Rock Bottom by Robert Wyatt

1974

Canterbury. My Mum and Dad went on their honeymoon to Canterbury. Kent County Cricket Club have their headquarters at the St. Lawrence Ground, Canterbury and I have spent literally hundreds of hours there in a state of either euphoria or depression, sitting alongside my Dad watching Alan Ealham, Asif Iqbal, Alan Knott, Steve Marsh, Mark Ealham, Paul Nixon and many more. Roo and I stayed in a hotel in Canterbury in December 1998 and that was when we decided to get married. When my Mum and Dad died, we scattered their ashes at the St. Lawrence Ground. My sister and her husband moved to Canterbury. Rob and I went to see The Unthanks in Canterbury on the day I left Oakmeeds in 2011. It’s not a particularly wonderful city although the cathedral is quite nice, if that’s the sort of thing you like, but it’s a special place for me for all the reasons listed above.

There was a lot of “underground” or “progressive” music that was performed by people who were part of the “Canterbury music scene” in the late sixties and seventies. Among my favourite artists from that time, Caravan and Kevin Ayers figure prominently. Caravan were a great group and their gig at Cameron Hall Of Residence while I was at Royal Holloway was wonderful. It was the first time I had been to a gig where they had used dry ice. I thought they had set fire to the stage!

Soft Machine were part of the Canterbury scene. I was never a huge fan of them although I spent many hours listening to their early albums hoping to find some emotional connection. Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt were both in the original Soft Machine. Kevin Ayers left after one album and Robert Wyatt was pushed out after four albums. Robert formed a group which he called Matching Mole which was a joke name because ‘machine molle’ is French for ‘soft machine’. In 1973, he fell from a fourth floor window during a party and was paralysed from the waist down. He has used a wheelchair ever since. His accident meant that he could no longer play drums. Robert is possibly most well known for having a minor hit with a version of The Monkees “I’m A Believer” in 1974. He also sung a beautiful version of Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding” in 1982. In 2009 he was the guest editor of the “Today” programme on Radio 4. He rarely performs live but in 2017, Paul Weller persuaded him to perform at a benefit concert in Brighton for the Labour Party. He has made 9 solo records, the last being in 2007. In 2008, he expounded on his political views “On the whole, I feel that the right wing forces have won and the left wing failed or fell into self-contradiction….The fact is that the world is still run by rich investors and the old colonial countries in their guise of super-powers are still screwing the Third World and hiding behind this fa├žade of bringing democracy to the heathen masses, which is obviously really depressing.” My musical guru Peter has met him and says that you couldn’t wish to meet a nicer man.

“Rock Bottom” was the first solo record Robert released after his accident. However, most of the writing for the record took place before the accident. Many magazines and websites include it in the Top 500 records of all times. It merits a whole chapter in the book I am currently reading “A New Day Yesterday – UK Progressive Rock & The 1970s” by Mike Barnes. The record was produced by Nick Mason of Pink Floyd, Ivor Cutler recites some eccentric lyrics on two of the songs, Mike Oldfield plays guitar on one song, Fred Frith of Henry Cow (and many other projects) plays viola on one track and the bass playing duties are shared between Richard Sinclair of Caravan and Hugh Hopper of Soft Machine.

There are six songs on the record and I tend to regard them in pairs. The first and second songs on side 1 are “Sea Song” (covered by The Unthanks) and “A Last Straw”. The former ends with some scat singing by Robert, the like of which you won’t have heard before. The latter is more jazz influenced.

The first two songs on side 2 are “Alifib” and “Alife” which are two very free-form tracks with intertwining melodies and subtle atmospheres. The latter features a remarkable sax solo and finishes with Robert’s wife and co-writer Alfreda Benge speaking such lines as “you soppy old custard” and “I’m not you larder, I’m your guarder”.

The last songs on sides 1 and 2 are “Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road” and “Little Red Robin Hood Hit the Road”. The former consists of layered trumpets, manipulated tapes, pianos over a constant, pounding bass & marimba rhythm section. When Robert finishes his vocal melody, it is played backwards with another vocal set to the backwards melody. In the midst of the mayhem, Ivor Cutler appears reciting a poem about lying in a road with a hedgehog, trying to trip up passing cars. “Little Red Robin Hood Hit the Road” is my favourite song on the album, featuring good interplay between Robert Wyatt’s keyboard and Mike Oldfield’s guitar. After some loose drumming and eccentric viola playing, Ivor Cutler resumes his nonsense poem although he and the hedgehog have now moved on to destroying televisions with a phone receiver.

This is not a record for the faint hearted. It’s generally regarded as a seminal work of art-rock. Mike Barnes calls it “one of the most original ground-breaking albums of the decade”. In the right mood, I find it intriguing. In the wrong mood, I find it irritating.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

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