Rock Bottom

Robert Wyatt

album cover

A Record of Fate and Its Consequences

As a member of the pioneering band Soft Machine, Robert Wyatt helped establish the renegade tone and sense of adventure that became central to progressive rock of the early 1970s, particularly the music of Pink Floyd. The inventive drummer and singer left Soft Machine in late 1971, forming the short-lived, mostly instrumental Matching Mole. In the spring of '73, Wyatt began working on the material for this album. On June 1, the night before his new ensemble was to rehearse for the first time, he fell from a fourth-floor window and suffered severe spinal cord injuries. "I spent three months lying flat on my back, gazing at the ceiling of a surreal public dormitory amongst twenty others whose lives had also radically changed in a split second," Wyatt writes in the liner notes.

Wyatt learned to live in a wheelchair, and months later returned to the music he'd planned to record. Despite the circumstances of its creation, Rock Bottom isn't morose—like many of Wyatt's subsequent solo records, it offers quaint country garden landscapes and spacey, open-ended environments that support cryptic lyrics. Nursery rhymes and fables figure prominently here, as do expressions of awe and admiration for Alfreda Benge, who later became his wife. (Among them is this enduring endearment: "Your lunacy fits neatly with my own.") Wyatt, who plays keyboard and sings since he's unable to play drums, creates deeply engrossing ambient tapestries to surround his (sometimes impish) wordplay. This album relies on the knotty musical strategies associated with art rock, but uses them in more intimate, approachable ways, with carefully sculpted peaks and valleys. Check the introduction to "Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road," which lasts three engrossing minutes: Winding through several different keys and rhythmic motifs, the piece careens between splattering trumpet solos and watercolor keyboard textures in a slow, measured ramp-up. By the time Wyatt's fragile falsetto appears, he's prepared his listeners for literally anything. In terms of sweep, invention, and gradually mounting tension, this is one of the greatest stage-setting introductions in all of rock.

Rock Bottom sets the tone for Wyatt's solo career—its stylistic leaps and chord sequences turn up on many subsequent recordings. It is, however, more oriented toward fantasy than most of his later work; his discography includes embittered song cycles like Cuckooland (2003), a dismayed, scathing attack on the policies of large Western democracies.

Genre: Rock
Released: 1974, Virgin
Key Tracks: "Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road," "A Last Straw," "Alifib"
Catalog Choice: Cuckooland; Old Rottenhat. Soft Machine: Third
Next Stop: van: Cunning Stunts
After That: National Health: Of Queues and Cures
Book Pages: 874–875

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#1 from Whit Andrews - 12/02/2008 10:34

Rock Bottom sounds lush and truly experimental, instead of just irritating, which is how I felt about Soft Machine stuff when I was so much younger.

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