It's by way of some sweet synchronicity (as opposed to careful programming) that appearances by Robert Wyatt and Scritti Politti's Green Gartside will top and tail the Off The Page festival in Whitstable this coming weekend.
Way back in the days of North London’s burgeoning post-punk underground, writer Ian Penman was a regular visitor to the now legendary squat Green shared with the other members of Scritti Politti, and he has recalled how Wyatt's Rock Bottom and Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard albums would reverberate through that famously squalid Camden house night and day, insinuating themselves into the occupants’ addled but expanding collective consciousness. And sure enough, in 1981 when Scritti’s still sublime sounding “The ‘Sweetest Girl’” single was released by Rough Trade, who should pop up playing piano but Old Rottenhat himself.
What Green and his comrades recognised in Wyatt's music was a shared belief in the pop song as a cultural agent that could act on you rhetorically and sensually at the same time. (Of course, just a few years earlier this was the self same notion that Wyatt’s colleagues in Soft Machine had utterly failed to grasp, and so they kicked their greatest asset out of the group – duh!) The directions that both Wyatt and Green have pursued over the years have kept faith with the idea that if you build them right, pop's shiny plastic vessels will be sturdy enough to accommodate and transport anything you might care to load inside of them, even Stalinist propaganda and Derrida-derived post-structuralist theory.
This Friday in Whitstable, at Off The Page's opening night event, Robert will be discussing live on stage some of the music that has most animated him over the years, and without wanting to give anything away, all of his choices somehow reconcile the urge to innovate or proselytize with the desire to craft perfect pop moments. Meanwhile, on the Sunday afternoon of the festival, Green will be going head to head with Mark 'K-punk' Fisher in a discussion that will no doubt make the synapses snap as it attempts to deconstruct the processes by which such a seemingly flimsy form as the three minute pop song can both distill and amplify hyper-advanced philosophical concepts, and in turn can be re-energized (rather than overloaded) by absorbing such heavyweight material.
Following its reissues of Robert Wyatt’s UK solo albums, the Domino label is about to release His Greatest Misses, a 2004 Japan-only compilation. If you're looking for a one-stop comp that distills Wyatt’s unique essence, this is it, right down to the sleeve art, which reproduces a number of cute crayon drawings by the six year old Robert. It pulls key tracks from all the solo records from Rock Bottom (1974) to Cuckoo Land (2003), plus it contains a number of Wyatt’s inspired cover versions, including "At Last I Am Free", originally written by Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers for Chic's 1978 C'est Chic album.
In his glittering history of disco, Turn The Beat Around (Faber And Faber, 2005), Peter Shapiro devotes a whole chapter to illuminating the ambiguous emotional and socio-political currents that run beneath the sophisticated, aspirational vibe that describes the sleek surface of Chic's music, that make Chic into a much more complex proposition than you might at first think, something more than just amazing grooves, irresistible hooks and inspired arrangements, as if we needed pop to give us anything more than that.
Running for more than seven minutes, "At Last I Am Free" is an extended modern R&B; ballad, an epic metropolitan soul mantra (Chic could write those as easily as they could knock off devastating disco grooves), played at “a crawling tempo”, as Peter describes it, with the Chic singers, Alfa Anderson and Luci Martin, “sounding alternately like zombies and angels”.
What a strange song for Wyatt to cover, you might think.
I like cover versions that subvert or detourn the originals in some way (as in the kind of covers discussed in The Wire's Remake Remodel feature in issue 261), but Wyatt's version is a bit different, a cover that plays it more or less straight, but which ratchets up the complexity of pop in rare and precious ways, not least of which is that it's a cover by a musician who was supposedly the ultimate in gritty, engaged political art of a song by a group that was supposedly the ultimate in vacuous escapist pop. But as Peter's book tells us, Chic were far more than that, and Wyatt has always been a musician willing to ride roughshod over the knee jerk expectations and prejudices of his audience and the media.
A very bitter wind blows through the song. The chorus couplet haunts me: "At last I am free/I can hardly see in front of me." The lyric sounds like it is describing a particularly devastating break up narrative, but it's also hard not to hear it as a comment on the failure of Amerikkka to deliver on the promises it made during the heyday of the civil rights movement. That's one reason Wyatt covered it, I guess, as a statement of political solidarity. The other reason he covered it would be rather more prosaic, I suspect: Wyatt knows a great pop song when he hears one, and this is up there with the best of them. The combination of the melody line and the chord sequence beneath make it into a classic heartbreaker of a tune, but combine those qualities with the complex of emotions encoded in that couplet in the chorus and you have an example of a pop song that digs deep to access some kind of existential truth about the unbearable sadness of the human condition.
I actually prefer Wyatt’s version to Chic's. It replaces the lush orchestration of the original with a very minimal arrangement that exposes the stark sentiments in the lyric more effectively. In place of the undead or ethereal spirits, Wyatt sounds more like an inspired pub crooner, bringing tears to the eyes of the denizens of the snug, as he warbles with heartbreaking sincerity thru a glass bottom phut cig (as Mark E Smith, another great snug (non-)singer-philosopher made good, once put it).
The Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser has also covered the song. But I don't like her version much: the arrangement is too sugary-sweet and over-produced (like most Cocteau Twins tracks) and Fraser's performance tries too hard to ring every last drop of tragic emotion from the song. I'm guessing I might be out of step with the zeitgeist here, as we are slap bang in the middle of another 80s revival (cf minimal wave, chillwave, glo-fi, and so on and so forth: seriously, I've not heard this many new tracks using that blissed out chorus effect on the vocals since PM Dawn), but for me her version is too arch and knowing and too calculated to affect. It reminds me of something John Cage once said, when someone asked him why he didn't like to be moved, emotionally, by music. I don't mind being moved by music, Cage quipped, I just don't like to be pushed.