England - Full Moon 219 - 07/12/14
From head to heart
Robert Wyatt's Rock Bottom
Following our retroscope series of latter years, here we go again! Here's Speakers'
corner's cousin; From head to heart. Luna Kafé's focused eye on great events, fantastic happenings, absolute
milestones, or other curious incidents from the historic shelves'n'vaults of pop'n'rock. Blowing our ears and our head, punching our chest and shaking our heart. Making us go sentimental,
but not slaphappy. This moonth the Lunar shuttle once again goes 40 years backwards, to 1974, to one of the highlights of the career of this majestic gentleman of a blend of genres. He is
One of a kind, and one of the most influential, well-respected and beloved British artists around, ever, I guess. He has friends, and fans, in every place, every corner of the world. If
we were to list all the artists he has recorded, performed, collaborated, etc. with, well.... that list would never end..
This is the third part of a three-headed, 40 years old Canterbury scene special. This time we focus on Robert Wyatt, born i Bristol in 1945, but grew up in Canterbury, Kent, England. The platter we take a closer look at, was his second solo album. The first one, from 1970 when he was still the drummer and occasional singer of Soft Machine, The End Of An Ear, belongs in a different, more free-form division than all his later ones. He considers it as juvenilia, recorded before he was chained to his wheelchair.
'Seaweed tangled in our home from home, Reminds me of your rocky bottom.' From "Last Straw".
July 1974: I was abroad without any other family members for the first time in my life. Can you imagine, three weeks in southern England to improve football skills and the language of the natives along with a few friends from school. It was our trip of a lifetime! It mainly had to do with football. Playing and watching the games from the World Cup in Germany. We sympathized with Poland and loved the Netherlands; Johan Cruyff & co taking the noble art of football to a new level by running and running... But in the end the solid home team beat them both. We had some spare time and visited the record shops in Eastbourne once in a while until the money supply went dry. We went home before Rock Bottom was released on the 26th. Curiously enough there were no eager anticipation neither in the record shops, streets, pubs or discos (well, er weren't old enough to enter...) of Eastbourne of Robert Wyatt's first real solo album as far as I reckon. I don't remember any stir concerning the release of the album back home in Norway either.
I probably didn't learn about the man for another few years. His connections with Pink Floyd probably paved the way. But I didn't buy the Floyd drummer Nick Mason produced Rock Bottom until the summer of 1981, a crap Italian copy in a shop in Paris. Of course I liked it, especially the easily accessible opening track, the melancholic and at the same time uplifting "Sea Song". But it didn't enter my top five albums list until July 1986. Again a World Cup football tournament. Our neighbours of Denmark played some impressive matches and were leading 1-0 against Spain in the second round until a fatal unsuccessful pass, and were demolished 1-5. In the end Diego Maradona took it all home almost single handedly , well helped out to some extent by the Hand of God and his Argentinian colleagues. It was a hot summer in Oslo as well as in Mexico. I stayed in the city and taped every match for a friend who had bought a state of the art (at the time) VHS player before he went away on holiday to some faraway place without TV. Also I played Rock Bottom and David Sylvian's solo debut Brilliant Trees (30 years anniversary this very moonth!) to death. They were the only albums I was able to play that summer. Rock Bottom has always been there when I need it ever since.
And here we are 40, 33 and 28 Julys later. Another World Cup and Rock Bottom sounds as fresh and fascinating as ever. The music includes elements of pop, rock, jazz, even a bit of folk, but first and foremost it's a highly personal and original beast, both lyrical and musical. It's the piano jazz noodlings midway through and the scat singing at the end of "Sea Song" sounding like Robert's playing and singing for himself at home. More scat singing in "A Last Straw". The heavily effect-treated jazz trumpet of the late Mongi Feza all over "Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road". One hardly notice that the tape is turned backwards with Robert's voice and all towards the end of the song. The late Hugh Hopper's high-pitched bass that dominates "Alifib". And Robert's characteristic somewhat high-pitched voice, organic piano and organ playing throughout. The album sounds like nothing else. And it all works so goddamn well! At the same time it sounds loose, deliberate and natural; no forced attempts to create something original. Special mentioning goes to Robert's wife-to-be Alfreda 'Alfie' Benge's voice, mixed a bit low, it almost sounds like whisper, at the end of "Alife". It's one of a few times she's audible on any of Robert's albums. She has been very much visible on his albums, though, having designed the covers of most of them from Rock Bottom onwards and written lyrics for him, too. Also, there is the late Gary Windo's free-form saxplaying on the same track and Mike Oldfield's swirling twin guitars that dominates the better part of "Little Red Robin Hood Hit The Road". Both efforts are great, but not that groundbreaking. And then there is the late Ivor Cutler's characteristic Scottish voice reading some lines towards the end of "Little Red Riding Hood ...". He takes completely control of the end of "Little Red Robin Hood ..." with his harmonium and voice, along with Fred Frith's (of Henry Cow fame) scratchy viola. Splendid! Ivor is probably best remembered for his role as the bus conductor Buster Bloodvessel in The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour film whom Ringo's antie Jessie fell profoundly in love with. He also recorded several John Peel sessions and albums. His efforts on Rock Bottom secured him a three album contract with Virgin. They're highly humorous and eccentric, but sold next to nothing, I'm afraid.
One might suspect the album was influenced by Robert's fatal fall from the fourth floor on June 1st the previous year leaving him at rock bottom paralyzed from the waist down and as we have mentioned several times earlier in our menus. Well, I guess the album title and the title of the song "Little Red Robin Hood Hit The Road" might be influenced by the incident. But most of the songs were written earlier, in the winter of 1973 when Robert accompanied Alfie to Venice where she was working as an assistant editor on Nicolas Roegs' film Don't Look Now starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland. [A lot of fogwalking and -running along narrow and damp canals there if I remember rightly.] Robert wrote the songs for a new version of his band Matching Mole that he was about to start with Francis Monkman, ex. Curved Air. Instead he was hospitalised and had to change the arrangments to fit a solo setting. There was a piano in a rest room at the hospital and in bed he was 'free to dream and really think through the music'. As it turned out, I guess the songs of the fit better for a solo artist. Several of them deal with his wife-to-be, most obviously "Alifib" and "Alife", inspired by her name and also including a lot of playing with words in the Canterbury scene way. Robert stated it was 'a mixture of love and curiosity'. Alfie put it this way: 'When he started to do the words for "Alifib" he was singing 'Polly, my larder', and I said 'Who's this Polly? If you're going to sing about anybody it's got to be me'. It wasn't really his idea, so I kinda forced myself onto the record.'
The recordings started at Delfina's farm in February and March and was finished at Virgin's studio The Manor and The CBS Studios in London. I don't know who Delfina is, but her name adds to the marine theme of the album. And Robert is credited playing Delfina's wineglass and tray. The cover also credits Robert for drones and songs. The two Alfie-inspired songs mentioned above at least are a bit drone'ish with less melodic elements than the rest. The same goes for Ivor Cutler's not so grand finale. But Alfie interfers again, Robert: 'The real influence of Alfie is actually on the music itself because she had been unhappy with some of the earlier music I had been doing, being so condensed, so crowded. And she said 'Why don't you have more space, just let it ride more, like Van Morrison and people like that.' And this is a very good influence on me, I learned to leave a lot of space.'
Anyhow, the album points in many different directions, but are hold together by Robert's voice, piano and organ. "Sea Song" includes those ingredients, only augmented by the bass of friend and former band mate Richard Sinclair (of the excellent Hatfield And The North and ditto ex. Caravan). If not Robert's greatest song, it's certainly his greatest song from his greatest album. Even Tears For Fears recorded a cover version of it. And it's Robert's most excellent full moon song:
You look different every time you come
But I can't understand the different you
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
In the morning when it's time to play
at being human for a while
You'll be different in the spring, I know
You're a seasonal beast
Like the starfish that drifts in with the tide, with the tide
So until your your blood runs to meet the next full moon
Your madness fits in nicely with my own, with my own
Your lunacy fits neatly with my own - my very own
We're not alone...
The authorised biography of Robert Wyatt, Different Every Time, see the start of the lyrics above, will be released on 30 October this year. Rock Bottom was released on 26 July 1974. Alfie and Robert was married the same day. They still are.
Now, I only wonder who will win the World Cup. Will it be Germany or Argentina? We'll see the night after the full moon.
Copyright © 2014 JP