Just as Stephen Stills’ 1968 demos Just Roll Tape offers a tantalizing, after-the-fact glimpse of an enormous rock talent mapping a course that would soon seal his legacy, so does the rehabilitated acetates Robert Wyatt cut that same year pointed the way for the career-defining music he would record in the years that followed.
Humbly titled ’68, these recordings were made when Wyatt took advantage of some free studio time generously offered by Jimi Hendrix following an Experience Tour that Wyatt’s band had opened for. The Soft Machine had already broken up (albeit a short-lived breakup) even though their completed first album Volume One hadn’t been released yet, and the band’s drummer and lead singer was contemplating a solo career with some material he had been tossing around (three years before his proper solo debut, The End Of An Ear).
Just four songs — two short and two side-long epics — featuring Wyatt mostly alone in the studio with an engineer, handling vocals, drumming, bass, and keyboards. Some of this material have been out “in the wild” in raw form already. However, even Wyatt himself had forgotten all about one of those shorter tracks, “Chelsa,” a soulful number with lyrics borrowed from Softs band mate Daevid Allen. His vocal here would never be mistaken for say, Percy Sledge, but there’s less of the fragility and more of the forcefulness than he’s generally known for, and Wyatt can be heard noodling around on the high end of a bass as the song comes to a close. He would later rework this song into “Signed Curtain” on the first Matching Mole album.
The other radio-length number is a remake of an old tune from his pre-Soft Machine band, The Wilde Flowers. “Slow Walkin’ Talk” features Hendrix on bass, and maybe not surprisingly, the bass riffs do sound like Hendrix, as the song struts along like an Experience song (think “Manic Depressive”). This song would later appear as “Soup Song” on Wyatt’s 1975 LP Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard.
“Rivmic Melodies” is a string of song fragments that would soon form an entire side of the Soft Machine’s Volume Two, starting with an early reveal of Wyatt’s signature innocent humor in reciting the “British alphabet,” and the stream of consciousness continues into a rumination about being black. The “Spanish” part is the most interesting, where he sings in broken Spanish and the melody afterwards takes on a decidedly Spanish flavor (Wyatt claims inspiration from McCoy Tyner for this chord progression), where he plays rapid trills on the very high end of piano, then wanders into same pattern in another key and faster tempo.
It’s on this album where we hear the initial recordings of perhaps Wyatt’s most famous Softs tune, “Moon In June,” a much more coherent song than the multi-suited “Rivmic Melodies,” and the most completely formed idea of the collection. The basic plot used for the completed version found on Third is already set here: Wyatt sings all his numerous, straightforward couplets in the first ten minutes, standing in near-defiance of the pretension found in lyrics of most progressive rock of that time. The jazz-rock second half is actually an early version of that part recorded by the core Soft Machine trio of Wyatt, Lowery organist Mike Ratledge and new bassist Hugh Hopper in the middle of the following year. It’s astonishing to hear this band sound first sound powerfully improvisational and mathematical at once like In The Court of the Crimson King and then placid and ambient like In A Silent Way weeks before either of those albums were released.
’68 cleans up and pulls together some intriguing draft blueprints from a key architect of the Canterbury Scene. It shouldn’t be slotted alongside Wyatt’s best work with Soft Machine, Matching Mole or solo, but as an artifact of art rock in its gestational phase, it’s indispensable.
’68 goes on sale October 8, by Cuneiform Records.