One of the chief complaints about prog rock is that it stifles the playful energy of rock ‘n’ roll in favor of an emphasis on instrumental virtuosity and compositional sophistication. The fact that words like “compositional sophistication” can even be used in reference to prog rock is probably reason enough to think that the music’s enemies may have a point.
While the music of bands like Yes, ELP, and King Crimson can be invigorating and exciting, there’s a level of raw emotionality that often gets lost in the maze of tricky rhythms and endless solos. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that Robert Wyatt’s music falls within the prog camp. His compositions are long and complex, he lets his soloists go on for minutes at a time, and his rhythms are just about undanceable. But as the newly released live album Theatre Royal Drury Lane ably demonstrates, Wyatt’s music has a beguiling innocence and emotionality that is rare in any kind of pop music and almost non-existent in prog.
The album (recorded in 1974 but unreleased until now) finds Wyatt at the peak of his powers, as he leads his friends from the English prog scene (including Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason and guitar wizards Fred Frith and Mike Oldfield) through his roiling, careening music. That Wyatt was so in control of his musical power is sadly ironic, as the concert the music is taken from marked a major step in his return to music after a 1971 accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Maybe it took that kind of trauma for Wyatt to create music as rich and rewarding as what’s on Theatre, but whether or not that’s true, the album stands as a high point for listeners looking to explore the musical and emotional possibilities of rock.
Wyatt’s ability to blend heartfelt, almost childish sentiment with aggressively challenging music is evident throughout the album. Whether it’s his vocal on “Memories”, where he improvises an angular, leaping melody with the unpredictable and unrestrained joy of someone discovering his voice for the first time, or the lyrics of “Signed Curtain”, which are mostly a description of the parts of the song (‘this is the first verse, this is the chorus’, etc), Wyatt never lets the muso virtuosity of his supporting musicians overwhelm his own playful fascination with the music. On the aforementioned ‘Signed Curtain’, Mike Oldfield unleashes a long spiraling solo that might seem self-indulgent in a different setting, but is saved by the fact that Wyatt’s own lack of pretension created a musical atmosphere of altruism rather than the selfishness a problem of too much prog.
The set is dominated by songs from Rock Bottom, Wyatt’s first post-accident album, and the performances match, if not better, their studio versions. “Little Red Riding Hood Hits the Road” provides a Miles/Fusion groove capable of accommodating both Wyatt’s own scatting and a thrillingly knotty Hugh Hopper trumpet solo. “Sea Song”, a clear-eyed look at the effect of Wyatt’s paralysis on his marriage, rises on waves of frantic drumming and sinister synth lines and falls on watery electric piano and Wyatt’s warm vocal.
The non-“Rock Bottom” maintain the high level of the rest of the album. Julie Tippetts delivers a crystalline, folky vocal on the stirring “Mind of A Child”, and the concluding “I’m A Believer” (a shorter version of which provided Wyatt a small hit in England) extends The Monkees’ pop anthem into a rousing, horn-driven seven-and-a-half minute epic, complete with multiple solos, cool tempo shifts, and a circus-music interlude.
More sensitive and compassionate than most prog, and more musically challenging than most pop, Wyatt’s music occupies a unique space in the musical landscape. There’s simply no one else doing what he did. As Wyatt is a reluctant live performer, Theatre offers the valuable opportunity to hear his music in a non-studio setting. The album is both a welcome addition to Wyatt’s catalogue and an indispensable document for anyone interested in that rare breed of musician who is forever alive to the possibility of new opportunities and forever blind to the existence of obstacles.