Our favorite—make that, FAVOURITE!—Renaissance man and all-round raconteur holds forth on a new, heretofore unreleased, collection of almost-solo tracks hailing from his Softs tenure and recorded under the spell of Jimi Hendrix. (Above: Wyatt, center, flanked by Kevin Ayers, L, and Mike Ratledge.)
BY MIKE SHANLEY
Upon finishing their second U.S. tour with the Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1968, Soft Machine broke up. The lineup (drummer/vocalist Robert Wyatt, keyboardist Mike Ratledge, bassist Kevin Ayers) had recorded their first album, but it still had not been released. Wyatt stayed in the U.S., living with members of the Experience in Los Angeles. He also went into TTG studios to record some tracks on which he played nearly all instruments.
The results, never heard until now, included: “Rivmic Melodies,” the suite that would appear on the second Softs album; “Moon In June” a blueprint of another suite that included early Softs songs, combined with newer sections, and later appeared on Third; and two lost songs, “Slow Walking Talk” from the pre-Soft Machine band Wilde Flowers and “Chelsea,” which he would rewrite as “Signed Curtain” in Matching Mole. The former song also features which finds Hendrix on bass, nailing the song in one take. Eventually Wyatt returned to England and Soft Machine reformed (with Hugh Hopper replacing Ayers) and the recordings were thought to be lost.
Cuneiform has released these tracks on CD (with an extended interview in the booklet) and limited edition LP as’68, so we spoke to Wyatt by email. “Old European that I am, I prefer having a bit of time to think,” he confesses. “But prolonged moments of silence on the telephone are expensive and sort of weird.” Clearly the medium doesn’t sacrifice any of his wit.
BLURT: What were you thoughts when you heard about these recordings getting uncovered?
WYATT: I was amazed but nervous. Amazed that I couldn’t remember most of it, nervous about being reminded of my youthful recklessness. But mostly, very grateful that [Cuneiform’s Steve Feigenbaum] was interested in releasing it. And then, whenever the track I remembered [“Slow Walking Talk”] became perfectly cleaned up by Mike King, it all sounded so fresh. Like I say, amazing, considering the poor state the recordings were in when found.
How much recollection did you have of these recordings before you put them on to listen?
Only the “Slow Walking Talk” song.
In the interview in the CD booklet, you said you weren’t interested in the rock culture in LA. Was it the culture or the music too that lacked interest to you?
I apologize for that rather lazy remark. Thinking about it, (I told you, I can’t think in a hurry!) I do remember, for example, being blown away by the sheer swagger of Blue Cheer. That wall of sound. Riveting. But I simply didn’t know much about the rock on the West Coast. Or indeed about rock groups.
My United States was all about- what would now be called- the African-American story. Paradoxically, that’s a British thing. Those bands from here that received so much attention in the ’60s based their music on the blues, on jazz, Little Richard, Fats Domino, and on records on labels such as Stax, the Sue label, early Motown. The whole of Europe had been enchanted by the black-American musicians and records brought over quite early in the century, often with the U.S. Army. We followed all that music throughout the 20th century. And to an extent, still do.
But still, I do remember that, of the couple of records I brought back to England late ’68, one was by Sly and the Family Stone, and the other was Spirit (with Randy California). So I wasn’t after all, totally ignorant about U.S. rock music.
How developed were the ideas for “Rivmic Melodies,” for example, before you started recording? It seems like it’d be hard to stay on track when you’re working from the drums on up, to build the track. But it seems to be both spontaneous and structured in various sections.
I just can’t, for the life of me, remember, but you must be right. It all does seem both spontaneous and structured. What’s bizarre to me is that there’s so much preparation for the instrumental stuff, despite the, at times, utterly reckless drumming. (Was I drunk? Probably.)
Yet I don’t think I knew what to sing about, or how to sing it. That may be why I abandoned these recordings, after all. Some of the words are, to be honest, just stupid! [“Moon in June”’s brazenly incoherent.] I was interested in the sound, the voice being just another sound-source.
I’ve heard early Soft Machine tracks that later became various sections of “Moon in June.” What made you decide to fuse them together into a bigger piece?
It’s what seemed to happen. I work in a trance, don’t really know what I’m doing ’til it’s done. And even then . . . .
I’ve always loved the harmonies you overdubbed in “Rivmic Melodies.” The warmth of them reminds me of the Four Freshman albums my parents used to play. Did you ever listen to them at all?
Thank you, and for reminding me of my older brother Mark’s records, which did indeed include the wonderful Four Freshmen. You must be right about that. .. well spotted!
Was there anyone else who inspired the vocals?
Phew. Influences on voice — I don’t have the vocal technique to be able to claim a conscientious influence. The records I sang along with though were mostly of women singers: Billie Holiday, Dionne Warwick, Abbey Lincoln.
What was the situation with Soft Machine and the breakup? Did it seem like the first record wasn’t going to come out, and you all wanted to do new things? Or was the mood of the band more casual (“do this for awhile, on to something else”)?
What kind of response did the band get from that tour?
You have to ask someone who saw us. I try not to get hung up about what people think about what we do. Might inhibit us.
Of course these days, Jimi Hendrix is held in very high regard as a musician. What was it like hanging out with him and playing music with him? How clear was it that he was onto some new ideas for guitar playing back then?
I find it difficult to articulate my response to Mr. Hendrix. One word should cover it: Love.
Any closing thoughts?
I’m simply grateful that Cuneiform records have given these raw experiments such a conscientious airing.
Below: Wyatt nowadays, photo by Alfreda Benge. An edited version of this story appears in issue #14 of BLURT.