The Infinite Jukebox: Robert Wyatt’s ‘Yesterday Man’


Has it ever occurred to you, when listening to any Golden Oldie show that broadcasts Chris Andrews’ colossal 1966 hit, ‘Yesterday Man’, that there is a massive gulf between the sound of the song – peppy, poppy, bouncy, delirious, uptempo, upbeat, danceable – and what Andrews is actually singing about?
After a brassy, bright intro, trumpeting to a halt to give a platform for Andrews to deliver his first line, he announces that he’s a Yesterday Man, and affirms to his friends that this is what he is. And, in case there should be some doubt about a linguistic shift that has utterly transformed the meaning of the words, he repeats it and repeats. That’s what I am, that’s what I am, a Yesterday Man, with a quick confirmatory echo behind him of ‘Gone is the look of love she had last night.’
Ok, it’s plain, and the verses make it plainer. He had a girl. She was great. He thought she was in love with him, but she’s dumped him overnight. He was sure taken in. And now he’s her Yesterday Man and he couldn’t sound more pleased about it if you’d offered him a 14″ Deep Pan Pizza with all his favourite toppings on it.
Hey, wait a minute. This is a break-up song, no doubt, break-up-I-was-conned, and Andrews is singing about it as if it was the best experience of his life, and no-one seemed to have noticed? Truly we are strange people.
Jump now to 1974. Robert Wyatt, once of Soft Machine and Matching Mole, now confined to a wheelchair after a fall from a window resulted in a broken back, records a cover version of The Monkees’ ‘I’m a Believer’ for a John Peel Show session. It goes down well enough that Wyatt records it as a single and has an unexpected minor hit and a controversial Top of the Pops appearance.
In the New Musical Express, it’s reported that Wyatt has recorded a version of ‘Yesterday Man’ that’s even more brilliant as a follow-up, but for unknown reasons, the single is cancelled. Until one day in 1977 when, listening to Piccadilly Radio, an unknown track started to play. ‘Gone is the look of love she had last night’, it began, and I dived for the tape recorder and hit Record, for I’d never forgotten about the Robert Wyatt version and this was indeed it, but what it was doing on Commercial Radio at that point I have no idea, and I never heard it played again.
Wyatt’s interpretation differs massively from Andrews. He takes the song at a slower pace, noticeably but not dramatically so. His vocal range, which is in a higher register than Andrews, lends itself to the plaintive, whilst the instrumentation is thicker, weightier. The song is immediately recognisable: the syncopation is there and the song structure hasn’t been tampered with.
But what distinguishes it most clearly is the simple difference that Wyatt is singing to the words and not the arrangement.
And make no mistake, this is a melancholy song, and incredibly so in its last line, when the singer confesses that in spite of all that I say, I’d take her back any day. And Wyatt sings it like it is and in the process turns a cheery romp into a sorrowful lament and a confession of obsession and weakness. It’s what his voice is made for, and the arrangement reflects it perfectly.
As for the original, we all know that the juxtaposition of elements in any form of art can be a fruitful form of tension, but really, singing about heartbreak in a happy-clappy jolly voice and arrangement as if you’ve won the EuroMillions jackpot on a multi Rollover week is not going to produce anything for anyone. Wyatt got it right, taking his cue from the words, and on a long ago day in 1977, I reacted instinctively and grabbed the chance to hear this, and to take it into my memory where it resonated for the rest of my life.

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2 thoughts on “The Infinite Jukebox: Robert Wyatt’s ‘Yesterday Man’

  1. Excellent review, which will have me digging out my EPs box set which includes, among other fine Robert Wyatt items, his covers of Yesterday Man and, er, well, I’m A Believer. You listed the wrong Monkees song, Malcolm. Still, both songs are classics.

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