What do you say when Jimi Hendrix pops his head around the door and offers to play bass on the song you’re currently working on? ‘Be my guest,’ of course! And that’s precisely what Robert Wyatt did when he was in Los Angeles’ TTG Studios back in 1968. Wyatt was at something of a loose end after Soft Machine split up following their American tour supporting Hendrix, and he stayed on as a guest of the great guitarist, taking advantage of some free accommodation and studio time.
Even with Hendrix’s urgent bass, Slow Walkin’ Talk is a very pleasant though unremarkable pre-Softs blues throwback, but of much greater value is the nascent form of Wyatt’s magnum opus, Moon In June. These painfully confessional lyrics were later toned down when worked up for inclusion on Softs’ Third, but in either version the piece absolutely stands out as a forward-looking exploration into the boundaries of song writing whose gently meandering but plaintive melodies command attention.
Long thought to be the only existing material from the 1968 sessions, these tracks have been previously issued on other vintage Soft/Wyatt releases, yet whispers often circulated that another ’68 tune might yet exist. So the emergence of not one but two pieces is a cause for amazement and celebration. The Hammond-heavy Chelsea has Wyatt’s fragile white-soul emoting, setting Kevin Ayers’ words to a tune that he would later recycle as part of his Matching Mole.
However the real find is Rivmic Melodies. Destined to be side one of Soft Machine’s Volume Two in 1969, Wyatt stretches a recitation of the alphabet against splintered piano and drums into something akin to Dadaist performance art. The building blocks of the English language are atomised, and meaning and misunderstanding collide to form an amorphous cacophony. Capricious, scatty and endlessly inquisitive, Wyatt steers into an accessible but nevertheless strange musical space that’s not quite rock nor quite entirely avant-garde, but very much all his own.
The pristine audio quality makes ‘68 a stunning archival release that sheds new light on how early Soft Machine really worked.