A long, long time ago (2008, to be exact), I published a series of podcasts called the Peel Sessions Poll, which had me droning witlessly on to the backdrop of some fabulous music chosen by the readers of this blog. I would have said ‘all of you,’ but my lack of posting has probably driven all those good souls that I could call ‘you’ all away. However, next week I celebrate the end of my fifth decade on the planet, and I thought I would at least try to make good on something I kind of promised back then.
While shuffling through the letters and yellowing pieces of ephemera that followed me five and a half thousand miles to South Korea and back again, I found, unbelievably, the entire list of the poll right down to number 125. Some noted that certain artists (for example, Half Man Half Biscuit) failed to appear in the main chart: this was due in part to my rigidly applied rule on time. Since I had a limited number of entries, I gave precedence to those who voted earliest, and so some acts fell foul of this. But they will have their day, and I will now count down from 100 to 51 and see how long it takes me to reach the end. Sound fair to you?
100. Robert Wyatt, #2 (1974-09-10)
Robert’s soft, affecting vocals, like a whisper from an embittered but gentler planet, had graced many a Peel session with his bands Soft Machine and Matching Mole before a drunken fall from a fourth floor balcony condemned the great man to a wheelchair. Undaunted, he continued his musical career, and one of the tracks here, a cover of the Monkees’ I’m A Believer, scraped the top 30 in the UK (despite the producer of Top Of The Pops feeling that the sight of a man in a wheelchair would upset viewers. The clip featuring that performance “went missing” for a number of years.)
Two of the tracks, Alifib and Sea Song, come from his then current release, Rock Bottom, which veers from the straightforward to the bizarre but rewards repeated plays. It’s encouraging to remember that this session was available on a Strange Fruit 12 inch, undoubtedly at Peel’s behest, since (although he repeatedly stated that he made no profit from what was basically an in name only exercise) he had some input in choosing the artists. As he reminded us, “any group of people where Robert Wyatt is held in high esteem is a group of people that I would wish to be part of.”
I have written before about the pointlessness of war and its wholly negative impact on mankind. Yet nothing has changed. Afghanistan and Iraq are still in turmoil as we kill, maim and torture our fellow man in the name of some misguided notion of what peace is. The reality is that all wars are fought to serve political or religious ends, and the notions of combat to subdue those we see as our enemies are learned early on in the battles for supremacy in the playground.
The thing is, people like George Bush and Margaret Thatcher never really grew up from that, and used their own people as tools to pursue selfish ends. In the case of the former, it was to finish the job his father started: in the latter, to ensure her re-election and the chance to impose divisive and permanently damaging policies. Now he is shortly to depart from office, and she is in mental decline, but their legacy lives on, regrettably.
To take an extremely pertinent example: if you ever saw this, you had every right to feel ashamed of the country you lived in (and if you ever bought this rag, ashamed of yourself).
The disgusting idea that ‘our lads’ could feel proud of perpetrating such an act, and that we should congratulate a government that encouraged jingoism in this manner, highlighted what a complete, bloody and unnecessary farce the whole Falklands ‘war’ (when war was never actually declared by either side) had become. The end does not justify the means. 258 British people, and three times as many ‘Argies’, died in this conflict, and one should never forget that it happened, and in whose name it was perpetrated. As Private Eye stated at the time, ‘They died to save her face.’
The anti-Falklands conflict song Shipbuilding, showcasing Elvis Costello’s characteristic genius for vivid imagery and unselfconscious poetry, entered the Festive Fifty three times in two different versions (one of only five songs to do so). The song was written by Clive Langer and Costello, the latter providing lyrics to Langer’s tune. It tellingly contrasts the increased prosperity resulting from work in the shipyards during wartime (‘Is it worth it it?/A new winter coat and shoes for the wife/And a bicycle on the boy’s birthday’) with the reality that this is to replace ships sunk in battle and that the shipbuilders’ own sons are being sent off to fight (‘The boy said, “Dad, they’re going to take me to task/But I’ll be back by Christmas”‘). Robert Wyatt’s imploring and fragile tenor, backed by an almost jazz-like combo, created such an affecting classic that it reached #2 in FF 1982 and #11 in All-Time FF 2000.
Costello added his own comment on the song by lowering the key and bringing in no less an instrumentalist than Chet Baker to do the trumpet solo (FF 1983 #48). In fact, Costello appears on both versions, having provided the backing vocals for Wyatt’s version. One could spend all night arguing the merits of both versions: but the powerful message they convey is timeless and outweighs artistic considerations: ‘Diving for dear life/When we could be diving for pearls.’