small orchestra interpret these songs in a loving and expansive way. It’s not entirely surprising, since John Greaves, a founder of Henry Cow, worked with Robert many times and Wyatt says: “These musicians seem to me to have have really grasped what my songs are about; but at the same time, created an entirely fresh way of putting the music together.” Another notable player is Cheb Nettles on drums, long-time (and current) member of quintessentially British psychedelicists, Gong.

Whether an admirer of Robert Wyatt or merely curious, this has a lot to offer. If this is your introduction to his songs, you’ve a lot of joy ahead

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