[6 March 2014]
In his song “Rock ‘n’ Roll Animals in Space”, British truth-sayer Luke Haines states, “The Soft Machine with Robert Wyatt / They were righteous. The Soft Machine post-Wyatt / are still righteous.” Whether progressive rock—particular progressive rock with jazz inflections—is your thing or not, it is very difficult to disregard the Soft Machine’s legacy or, well, consistent righteousness. Wyatt’s contribution to both is enormous, and all the proof needed is in record label Cuneiform’s spate of Wyatt-centric releases, from its compilations of live material from Matching Mole, Wyatt’s post-Soft Machine group to last year’s ’68, a collection of newly-unearthed demos recorded by Wyatt following Soft Machine’s supporting slot on a tour of America with the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
The demos that make up ’68 are especially edifying to Soft Machine die-hards. A first glimpse of Third’s 20-minute “Moon in June” is a major focal point here, and snatches of “Rivmic Melodies”, the disc’s other stand out, inform many songs that would make up Soft Machine’s Volume Two. Repeat listens, however, reveal seedlings of Wyatt’s own solo career as well. The sound collages that occupy 1970’s The End of an Ear are rudimentarily hinted at throughout the aforementioned “Rivmic Melodies”, which both contains an extended snatch of Volume Two’s “Concise Alphabet” and, in its repetition, points to the direction Wyatt would turn when going it alone.
The playfulness apparent in much of Wyatt’s work is also documented here in abundance. He is at one point quoted in ’68’s liner notes as stating that “Moon in June”’s title is “just another joke.” Due to its lyrics about regret over being in New York and not in England raising his young son, “...the words were like soap opera. And the title ‘Moon in June’ was a joke about all soap opera songs.” The song “Slow Walkin’ Talk”, on which Jimi Hendrix plays bass, was originally written by Brian Hopper, of Wyatt’s first band, the Wilde Flowers. With new lyrics, it later became the whimsical “Soup Song” on Wyatt’s 1975 release Ruth Is Stranger than Richard. The song retains its humor in both forms, although hearing Wyatt remark “a snail could form a herd” in his trademark delicate vocals gives ’68’s version a slight upper hand. ’68’s other short song, “Chelsa”, in Wyatt’s estimation, was written by fellow former Soft Machine member Kevin Ayers. For those not as spellbound by longform, more progressive compositions, this serves as a standout on the four-song disc. Its technicolor sky melody and day-dreamy vocalizations mark the song as one of the more tangible pieces on ’68. This being a release from a noted pataphysics enthusiast, those can be few and far between.
For all of ’68’s merits, it should be noted that its appeal for non-die hard Robert Wyatt or Soft Machine fans is something difficult to argue. A listener with a casual interest in either may not have the patience to wade the complexities of each of the four pieces present on ‘68, particularly when two of those four are over 15 minutes long. If someone is at all curious about Wyatt or his contributions to modern music, the go-to release remains Rock Bottom or the still-sounds-groundbreaking The End of an Ear. Still, unearthed Wyatt material is far better than no Wyatt material at all. The prog-jazz inclinations and sketch-pad vibes of ’68 may not be instantly accessible, but to the converts, this is as great a lost musical treasure as any.