Recorded in just a few days in New York while Soft Machinewere touring America, this debut album is really a reflection of theband's live sets at the time : a collection of psych-flavoured popsongs linked together by instrumental, sometimes improvised,interludes. Although the arrangements don't have the sophisticationof later ones, what strikes one when listening to this album is howunique a style Soft Machine had already come up with at the time. Granted, there issome naivety in both the lyrics and music sometimes (some of thesongs date from the Wilde Flowers years), but also an impressivematurity as a group of players. The interplay between Ratledge's organ andWyatt's drums isof an intensity rarely paralleled in SoftMachine's later, more jazz-orientedefforts. Kevin Ayers' contributions are concentrated on the second side, thehighlights of which are the absurdly repetitive "We Did It Again" andthe Gurdjieff-inspired "Why Are We Sleeping?", both of which havesince remained favourites of Ayers' solo gigs.
Kevin Ayers' departure after the lenghty Americantours of 1968 almost caused SoftMachine to break up. But whenWyatt andRatledge wereoffered to play a few gigs to promote the newly released first albumin February 1969, they brought in former roadie Hugh Hopper and reformed theband. This new start provided Ratledge with the impetus toreally have a go at composing, and the result is his lengthy "Esther's Nosejob" suite, which totals 11 minutes and makes up mostof side two of Volume Two. The arrangements are of an unprecedented sophistication,combining Ratledge's keyboards with the dual saxophones of theHopper brothers(former Wilde Flowers leader Brian later augmented the trio on mostof their 1969 gigs), and the music is largely experimental.
Side one is also made up of segued more song-based tracks, most ofthem Hopper-Wyatt collaborations, bearing the collective title "RivmicMelodies". They are humorously introduced by a spoken statement by Wyatt presentingthem as a collection of songs "from the official orchestra of theCollege of Pataphysics". Particularly funny is Wyatt's two-part "ConciseBritish Alphabet". The album includes two other songs, "As Long As HeLies Perfectly Still", a tribute to former bandmate Kevin Ayers,alluding to his macrobiotic food addiction as well as directlyquoting from "Why Are We Sleeping?" and "Lullabye Letter"; and"Dedicated To You, But You Weren't Listening", a exquisitely weirdHopper song that Wyatt singing suitably oblique lyrics to an unorthodoxopen-tuning acoustic guitar chord sequence.
A double set, this is certainly the work Soft Machine ismost remembered for. A groundbreaking musical statement, it is anartistic achievement on par with Miles Davis' Bitches Brew in terms of itscapacity to mix rock and jazz elements into a coherent and excitingmusical vision. Each of the four sides contains one lengthycomposition; with the exception of one, they are entirelyinstrumental. Since the previous album, Soft Machine has been augmentedwith saxophone player EltonDean; for a brief period (as documented onthe Peel Sessions set), there was even a full brass section in the band, butsax/flute player Lyn Dobson and trombonist Nick Evans are only featured one trackeach.
The set opens with "Facelift", a HughHopper composition which is actually acollage of two live performances (from the Fairfield Hall and Mothersin Birmingham, both in January 1970) plus some tape loops overlayedby Hopper lateron. Most of the material is from the Fairfield concert, and the sideopens with the extraordinary organ solo with which the second halfbegan; Ratledge proves how resourceful and inventive an instrumentalist he was at thetime, making most other practitioners sound academic with his slidingpitch-warps and visceral gobs of sound. The "bugged" soprano(Dobson) andalto (Dean) playa Zappa-like theme, which segues quickly into a very percussive 7/4tune, with Wyattasserting himself strongly behind the organ solo. Dobson solos well on flute andelectric soprano, and it's back to the theme, which is playedforwards before the tape is reversed to give a pyramid effect.
Mike Ratledge's "Slightly All The Time" starts with harmonics on the bass, and Dean'soverdubbed alto and saxello play a theme which has a strong jazzflavour. Dean solos on alto over a ponderous bass progression, being interruptedoccasionally by brief two-horn riffs which are introduced each timeby a staccato organ phrase. A flute solo by Jimmy Hastings developsinto a written flute loop, which repeats on top of the saxes' theme,and the saxello and organ solo over a 9/4 pattern. The track fadeswith a stately theme voiced by the reeds, fuzz organ, and fuzz bass;this is the classic "Backwards" theme, that would later be covered byCaravan as part of their "A-Hunting We Shall Go" suite.
Robert Wyatt's "Moon In June" features a great deal of the drummer's highlyunorthodox singing, with that cool, pure tone which is most effectivein the improvised passages, especially when doctored with echo. Wyatt plays mostof the organ and electric piano on this track (including the basslines), Ratledgeand Hopper onlycoming in for a solo near the end of the vocal section(Dean is nowhereto be heard on this side), before the lengthy improvisation whichfeatures free jazz violinist Rab Spall and a quote by Wyatt from Kevin Ayers' "Clarence In Wonderland".
Finally, there's Ratledge's "Out-Bloody-Rageous", which opens in startling fashionwith piano taps played backwards, all based on the progressions ofthe bass line which underpins the main theme. This theme is againplayed by Deanon overdubbed alto and saxello, and trombonist Nick Evans makes acouple of brief appearances. Dean has a beautiful alto solobefore the track ends with another tape collage, this time of theelectric piano overdubbed three or four times, playing phrases ofdiffering lengths which gradually contract.
From the opening notes of Mike Ratledge's "Teeth", it isobvious that the now entirely instrumental Soft Machine has moved on tojazzier, freer territories. Augmenting the quartet of Ratledge, Elton Dean, Hugh Hopper and Robert Wyatt are several guestmusicians, including former and future members (notably RoyBabbington on double bass). The album is dominated by Hopper's epic "Virtually" whichfills up the entire second side and, like his other contribution"Kings And Queens", is loosely based on some of his typicalrepetitive bass riffs, with an alternation of tight ensemble sectionsand more abstract, largely improvised ones. Dean's saxello and alto sax arein the foreground most of the time, the influence of free jazz moreapparent than ever before in his playing, not to mention hiscomposition "Fletcher's Blemish". Ratledge rarely ventures out ofhis trademark Bitches Brew-style electric piano accompaniment, his fuzz organ solo on "Teeth" being the exception. The rhythm section of Hopper and Wyatt is a fascinating mixtureof solidity and looseness, somehow an illustration of the ongoingconflicts within the band at the time.
"Teeth" is probably the most successful track on this collection,notably its second half which resembles the short-lived nonet versionof Soft Machinein late 1969, when Dean is joined by Nick Evans on trombone, Alan Skidmore ontenor sax and Jimmy Hastings on bass clarinet to back Ratledge's solo, with a resultstrongly reminiscent of the version of "Esther's Nosejob" on the Peel Sessionsalbum. On the whole, Fourth is quite an experimental album, half of which is trulyexhilariting and excitingly innovative, with the other half somewhatfailing to take off, as exemplified by the frustrating fade-out atthe end of "Virtually". The unusual ubiquity of the guestparticipants also leads one to think what subsquent events wouldconfirm : that this, the 'classic' incarnation of Soft Machine to many, neverquite stabilised into an harmonious, self-sufficient unit.
The internal conflicts within the band werefinally resolved when Robert Wyatt left Soft Machine in August 1971. Hisreplacement, Phil Howard, an Australian exile, had been a member of Elton Dean's part-time jazz bandJust Us for some time already (playing on Dean's then just-releasedeponymous solo album), and had even performed on a BBC 'In Concert'recording with Soft Machine the previous March (see below). A tour of France andGermany in the Autumn however failed to solidify the new quartet, andHoward left in December following recording sessions for a new studioalbum. Dissatisfied with the results, Hopper and Ratledge got hold ofJohn Marshalland the resulting line-up re-recorded half of the tracks.
Musically, "5"sees Soft Machine heading for much more austere musical territory. Gone arethe ultra-complex Ratledge epics à la "Teeth" and themeandering Hopper multi-theme suites à la "Facelift" or"Virtually". Instead, we are treated to skeletal themes and a lot ofextra space, an approach that inevitably brings to mind the earlyWeather Report, a band that was becoming very popular during thisperiod and exerted a profound influence on the Softs at the time.Pieces like "As If" (built around a bass line excerpt for the verybeginning and end) or "M.C." (basically an atmosphere created arounda scale) are as minimalist as the Softs ever got. "All White" and"Drop" have more substantial themes but they are stated in such a waythat one doesn't necessarily realise they are written. The onlyexception to the prevailing mood is "Pigling Bland", but this is easyto explain - this was composed by Ratledge in 1969 as a coda for"Esther's Nosejob", the main part of which was ultimately droppedfrom the band's set early in 1971, the "Pigling Bland" bit ending upbeing glued to "Teeth" instead. The majesty of its melody comes as arelief after the bleak, if often fascinating, landscapes that make up Fifth.
Soft Machine's sixthalbum may in retrospect be considered a transitional album. In thesame way that Volume Two had introduced the jazz element that was to become anessential part of the band's sound in the early 70's,Six Albumpaved the way for the band's later fusion-oriented efforts. With thatalbum, Soft Machine's music lost all remaining references to the free-form andanarchy of its early days.
Arguably, the influence of then new member Karl Jenkins in that move wasparticularly strong. With a background in both classical music andjazz, Jankins was an accomplished instrumentalist (on both reeds andkeyboard instruments) and a prolific composer. A founding member ofIan Carr's Nucleus (alongside JohnMarshall), he had penned most of thatband's first two albums, and would soon share an equal part ofSoft Machine'scompositional output with MikeRatledge.
Six Albumconsists of two distinct albums : one is compiled from liverecordings made during the Autumn 1972 British tour; the othergathers studio tracks recorded later that year. The live record is afantastic testament to that line-up's excellence. Supported by theincredible rhythm section of Hopper and Marshall, Ratledge and Jenkins' dual keyboards weavecomplex, multi-layered harmonic motifs to quite an hypnotizingeffect. There is already little left of the jazz influence stillheard on Fifth,which Elton Dean probably took with him when he quit the band.
The studio LP is, in contrast, more experimental and less focussed.The odd track here is really HughHopper's "1983", in the same 'abstract'vein as his debut solo album 1984, which had been recordedthe previous Summer ("1983" was probably recorded during these verysessions) and was released in March 1973, only a few weeks before Hopper'sdeparture from the band. The other tracks, in particularJenkins' "TheSoft Weed Factor", experiment with repetitive structures, and in away mark the return, albeit in a more polished and academic form, tosome of the directions explored on Third. The most successfulcomposition is Ratledge's "Chloe And The Pirates", which ishighlighted by Jenkins' extended oboe solo.
Having just acquired yet another Nucleus defector,bassist Roy Babbington, Soft Machine were pressured to go into thestudio straight away in order to have a new album out for a projectedUS tour in the autumn of 1973. Apparently, much of the resultingalbum was composed over a very short period of time - only "Down TheRoad" had been routined onstage prior to the sessions. Actually thereis even a disguised cover - Ratledge's "Day's Eye" is really just are-vamp of a John McLaughlin piece off Extrapolation; and much of "Penny Hitch" sound like Jenkins' cover of his own "Soft WeedFactor". Even so, it's one of the best cuts on Seven. As withSix Album,Jenkins's contributions are hit-or-miss depending on whether they'rejust a complex rhythmic pattern over which to solo on either oboe orfuzz organ, or something more substantial. Ratledge contribues acouple of good themes, but his compositional output was quicklydiminishing at this point. The real plus on the album is Babbington'simmaculate bass playing; as a musician he's probably not as originaland creative as Hugh Hopper, but he's just perfect for that kind ofmaterial, rock-solid and elegant. Otherwise, it's clear theSofts weregetting a bit stagnant and needed a shot in the arm - which came inthe shape of Allan Holdsworth.
Probably conscious of the lack of substantialprogression between SixAlbum and Seven, Soft Machine decided to expandits sound scope with the addition of a guitar player. With thearrival of Allan Holdsworth (yet another ex-member of Nucleus) in November 1973, theguitar made an unexpected return to the band's sound, six years afterDaevid Allen's departure. Bundles, recorded the followingSummer but released only in March 1975 (just days beforeHoldsworth leftthe group), on the band's new label Harvest, is certainly a dramaticchange of musical direction. SoftMachine has now become a fusion band,playing music based on energetic rock rhythms, supporting virtuosicsoloing.
The highlight of the album is the sidelong suite "Hazard Profile", anepic Jenkins composition based on the riff of a previous piece ofhis, Nucleus' "Song Of The Bearded Lady". This piece visits musicalterritories not dissimilar to the progressive rock of Yes, Genesisand the like, except all instrumental. The second side of the albumresembles more the preceding albums, in particular Ratledge's compositions.
The first live performance by the classic Soft Machinequartet of Dean-Ratledge-Hopper-Wyatt tohave been officially released, this was also televised at the time itwas recorded (August 13th 1970), as part of the Promenade Concertsseries held at the Royal Albert Hall. The sound quality is notexactly perfect, with HughHopper's bass barely audible, but the bandplays inspired renditions of such favourites as "Out-Bloody-Rageous","Facelift" and the sidelong epic "Esther's Nosejob" from Volume Two,now exclusively instrumental (save Wyatt's brief wordless vocalese)and augmented with the beautifully melodic "Pigling Bland", whichlater turned up on its own on Fifth. Some say Soft Machine was at its best ina live context : this recording is a convincing evidence.
Another classic performance, and a much-bootleggedone. This concert in Amsterdam from March 1969 was in fact almostreleased at the time, but the band vetoed it. It became abest-selling bootleg in the 70's, and appeared on CD in the late80's. It was finally issued officially on Voiceprint in 1996. It isan absolutely fantastic document of SoftMachine in concert circa Volume Two, an intense trioperformance that actually consists of the whole album played in itsentirety with no stops. RobertWyatt obivously has difficulties handlingboth the drumming and the singing, and tends to concentrate on theformer, leaving much of the music voice-free. Mike Ratledge andHugh Hopper bothmake extensive use of the famed fuzz pedal. 45 minutes of pure magic,and the only available opportunity to hear early Soft Machine playinglive.
This is a live session recorded for the BBC atLondon's Paris Theatre on March 11th 1971, pre-dating Virtually by only a few days.The setlist is largely similar, but this is a less typicalperformance by the classic SoftMachine line-up in that it features someadditional guest musicians. John Peel introduced the concert as beingby "Soft Machine and HeavyFriends". It actually begins with the Elton Dean Group(which a year later evolved into Just Us) - Dean, Mark Charig, NevilleWhitehead and Phil Howard - augmented by Mike Ratledge on electric piano,performing "Blind Badger", a track that was to be recorded for Elton Dean'sdebut solo album two months later with a largely similar line-up, aswould be the following track, "Neo Caliban Grides", where Dean,Ratledge andHoward are joined by HughHopper and Robert Wyatt. The rest of theperformance is a continuous 30-minute plus medley by the regularDean-Ratledge-Hopper-Wyatt quartet, consisting of "Out-Bloody-Rageous", "EamonnAndrews", "All White", "Kings And Queens", "Teeth" and "PiglingBland". It is to be noted that both "All White" and "Pigling Bland" later turned up on Fifth, by which time Wyatt had left the band. For thelast two numbers, SoftMachine is augmented by Ronnie Scott ontenor sax, Mark Charig on cornet, Paul Nieman and trombone and RoyBabbington on bass. All in all, a very strong performance thatfeatures some of the most jazz-oriented music Soft Machine everproduced.
This concert for the BBC was the fifth by theincarnation of Soft Machine that would record SixAlbum later that year, withKarl Jenkinsjoining Mike Ratledge, Hugh Hopper and JohnMarshall, adding his considerable skillson woodwinds and keyboards, not to mention his talents as composer.Less jazzy improvisation, more heavy riffing showcasing theextraordinary Hopper-Marshall rhythm section. "Slightly All The Time", the only leftoverfrom the pre-Fifth days, is almost unrecognizable. The rest of the set is amixture of compositions from Fifth("All White", again bearing only minorresemblance to the original, "M.C.", "L.B.O." and "As If") and Six Album ("Fanfare", "Stumble" and "Riff"). Although only weeks into itsexistence, this line-up of SoftMachine was already a very solid unit, andthis performance is arguably even better than the much-lauded livehalf of Six Album.
This double CD offers one of Elton Dean's last liveperformances with SoftMachine - Paris' Olympia Theatre on May2nd, 1972. The line-up here is that of the second side ofFifth, that isDean,Mike Ratledge,Hugh Hopper andJohn Marshall.The latter, a heavier and straighter drummer than Phil Howard, reallysolidifies the unit. At that point, Dean was playing almost as muchelectric piano as saxophone, which makes the later recruitment ofKarl Jenkins seem a logical step. A lot of room is left toimprovisation, and the versions of "Facelift" and "Slightly All TheTime" on this set are substantially different to the originalversions. The only - minor - problem with Live In France is the soundquality - mono and somewhat lacking in dynamics - but this isnonetheless a superb performance. (A new version of this album is due for release on Cuneiform Records in May, 2004)
The latest, and hopefully not last, in the seriesof live CD's from the classic era of SoftMachine. This contains the entirety(almost 80 minutes) of a two-set concert recorded and broadcast byGermany's Radio Bremen (it has since been aired again a few times),only days after the SoftMachine And Heavy Friends session (seeabove). And one of the very best in that it offers a uniqueopportunity to hear a complete performance by the band. This featuresmost of the tracks (in shorter versions) from Third ("Facelift", "Slightly AllThe Time" - without the "Noisette"/"Backwards" part - and"Out-Bloody-Rageous") and all the ones from Fourth, plus Dean's "Neo-Caliban Grides", thetransitional "Eamonn Andrews" (never included on any studio album)which features a vocal improvisation by Wyatt around the lyrics of "HopeFor Happiness" and "Pigling Bland", the only leftover from the"Esther's Nosejob" suite.