Why Robert Wyatt’s wife Alfie is his most important collaborator
Wyatt has worked with Brian Eno, David Gilmour, Paul Weller and Björk, but Alfreda Benge is his artistic other half, argues biographer Marcus O’Dair
Robert Wyatt came to prominence as the drummer and singer with Soft Machine – alongside Pink Floyd, one of the twin “house bands” of the 1960s London underground scene. His life took an abrupt turn in 1973, when a fall from a fourth-storey window left him paraplegic. Unable to play drums, he reinvented himself as a singer and composer with the following year’s Rock Bottom.
Since then he has made the top 40 twice – first with his cover of I’m A Believer, in 1974, and again with Shipbuilding, released in the aftermath of the Falklands war. Wyatt is happier, though, far from the mainstream, working with jazz musicians or singing revolutionary songs of the international left. Now nearing 70, he finds himself perhaps more recognised than ever: in recent years, he’s been shortlisted for the Mercury prize, guest edited BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, and curated London’s Southbank Centre’s prestigious Meltdown festival.
Since the end of his “drummer biped” days, Wyatt has been known as a solo artist, although in fact his numerous collaborators include Brian Eno, David Gilmour, Paul Weller and Björk.
Wyatt’s most important collaborator by far, however, is often overlooked: his wife Alfreda Benge, known to all as Alfie. She and Wyatt met in 1972 and were married two years later, on the day Rock Bottom was released. Almost immediately, Wyatt was writing about her on Rock Bottom tracks such as Alifib, Alifie and Sea Song. Yet Benge’s role is both more multi-faceted and far more active than mere muse.
“Alfie’s role in the studio is incredibly, incredibly, incredibly important – I can’t emphasise that enough,” says Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera, in whose studio Wyatt has recorded all his recent albums. “There is no Robert without Alfie.” Geoff Travis, whose Rough Trade label put out some of Wyatt’s finest music in the 1980s, agrees: “Both of them are great artists, and I see them together.”
Benge has been Wyatt’s manager for decades, but also makes a major artistic contribution in terms of both lyrics and artwork. Originally, Benge conceived her words as poems rather than lyrics. Set to music by Wyatt, they provide some of the highlights of 1991’s Dondestan, as well as its breaks from overt politics: Benge takes the listener to an out-of-season Spanish town, picking out details with a painter’s eye. Writing music to fit someone else’s words also had a positive effect on Wyatt’s compositional process, forcing him beyond the familiar, and Benge has gone on to write lyrics for tracks on every subsequent album.
Benge’s other major contribution to the albums that bear her husband’s name is in terms of cover art, a process that began with Rock Bottom. Her muted pencil drawing was a reflection of the music and its Venetian inception, but also a deliberate attempt to distance the album from the famously elaborate covers of progressive rock contemporaries.
Benge would be responsible for the artwork of every record Wyatt released from this point on. They vary considerably, from pencil drawing to cut-out collage – I’m no art critic but see shades, variously, of Miró, Hockney and Matisse – and yet a consistent vision runs throughout. They’re among the most remarkable covers in popular music, and I can’t think of another example of an artist designing album covers for the same musician over 40 years. Wyatt says he’s had messages from people who bought 1975’s Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard, for instance, simply for its vivid, anthropomorphic and mildly sinister cover, and only then realised they liked the music too.
Benge’s visual ideas reflect her proximity to, and involvement in, the creative process, and sometimes the biographical background behind that process too. Her cover for 1997’s Shleep, for instance, depicts a snoozing Wyatt clutching a dove, reflecting his recovery from breakdown and severe insomnia – not the sort of thing your typical marketing department would suggest. Dondestan, meanwhile, depicts their room in Spain. If listeners feel an affinity to Wyatt, who manages to seem uncommonly approachable for an artist who hasn’t played a headline gig since 1974 and is certainly not on social media (although he does a fine line in DIY postcards), it might in part be down to Benge’s artwork.
Benge has occasionally written lyrics and designed covers for other artists – words for French musician Bertrand Burgalat, artwork for Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, Annette Peacock, Fred Frith – but is all too often overlooked in both respects. It may be sexism; it may be that she doesn’t sing her words, beyond the occasional backing vocal or spoken word cameo; it may be that artwork in general tends to be neglected (increasingly so, perhaps, in an age in which music is so often intangible). It may even be that, whether we realise it or not, we are still in thrall to the Romantic notion of the artist as solo individual.
Benge serves as a pertinent reminder that creative labour is in fact frequently collaborative. Fans of popular music know this instinctively: a roll call of creative couples would include, say, Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, Lieber and Stoller, Morrisey and Marr. The husband-and-wife dynamic, though unusual, is not unprecedented: we might think, for instance, of Gerry Goffin and Carole King. Then there’s the artist Moki Cherry, who designed several album covers for her jazz trumpeter husband Don, and Kathleen Brennan, who has contributed artwork and lyrics to albums by her husband Tom Waits.
Even in such company, however, Alfie is unusual in making such a consistent and crucial contribution, while remaining, in her own words, a “hiding-in-the-shadows sort of person”. It’s something, I hope, that comes through in my book Different Every Time, which should perhaps have been subtitled “the authorised biography of Robert Wyatt and Alfreda Benge”, and in the accompanying compilation album. Even better, to accompany the book, two of Benge’s covers are now available for the first time as limited edition giclée prints. I’ve already ordered mine.
Different Every Time: the Authorised Biography of Robert Wyatt by Marcus O’Dair is out now from Serpent’s Tail. Peter Murphy reviews it in The Irish Times on Saturday, December 13th. An accompanying compilation, also called Different Every Time, is out now on Domino Recordings.