Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Robert Wyatt - Rock Bottom (cassette edition)

Robert Wyatt
Rock Bottom (cassette edition)

Released 1990 on Virgin
Reviewed by Fitter Stoke, 13/02/2003ce

I’m walking well-trodden ground here. Mare-C and The Sensual Santa have both offered their erudite views on this totally unique record in these very pages and the uninitiated are referred, first and foremost, to their reviews herein. But I’d like to offer a few thoughts of my own in respect of what had been a very special album to me virtually since its initial release, but which in 1990 took on a surprising new lease of life when I bought the cassette version.

A rotten spell of detached duty in Liverpool that year, alongside a motley group of work-obsessed morons lacking any sort of social skills, rendered me in desperate need of stimulating aural compensation. And so, armed with my trusty (and, alas, subsequently stolen) cassette Walkman, I entered the local HMV and browsed what was still a decent selection of tapes. Nothing current took my fancy, but the sight of a recently issued two-on-one edition of ‘Rock Bottom’ and its successor ‘Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard’ started winking provocatively in my direction. Of course, I had vinyl editions of both albums back home, but the sudden and intense need to hear those records in particular THAT VERY DAY forced the notes out of my wallet without hesitation. Back in my tiny bedroom at the way-past-its-peak Adelphi hotel, I turned out the lights, lay on the bed and prepared to be lilted away to the delicate beauty of the joyous opening idyll ‘Sea Song’. And then I nearly suffered a coronary.

Despite the regular track listing on its innocuous cassette inlay, the 1990 cassette edition of ‘Rock Bottom’ begins not with ‘Sea Song’ but the take-no-prisoners bad dream of ‘Alife’, the second part of the ‘Alifib’/’Alife’ epic that graces the first two thirds of the vinyl version’s second side. Those already familiar with the album will know that the panic-ridden ‘Alife’ emerges seamlessly from the ethereal calm of ‘Alifib’, with the beautiful and dextrous bass of Hugh Hopper giving way to the edgy sax and random drums that provide so much of ‘Alife’s anguish. Not here. In what is clearly a quite different, louder mix, we are plunged without warning into the mire of what may just be the weirdest and most disturbing track ever to have emerged from the so-called ‘Canterbury Scene’. And then, after six minutes of its fearful, yet mesmeric world, the sustained keyboard that you expect will lead straight into the “In the gaaaaaarrrden of England…” opening of ‘Little Red Robin Hood Hits The Road’ instead gives way to that glorious speeded-up bass guitar and repeated, whispered “Al-if-ie, Al-if-ie” backdrop of ‘Alifib’. The calm, traditionally before the storm, now comes after it. And its new sense of relief is quite wonderful: a modern equivalent to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony no less, and every bit as satisfying.

After ‘Alifib’ comes the aforementioned ‘Little Red Robin Hood Hits The Road’, previously the album’s closing track. This time (and for all of the remaining tracks) the mix seems to be as before, although I do suspect that Mike Oldfield’s sublime solo (which, if you listen carefully, includes a very brief ‘Tubular Bells’ reference, trivia buffs) is louder than on vinyl. Ivor Cutler, who normally has the last demented word breaking up the “remains of de broken phone”, now preceeds the here-at-long-last ‘Sea Song’. Then comes ‘Last Straw’ and its childish, descending piano notes leading into the stupendous fanfare of multiple backward and forward trumpets that form the backdrop of ‘Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road’ - in other words, the regular Side One now follows an upside down version of Side Two. And to these ears ‘Rock Bottom’ ends much more satisfyingly with Richard Sinclair's mighty Fender Jazz falling behind the multitracked trumpets of Mongezi Feza as they blow into eternity. The whole mood of the album is transformed. As I experienced that evening in that grotty Scouse hotel room, the closing emotion that is left behind is one not of utter (albeit satisfying) bemusement, but of elation and ultimate musical high. And I kid you not - there is nothing in a record collection spanning five decades of modern music that gives me the full-on rush of those trumpets on 'Riding Hood'. Moreover, it's one of the single most inventive and distinctive songs I've ever heard. Hear how Wyatt takes the already all-over-the-place melody of the main 'verse' (and I use that term very freely) and then, 'Debora'-like, but with infinitely more subtlety, turns the whole song quite literally backwards. What you may spend years trying to decipher after the painridden cries of "oh stop it, stop it" is in fact the whole of the preceding verse played in reverse, melody, vocals and all, over the relentless melee of brass, drums and bass. And, as a famous comedian once put it, you can't see the join. A triumph of composition, execution and superb engineering: you've got to hear 'Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road' in ANY format of this remarkable album.

Make no mistake, this ain't no tacky redistribution of track order to even out the tape sides like the abominations that are those early EMI tapes of The Beatles or the Floyds' cassette albums. Indeed, the whole of 'Rock Bottom', like its successor, is here contained on one side of the tape without a break. No - this is a dedicated and radical alternative formation of six way out rhapsodies, and having 'Alifib' and 'Alifie' remixed and reversed allows you to hear things happening that the (still awesome) LP and CD releases never do. I wonder if this was conceived as the original track order, scrapped, but transferred onto the 1990 tape by mistake. Whatever, there is no mention of the disparity with the original album on the typically bland inlay. 'Ruth' on the other side is unaltered, by the way.

'Rock Bottom' has never been "unsung" in the critical sense. Sadly though, its sales have never matched the multitude of justified superlatives that have been poured upon it since the day it was released nearly 29 years ago. My vinyl copy gives its age away with a garish blue sticker that proclaims "Not including the hit single I'm A Believer". Too right it doesn't. There is nothing on 'Rock Bottom' that bears any relation to any "pop" music before or since. Like 'Astral Weeks', it is indefinable, timeless and nigh-on perfect. And in its understated cassette reissue, perversely starting with one of the least accessible songs ever released by anybody, it's even more radical than before, if that's possible.

A closing thought: Mare-C is not overstating the case when he says that 'Rock Bottom' has, in its small way, changed the way he looked at his life. I feel exactly the same way. Irrespective of format, I know I don't just love, but NEED this album, however pretentious that may sound. If you're curious to explore the outer limits of the musical universe you simply have to hear 'Rock Bottom' on LP, tape or CD*. And maybe, just maybe, YOU'LL end up needing it too. It really is that special.

(*'Rock Bottom' is currently available as a repackaged Rykodisc CD, including a lyric sheet and a beautiful new sleeve design by 'Alifie' herself. It is of course the usual version of the album, but sounds absolutely wonderful in its latest remastering. Good God - I've just realised I now own three copies of this album!)

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