Soft Machine: The Fusion Years

Continuing the saga of Soft Machine, currently on a 50th anniversary world tour (coming to North America this fall).    Click here for Part One, covering the band’s psychedelic years of 1966-69; Click here for Part Two, covering the jazz-rock years of 1970-1973.  The Softs’ new album Hidden Details can be ordered at Bandcamp. 

Seven albums on, Soft Machine was stuck.  Founding organist Mike Ratledge was still around, but his contributions had diminished to an ongoing flow of “cosmic tinkles” — minimalist electric piano patterns enhanced by tape delay effects.  Keyboardist/reed player Karl Jenkins had taken up the compositional slack, but the music was edging into blandness onstage, no matter how much oomph bassist Roy Babbington and drummer John Marshall kicked up.  At Marshall’s suggestion, the Softs decided to freshen their palette with a different solo voice — namely, Allan Holdsworth on guitar.

Recruiting a guitarist for a band that hadn’t had one since 1968 seemed a drastic move, but the gamble paid off handsomely.  The young Holdsworth brought guts and brio back to Soft Machine’s sound, digging deep to play off Babbington and Marshall, spitting out energetic improvisations that channeled his idols John Coltrane and John McLaughlin.  Equally fired up, Jenkins and Ratledge composed extended suites with plenty of space for blowing, and the Softs hit the road with a completely new set.  Archive releases from that year’s world tour such as Cuneiform’s Switzerland 1974 and MoonJune’s Floating World Live (recorded in England in early 1975) amply display the impressive results.

The excitement carried over to 1975’s Bundles, the Softs’ first album for EMI’s Harvest label.  The side-long epic “Hazard Profile” is the perfect introduction to the new sound: Holdsworth’s light-speed melodicism nicely complements Jenkins’ classically tinged ruminations; Babbington and Marshall groove relentlessly; Ratledge even provides a skittering synthesizer solo that nods at his salad days.  The players are in full flight throughout, locking in over a variety of backgrounds and moods; there’s new room for acoustic interludes (Holdsworth’s “Gone Sailing”) and multi-sectioned proggy workouts (the Jenkins/Holdsworth mashup “Bundles/The Land of the Bag Snake”).  Even the “cosmic tinkles” get a shot of adrenalin in Ratledge’s unstoppable crescendo “The Man Who Waved at Trains/Peff” and Jenkins’ lush, spacious “The Floating World.”  The future looked bright again.

But, predictably for those who know both Soft Machine and Holdsworth history, it wasn’t that simple; Holdsworth left just as Bundles was released, joining Miles Davis alumni Tony Williams’ New Lifetime.  With more touring already booked, the group quickly tapped up-and-coming guitarist John Etheridge (Holdsworth’s suggestion) for the open slot.  Etheridge fit the bill, with his spare, muscular style leaving more space for his bandmates to shine onstage.

Recording the next album brought further changes: Alan Wakeman (Rick’s cousin!) joined on hard-charging solo sax, so Jenkins could focus on keys and composing; the new tunes drew sharper lines between tightly arranged prog/classical movements and vamps to improvise over; and Mike Ratledge’s long exodus from Soft Machine culminated in contributions to just two tracks.  Despite all these shifts, 1976’s Softs had plenty of energy and appeal, a striking variety of well-crafted textures, space for free blowing on Side Two (dig “The Camden Tandem” and the end of “One Over the Eight”), and first-class playing throughout.

Still, poor record sales and precarious finances took their toll.  Wakeman bailed on the eve of another tour, replaced by Ray Warleigh; afterwards, Warleigh and Babbington left, with the bass chair taken first by Brand X’s Percy Jones, then by Steve Cook; violinist Ric Saunders became the second soloist, lending a Mahavishnu Orchestra tinge to the proceedings.  By 1977, the band was actively splintering, with members taking lucrative side gigs to make ends meet and a variety of live substitutes (even Holdsworth!) filling in as necessary.

Given the situation, recording Soft Machine’s 1977 Paris gigs was deemed the way forward to another album.  Disaster ensued: equipment was held up at customs, safety officials limited attendance, an assistant recording engineer failed to turn up, and Etheridge and Cook’s instruments were stolen after the first night.  And yet Alive and Well: Recorded in Paris comes off remarkably well: the new music is solid; the band interplay on “Huffin'” and “The Nodder” is stunningly on point, and even the Giorgio Moroder-style disco funk concoction “Soft Space” (complete with uncredited contributions from Ratledge) clicks. (Note that Esoteric Recordings’ 2010 reissue features an extra disc of live outtakes.)

And then — nothing.  Well, nothing except 1981’s Land of Cockayne — in actuality, producer Mike Thorne’s invitation for Karl Jenkins to record with both rock and orchestral forces.   Despite a stellar cast (including Softs alumni Marshall, Warleigh and Holdsworth, plus bass legend Jack Bruce) and echoes of past glories like “Panoramania” and “Sly Monkey,” Land of Cockayne is a completely different beast, the most mainstream music ever released under the Soft Machine name.  Ultimately, it proved a marker toward the rest of Jenkins’ career, occasionally in collaboration with Mike Ratledge: advertising jingles (including the inescapable-for-a-time DeBeers Diamond music), then the 1990s classical crossover project Adiemus, then a full-blown career as an orchestral composer, culminating with a 2015 knighthood.

It had been a good run, but after one last week-long London residency in 1984, Soft Machine was no more.  Still, the legacy of the band lived on in its recordings and in the work of its numerous alumni until …

But that’s an unlikely tale for another time.

 

softs legacy

— Rick Krueger

 

 

 

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