Hitting ‘Rock Bottom’: How a fall from a window redirected Robert Wyatt’s muse

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Randall Roberts
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On June 1, 1973, a drunken Robert Wyatt fell out of a fourth-floor window and broke his spine. A founding member of British band Soft Machine, in a split second the singing drummer lost the use of his legs, which forced him to move to another percussion instrument, the piano, to continue his musical path. He was in his late 20s and the creative life was all he knew. He plowed on.

“I came to terms with the fact that I was no longer a drummer, and that going on the road would be very problematic,” he wrote in 1998. “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 need to have the same instruments on every song. The loss of my legs might give me a new kind of freedom.”

Not long after — well, more than half-a-year of recuperative lying flat on his back and staring at the ceiling — he started recording Rock Bottom.

It was Wyatt’s second solo album. By the time it came out, the Bristol-born artist had already been a professional musician for nearly a decade. Despite coming of age amid Beatlemania, he was never much for the rock ‘n roll set; while much of Britain was chasing whatever Lennon, McCartney, Jagger, and Richards were making, drummer Wyatt and a bunch of kindred spirits – including former housemate Daevid Allen (Soft Machine, Gong) – in and around Cambridge built a scene that ditched the acid-driven electric guitar stuff for an exploratory, progressive path more influenced by jazz, British folk, rhythm and the avant-garde than whatever the commercial rock realm was producing. 

Wyatt left the Soft Machine in 1971 to form the trio Matching Mole. He released his debut solo album, The End of an Ear, that same year. By then he’d started experimenting with a wordless vocal style that was part scat-singing, part animal cry, part dada-esque gibberish. Above’s a clip of Matching Mole in ’72. (Fans of masked Lightning Bolt drummer Brian Chippendale might note in Wyatt a kindred spirit.)

To record Rock Bottom, Wyatt retreated to a wheelchair-friendly cottage in Wilshire lent to him by his friend Delfina. There, at the start of 1974, a Virgin Records Mobile Studio captured Wyatt’s sessions — “parked in the adjoining field, while a donkey brayed in the background,” Wyatt recalled. That spring, he and his girlfriend (now wife) Alfreda “Alifie” Benge moved to a house in London and Wyatt starting prepping for overdubs.

Produced by Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason and recorded at Manor Studios, the studio sessions featured contributors including Fred Frith, Mike Oldfield, Ivor Cutler, Richard Sinclair, Hugh Hopper, and, of course Wyatt — credited as playing keyboards, “Delfina’s wineglass,” “James’ drum,” and “Delfina’s tray and a small battery.”

Wyatt had actually starting working on Rock Bottom in ’72, before his mishap. Visiting Venice, Italy with Alfreda, who was working on a film there, Wyatt did much of his composing on what he calls “a very basic keyboard keyboard with a particular vibrato, that shimmered like the water that surrounded us.”

Though that dinky keyboard doesn’t drive Rock Bottom, you can hear it adding texture on “Alifib / Alife,” a breathtaking love letter that features the ridiculously memorable refrain, “I can’t forsake you / Or forsqueak you,” and is driven by a woozy set of loopy chord changes, congas, piano, tenor sax, and bass.

Those curious about the making of Rock Bottom should take time to listen to this six-part (pt. 4’s above) interview conducted in 2001. Devoted solely to the making of the record, it came out a few years after Domino Records first reissued it in 1998 and offers loads of context on its writing and recording, as well as a thoughtful conversation on his life-altering fall and the consequences of it.

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