Soft Machine: The Psychedelic Years

The seminal British collective Soft Machine were many things in their history — psychedelic pioneers, proto-progressive rockers, avant-garde explorers, always bobbing and weaving in the borderlands between jazz and rock.  One thing they were not was stable; by biographer Graham Bennett’s reckoning, the Softs had 24 separate line-ups during their original run of 1966-1984!  As the band’s current incarnation embarks on a 50th anniversary world tour and releases the new Hidden Details album, I’m listening to their studio catalog along with selected live recordings, tracing the long, strange road they’ve traveled from then to now.

Per the band’s new website,

Soft Machine were formed in mid-1966 by Robert Wyatt (drums, vocals), Kevin Ayers (bass, guitar, vocals), Daevid Allen (guitar) and Mike Ratledge (organ) …

This first Soft Machine line-up became involved in the early UK underground, featuring prominently at the UFO Club, and subsequently other London clubs like the Speakeasy Club and Middle Earth. .. They also played in the Netherlands, Germany and on the French Riviera.  … Upon their return from their sojourn in France, Allen (an Australian) was denied re-entry to the United Kingdom, so the group continued as a trio, while he returned to Paris to form Gong.

The archival recording Middle Earth Mastersone of a fine series from Washington DC’s Cuneiform Records, captures the remaining trio a month after Allen’s departure.  Easing in with relatively conventional (though absurdist) pop tunes like “Clarence in Wonderland” by Ayers, the Softs quickly slip the reins.  Wyatt repetitively chews on the words of “Hope for Happiness” like they’re an Indian raga, the trio kicks into a high-energy riff — and Ratledge takes off.  With his Lowrey organ run through a fuzzbox and a Marshall stack, he bashes out speedy pyrotechnics, grinding harmony pads, and distorted pitch-bent chords; underneath him, Ayers and Wyatt slip and slide from sparse grooves through splattery swing to bludgeoning stop time.  Ratledge’s solo “Disorganization” is even wilder, a tornado of phenomenal technique, overdriven amplification, and rhythmic attack echoing free-jazz pianist Cecil Taylor.  Then the Softs slam into another extended medley, kicked off by the goofy, minimalist “We Did It Again” (four words, one riff, six minutes), climaxing with a clattering drum solo and feedback all around before Wyatt winds down with a hushed falsetto benediction.  Cliche though it might be by now,  in 1967 sets like this were a serious trip.

Sharing management with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Softs gained a support slot on that band’s 1968 North American tour.  Between tour legs, they piggybacked on studio time for Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland to record an album for ABC/Probe, with Tom Wilson (Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, The Velvet Underground) producing.  While the record sat in the can, lots happened: Andy Summers (yeah, the future Police guitarist) joined, only to be summarily fired at Ayers’ insistence; then Ayers himself quit after another US tour, feeling the Softs were heading towards playing (shudder) jazz. Wyatt remained in the States, Ratledge returned to England, and the band seemed finished — the perfect moment for ABC/Probe to release the first album!

Given its slapdash gestation, The Soft Machine Volume One is a surprisingly effective debut.  It benefits from cleaner sound, while retaining the Softs’ innovative approach of melding songs and improvisations into seamless suites. If Ratledge and Wyatt’s instrumental excursions seem muted in comparison to live tapes, Ayers’ humorous bass interjections add cohesion and direction to the free-for-alls.  And Wyatt shines with his naive lyrical vignettes of life as a touring musician, disarming the listener with both bemused candor and blunt egotism:

I’ve got a drum kit and some sticks
So when I’m drunk or in a fit
I find it easy to express myself
I hit the drums so hard I break all the heads
And then I end the day in one of my beds

I’m nearly 5’7 tall
I like to smoke and drink and ball
I’ve got a yellow suit that’s made by Pam
And every day I like an egg and some tea
But best of all I like to talk about me!

Contractually bound to record again, Ratledge and Wyatt added bassist Hugh Hopper, who’d written songs for Volume One and road managed the US tours.  (The new line-up’s 1969 live debut: opening for Hendrix at London’s Royal Albert Hall.)  Having nothing to lose, The Soft Machine Volume Two makes no concessions what had gone before.  Side One’ s ten-part suite, Rivmic Melodies, is a engaging, disorienting blizzard of ideas, built on Hopper’s gigantic fuzzed riffs (“Pataphysical Introduction Part I” and “Dada Was Here”) and Ratledge’s swinging odd-time vamps (“Hibou, Anemone and Bear”). Wyatt keeps the skittery beat while randomly musing on life, love, the road and the British alphabet (“Hulloder,” “Thank You Pierrot Lunaire,” “Have You Ever Bean Green”).  Kicking off Side Two with a hard-rock ode to Ayers (“As Long As He Lies Perfectly Still”) and an acoustic plea for peace and understanding (“Dedicated to You But You Weren’t Listening”), the Softs dive back into the maelstrom for the five-part finale Esther’s Nose Job.  From “Fire Engine Passing with Bells Clanging” through Wyatt’s salacious vocal turn on the erotic “Pig” to the closing “10:30 Returns to the Bedroom”, the music shifts, shocks, provokes and challenges, mining the vein of Frank Zappa’s Freak Out and We’re Only In It for the Money for its flow, but replacing Zappa’s relentless cynicism with a wide-eyed (though knowing) whimsy.

Soft Machine had found a way forward — but the path was constantly shifting.  As 1969 progressed, the band backed up Syd Barrett (ex-Pink Floyd) and Kevin Ayers on solo efforts, recorded for the BBC, and headlined the 1969 National Jazz Festival.  Looking for a bigger sound, they churned through four line-ups in six months, briefly poaching the complete horn section of pianist Keith Tippett’s Jazz Group.  When the dust settled, saxophonist Elton Dean had become a full-fledged member alongside Ratledge, Wyatt and Hopper.  As the Softs signed a five-album deal with Columbia Records, their ideas became even more ambitious.  But that’s a tale for next time …

— Rick Krueger

soft machine 1970 proms

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