Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Soft Machine

Soft Machine

by Pete Clemons

As I was growing up, like many, I was often derided for the kind of music that I listened to. You were often viewed as a bit of an oddball if you diversified away from what the normal media offered. It sounds bizarre now but even within the company of your own peers you could have been viewed as a bit strange for exploring other avenues from what they were listening to.

One band who, for me at least, certainly fitted into the latter category, were The Soft Machine. Yet for as long as I remember I have always enjoyed listening to them. For me, The Soft Machine’s music is timeless and this year see’s the current version of the band celebrating 50 years since the release of the debut Soft Machine album.

From their formation in 1966 the amount of personnel changes within the Soft Machine numbers, I am guessing, in the thirties. And a line-up that includes John Etheridge on guitar, Roy Babbington on bass, John Marshall drums and Theo Travis flute are about to take to the road to undertake an extensive U.S. and European tour.

In addition the band have dropped the ‘Legacy’ tag that they have used for at least the last ten years and recorded a new album, ‘Hidden Details’.

Soft Machine evolved from Kent based band The Wilde Flowers during 1966. Their initial line up consisted of Mike Ratledge keyboards, Robert Wyatt drums, Kevin Ayres bass and Daevid Allen guitar although Daevid left the band quite early on. From the start they were a band with no restrictions. Music began as rock based although later recordings drifted increasingly towards jazz.

As described by Robert Wyatt ‘we were musical misfits from Canterbury. At the time the band was formed I was the only drummer around and Mike Ratledge was the only keyboard player around. And there was nobody else around like Kevin Ayres – a unique guy. Had we have come from a big city then things might have been different as there may have been an abundance of musicians to pick from’. They had been ejected from local pubs due to the length of their hair.

They were all very experimental sorts of people and the idea was that they had to get themselves into a zone. Dig into a groove, if you like. With a receptive audience before them, ‘The Softs’ would take them all to another place. Robert Wyatt jokes that the idea was not to stop in case they got boo’d for what they were doing.

The band was influence by John Coltrane and his workouts. They shared this love for a mix of jazz and improvised rock which was not on predictable lines. Wyatt has since mentioned that the name ‘Soft Machine’ came courtesy of Mike. Although it seems that it was Kevin Ayres who got ‘the Softs’ their first deal with Chas Chandler.

And it was through this association that ‘The Softs’ toured the US with Jimi Hendrix during 1968. In fact it became two particularly difficult tours. Even the band’s debut album was recorded during their time in the US. The second tour even saw Andy Summers, later of the Police, briefly joining the trio. Such was the stress that toward the end of 1968 ‘The Softs’ had disbanded with Kevin Ayres skipping off to Spain.

However a month or so later, during December 1968, Robert and Mike reassembled the band with the addition of bass player Hugh Hopper who also doubled up on sax. Together they recorded the Soft Machine’s second album over February and March 1969. This record would be released in the September of the same year.

But the introduction of Hugh Hopper into the band would also be the beginning of ‘The Softs’ moving away from the song based music they had so far created. By April of 1969 Brian Hopper, the elder brother of Hugh, was appearing regularly on stage with Soft Machine playing sax.

At this point I would greatly recommend the heavily bootlegged ‘Live at Paradiso’ album. Recorded March 1969, for me it captures Soft Machine perfectly, right in between their past and what would become their immediate future.

Toward the end of 1969 alto sax and saxello player Elton Dean, who had been a member of the Keith Tippet band, was also appearing with the band as Brian Hopper moved away from the live performances.

During a 1997 interview Mike Ratledge gave an insight into this period: ‘Hugh, myself and Elton were pursuing a vaguely jazz-related direction. Robert was violently opposed to this, which is strange looking back on it because he was passionate about jazz. But he had defined ideas of what pop music was and what jazz was.’

Robert Wyatt has since said ‘To me, fusion jazz was the worst of both worlds. It was rock rhythms, played in a rather effete way, with noodling, very complicated solos on top.’

Regardless of what the private thoughts of this new direction were but Robert stayed long enough with the band to create what many consider their finest hours, this being the albums, ‘Third’ and ‘Fourth’. Robert Wyatt would ultimately leave Soft Machine during the middle of 1971.

Then began a period where a plethora of musicians passed through the ranks of Soft Machine. These would include Marshall and Babbington, from the current line-up along with composer Karl Jenkins who is more well-known nowadays for his classical work.

Yet despite these changes, whoever has been involved with Soft Machine, has consistently provided the listener with a challenge by their unusual jazz structures and free form improvisation. A form of music that simply sounded like no other did. As such I, for one, am really looking forward to hearing the new album. 

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