Soft Machine: The Jazz-Rock Years

Continuing the saga of Soft Machine, who’ve already kicked off a 50th anniversary world tour (coming to North America this fall), and whose new album Hidden Details can be ordered at Bandcamp.  Click here for Part One of this series, covering the band’s psychedelic years of 1966-69.

When last we left our heroes, quoting their website,

The base trio [of Mike Ratledge on organ, Hugh Hopper on bass and Robert Wyatt on drums and vocals] was, later in 1969, expanded to a septet with the addition of four horn players, though only saxophonist Elton Dean remained beyond a few months …

Cuneiform’s archive release Noisette reveals Soft Machine shaping a new sound onstage.  Recorded live at Croydon in January 1970, this quintet set is dominated by Dean’s and saxophonist/flutist Lyn Dobson’s uninhibited blowing.  The psychedelic song suites have nearly vanished; Wyatt only sings on “Hibou, Anemone and Bear,” where he’s given a completely solo moment, and material from the first two albums is exiled to the end of the show.

With Dobson out, the remaining quartet pulled together live recordings, studio inserts and tape experimentation to produce the four suites (one per side) on 1970’s double album Third — their first for Columbia Records.   Hopper’s “Facelift” and Ratledge’s “Out-Bloody-Rageous” sandwich upbeat jazz workouts (asymmetric rhythms, harmonized sax sections, fired-up, skittery solos from Ratledge, Dean and guests) between Wyatt-less intros and codas — avant-garde improvs, classical fanfares, minimalist cycling keyboard riffs.  Wyatt’s vulnerable, stream of consciousness epic “Moon in June” was the only vocal piece — and he played most of it (drums and keys) himself, with Ratledge and Hopper tacked on for the playout.  Ratledge’s “Slightly All the Time” is the most integrated piece here, with the core group and guests swinging over appealing grooves and ratcheting up the excitement via Ratledge and Dean’s solo work.

Rough-edged it may have been, but Third was perfectly timed; with Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew pulling jazz toward rock, Soft Machine was heading for the same destination from the opposite direction.  The album gained attention, kudos and sales across Europe and the US, and the Softs became the first band to play at the Royal Albert Hall’s classical Promenade Concerts.

The CD of Cuneiform’s archival Grides, recorded later that year, displays the quartet firing on all cylinders: sharp and tight or spacey and free in turn,  listening hard to each other and translating that concentration into an intense live set from Amsterdam.  1971’s Fourth refined and consolidated the new path, with former septet members Mark Charig (trumpet) and Nick Evans (trombone) adding majestic touches to Ratledge’s “Kings and Queens,” Dean’s free blow “Fletcher’s Blemish,” and Hopper’s suite “Virtually.”

Then the penny dropped.  Fed up with the jazzy vibe he’d initially championed (a recurring theme in the Softs’ personnel changes), the troubled Wyatt threw one tantrum too many on tour and was fired.  (Paralyzed from the waist down after a drunken fall from a fourth-floor window in 1973, Wyatt cleaned up and carved out a distinguished career as an idiosyncratic singer-songwriter.)   The next drummer, Australian Phil Howard, clicked with Dean but not with Ratledge and Hopper; the Berlin concert captured on Moonjune’s archival Drop is non-stop free playing, an astonishing whirlwind of polyrhythms that’s a personal favorite of mine, but not for the squeamish. Howard lasted just long enough to record side one of 1972’s Fifth before being sacked in favor of John Marshall (from trumpeter Ian Carr’s band Nucleus) — equally talented and extroverted, less overbearing.  Hacked off by this course of events, Dean quit after recording side two, leaving behind a indecisive album with nary a trace of rock in its grooves.

Looking for a wind player who doubled on keyboards, Hopper recommended Karl Jenkins (from Nucleus) to fill Dean’s soloist slot.  Diving right in, Jenkins split writing honors with Ratledge on 1973’s half-live, half-studio, suffix-less double Six.  The sound was spacious and fresh  — smoother, riff-driven, leaning into the embryonic fusion genre the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever were developing.  True to Soft Machine form, though, Hopper had second thoughts about the results, contributing only the menacing “1983,” then leaving after the album tour.  His place was taken by Roy Babbington, who’d guested on Fourth and Fifth and played bass with … uh, Nucleus …

Again, Cuneiform’s NDR Jazz Workshop catches this transition on the fly — a classy CD/DVD restoration of one of Babbington’s first gigs (also Hopper’s final show), filmed for German TV (great video quality, cameramen consistently missing the soloists), with the band augmented by guest sax and guitar players.  But 1973’s Seven feels like little more than a competent reworking of Six, with synthesizers added to the mix. Jenkins was writing more in lieu of soloing; Ratledge’s compositions and solos were strong, but less evident; and the hypnotic, tinkling electric piano duets and bass/drum ostinatos that had been a welcome change needed something extra — perhaps a dominant soloist to take the new sound to the next level?

Unexpectedly, Columbia Records dropped the band.  What — or who — might be the catalyst Soft Machine needed to take off again?  Spot the new guy below … and stay tuned!

Softs with Holdsworth

— Rick Krueger

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