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Bolshevik indie

Between 1980 and 1981, Robert Wyatt released four particularly Martian singles on the Rough Trade label

It may be the most amazing series of records released by a major figure. Between 1980 and 1981, Robert Wyatt released four particularly Martian singles on the independent label Rough Trade, later compiled in the LP Nothing Can Stop Us. The first, sung in Spanish, combined Violeta Parra (Arauco) with Carlos Puebla (Caimanera). Another juxtaposed a number by the group Chic (At Last I am Free) with the famous song about lynching in the deep south (Strange Fruit). It is the third that now interests us: the so-called Stalinist record.

These singles skirted legality. In 1973, Wyatt suffered a fall at an alcohol-fueled party and was confined to a wheelchair, a brutal fate for the ex-drummer of Soft Machine and Matching Mole (and a famous partier). The next year he signed with the nascent Virgin Records. It was a paternalist relationship: Virgin paid him 40 pounds a week, allowing him total freedom of expression. Then in 1977, Virgin took on the Sex Pistols, and dropped its appearances as a benevolent hippy label. Wyatt saw that Branson's loyalty was to money, not to music.

Wyatt wanted to leave, but Virgin pointed out that he still owed them two albums. He talked to Geoff Travis, the visionary of Rough Trade, and agreed to record some singles, a format that did not seem to be covered by the Branson contract.

Wyatt had joined up with a unique company. Rough Trade worked as a cooperative and everyone, from Travis down to the last storeroom hand, got the same pay. They hired him with some hesitation, the label being politically correct in the extreme. Dutifully observing the cultural boycott of the apartheid regime, it declined to distribute the compilations of the Earthworks label, which showcased the explosive creativity of the South African black townships (the records ended up at Virgin, and helped bring home the reality of Soweto).

Under the aegis of the war effort, the group Golden Gate Jubilee Quarter released Stalin Wasn't Stallin'

No such controversy arose when Wyatt recorded alone, dubbing voices, his version of a song forgotten since 1943. In that year, under the aegis of the war effort, the group Golden Gate Jubilee Quarter released Stalin Wasn't Stallin'. Couched in the language of spirituals — God, Devil, Adam — the song explained that Stalin wasn't pussyfooting; that the Russian Bear was giving Hitler a ferocious clawing.

In a typical eccentric pirouette, Wyatt also decided that the record would include no instruments: the flip side is the poet Peter Blackman's unaccompanied reading of Stalingrad, about the Red Army's desperate fight against the Wehrmacht on the banks of the Volga.

There were grumblings of discontent. From the Trotskyist contingent, and from liberal critics such as Greil Marcus: How could it be that a label as exemplary as Rough Trade was glorifying the memory of (perhaps) the century's most prolific mass murderer? Wyatt pointed to military history: according to Western pop culture, it was the British and Americans who knocked out Nazism. In reality, the Third Reich was annihilated in Eastern Europe. He quoted the historian A. J. P. Taylor: "From the time the Russians came into the war, they contended, most of the time, with four-fifths of the German Army, and never with less than three-quarters."

We need not belabor Stalin's monstrous behavior before, during and after the war. In the heat of the conflict, it perhaps made propagandistic sense to focus resistance to Nazism on his person, but the record came out in 1981. Having said that, Wyatt was a member of the British Communist Party, and was aligned with the old guard.

Rough Trade and Wyatt maintained a productive relationship. Though Travis rejected his version of The International, he did release The Red Flag, the unofficial anthem of the Labour Party. Wyatt has become an icon of the social-conscience wing of the British indie movement, with records on Hannibal and Domino. And he is not the only one to look back in longing to the days of Stalin, as is evident on the internet.

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