The wisdom of pop songs – O Caroline by Matching Mole

The way it goes in writing this blog is that sometimes I’m enjoying it so much and the ideas are coming so thick and fast that something slips through the net. And so it is that in this case I must apologise not just to you but to myself for omitting this beautiful, haunting song by Robert Wyatt.

Wyatt, for those who may have missed him throughout his long but low-key career, started out as the drummer with The Soft Machine, a jazz-rock band that emerged from Canterbury, England, in the late 1960s. Why is the city worth mentioning? Because it spawned a host of talent around that time and there was a cohesion to it all: musically sophisticated, jazzy and with an understated English eccentricity about the lyrics.

Names? Soft Machine, Caravan, Hatfield and the North among many. As for musicians, in addition to Wyatt, there was Kevin Ayers, Daevid Allen of Gong fame and Dave Stewart (not the Eurythmics one, but he had a couple of surprising hits with Barbara Gaskin). Those are the people you might have heard of, the tip of an iceberg of people who are musicians but not potential celebrities. If, like me, you spent a lot of time hanging around in record shops after school, you will recognize names such as Mike Ratledge, Hugh Hopper, David Sinclair, Pip Pyle, Pye Hastings and Elton Dean.

Some of them are dead now, while others have made a career out of it without necessarily making much money.

As for Robert Wyatt, he overcame the adversity of being paralysed from the waist down after falling out of a fourth floor window at a party and has continued making music. His guileless, angelic voice has given a new twist to such pop hits as I’m a Believer and Yesterday Man, while his version of Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding gave the anti-war song (about building ships for the Falklands conflict) a poignant edge quite different from Costello’s own treatment.

This Caroline song is by Wyatt’s band Matching Mole (a literal French translation and wilful mispronounciation of Soft Machine). Listen to the first line: “David (Sinclair)’s on piano and I may play on a drum”, which leads into his reiteration to Caroline of his love and devotion, and the fact that they once expected to marry, but clearly things have changed. That girlfriend was Caroline Coon, an artist who briefly managed The Clash and who was also celebrated in The Stranglers song London Lady.

How did this song fail to be a hit when released as a single? Maybe it is possible for a record to be too good, too sophisticated to succeed.

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