Caught by the River

Side by Side

Mathew Clayton | 18th September 2020

Today Faber publishes Side by Side, which presents the lyrics, poems, writings and drawings of innovative musician Robert Wyatt and his creative partner, English painter and songwriter Alfie Benge. Mathew Clayton reviews.

I grew up in a Sussex village that was built almost entirely in the 1950s and 60s — there were lots of bungalows and lots of commuters. Front gardens were kept uniformly neat, hydrangeas, roses, geraniums equally spaced in weedless beds. It was near the sea, a particularly unattractive stretch of the slate-grey English Channel. Above the village on the South Downs were two windmills, one black and one white, named Jack and Jill after the old nursery rhyme. The path to the windmills was next to an old Roman cemetery and in a nearby quarry, traces of a Mesolithic camp had been found. Most things in the village — the shops, the streets and the schools — were named after the Downs or the windmills. My dad was a commuter. He put on a suit every day and went to London. But he didn’t really work in an office, he ran a company that cleaned and restored old stone buildings — churches, war memorials and office blocks. At the train station at lunchtime after the commuters had gone, a young man with mental health problems would stand and repeatedly bash his face against the brick wall until it was swollen and covered in blood. Sometimes you would see him walking along the high street, his forehead bulging like someone had pushed an apple under his skin. No one paid him much attention.

I had started listening to John Peel when I was 11 or 12. My gateway drug was Mike Read, England’s uncoolest man, who for a while had a show immediately before Peel. I didn’t like most of things that Peel played, but I started taping the show and realised that when you listened to these songs again some of them sounded great. I had no idea how this happened. One such tune was ‘Biko’ by Robert Wyatt — his voice was super weird and the backing music sounded like it was played on a cheap electronic organ. Some music sounds like it comes from the heavens; Wyatt’s sounded like it came from a badger set, from under a pile of mouldy old leaves, or from the village under the Downs I called home.

When I was about 16, I caught the train into Brighton and walked into a second-hand record shop on Trafalgar Street called Wax Factor, descended into their dank and windowless basement, and bought Rock Bottom —Wyatt’s first post-Soft Machine LP, released in 1974. I took it home and played it on the Dansette record player I kept in my bedroom. It starts with ‘Sea Song’. ‘You look different every time, you come from the foam crested brine’. Was it about falling in love and imagining you were both sea creatures? Or about being drunk and thinking someone was a mermaid? Or just about hitting rock bottom? It was very melancholic and very beautiful. The rest of side one of the LP follows a similar tack. Side two sounds more unhinged and is even sadder — a world unravelling. On my next trip to Brighton I picked up Animals, his soundtrack to a 1982 anti-vivisection film. I bought it was because it was cheap. At first listen I thought I had made a mistake — the A-side is a twenty-minute piece of music that sounds remarkably like one of those tracks Aphex Twin released for free on the internet. The second side contained ‘Pigs (in there)’. It starts with Wyatt talking about a trip through the Wiltshire countryside; he spots some low grey concrete buildings, and is told by one of his fellow travellers that they are where pigs are kept. For the rest of the track Wyatt incredulousy just repeats the phrase ‘Pigs? In there?’. This is accompanied by the usual desolete organ sound. This record slowly seeped into my consciousness and I soon began to enjoy even the Aphex Twin track, which I realised does let up a little toward the end.

‘Pigs (in there)’ is quite typical of Wyatt’s writing — it is both conversational and political. His lyrics are peppered with phrases from everyday speech ‘put a sock in it, ‘you’re in perfect nick’, ‘oh deary me’. Sometimes this informality devolves into nonsense or made up words — like the private language two people in a relationship can develop. He taps into a vein of the English imagination that flows through Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. On his album Old Rottenhat, his approach — the conversational and the political side by side — reaches its apogee in the song ‘East Timor’. The lyrics in their entirety are:

East Timor
Who’s your fancy friend?
What did Gillespie do to help you?

Gillespie was an officer in the Australian army who was in charge of the United Nations army in East Timor. Wyatt’s lyrics often refer to obscure individuals that were the focus of left wing anger. For a number of years my friend Joe and me would sing the words of ‘East Timor’ to each other and laugh. They just felt so unlikely in a pop song. But Wyatt’s left wing politics have provided a backbone to his work, supporting it and enlarging it in a similar way that religion has done to many artists over the centuries. 

In 1982, Wyatt’s wife and manager Alfie Benge started writing lyrics for him to compose around. An accomplished artist, she had designed all his album covers since Rock Bottom. Her presence is first really felt on the album Dondestan. In 1982 and 1986 they spent some months in a Spanish seaside town out of season and the LP records that time. The mood is perfectly captured in a song called ‘December’.

To pass the time
The waiter has changed our ashtray
Four times
Twice for each brandy we’ve drunk
It is winter on the playa
And the Germans are back in the office
The African trinket seller
Arms stretched by heavy boxes
Leans forward into the wind
A solitary silhouette against mercury sea
Oblivious of the sad beauty of his daily trek
Two abandoned summer dogs
Rifle a litter bin
And snatch a moment’s happiness
Diving through a wave
To make the sun glisten on the spray
It’s a vagabond beach 
Recovering from commerce

This is more observational (it could be an excerpt from a Deborah Levy novel) and less didactic than a typical lyric from Wyatt. But the politics are still there as is the beautiful sadness. You can feel that sadness even more acutely on another Benge song from Donestan, ‘Worship’:

Two nuns
On the seashore
Stand apart from one another
Black wood posts
By the sea god
One nun
With human failings
And weary legs
Sinks to the sand
And sits like a child
A golden stripe appears
On the Western horizon
A signal from the sea god
That he understands
One staunch sister 
Stays standing
And the sun

Isn’t that just fantastic!

Their partnership is explored in new collected lyrics book Side by Side, which is divided into two halves — the first being Wyatt’s lyrics, the second Benge’s. Throughout the book are drawings and doodles, but my favourite parts are where Benge elaborates on her songs. 

There is no doubt that Wyatt is one of Britain’s greatest living artists, but what had been less clear, at least to me, was the pivotal role that Benge has played extending his imaginative world. Thankfully this fantastic book has set me straight. In the unlikely event that Alfie reads this: maybe it is time you wrote a book of your own. I, for one, would buy it on the day it came out.


Side by Side, with an introduction by Jarvis Cocker, is out now and available here, priced £14.99.