Soft Machine

TrackAlbum
Clarence In WonderlandThe Peel Sessions
Hope For HappinessThe Soft Machine
Why Are We SleepingThe Soft Machine
As Long As He Lies Perfectly StillVolume Two
Esther's Nose JobVolume Two
Moon In JuneThe Peel Sessions
Slightly All The TimeThird
Virtually Pts 1-4Fourth
DropFifth
Fanfare/All WhiteSix

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Contributor: David Tanner

Soft Machine developed from psychedelic popsters playing at the UFO and Middle Earth clubs to appearing as the first rock band at the BBC Proms. The original lineup, formed in 1966, was Robert Wyatt (drums, vocals), Kevin Ayers (bass, guitar, vocals), Daevid Allen (guitar), Mike Ratledge (organ). This lineup recorded the single Love Makes Sweet Music which got some airplay but otherwise didn’t bother the charts. They had become involved in the early underground scene based around the UFO club in London, as did Pink Floyd, though they never gained the popularity of Floyd.

In the summer of 1967 they headed off to play gigs in the South of France, ostensibly for a residency at a beer festival. The people were more interested in drinking than listening to music and the band were sacked, and were now stranded with their gear in France. Their luck improved when they were invited to provide music before a performance of Picasso’s play “Desire Caught By The Tail”, a “happening” in a circus tent near St. Tropez.

At the end of the summer on their return to Britain, Daevid Allen – an Australian – was told his visa was invalid. His name he claims was on a police blacklist of suspected LSD traffickers and other undesirables.

Now a trio they recorded a Top Gear session for John Peel in December 1967, including the Kevin Ayers track Clarence In Wonderland , which later resurfaced on his first solo album Joy Of A Toy with Soft Machine as the backing band.

Through sharing a manager (ex Animal Chas Chandler) they were given the support slot on Jimi Hendrix’ 1968 USA tour. The first album, The Soft Machine, was recorded in New York during this tour though not released until later in the year, and its organ heavy sound sets it apart from much of the psychedelia of the time.

Hope For Happiness highlights Wyatt’s vocals while also allowing Ratledge to sear a trademark fuzz pedal organ solo all over it.

Why Are We Sleeping is a Kevin Ayers masterpiece that he kept playing for years, his bass playing on this being particularly strong. At the end of the USA tour, exhausted from the constant touring he left Soft Machine and headed to Ibiza to recuperate.

At this time Soft Machine stopped working as a band, but restarted in January 1969 to record a second album to fulfil their contract with ABC records. Hugh Hopper replaced Ayers on bass and the resulting album, Volume Two, sees them heading towards a more jazz inflected sound, but still tempered with Wyatt’s absurdist lyrics and songs.

As Long As He Lies Perfectly Still begins side two and is one of the two separate songs on the album. It’s a charming homage from Wyatt to the departed Kevin Ayers and his life on Ibiza.

Esther’s Nose Job is the second suite on the album, starting with some free jazz noise before Wyatt lays down an insistent drum beat that’s soon joined by Ratledge’s piano and the trademark fuzz pedal bass of Hugh Hopper. This track also utilises some added saxophone, a innovation that will see brass instruments becoming a feature of future albums.

In June of 1969 they recorded a second John Peel session. “There was one excellent track … Moon In June, in which Robert describes how pleasant it is to be recording yet another Top Gear session and saying how excellent the BBC canteen is.” John Peel

Moon In June is the last track with lyrics that Soft Machine ever recorded and Wyatt constantly changed the lyrics to suit the context at the time.

The next album, Third, was released in June 1970 and saw Soft Machine embrace the electric jazz template laid out by Miles Davis a few months earlier. Elton Dean now joins on saxophone as a permanent member. It was a double album, with one track per side and with added horn players (Lyn Dobson, Jimmy Hastings, Nick Evans).

Slightly All The Time, mainly composed by Ratledge, starts with a stately bass figure from Hopper before a Zappaesque theme emerges over which Dean solos majestically.

Tensions were now appearing in the band with Wyatt’s singing being a distraction for the others who wanted a more straight ahead jazz approach.

1971’s Fourth is therefore the band’s last album with Wyatt on drums, who leaves and forms Matching Mole (from the french for Soft Machine – Machine Molle).

Virtually Parts 1-4 is possibly Hopper’s signature composition for Soft Machine, taking up the whole of side two of the original album and featuring some fine acoustic bass from Roy Babbington – a future permanent member.

To replace Wyatt and to further the total jazz approach, Phil Howard was brought in from Elton Dean’s free jazz group Just Us. He was a much looser and more unstructured player than Wyatt, and he totally changed the feel of tracks such as Slightly All The Time with his aggressive driving Tony Williams style of play. (To be heard on the live album Drop).

Fifth however only features Howard on side one; Hopper and Ratledge finding his style jarring with their more structured approach, and he was replaced by John Marshall for side two. Drop gives some idea of the band with Howard in the drum seat; it starts off quietly enough with water drop samples and tape loops but soon heads for the outer limits.

Before the next album, Elton Dean left the band and Soft Machine turned to another jazz rock stalwart – Karl Jenkins – who had played with new drummer John Marshall in Nucleus. Six is a double album with two sides live and two in the studio. The live version of Fanfare/All White showcases Jenkins’ oboe playing at its most expressive and inventive. Hugh Hopper however was becoming disenchanted with the group’s new sound and left before the album was released.

Mike Ratledge was the only original member left for the release of Seven in 1973 with Karl Jenkins being the main composer on this and the subsequent Bundles (1975). During the sessions for Softs (1976) Mike Ratledge left and Karl Jenkins took over keyboard duties. A couple of other albums with an ever changing lineup followed in 1978 and 1981, but realistically Soft Machine now had no real link with the band that started out in 1966.

Over three decades Soft Machine pioneered british psychedelic rock, jazz rock and fusion and have left a legacy that’s worth more attention and credit than they are often given.

 

 

Soft Machine at Robert Wyatt’s website

The Ultimate Mike Ratledge Discography

Kevin Ayers (1944-2013) – Fan Site

Hugh Hopper (1945-2009)

Daevid Allen (1938-2015) – Performance Site

Elton Dean (1945-2006) Discography

Karl Jenkins Official Website

John Marshall Webpage/Discography

John Etheridge Official Website

Roy Babbington biography

Read Marcus O’Dair’s excellent 2014 book on Robert Wyatt and early Soft Machine, “Different Every Time”

Soft Machine at Cuneiform Records

Soft Machine, UFO Club, London, 1967 ‘Poem for Hoppy’ by Daevid Allen – on video

Soft Machine – Moon In June (Peel Sessions)

Soft Machine – Alive in Paris 1970

Hugh Hopper, John Marshall, and Mike Ratledge give an interview about the newly formed “Six” lineup before running through “Fanfare/All White” on French TV 1972

The rare 7-piece Soft Machine performs on the French TV show L’invite du Dimanche in 1969 – Mike Ratledge (organ), Hugh Hopper (bass), Robert Wyatt (drums), Elton Dean (alto sax), Lyn Dobson (soprano and tenor sax), Marc Charig (cornet), Nick Evans (trombone)

The Canterbury Music Scene

Matching Mole toppermost #405

Soft Machine biography (iTunes)

David Tanner hails originally from South Wales and spent 40 years working as a librarian – the last 30 in Yorkshire – and is now happily retired in France. There are not many music genres he doesn’t like and he’s never stopped seeking out good music. Always another unknown band around the corner! He writes about music and random culture at Other Formats Are Available.

TopperPost #429

2 Comments

  1. John Chamberlain
    Apr 18, 2015

    Many thanks for this write up; I was aware of the group, but I think at the end of the 60s early 70s I was rather blinkered in my taste in music and they were ignored. Have to say I don’t appreciate the vocals, but there are some great tracks I am now exploring.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Jun 19, 2015

    Went to my local charity shop today and picked up a copy of the Soft Machine anthology ‘Out-Bloody-Rageous’ for a dollar. Not sure how it ended up there but hopefully will be my best purchase in that line since I picked up a copy of ‘50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong’ a few years back… Will get back to you…

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