Few English bands from the mid-60's had the mystique of the original Soft Machine. Several have acquired it in retrospect - the Soft Machine actually had it (albeit uninternationally) at the time. They may have lost it in time (through musical self indulgence) but there is no denying their place in the cultural history of 'those days'.
The Soft machine formed in 1966 but their story starts several years earlier at the Simon Langton School in Canterbury, whose pupils at the time included Robert Wyatt, Mike Retledge and Hugh Hopper - all of varying ages, but sharing a common interest in jazz. Much has been made, over the years, of the idyllic and liberal atmosphere of the school and its influence on a Canterbury supposedly on the brink of turning into a kind of English Haight-Ashbury. But Robert Wyatt has since dispelled the myth by saying: 'It was an extremely dull grammar school and I can't remember a single stimulating thing about Canterbury.'
Around this time Wyatt and Hopper met a genial Australian by the name of Daevid Allen. Aged 21, Allen was a fully fledged beatnik - he knew and had worked with William Burroughs and the then unknown Terry Riley in Paris; He had taken LSD and had long hair. With Hopper playing bass and Wyatt learning the drums, the three of them performed occasionally as an avant-garde trio but spent much time in Paris, on Allen's houseboat, working on tape-loops with all manner of new delights.
By 1964, with the Beatles and the Stones sweeping all before them, Canterbury was developing its own healthy music scene. At the center was a group called the Wilde Flowers, the initial line-up of which comprised Hugh Hopper, his brother Brian on saxes, Robert Wyatt, Richard Sinclair on guitar and Kevin Ayers - who had been recommended because he was the only other long-hair in Kent - on vocals. The Wilde Flowers played a strange mixture of R&B, soul and experimental jazz. The band continued in various incarnations until mid 1966, when Allen and Ayers took off to Majorca for the summer.On their return they discovered that Ratledge - a brilliant keyboard player, heavily into contemporary classical music - had left Oxford University and wanted to form a new band. One half went on to become Caravan in 1968. Ayers, Wyatt and Allen joined up with Ratledge and eventually became the Soft Machine. The name was Allen's idea, coming from the title of a William Burroughs novel; He actually phoned Burroughs for permission to use it.
Initially the new band's repertoire wasn't vastly different from that of the Wilde Flowers, but they soon became totally original, performing Ayers' and Wyatt's own compositions. Ayers' were prototypes for the quirky but oddly philosophical songs for which he later became known; Wyatt was already writing about the minutiae of his daily life, both were singing, in their different ways, in very English accents, providing that it was possible to sing in a rock band without affecting a mid-Atlantic drawl. Apart from the songs, they were developing an interest in improvisation, largely through Ratledge. By the end of 1966 their music was, in both style and execution, way beyond most of their British contemporaries.
The timing was perfect - through Allen and his connections with the international freak set, the band were able to find gigs in the newly-emerging underground. They played on the same bill as Pink Floyd at the International Times launch party in October 1966 and went on to become regulars at UFO. For these early gigs they were supplemented by an American guitarist, Larry Nolan, a mysterious character who was, apparently, the veteran of various Californian bluegrass bands alongside David Lindley.
Like many of the more adventurous bands of the period, the Soft Machine suffered from audience incomprehension and hostility almost every time they played out of London or at a non-underground gig. As a result, shortly after their memorable performance at 'The 14 Hour Technicolor Dream' at the Alexander Palace in April 1967, they shifted their base of operations to the South of France, their popularity in Europe dates from this period. On their return at the end of the summer, Allen was refused entry as an undesirable alien, the band continuing as a three-piece. How ever, they have already recorded a single, the classic 'Love Makes Sweet Music', on which Allen played.
In April 1967, shortly after the release of the single, the band entered De Lane Rea studios in Soho to cut the tracks that became known as the 'Jet Propelled Photographs' album. Opinions differ as to the purpose of the sessions. Certainly they were demos, but Giorgio Gomelsky (who paid for the recording and subsequently held on to the tapes) claims they were to be the basis of a proper album. Wyatt remembers it differently, claiming that they were more in the nature of publishers demos and that the majority weren't being seriously considered as material for the band to perform on stage. Indeed several were written by Hugh Hopper, who although still a friend, wasn't actually in the band.
So what about the actual music. To be fair no one could suggest that it's the best stuff the band ever recorded and over the years the album has been subjected to an awful lot of criticism, much of it valid. The production qualities are minimal, some of the playing is sloppy (especially Allen's guitar-playing, which only if one was being very king could be called 'atonal') and overall conveys little or non of the magic and power of the band could generate at the UFO. In its favour the album has enthusiasm, not a little excitement, some great songs and now and again, snatches of something very special. Daevid Allen once remarked that he was eternally embarrassed by his performance but that the whole thing was redeemed by Wyatt, whose vocals and drumming Allen described as 'magnificent'. Which is probably true. The tapes, of course, vanished for years but although an album based on them never materialised, most survived in one form or another.
At the end of the year the Soft Machine embarked on
a gruelling six-months tour of the States with Jimi Hendrix and after this they recorded
their first album, Soft Machine. Although everything was completed in one take, it was a
stunning album, containing charmingly silly Wyatt songs and slightly more disarming
numbers by Ayers, linked by pieces of improvisation. Despite its quality, it remained
unreleased in the UK until the mid Seventies. The tour virtually killed off the band.
however; Ayers disappeared, but Ratledge and Wyatt recruited Hugh Hopper, who had roadied
for them, to play bass - and a new band came together in July 1968 to rehearse for a
Ratledge had felt that the original band was too 'poppy'; although adventurous and bizarre, the new line-up was to be considerably more serious. Nevertheless, the two 'aspects' co-existed for a while, as is demonstrated by the second album, 'Volume Two' (1969). Despite more technical problems, it was another classic album, this time with the added dimension of Hopper's roaring fuzz bass. By the end of the year, the limitations of the three-piece led to the addition of a four-piece brass front-line. On a good night they were amazing, but the sheer originality of the first line-up had virtually disappeared; they were moving towards a jazz-rock norm. Unable to sustain such a large unit, they dropped back to a four-piece, only Elton Dean on alto sax remaining from the big band. This line-up produced 'Third' (1970), in many ways their most polished album - though, with the exception of Wyatt's "Moon In June', most of the humour and what the French saw as 'Dadaist' qualities had gone.
Shortly after the release of 'Third', the band played at the Promenade Concerts, much to the chagrin of the dinner-jacketed audience. It wasn't a good gig, but it was significant in that it showed that the band have become the 'intellectuals' of the rock set and were taken up by the establishment. Ratledge, in particular, was starting to concentrate more and more on 'technical expertise'. Wyatt's contributions, especially the vocals, were being cut back virtually to nothing. He left the band, returning briefly to drum on 'Fourth' (1971), a rather flaccid version of 'Third'.
With Wyatt gone, the charm of the original band had
disappeared completely. Even new recruit Elton Dean left; an improviser by choice, he
found little room to move in Ratledge' increasingly tight compositions. the next line-up,
with John Marshall on drums and Karl Jenkins on saxes, recorded 'Fifth' (1972) and 'Six'
(1973), both cold jazz-rock albums.
By May 1973 Hopper had left and been replaced by another jazz-rocker, Roy Babbington. At This point Ratledge should seriously have considered dropping the name Soft Machine but, undaunted, the band went on to make 'Seven' (1973) and 'Bundles' (1975). Even the addition of a guitarist, Allan Holdsworth, had made little difference to the sound. Ratledge himself quit in January 1976, but Jenkins and Marshall held on to the name and, with various additional musicians, made the albums 'Softs' (1976), 'Alive And Well In Paris' (1978) and, after a gap when everyone thought that the name had gone for good, "Land Of Cockayne' (1981).
For music of the Seventies, the band bearing the
name Soft Machine bore little relation to the original.aspects of the original ideas lived
in the work of ex-members, notably in Gong, the anarchic - if self indulgent - band led by
Throughout the late Sixties and early Seventies, Kevin Ayers tottered on the brink of success with a string of solo albums, but seemed happier sunning himself in Majorca. Wyatt formed Matching Mole, a sort of radical version of Soft Machine. Following an accident in which he fell from a window, causing him to be paralysed from the waist down, he was unable to drum any more, but such releases as 'Rock Bottom' (1974) and a series of singles on the Rough Trade label in the Eighties have shown that his distinctive vocal style, once so important in the Soft Machine, remained unimpaired.
Taken from sleeve notes for 'Jet Propelled Photographs' album, written by John Platt