This is one curious animal. Not quite fish, not quite bird, but definitely mammal. When psychedelic, Jazz-surrealist Robert Wyatt released his second solo album Rock Bottom in 1974, there was little else quite like it. Quirky – yes. Eccentric – definitely. But apart from that, it remains a difficult LP to categorise. Not really progressive rock, although some elements do lend themselves to that particular genre. Nor could it be described as Jazz, even though Jazz influences abound throughout. Basically what we have here is the equivalent of a musical Platypus, a species which ultimately flies in the face of easy description much less normal categorisation.
Any fan of Wyatt will no doubt already be familiar with the story, of how, one night, during a wild party, Wyatt somehow managed to fall three stories from a bathroom window, breaking his spine, and thus condemning him to a wheelchair in the process (he’s lucky he didn’t also crack his skull). He spent the next six months in hospital, during which time he diligently set upon the task of completing the various compositions he had already begun to write some months before the accident. But since he could no longer play the drums, such a circumstance saw him concentrate his energies more into keyboard and vocals, two dominating instruments of this album in particular. However he couldn’t do it alone, bringing in several first-rate musicians some of which I shan’t pretend to be acquainted with, except for Mike Oldfield (of Tubular Bells fame), Richard Sinclair (one of the founding members of Caravan), and Ivor Cutler (poet, songwriter, comedian, probably most famous for his appearance in the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour film). But probably the most important name, and someone who didn’t even play on the album, is Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason, listed as producer, and who I must say does a wondrous job of allowing all the disparate pieces of Wyatt’s imagination to fit together.
The first side opens with the woozy and whimsical “Sea Song”, where our antagonist’s voice floats like drift wood over a tranquil ocean. The queasy keyboards only add to the tune’s marine-like quality. A gorgeous and atmospheric piece, although let’s not forget that the sea is also full of dangers, presented here by a little avant-garde piano, giving it that little bit of edginess. “A Last Straw” maintains the theme, with some warbling vocals and keyboards as well as under-water slide-guitar. The whole thing is quite magical yet mysterious, like gazing upon tropical coral, in all its exotic and alien glory. Things immediately change tack with the trumpet dominated “Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road”. What the title has to do with anything on the album is your guess or mine. All I know is that we’re now taken on a different journey, across a very different landscape. Wyatt uses his voice to abstract (there’s that word again) affect, while the almost supernatural trumpets carry the listener along on a voyage of unexpected discovery. No doubt somewhere near the land of Eno.
“Alifib”, beginning side two, is another strange and otherworldly beast, where brooding synths combine with an assortment of keyboards and God knows what else is lurking there in the mix. It’s not until Wyatt sings that you wake up from your avant-garde stupor and begin to realise that this is perhaps a tender love song, finely augmented by a deliciously delicate and watery soundscape. “Alife” is a bit like walking into somebody else’s dream. Trespassing into their deepest subconscious thoughts, where nothing makes sense, and all things seem. A stimulating scenery of disparate dissonance is perhaps the best way I can describe it.
The final track “Little Red Riding Hood Hit the Road” is typical English whimsy, with some strange yet wonderful vocals by Wyatt, along with otherworldly guitar courtesy of Mike Oldfield, in a way which reminds me of Robert Fripp, followed by some surreal narration by Ivor Cutler. The violins near the end remind me of seagulls hovering over a glittering sea, making sweet cacophony with the air and ocean above and beneath them.
Rock Bottom is without question an original and highly unusual addition to the musical anthology of English music. Something naturally of its time, yet belonging to no time in particular: existing somewhere within its own dimensions. And depending on your state of mind, it can either soothe or scare you with its schizophrenic arrangements and unconventional sensibilities. But listening to this album is almost the equivalent of being a marine biologist, accepting whatever new visible features and life forms you might find, though always with an open mind. And an open mind is perhaps the key to getting the most out of this music. If you’re into ABBA, or K.C. and the Sunshine Band, forget it. This is not your sort of journey. Because this is one for the cerebral navel-gazing outfit, all those melancholy misfits who think about deep space and what it all means and why are we here. That’s not to say that any fan of 1970’s disco is a complete philosophical numbskull, but when it comes to appreciating Rock Bottom, one must have the sort of necessary wiring mental or otherwise. As Wyatt himself sings; “Your madness fits in nicely with my own/My very own/We’re not alone”. Who can ask for more.