Okay, it’s been out for almost exactly one year now, which means if you already own it, it’s probably time you replaced your worn-out copy with a shiny new one; and if you don’t – what’s wrong with you? ’68 is the album’s title. Not the age you should be when you buy it. (Unless, of course, you are sixty-eight, in which case forget I said anything.)
First things first. Robert Wyatt is not everybody’s cup of coffee, although a career that dawned in the mid-1960s and is still going quizzically strong today has taken so many terms and twists that you must have mighty rarified tastes if there’s not something in his repertoire that hangs onto your soul.
Just in the last couple of years, English folk devils the Unthanks dedicated half their live show to a selection of Wyatt songs, and the ensuing live album (Diversions 1) stands among the key CDs of the decade so far. Before that – well, reading a litany of every last Wyatt cover would devour way too much time that could be spent listening, and anybody who’s read published excerpts from his forthcoming authorized biography Different Every Time will already have a love and understanding of Wyatt that expands even further than his music.
Which brings us back to ’68, which could arguably be proclaimed one of the first steps on the journey that led Wyatt to his present state – namely, a sidelight shone upon the Soft Machine drummer who was already such a distinctive singer and idiosyncratic performer. So much so that, long before he left the band for the explorations that culminated in his first solo album, the oft-overlooked End of an Ear, he cut this. Other further explorations that led to his other first solo album… or, as he puts it, “The missing links in my life’s work, no less!”
’68 (Cuneiform) was recorded in September 68, with Wyatt winding down from the Soft Machine’s tour of the US (opening for Jimi Hendrix) by going into studios in New York City and Hollywood to record a handful of songs. They were intended as little more than demos… the bluesy R&B of “Slow Walkin’ Talk” was written by Brian Hopper back when both were members of the Wilde Flowers; and stands in gorgeous contrast to Wyatt’s “Chelsa,” a lyrically brilliant piece which would remain obscure and unknown even after Wyatt revisited it during the first Matching Mole album.
“Rivmic Melodies,” with its wry alphabetical opening verses, is a piece that Soft Machine would bring to electrifying fruition on Volume II and “Moon In June” (a ballad that Wyatt constructed from elements of two older songs, “You Don’t Remember” and “That’s How Much I Need You Now”) would become his lasting testament on III. Yet both are presented here not as the sketches that the term “demo” normally infers, but as veritable side long suites. One tops eighteen minutes, the other breaks the twenty minute barrier, and that is one of the breathtaking marvels of ‘68, the discovery that a piece of music that has long since been regarded as a triumph of the Softs’ collective genius, existed in already crystalized, and already fully and far-sightedly integrated form long before Wyatt’s bandmates got their hands on it.
Past collections such as Wyatt’s Flotsam and Jetsam, the four volume Canterburied Sounds, and even Jimi Hendrix’s Calling Long Distance have all visited this cache for material—Hendrix played bass on “Slow Walkin’ Talk” during downtime at the Eire Apparent sessions at TTG (which the guitarist was producing). Another Cuneiform release, Facelift, captures “The Moon In June.” But hearing them here, within the context that they were originally created in, and with Wyatt feeling almost improvisational as he plucks lyrics from what feels like nowhere/everywhere, lends them an impact and beauty that is utterly unique.
What is perhaps most fascinating, however, is just how much of Wyatt’s distant and, at the time, unimagined, future this session predicts. Neither End of an Ear nor his Matching Mole adventures in any way prepared his audience for the music he would begin making from 1974 on, following the accident that rendered him wheelchair bound and a singer-songwriter instead of a drummer.
Plainspoken, spartan, sometimes sparse but always haunting, ’68 is the album that fans of Rock Bottom and Ruth is Stranger Than Richard are often heard to wish he’d made beforehand, rather than all the jazz rocky experimentation that officially went on back then. And now it turns out that that is precisely what he did.