Early Soft Machine history

By Dennis Cruikshank

The Soft Machine line-up which surfaced on Harvest with 1975's "Bundles" album was vastly different to that which had helped forge English psychedelia some eight years previously. Mike Ratledge, their keyboard wunderkind, was the sole original member, a survivor of eleven distinctive versions as well as sundry minor changes.

Their beginnings lay in the Canterbury of the early 1960's and an ad hoc gang of friends and musicians intent on embracing the New Jazz of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, rather than The Beatles or Merseybeat followers welcomed by their contemporaries and who devoured the Beat literature of Kerouac and Ginsberg as opposed to James Bond. Several future confederates, the aforementioned Ratledge, the Hopper brothers, Hugh and Brian, Robert Wyatt and David Sinclair, were all pupils at the Simon Langston School, a loose-fitting circle which was then enhanced by two itinerant souls, Kevin Ayers and Daevid Allen, especially Allen, would interact and influence their thinking.

Robert, the Hoppers and Ayers subsequently formed The Wilde Flowers, and R&B group whose make-up proved as unstable as its participants future projects. Kevin quit for the warmth of the Mediterranean soon after cutting the band's lone bequest, a four track demo, but by the time he returned in 1966 Wyatt had been tempted into a new venture sparked off when Ratledge returned from university. Ayers joined them on the bass, Daevid Allen reappeared on guitar, the mysterious Larry Nolan came and went, and while The Flowers continued the outsider path before subsequently evolving into Caravan their fledgling counterparts now operated in London's nascent Underground.

Taking their name from the William Burroughs' novel, The Soft Machine were, along with Pink Floyd, adopted as the freak-out houseband. Acceptance without that clique was more problematical; too radical for mass consumption they'd abandon Britain for a France more susceptible to the avant-garde. The move, however, resulted in the first real rupture when, en route to the 1967 Edinburgh Festival, Daevid Allen, an Australian, was denied re-entry by British customs. He returned to Paris from where he began to piece together a new career and group, Gong.

A series of demos apart, that first incarnation managed one sole single, `Love Makes Sweet Music'. and the trio were latterly pitched into a gruelling U.S. tour schedule before further releases could be accommodated. Briefly augmented by guitarist Andy Somers, The Softs grafted through most of 1968, hurriedly cutting their superb eponymous schedule they were all demoralized; Kevin quit for Ibiza and his opposite directions before the domestic success of "The Soft Machine", still only available on import, drew them back together.

Hugh Hopper was called up from the road crew to become the new bassist, a second collection, "Soft Machine 2", was recorded and released in April 1969, but as well as the former group's madness, a new more studious direction was evolving. An experimental brass section, Nick Evans, Marc Charig, Lyn Dobson and Elton Dean, was then briefly augmented, the latter pair remained in place for "Thirds", the Softs' 1970 double set, with Dean staying on as a permanent member. By now internal struggles were rife, Wyatt quit to cut a solo album, "The End Of An Ear", returned for "Fourth", before leaving for good in September 1971. From there he formed Matching Mole, a name punningly based on the French translation of his erstwhile group, but the same inner problems would also surface here. Robert was in the process of forming a new Mole when tragically paralysed following a fall; his work since the accident has been both breathtaking and poignant.

Phil Howard became Wyatt's replacement, a friend of Dean, the two were members of Just Us, a part-time offshoot which also featured the rump of the short-lived horn section, Charic and Evans. The new drummer only lasted a mere four months, by January he was moved out in favour of John Marshall, a veteran of Britian's new jazz, whose discipline brought a new perspective to the band. "Fifth", released in June 1972, effectively ended any lingering ties The Soft Machine enjoyed with their rascally past, the defection of Elton Dean to a now professional Just Us paved the way for the introduction of Marshall's cohort, Karl Jenkins, and when Hugh Hopper quit to follow his own direction and conscience following "Six", that inheritance was all but extinguished. Both refugees would record solo collections emphasising the various facets they'd brought into the group they'd now departed, thus emphasizing the difference between the old and the new. It is, however, somewhat unfair to contrast them; they were different times and different musicians. Had the Softs abandoned their now ill-fitting handle, their more scholarly approach might have been more widely welcomed.

"Seven" was issued in October 1973 and while it introduced bassist Roy Babbington, it also marked the end of Soft Machine's spell at CBS which had begun with "Third". An eighteen month gap then followed, the longest, so far,in their history, before the group emerged with a new guitarist, Allan Holdsworth, a new outlet, Harvest and the album herewith enclosed, "Bundles". (sorry, couldn't upload the cd!)

The label worked hard on it's new acquisition, relaunching their career through some spirited and imaginative publicity. For those who'd missed the changes over the years, "Bundles" must have been surprising, for others the collection consolidated the direction of its immediate predecessors. Yet if the old Dada- esque, random factor was now lost to the surfeit of offshoots proclaiming its legacy; Gong, Kevin Ayers or even Hatfield & The North, the collective playing was undoubtedly crafted.

Holdsworth's guitar provided the group with new textures and avenues; he could be economical or stupidly fast, Marshall's drumming is, as ever, imaginative, while Ratledge continued to show his adept keyboard touches. The compositional grip he'd once enjoyed was, however, eroding as The Softs increasingly became an avenue for Karl Jenkins' work. Although more immediately though of as saxophonist, Jenkins also doubled on piano and a track such as 'Hazard Profile' betrays the kind of chording beloved by jazz/fusion exponents rather than the kick-start rasp listeners anticipated from the group's nominal leader. That said pieces such as 'Four Gongs To Drums' and 'The Man Who Waved At Trains' showed this line-up's individuality and those who'd ventured to the fringe of English rock, who'd embraced Colosseum or the King Crimson of "Red", or who'd watched parts of this Soft Machine line-up since their early work with Nucleus, will have welcomed "Bundles" as another part of that complex, challenging jigsaw.

by Dennis Cruikshank

from the liner notes to the cd of "Bundles" on See For Miles SEE 283

 


(The Soft Machine saga continues on "Softs" (See For Miles SEE 285 cd) and on "Alive & Well In Paris" (See For Miles SEE 290 cd) where the individual careers of the 1975 and after line-up are examined in more detail.

* The 7 piece line-up between "Second" and "Third" never recorded any lps, but did appear on the BBC show Top Gear. Some of this material was released on the rare triple lp "Triple Echo" and all of it on the 1991 double cd release of all of the Soft Machine BBC appearances from 1969 -1971? These rare recordings are very interesting, especially a version of The Moon in June before "Thirds" with different lyrics. This version is customized for the BBC performance and Invited friends Kevin Ayers and Pink Floyd to check out the BBC show Top Gear also. I think Charig and Evans played on some Crimson recordings after this. Lyn Dobson has later recorded with the Third Ear Band and Henry Cow.