Very few artists, musicians in particular, can recover from an accident that leaves them paralyzed from the waist down. If said artist is a drummer, a skill that requires one’s lower limbs in equal measure to the upper ones, then that drummer has already seen the better part of his career. However if you are Robert Wyatt, one of Canterbury scene’s most prominent musicians, who at the age of 28 dropped from a 4th floor bathroom window after imbibing large quantities of alcohol, you use this horrific event as a turning point, embark on a new career and release an album for the ages. This is the story of that album, Rock Bottom.
The tale of Rock Bottom starts in Venice, Italy, during the winter of 1972. Wyatt was spending time with his then-girlfriend Alfreda Benge, whom he met at his band Matching Mole’s debut gig in London, January 1972. Alfie, as she was lovingly called, was assistant editor to Nicolas Roeg. The film director was shooting the excellent psychological thriller Don’t Look Now, based on a book by Daphne Du Maurier. Benge was a good friend of Julie Christie, the film’s co-star, with whom she shared a villa on location. Wyatt found himself ensconced in the villa with two constantly working roommates and a lot of time to kill. Sitting idle was not on the menu for a performer who up to that point been recording and touring hectically since the mid-1960s. Realizing her boyfriend’s reluctance to wallow in the confines of the villa, Alfreda bought him a toy to pass the time: a cheap Riviera organ. Wyatt started jotting down ideas for songs, inspired by the water surrounding Venice: “Not the little canals, but the big open ones. And the feeling, staying in this house, that you’d go down this path and instead of a road there’d be water. Venice in winter: when the tide goes down there are all these tiny little crabs scuttling around in the moss, at the waterline. It’s very evocative and strong.”
Back to London in February 1973, Wyatt started writing new songs inspired by his time in Venice and his new found love to Alfie. Early songs included Alife, A Last Straw and Sea Song. In parallel, he started playing in a quartet setting with Dave MacRae on keyboards, Ron Matthewson on bass and Gary Windo on saxophone. The band, called WMWM after the last name initials of its members, gravitated towards free jazz territories. Surviving tapes from their live shows recorded in April 1973 show hints of the type of music Robert Wyatt will create on Rock Bottom. Listen to his vocalization on the track Spiderman:
Eager to restart his band Matching Mole after it disintegrated late in 1972, Wyatt was in the process of forming a new lineup with Francis Monkman (ex Curved Air) on keyboards, Bill McCormick on bass and Gary Windo on sax. The plan was for that band to play his newly written songs, and in late May 1973 they started rehearsing. Wyatt contacted Nick Mason, Pink Floyd’s drummer and an old acquaintance since Wyatt’s days with Soft Machine when the two bands shared gigs at the UFO club in London, 1967.
Nick Mason got two notes on June 2nd. The first was Robert Wyatt asking him to produce Matching Mole’s third album. The second informed him that Wyatt fell off a fourth floor window the previous night.
Robert Wyatt had a drinking problem that started in earnest during Soft Machine’s tour of the United States as an opening act to the Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1968. Drinking buddy Keith Moon taught him the art of mixing Southern Comfort and tequila, a fine combination if your goal is to drop out fast. He explained the motivation behind this behavior: “It was fun, and it made you brave getting on stage in front of 5,000 impatient Texans waiting for Hendrix to come on, you do need a drink. I don’t know how else you’d get on stage.” On the night of June 1, 1973, Wyatt attended a party hosted by Lady June, the landlady that rented rooms for musicians including members of Gong, Henry Cow and Hawkind. He proceeded to increase his usual intake of alcohol to levels unknown even to him. The next thing he was out of the bathroom window on the fourth floor en route the backyard really fast. When he woke up he was on his back in a hospital bed, a position he had to remain in for three months. He later commented on the fall: “When I was working on the third Matching Mole LP and I thought – I want to do songs and I love playing drums, and I can’t do them both at the same time. I know what to do. What I did was – jump out of a window. Southern Comfort and Tequila, and then after Kevin got out some Whiskey. Gone. I really was too drunk to know. I certainly wouldn’t have the courage to jump from a 4th floor window sober.” In his dark sense of sarcastic, self-deprecating British humor, Wyatt pointed the benefit of being drank if jumping out the window is what you do: “I did a lot of punch and then a bottle of whisky and so on. Which was quite good, because if you’re going to fall out of a window and you’re drunk, it doesn’t hurt quite so much. Soldiers and bullfighters do it all the time… people who are smashed getting smashed.”
When he was finally able to get on a wheel chair, one of the first objects he found in the hospital was an old piano in the visitor’s room. He began to work on the material he started writing in Venice towards an album. But that album, originally destined to be Matching Mole’s third, was to become a solo project: “I really wanted to do notes. I always sang songs, so not being able to play drums anymore, not being able to be in a group anymore, absolutely liberated me. There was only one thing I could possibly do, and that’s what I’ve done ever since.” Following a difficult period of adjustment to his new condition, he began recording tracks early in 1974 at a farm house in the village of Little Bedwyn, leveraging the Virgin Records mobile recording unit, parked in the field outside the house.
Time to listen to the music, so here goes.
A Last Straw is a song that features Wyatt playing various instruments, some of them recorded at the farm house including the Riviera organ. It is one of two songs on the album to feature a guitar, on this tune Wyatt himself playing a slide guitar. The credits also include Wyatt on Delfina’s wineglass. Spanish philanthropist Delfina Entrecanales owned the farm estate where he started recording the album, and was generous to invite him to stay there until he finds a suitable place in London. Two minutes into the song Wyatt starts vocalizing something that sounds like a muted trumpet: “There’s two or three inspirations for that. One is, funnily enough, the brass instruments on Ellington records, where they use a lot of wah-wah. Then I noticed that Sly and the Family Stone were doing these wah-wah things – and between Ellington and Sly Stone, that was it.” Contrary to common belief that the title of the album, Rock Bottom, symbolizes Wyatt’s mental and physical condition at the time, it is simply taken from the lyrics to this song:
Seaweed tangled in our home from home
Reminds me of your rocky bottom
Two more contributions on A Last Straw are by Soft Machine band mate Hugh Hopper on bass and Laurie Allan on drums. Allan, who had a history with the bands Delivery and Gong and was an old flame of Alfreda Benge, contributes a minimalistic drum track, recorded later at CBS studios. Producer Nick Mason, a fellow drummer, had this to say about Allan: “Laurie was a free-jazz enthusiast and when we sent him the track, he went completely bananas, playing free over the whole thing. Robert and I looked at each other, trying to work out who was going to have to start telling him how to do it. But it then transpired that he hadn’t actually been hearing the track, he’d just been fiddling around setting up. It’s a great story in a way, because when you hear that track, it’s just the opposite – this absolutely fantastic light touch.”
Laurie Allan plays drums on one more tune, Little Red Robin Hood Hit the Road, along with a brilliant cast of musicians. Wyatt later commented on the benefit of being able to hire different musicians for each piece on the album: “I came to terms with the fact that I was no longer a drummer, and that going on the road would be very problematic. I no longer needed to prepare music for a permanent group, I’d have to concentrate on recording, and I’d have to sing more. I would be able to choose different musicians for different songs. I didn’t have to have the same instruments on every song. The loss of my legs gave me a new kind of freedom. “
Richard Sinclair plays bass on this track. Earlier in 1974 he released together with Hatfield and the North the band’s excellent eponymous debut. The year before Robert Wyatt was a vocalist guest at their performance on the French TV programme Rockenstock.
Mike Oldfield makes a wonderful guest appearance on electric guitar. Wyatt and Oldfield met each other in 1970 when the 17-year old Oldfield was part of Kevin Ayers’ band The Whole World as a bass player and Wyatt joined the band on their European tour. The guitar tracks on the first part of Little Red Robin Hood Hit the Road were recorded at the Manor Studio (aka the Manor) and have his unmistakable sound that he introduced to the world the previous year with Tubular Bells. A few months later he would be back at the Manor to record another great album, Hergest Ridge. A master of double tracking his guitar, he suggested the same process for the Riviera organ to make it sound thicker. That sound was used to a great effect and it dominates many of the songs on Rock Bottom, so much so that Wyatt commented: “You only have to get one of these things, put three fingers on it, and you’d say, ‘Oh, that sounds like Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom.”’
Wyatt’s opening lyrics on this track are a nod to Matching Mole, a band that ceased to exist at that point:
In the garden of England dead moles lie inside their holes
The dead-end tunnels crumble in the rain underfoot
Innit a shame?
Little Red Robin Hood Hit the Road is a tune of two halves. The second part, completely different than the first, features Fred Frith, then a member of Henry Cow. That band recorded their album Unrest at the Manor around the same time, and dedicated the album to Robert Wyatt.
Frith, one of the most gifted guitar players I know, comes in at the 3:00 minute mark with a viola drone before none other than Scottish poet Ivor Cutler makes an appearance with an offbeat reciting of nonsense to close the album. Brilliant.
I smash up the telly with remains of the broken phone
I fighting for the crust of the little brown loaf
I want it I want it I want it give it to me
Ivor Cutler also guests on the closer to the first side of the LP, the twin track Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road, reciting a few lines from Little Red Robin Hood Hit the Road over some tasty bass lines by Richard Sinclair. But the star of this track is South African trumpet player Mongezi Feza, one of a few jazz musicians who moved from that land to Europe in the 1960s, including Chris McGregor on piano and Dudu Pukwana on alto saxophone. Years later Wyatt still had the highest regard to his contributions on this track. When asked what he considers are the highlights of his career, he answered: “Gosh, this is an interesting one! Certainly a couple of moments with Mongezi Feza who collaborated with his trumpet toward the end of one side of ‘Rock Bottom’. I was kind of ecstatic of what he did with that, and the whole thing seems to take life for me. That was a fantastic memory.”
Feza would go on to record with Henry Cow and Elton Dean the following year before sadly passing away in 1975. The multi tracked trumpet sounds on this song are magnificent. Other credits include Wyatt on James’ drum and Delfina’s tray, artifacts of his stay in the village of Little Bedwyn. He used to put a few small percussion instruments on a tea tray owned by his gracious benefactor, one of them her son James’ toy drum.
This leaves us with my three favorite songs on the album, all of them about Wyatt’s relationship to Alfreda Benge. Time to talk about the importance of this wonderful woman, not only to Robert Wyatt’s life and career, but also to the creative aspect of this album. Let’s start with the artwork for the album. The pencil drawing depicts a beach scene with kids, seagulls, balloons, a boat. The bottom part of the drawing shows what goes on below that scene, a rocky sea bed with all kinds of creatures and vegetation. The simplicity of style was a conscious decision, as she later commented: “It was prog-rock time, and all the covers were getting more and more complicated, competing with each other with pizzazz. I thought the only way to counter that, to stand out, was to be absolutely minimal and quiet, which you didn’t get. You got things with doors that opened, and dragons.” Alfreda, with a background of painting studies at Camberwell Art School and graphics at the London School of Printing, went on to create all of her partner’s album covers. Wyatt summarized it well: “Alfie joined in with me in every way you can imagine, doing typography for LPs, doing the sleeve notes, the painting for all of them because she knew the songs. With Alfie the cover was part of the record.”
Alfreda was also instrumental in pointing out new possible directions for Robert Wyatt, before and after the accident: “She felt that some things that we were doing were technically advanced but at the same time kind of showing off. She wasn’t being rude, but very kind about her impression of our music. She said, ‘Look, you can’t show everybody how good you can play every time.’ So, after I broke my back I couldn’t do that anymore, I couldn’t do that clever drumming anymore. I had to just simplify my way of playing and she gave me more confidence to control the pace. Now I was on a different level of music making. There was no more me showing off my athletic skills to impress people, but it was me making music in a sense that I could move people.” And move people he did, I can attest to that.
The second side of the LP starts with Alifib, the starkest song of the album as arrangements go, consisting only of a repeated sample of Wyatt’s breath, a wonderful bass track by Hugh Hopper and Wyatt playing that Riviera organ. But the best part for me is Wyatt’s voice when he chants those silly lyrics:
Not nit not
nit no not
Nit nit folly bololey
Alifi my larder
Alifi my larder
Alfreda about the song: “When he started working on the lyric ‘Alife my larder’ he was singing ‘Polly my larder’. I said, ‘Who’s this Polly?’ The next time I heard it, he was singing, ‘Alife my larder’. I thought, ‘Well, I’ve just somehow forced a name change that wasn’t intended.’”
The next track is Alife (Alifib was in the key of B, Alife is in the key of E, dig?), sort of an answer song featuring Alfreda: “I was pissed and I was listening to this: ‘Oh, you’re my this and my that.’ And I said, ‘No I’m not.’ And Robert said, ‘OK, answer me then.’ So I went away and wrote this thing. It was a slightly tiddly response”.
I’m not your larder,
jammy jars and mustard.
I’m not your dinner,
you soppy old custard.
And what’s a bololey
when it’s a folly?
The track features one more guest musician, saxophonist Gary Windo, with whom Wyatt played in 1970 in Keith Tippets’ collective ensemble Centipede. Windo would continue to play on more Robert Wyatt projects in the 1970s and other great musicians including Carla Bley, Michael Mantler and Nick Mason. His sax phrases do wonders to compliment Wyatt’s lyric reciting on this song.
Production credits for this album go to Nick Mason, whose work as a producer is not widely recognized, all with him being drummer for one of the most successful bands of that era. Previous to Rock Bottom he produced a few albums, including two for the wonderfully esoteric Principal Edwards Magic Theatre and later for Canterbury scene staples Gong (Shamal) and Steve Hillage (Green). Mason joined the making of the album after Wyatt recorded a good amount of tracks with the mobile studio, and it was time to add all the guest musicians and additional overdubs. This part of the process took place at Virgin’s Manor studio and CBS Studios in London. This was the year after the release of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, which influenced Wyatt’s decision to ask Mason to produce his album: “Nick Mason had that wonderful Floyd sense of space. They made a new architecture, the Floyd. That was their great contribution, and that’s why I got Nick in. There was always a tendency for me to bunch things up and get lost in dense detail. He just said, ‘All good stuff, but space it out. Give the listener time to breathe. Go with the flow.’” If you like the minimalistic and spacious aura that floats over most of the album, say thanks to Mason.
Mason expanded on his experience producing the album and general approach to music production: “Rock Bottom is probably the most satisfying bit of production I’ve ever done – and great fun. The way I’ve always approached production is not to bring very much to it, but just to try to help the artist do whatever they want. Occasionally try to find some sort of idea if they’re a bit stuck, but Robert was rarely stuck for anything. With so much recorded music, the tendency – particularly if you’re a good musician – is to want to put all your brilliance down. I think it should absolutely be the space between the notes. You want less rather than more.” Mason is the ultimate drummer if you are looking for slow tempo, atmospheric music. He commented on the unhurried tempo found on so many of Pink Floyd’s songs: “We always kept to about 70bpm max. My doctor told me never to play faster than my pulse rate.”
The ‘less is more’ motto was also a by-product of the simple fact that Wyatt was not playing the instrument he was most proficient on anymore. Prior to his fall he was an excellent drummer, but not so when it came to playing a keyboard. He reflected on the notion of great artists who chose to do things that forced them into very basic technique: “The way that Paul Klee and Picasso started doing infant-like scrawls when they got older. I thought that was so moving and interesting. This abandonment of technique. The history of jazz was a bit like that too, in the sense of Ornette Coleman playing a violin – which he couldn’t do. I find that really brave.” Of course he still appreciated the skill of musicians that played with him, or others out there: “It must be very tantalizing for someone like Keith Jarrett, because he can do so much. It’s like an athlete: there’s such a real joy in doing it. His fingers are so fast that his brain can’t keep up half the time.” But technique alone or repeated clichés never appealed to him: “People with a fantastic amount of facility have a hard time controlling it for a specific musical event. In fact, amazing soloists tend to play different versions of Their Solo in everything they play. Jazz guitarists have a much harder time playing solos that are relevant to a particular tune than, say, George Harrison would, who can’t move that fast.” So true.
Wyatt had to look for inspiration outside of his previous circle of musicians, all great jazz and rock instrumentalists from bands such as Soft Machine, Matching Mole and other luminaries from the Canterbury scene. He found one, another Pink Floyd connection, in that band’s keyboard player: “I’m not a keyboard player in the sense of the spectacular keyboard players I’d worked with, like Dave MacRae and Mike Ratledge and David Sinclair. But I thought that the way Rick Wright created a sort of aurora borealis of harmonies around the Floyd was a very underestimated feature in what made them so distinct. He gave this wonderful backdrop to play on.” Many years later, in 2006, Wyatt will have a chance to play on stage together with Richard Wright as guests on Dave Gilmour’s show at the Royal Albert Hall.
We are not done yet, for there is one more track on the album, the one that opens it and for many its highlight. For me, this is one of the best tracks I know, on any album. The first part of the song is Robert Wyatt’s way of meshing his loving ode to Alfreda with the aquatic theme of the album sleeve:
You look different every time you come
From the foam-crested brine
It’s your skin shining softly in the moonlight
Partly fish, partly porpoise, partly baby sperm whale
Am I yours? Are you mine to play with?
Joking apart, when you’re drunk you’re terrific when you’re drunk
I like you mostly late at night you’re quite alright
But I can’t understand the different you in the morning
When it’s time to play at being human for a while, please smile
You’ll be different in the spring, I know
You’re a seasonal beast
Like the starfish that drift in with the tide, with the tide
So until your blood runs to meet the next full moon
You’re madness fits in nicely with my own, with my own
Your lunacy fits neatly with my own, my very own
We’re not alone
That last sentence sends the song into one of the most spine-chilling pieces of music I have ever heard. The layering of piano, synth and Wyatt’s vocals are simply unmatched. Wyatt said that this part of the song was influenced by Indian classical music. It sounds as if he packed all the roller coaster experiences he went through the previous 12 months into three minutes of primal vocalization. Years later Dave Gilmour said about Wyatt’s voice: “He has one of those voices which just tear at your soul. He really does have a voice which endears itself to you and tugs at the heartstrings.” When asked if his vocals on this song and the rest of the album were a reaction to the accident, Wyatt replied: “It doesn’t sound appropriate to me at all to the kind of accident I had. This is taking it too far. You make records instead of saying things. It’s up to anybody who listens to put the lid on it. I reserve the old romantic right of ambiguity in art, 19th century though it may sound.” Here it is:
Sea Song is not an easy song to cover, but attempts have been made a number of times, including Tears for Fears who gave it a good interpretation, although Roland Orzabal’s vocals are a tad too sweet for this kind of a song. The interpretation I like the most is by one of my favorite bands of recent years, The Unthanks, from their 2011 album Diversions Vol. 1, the songs of Robert Wyatt and Anthony & the Johnsons. Robert Wyatt concurs: “I heard a beautiful version of that done by an all-woman folk group in England called Rachel Unthank & The Winterset. They come from the north east of England. They cover the song in a strange modern way, just with piano and drums. Becky Unthank sings the song in a wonderful way that very much reminds me of when I wrote it. It’s not a copy but seems to understand exactly the spirit of it.
When it came time to sign with a record label, there was no doubt in Robert Wyatt’s mind. One label, still in its infancy at the time, had already signed many of the musical acts he was associated with: Henry Cow, Gong, Kevin Ayers, Lol Coxhill, Dudu Pukwana, Fred Frith, David Bedford and most notably Mike Oldfield who gave the label an unexpected boost with his debut Tubular Bells. This was, of course, Virgin Records. While Richard Branson was the face of the company and took care of the business side of things, it was Simon Draper who picked up many of its artists, and Draper had a soft spot for anything Soft Machine, as he recalls: “When I was at university in South Africa I was avidly reading the Melody Maker and NME, but also Downbeat and American stuff. And I remember reading an article about The Soft Machine by Michael Zwerin. And I was so taken with the idea of them that I bought the first Soft Machine album from an import shop in Johannesburg without ever hearing it. And it lived up to my huge expectations. I became a huge fan.” Just before Wyatt’s accident, Draper was set to sign the new planned lineup of Matching Mole. He did not give up when the idea of that band evaporated, and signed Robert Wyatt as a solo act, a no brainer move for Wyatt.
On July 25, 1974 the world got a preview of the songs on Rock Bottom when Wyatt performed his first ever solo performance at the ICA, an event he recalls as terrifying. The following day was no less eventful, for on July 26 Rock Bottom was released and Robert and Alfreda got married. Her recollection: “I don’t remember the details, but it was probably my idea. All that was on his mind was this live thing at the ICA the night before. He was worrying about that the whole time. You could have said anything to him, ‘I’ll cut your legs off on Wednesday night,’ and he’d have said, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ So I just said something like, ‘Rock Bottom is coming out, let’s get married the same day.’”
Robert Wyatt and Alfie on their wedding day (just kidding):
Reviews in the English press were uncharacteristically and unanimously positive. NME: “Robert Wyatt was probably the most creative and individual drummer in British rock, and his enforced retirement from that activity is a great loss. Fortunately, he is also one of the most creative and individual singers/composers in British rock.” Sounds: “Not only is Rock Bottom the album you’ve been hoping Robert Wyatt would make for years, it is one hundred per cent better than you dared hope it would be. Strong without being arrogant or overbearing, melodic without being fettered, it embodies all the things that make Robert a musician, singer and composer with no rivals and few equals.” The usual fluff and adjective overuse, but at least positive. All this activity in the trade magazines did not help nudge the album into the UK charts. It fared better over the pond where it entered the FM Action chart on Billboard Magazine, based on number of plays on progressive rock radio stations. It reached number 13 on that chart on February 22nd, 1975. An interesting view of that period shows that the top 10 acts that week included artists such as Passport, Pretty Things, John Cale, Strawbs and Can. Good times.
On September 8, 1974, Wyatt, along with a dream cast of musicians, performed the full album at the Drury Lane theatre in London. The band surrounding him consisted of musicians who played on the album such as Mike Oldfield, Fred Frith, Mongezi Feza, Gary Windo, Laurie Allan, Hugh Hopper, Ivor Cutler. Nick Mason joined on drums, Dave Stewart on keyboards, Julie Tippets added her lovely voice, and introducing the show was none other than John Peel. Quite a night, which Wyatt remembers fondly: “I knew it was gonna be quite good, because Laurie Allan, Hugh Hopper and Dave Stewart are basically my dream rhythm-section. I felt that no matter how bad it was, those people and Fred Frith and so on would be able to pull something out of the hat.” The full cast posed for a wheel-chair solidarity photograph that made the cover of NME. Wyatt would never perform again as a headliner, and Drury Lane will remain his sole live album as a solo artist.
Rock Bottom is a unique album, with or without the listener being aware of the background behind it. We can only guess what songs that were written early on such as Sea Song would have sounded like if they were recorded as part of a Matching Mole album, as originally planned. Alexander Graham Bell’s well known quote in its unabridged version fits here: “When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.” No so for Robert Wyatt, who very quickly following a tragedy saw the open door. None better than him summarized how unique the album is: “I haven’t ever deliberately tried to be either different or the same. It just so happens that, when I am doing my own thing, what I hear in my head doesn’t seem to me to be very much like anything else. What I do, it’s not even in a category that I could name. And this is not some attempt to be different. It just isn’t: it isn’t rock ’n’ roll, it isn’t jazz, it isn’t modern classical music, it isn’t folk music. It doesn’t exist as a genre. It’s like a Galápagos Island animal, some kind of underwater duck. Just some sort of thing that I turned out to be.”
For those interested in learning more about Robert Wyatt, go no farther than his biography Different Every Time: The Authorized Biography of Robert Wyatt, by Marcus O’Dair. It is an excellently written and a well-researched book, highly recommended.
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