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coverpic flag England - Full Moon 215 - 03/16/14

Robert Wyatt
'68
Cuneiform Records

We missed out when this album was released digitally last autumn. Some have called this the best retrospective release ever. Others the holy grail of Robert's recorded output. Now it's available on analogue vinyl as well, so let's give it a closer listen. Better late than never.

Some objections first. Half the album has been released earlier. The short "Slow Walkin' Talk" with Jimi Hendrix on bass was first released on a Hendrix compilation called Calling Long Distance in 1992. Then a couple of years later on the Wyatt compilation Flotsam Jetsam that also included a three minutes excerpt of the 1968 version of "Moon In June". The entire 20 minutes plus version of the latter saw the light of day on another Cuneiform album, Backwards by Soft Machine in 2002, maybe the best sounding and most interesting Soft Machine retrospective of them all. And believe me, there are a lot of them around by now. Second objection: All four tracks on '68 were recorded anew and given an official release later on albums by Robert's bands and solo. In all instances at least parts of the lyrics were changed. Third: The title '68 doesn't say it all. Almost 11 minutes included here were recorded in England in the spring of 69.

Pros: Well, everyone thought the other half of the album, the tracks not mentioned above, were lost forever. It was known that the second long track here "Rivmic Melodies" was recorded, but no one seemed to have any clue that the fourth track "Chelsea" even existed. Robert had forgotten everything about it a long time ago. The album compiles all of Robert's demos recorded in October and November 1968 in Los Angeles and New York, without his band Soft Machine, after two exhausting tours of the US as support for the Jimi Hendrix Experience. After the last tour ended, Soft Machine had actually broken up. The two other members went back to Europe, but Robert happily accepted the offer by Jimi, Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding of the Experience to stay in the US along with them for some more weeks. The studio time was paid for by Jimi himself. And the music? Two tracks nearly fully fledged and two more and less embryonic demos that could serve as guidelines for more orchestrated versions. They're the first real solo recordings by Robert. Apart from his main instrument at the time, drums, the recordings demonstrate he was a competent piano and organ player already. And of course his somewhat hoarse distinctive voice. Anyhow, this paved the way for his solo career after he fell from the window of the fourth floor at a party in 1973, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. The '68 recordings are not that different from some of his later solo recordings, especially from the mid 1980s and into the 1990s. It's also interesting to get an insight into the beginnings of these tracks that stand as some of Robert's best. The album is approved by Robert and includes an interesting interview with him about the recordings and the songs, as far as he remembers, and excerpts from other interviews with him and others that deals with the recordings, directly or indirectly.

At long last, to the songs themselves: The album kicks off with "Chelsea" the one Robert and everyone else knew nothing about. The self penned melody was used anew as "Signed Curtain" some three years later on the first album by Matching Mole, Robert's new band after he had left Soft Machine in 1971. Robert is sure the lyrics of the early version was written by the late Kevin Ayers, the Soft Machine bass player until the end of the aforementioned US tours of '68, about a girl he fancied in Canterbury. Robert plays drums and organ which works fine, emphasizing the melancholic vibes of the song. His abilities on bass guitar is maybe a bit more dubious, especially towards the end, along with reverbed drums. Instantly the song has a lot more amateurish feature, but the charms are not diminished. Next up is a somewhat primitive first attempt at "Rivmic Melodies" that was revamped and improved the following year and surfaced as the entire side 1 of Soft Machine's second album Volume Two. It consists of several parts, some short musical passages written by the late Hugh Hopper, Robert's band mate in the pre Soft Machine band The Wilde Flowers, also the Soft Machine roadie in 1968 and soon to be Soft Machine's bass man after Robert had returned home to England towards the end of 1968. This epic starts with a groovy piano, as it might have been characterised at the time it was recorded, but soon moves into stranger waters when Robert, in a pataphysical way, introduces the British alphabet (later re-christened The Concise British Alphabet). Robert that reels off each letter of the alphabet several times only accompanied by his own drumming may not be the highlight of the album, but 'It just made me laugh, and still does', as Roberts says himself in the interview of the album booklet. Our man picks himself up again, returns to the piano and imagines himself as a big black man in the FBI or CIA instead... Here's also the Spanishy sequence where Robert imagines his two year old son asks him why he isn't at home in England with him. After a lengthy and partly experimental piano and drums passage, we're happily into song structured terrain again and soon the part called "Have You Ever Bean Green?" (as opposed to Hendrix Experience's Are You Experienced?, I guess) on the Volume Twoversion. Here Robert thanks Noel (Redding), Mitch (Mitchell) and Jim (Hendrix) 'for the all our exposure to the crowd' that Soft Machine received while supporting them. 'A heartfelt expression of gratitude to the Experience, in all innocence. Just that...', before this 18 minutes epic is rounded off. The track certainly has its ups and downs, and along with "Chelsea" the Holy Grail for Robert Wyatt and early Soft Machine enthusiast for sure!

We find the more accomplished songs on the second half of the album. "Slow Walkin' Talk" is a sly and bluesy little rocker written by Brian Hopper, Hugh's big brother, and also a band mate from Wilde Flowers days. There is an extract in the booklet from a 1992 Wyatt interview with Caesar Glebbeek for UniVibes International Jimi Hendrix Magazine about Jimi's participation on the recording: '.... He came in and listened and whispered something.... He would retire to the corner and be a shadow to say, 'I could try the bass line on that, you wouldn't have to use it.' And he got Noel's bass and you have to remember he was left-handed, so he was playing bass the wrong way around, puts down a first take. He only heard it once including the changes, the breaks and all that. It was staggering!' Robert today: 'A moment in Heaven for me, naturally.' The melody was used anew with new lyrics, called "Soup Song" on Robert's third solo album Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard in 1975. That version has a jazzy saxophone all over the place. I much prefer the Hendrix version. Last but not least we have nearly 21 minutes of "Moon In June". I guess I've said more than enough about this song, including this version, in our Moon In June spectacular from the full moon of June 1997. The short version is that Robert's nearly 10 minutes' autumn 1968 demo presumably recorded in New York has been spliced with a second half recorded by the new Soft Machine trio in London in the spring 1969. It's probably the song I've listened most frequently to in my life. What more can I say...

I'm surely a Robert Wyatt devotee and even though I knew half this album by heart in advance, '68 is still indispensable. It feels really good to have all four demos gathered on one album. The objections at the start of the review are only superficial. My only major one is the lack of information about how, when and where these recordings were disinterred. Do they all stem from acetates or have the original tapes been unearthed? I go for the former, but I don't know. The booklet and the Cuneiform home page give no clue about it.

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