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Soft Machine

A revolving-door combo that seemed to be in a transitional period throughout their lifespan, SOFT MACHINE were the thinking man’s band – complex to the point of implosion. Spawning from the “Canterbury Scene”, and more redolently from The Wilde Flowers (whose other alumnus formed CARAVAN), an array of star quality musicians initially passed through the ranks of the psychedelic-cum-jazz-rock outfit SOFT MACHINE; namely Messrs DAEVID ALLEN (who almost immediately chose GONG as his vocation), ROBERT WYATT, KEVIN AYERS, ANDY SUMMERS and Hugh Hopper. The fact that the revolving-door ethos had spun out of control by 1976, when stalwart and remaining original, Mike Ratledge, had upped sticks, seemed to bother no one, least of all, inheritors and benefactors of the group.
The origins of the band could be found way back in ’63 when a self-named trio was formed by Melbourne-born guitarist/beatnik Daevid Allen and his compadres, Hugh Hopper (bass) and Robert Wyatt (drums). After the latter rhythmatic pairing had spun out the following three years within the kaleidoscopic germination of The Wilde Flowers, Wyatt and their bassist/singer, Kevin Ayers, found Oxford Uni grad and keyboard-player Mike Ratledge, plus the boomerang-effect journeyman, Daevid Allen; an earlier trip to Majorca in 1966 by the latter and Ayers, led to a chance meeting with a monied, freak-friendly American by the name of Wes Brunson, who agreed to finance the first incarnation of the new outfit. Relocating to the capital, the band re-grouped and after phoning beat-poet, William S. Burroughs to ask his permission, the adopted The SOFT MACHINE moniker. Together with PINK FLOYD, the quartet formed the vanguard of the psychedelic revolution, playing such legendary London gigs as the International Times launch at the Roundhouse; American Larry Nowlin was a brief member at this time.
Early in 1967, they were signed to Polydor Records by former ANIMALS bassist, Chas Chandler, who, in turn, led them to the door of impresario/promoter/manager, Giorgio Gomelsky. A one-off single for the label, `Love Makes Sweet Music’ (backed with the eerie and ethereal, `Feelin’, Reelin’, Squealin’’), was basically a psychedelic-pop song and not entirely representative of the band’s live free-form improvisation that took its cue from the avant-jazz of artists like Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. After a gig in St. Tropez (where they played an hour-long version of Ayers’ `We Did It Again’ to an assembled Parisian elite), Allen was refused re-entry to the UK due to an expired visa; he remained in France and subsequently formed uber-hippies, GONG.
Pared down to a trio (future POLICE-man Andy Summers filled in briefly), The SOFT MACHINE underwent a gruelling tour of America supporting the JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE. During a short break in the middle of the tour, the band recorded their eponymous debut, THE SOFT MACHINE (1968) {*8} for Probe Records, a US-only affair which, incredibly, wasn’t issued in Britain for yonks. A pioneering hybrid of psychedelic jazz improvisation, the album was the first and last to feature KEVIN AYERS, who took off for Ibiza at the end of the US tour. His part in the band was best served in dislocated group-penned epics, `So Boot If At All’ and `Why Are We Sleeping?’. Wyatt combined well with both drums and effective singing, but the unorthodox and strange nature of the set, alienated all but their loyal following.
Recruiting HENDRIX roadie, the aforementioned bassist, Hugh Hopper, the band (who had split for a time) recorded another album to fulfil contractual obligations. VOLUME TWO (1969) {*8} was another idiosyncratic classic, containing a backwards rendition of the alphabet and a multitude of highbrow cultural references. Said to be inspired by FRANK ZAPPA’s “Absolutely Free”, the re-vamped trio (plus Hugh’s elder brother Brian on guest sax), extended their improv-jazz pieces under one “Rivmic Melodies” suite side; highlights streaming from `Hibou Anemone And Bear’ and `Dada Was Here’. Less avant and more song-cycle structured, Wyatt’s best vocal contribution was his AYERS ode, `As Long As He Lies Perfectly Still’; Ratledge, too, was in his element on the climactic, `10:30 Returns To The Bedroom’.
A John Peel session (recorded on the 21st of June ’69) marked the introduction of their seminal 7-piece jazz-fusion line-up, employing such live instrumentation as saxophone, trombone and cornet, and headed by Elton Dean. SOFT MACHINE were the first “rock” act to play the normally orchestrated “Proms” at London’s Albert Hall on 13th August 1970, promoting UK Top 20 entry, THIRD (1970) {*7}, a double-set for Columbia Records which was largely instrumental, save for Wyatt’s sublime but out-of-place side-long meditation, `Moon In June’. The other band members refused to have any serious involvement with the suite, a crucial factor in Wyatt’s estrangement from the group. Composers Ratledge and Hopper tallied out the remaining 50-odd minutes between themselves; the opening `Facelift’ veered towards a prog-like “Bitches Brew”.
The definitive article was now removed, SOFT MACHINE moved further into tepid jazz-rock territory, WYATT (relegated to backseat drummer extraordinaire) became increasingly frustrated and was eventually pushed out after FOURTH (1971) {*7}. As he put it, he could go out the studio for a fag at times. Ratledge and Hopper (Dean supplied `Fletcher’s Blemish’) produced flighty, arcane rhythms set to a free-jazz backdrop, always complex and mind-blowing; example opening salvo, `Teeth’.
While WYATT went on to form MATCHING MOLE before going solo, SOFT MACHINE continued on their sonic sojourn through “un-rock” albums, FIFTH (1972) {*6}, the half-live/half-studio double SIX (1973) {*6} – which introduced the influential reed-man Karl Jenkins – and SEVEN (1974) {*4}; the jazz-fusion combo had now lost both Dean (before No.6) and Hopper; rhythm section Roy Babbington and John Marshall had been added at some point. One track that stood out from the 3-pack was 1972 piece, `Drop’, an 8-minute blow-out that went into every direction – and some.
Adding virtuoso guitarist, Allan Holdsworth, BUNDLES (1975) {*6} and SOFTS (1976) {*6} marked a fresh start for the ‘Machine, but with MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA, WEATHER REPORT, JEFF BECK and their ilk, dominating the jazz-fusion scene, there was little room for artistry and dexterity that was SOFT MACHINE. The fact that sole originating member relegated himself to a guest role on the latter set, leaving Jenkins at the helm, was admirable if not strange.
ALIVE AND WELL: RECORDED IN PARIS (1978) {*5} was strictly for the connoisseur, composer Jenkins, plus mainstays John Etheridge (guitar) and John Marshall (drums); Steve Cooke and violinist Ric Saunders superseding Roy Babbington on further complex sounds. When the name of SOFT MACHINE was resurrected again by Jenkins and a session cast for 1981’s THE LAND OF COCKAYE {*3}, many loyal fans had simply tuned in somewhere else.
While Ratledge and Jenkins often teamed up for the odd bit of film score work, they also combined in 1995 (with vocalist, Miriam Stockley) as Adiemus for an eponymous UK Top 50 hit single; the theme from the TV ad for Delta Airlines. Ethnic fusion, new age and the London Philharmonic Orchestra were all backdrops to Jenkins’ further Adiemus exploits in the classical charts, albeit without the help of Ratledge.
From the unproductive and relatively short-lived SoftWare (from 1999 to 2002) to SOFT WORKS, who released one fluid, fusion set, ABRACADABRA (2003) {*7}, the ‘Machine – Hopper, Dean, Holdsworth and Marshall – was still chugging along smoothly.
Between 2004-05, Hopper and Dean moonlighted in jazz combo, Soft Bounds (`Live At Le Triton’). However, the aforesaid pair had once again joined forces with Etheridge and Marshall for the eponymous SOFT MACHINE LEGACY (2005) {*7}. A product of Moonjune Records, over in the States, the mercurial quartet were in their element on compositions, `Kite Runner’, `Rattlift’ and `Strange Comforts’.
Sadly, it was to be reedman Elton’s curtain call, as he died of heart and liver failure on February 7, 2006. His replacement, multi-session man Theo Travis (keyboards, wind), stepped into his shoes for STEAM (2007) {*6}, a record layered with ambitronics and ad hoc jams.
Yet another setback for the ‘Legacy came about when Hopper passed on in June 7, 2009, but that just spurred on the group even further – now with bassist Roy Babbington – to release the in-concert diversion, LIVE ADVENTURES (2010) {*6}.
2013’s BURDEN OF PROOF {*7} was the final chapter of the ‘Legacy; the prog-jazz giants granted permission (one imagines) to revert to just SOFT MACHINE for 2018’s HIDDEN DETAILS {*8}. While the former set relieved their MAHAVISHNU or RETURN TO FOREVER tendencies, the latter album espoused free-form jazz-psych not too distant from their work of four-five decades ago, or even KING CRIMSON; incidentally, Theo had been a cohort of ROBERT FRIPP for many a year. A superfluous set of songs, the title track, `The Man Who Waved At Trains’, `Life On Bridges’, `Out Bloody Rageous, Pt.1’ et al, excelled on a different plateau to most so-called jazz-rock outfits – this was both breezy and breath-taking. TORTOISE and the newly-re-formed A CERTAIN RATIO should be taking notes.
Featuring several of the pieces displayed on their momentous studio return, summer 2020 saw LIVE AT THE BAKED POTATO {*7}, an album recorded at the esteemed L.A. venue the previous February. Of course SOFT MACHINE were astute enough to excavate staples such as `Hazard Profile, Pt.1’ and the glorious, not-so-soft, `The Tale Of Taliesin’.
© MC Strong 1994-2004/GRD // rev-up MCS Oct2012-Jul2020

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