’68 is a collection of demo tracks recorded by Robert Wyatt during downtime in the summer of 1968. He and his fellow Soft Machine band members had just completed a tour supporting the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Wyatt was offered the chance to use the studio at Hendrix’s Hollywood home. Soft Machine had essentially split up, although that was to be short-lived, so Wyatt seized upon this change to contemplate a solo career based on some of the songs he’d conceived in New York during the tour.
The demos feature mainly Wyatt, who plays drums, bass, and keyboards, as well as supplying vocals, and there was general only himself and an engineer in the studio. There’s one exception to this, but we’ll get to that later. Following the recording, and Wyatt’s return to London, these demos were lost or forgotten about and although the ideas were later reused, the recordings themselves didn’t surface until much later.
The first track Chelsa, is a short and soulful number featuring lyrics by Daevid Allen. It’s one of two shorter pieces on the album, and comes in at five minutes in length. Fans of Matching Mole might recognise Chelsa as it was later reworked into Signed Curtain for the first Matching Mole album.
Track two Rivmic Melodies is much longer, in fact it’s a full 18 minutes in length, which back when it was recorded was a full LP side. It shows an early insight into Wyatt’s more humorous side, featuring an alphabet recital. It takes on a distinctly Spanish flavour part way along, with accompanying lyrics in broken Spanish. A somewhat incoherent piece,Rivmic Melodies would eventually be included on Soft Machine Volume Two, although this version is somewhat slimmed down instrumentally in comparison to what it would become.
Slow Walkin’ Talk follows. This is a remake of an earlier Wylde Flowers song, and includes Jimi Hendrix himself playing the bass parts. It’s quite recognisably Hendrix, with a sound like that of an Experience piece. Reworked later as Soup Song, this track eventually surfaced on Wyatt’s solo album Ruth is Stranger than Richard.
The final track is another full-LP side, and is perhaps Wyatt’s most famous Soft Machine piece Moon in June. A much more coherent piece than Rivmic Melodies, and an almost complete demo, this track is the most rounded of the four. Beginning with a relatively straight-forward ten minutes, Wyatt sings simple rhyming couplets in contrast to most other early progressive albums. It then goes on to have a more jazz-like feel to it for the second half. Based on two earlier tracks, That's How Much I Need You Now and You Don’t Remember, Wyatt for the first time successfully fuses together two distinct pieces in what would come to feature on Soft Machine’sThird album. When eventually recorded for Third, band mates Hugh Hopper and Mike Ratledge only added to the extended instrumental in the middle, so it remains essentially a Wyatt piece, and goes to show how complete this demo was.
As a definite precursor to the Canterbury scene, this collection of recordings is essential. All the tracks feature Wyatt’s fragile and uncertain vocals, in his idiosyncratic manner, delicate and typical of the Canterbury style, and while the tracks feel somewhat raw and unfinished the recording quality is excellent, especially considering the age. The songs themselves aren’t up to the same polished standard of Soft Machine, Matching Mole, or Wyatt’s solo output, but are entirely listenable even if clearly intended as demo material.
Electric Freedom Rating: three out of five
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