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The Soft Machine was a pioneering English psychedelic, progressive rock and jazz fusion band from Canterbury, named after the book The Soft Machine by William S. Burroughs. They were one of the central bands in the Canterbury scene.
Beginnings and the "classic quartet"
The Soft Machine was formed in 1966 by Robert Wyatt (drums, vocals), Kevin Ayers (bass, vocals), Daevid Allen (guitar) and Mike Ratledge (keyboards). Allen, Wyatt and future bassist Hugh Hopper had played in the Daevid Allen Trio, occasionally accompanied by Ratledge. Wyatt, Ayers and Hopper had played in a band called the Wilde Flowers, which included future members of another Canterbury band, Caravan.
This first Soft Machine line-up became involved in the early UK underground, featuring prominently at the UFO Club, and recorded the group's first (and only) single, as well as some demo sessions that were released several years later. They also played in Holland, Germany and on the French Riviera. In 1967, upon their return from a performance in France, Allen (an Australian) was denied re-entry to the United Kingdom, so the group continued as a trio.
In early 1968, eventual The Police guitarist Andy Summers joined the group, but the arrangement ended shortly thereafter. Later in 1968 they toured the USA, opening for the Jimi Hendrix Experience.  During this tour, they recorded their first album, The Soft Machine, in New York. Disbanded after Ayers's amicable departure at the end of this tour, Soft Machine reformed with former road manager and composer Hugh Hopper on bass added to Wyatt and Ratledge, to record their second album in 1969.
From the odd psychedelic rock style of the early period, featuring Ayers and/or Wyatt singing on most of their pieces, Volume Two, with Brian Hopper playing saxophones, launched a transition towards a purely instrumental sound resembling what would be later called jazz fusion. Notwithstanding the disconcerting personnel changes that came about during this period, this is a fascinating period of creative tension. The base trio was late in 1969 expanded to a septet with the addition of four horn players, though only saxophonist Elton Dean (†) remained beyond a few months, the resulting so-called classic Soft Machine quartet (Wyatt, Hopper, Ratledge and Dean) running through Third (1970) and Fourth (1971), with various guests, mostly jazz players (Lyn Dobson, Nick Evans, Marc Charig, Jimmy Hastings, Rab Spall, Roy Babbington). Fourth was the first of their fully instrumental albums.
All members of the classic lineup were highly literate in various musical backgrounds, but foremost was the eclectic genius of Ratledge, who through composition, arrangements and improvisational skills propelled a collective output of the highest standard, in which the vocal charm and extraordinarily original drumming of Wyatt, the lyricism of some of Dean's solos and the unusual avantgarde pop angle of Hopper's pieces all had a major role. Their propensity for building extended suites from regular sized compositions, both live and in the studio (already in the Ayers suite in their first album), reaches its maximum in the 1970 album Third, unusual for its time in each of the four sides featuring one suite. Third was also unusual for remaining in print for more than ten years in the United States, and is the best-selling  Soft Machine recording.
The post-Wyatt era
After differences over the group's musical direction, Wyatt left (or was fired from) the band in 1971 and formed Matching Mole (a pun on machine molle, the French for soft machine). He was briefly replaced by Australian drummer Phil Howard, but further musical disagreements led to Howard's dismissal after the 1971 recording of the first LP side of Five (1972) and, some months later, to Dean's departure. They were replaced respectively by John Marshall (drums) and, for the recording of Six (1973), Karl Jenkins (reeds, keyboards), both former members of Ian Carr's Nucleus, and The Softs' sound developed even more towards jazz fusion.
In 1973, after Six, Hopper left and was replaced by Roy Babbington, who had already contributed with double bass on Fourth and Five and took up electric bass successfully. This new quartet of Babbington, Jenkins, Marshall and Ratledge recorded the next (and last) three official Soft Machine studio releases. After they released Seven (1973) without additional musicians, the band switched record labels from Columbia to Harvest. On their 1975 album Bundles, a significant musical change occurred with fusion guitarist Allan Holdsworth adding guitar as a very prominent melody instrument to the band's sound, sometimes reminiscent of John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, setting the album apart from previous Soft Machine releases, which had not featured guitars. On the last official studio album Softs (1976), he was replaced by John Etheridge. After Softs, Ratledge, the last remaining original member of the band, was also gone. Other musicians in the band during the later period were bassist Steve Cook , saxophonist Alan Wakeman, and violinist Ric Sanders. Their 1978 performances and record (titled Alive and Well, ironically) were the last for Soft Machine as a working band. The Soft Machine name was used for the 1981 record Land of Cockayne (with Jack Bruce and, again, Allan Holdsworth) and for a few live shows in 1984, but these featured Jenkins and Marshall with groups assembled just for those performances.
The Soft Machine legacy
Since 1988, a wealth of live recordings of Soft Machine have been issued on CD, with recording quality ranging from excellent to poor.
In 2002 four former Soft Machine members - Hugh Hopper, Elton Dean, John Marshall and Allan Holdsworth - toured and recorded under the name Soft Works. In 2005, with John Etheridge replacing Holdsworth, they toured and recorded as Soft Machine Legacy, two albums of theirs have been released: Live in Zaandam (2005) and the studio album Soft Machine Legacy (2006). On their tour in summer 2006, Theo Travis (formerly of Gong and The Tangent) replaced Elton Dean, who died in February 2006. Both of these groups performed some pieces from the original Soft Machine repertoire as well as newer material.
Graham Bennett's Soft Machine biography, Out-Bloody-Rageous was published in September 2005. In 2006 the book was nominated by the Association for Recorded Sound Collections for its Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research in the field of rock music.
- The album on which Jenkins first played with Soft Machine, Six, won first place in the Melody Maker British Jazz Album of the Year award in 1973.
- Soft Machine was voted best small group in the Melody Maker jazz poll of 1974.
- The Soft Machine (ABC/Probe, 1968)
- Volume Two (ABC/Probe, 1969)
- Third (Columbia, 1970)
- Fourth (Columbia, 1971)
- Rock Generation Vol. 7 (one side only, 1967 demo recordings) (BYG, 1972)
- Rock Generation Vol. 8 (one side only, 1967 demo recordings) (BYG, 1972)
- Five (Columbia, 1972)
- Six (Columbia, 1973)
- Seven (Columbia, 1973)
- Bundles (Harvest, 1975)
- Softs (Harvest, 1976)
- Rubber Riff (Harvest, 1976)
- At the Beginning (1967 demo recordings previously on Rock Generation records; also issued as Jet-Propelled Photographs) (Charly, 1976)
- Triple Echo (3 record compilation, 1967-1976) (Harvest, 1977)
- Alive & Well: Recorded in Paris (Harvest, 1978)
- Land of Cockayne (EMI, 1981)
- Live at the Proms 1970 (Reckless, 1988)
- The Peel Sessions (recorded 1969-1971) (Strange Fruit, 1991)
- BBC Radio 1 Live in Concert 1971 (Windsong, 1993)
- BBC Radio 1 Live In Concert 1972 (Windsong, 1994)
- Live at the Paradiso 1969 (Voiceprint, 1995)
- Live In France (recorded 1972; also issued as Live in Paris) (One Way, 1995)
- Spaced (recorded 1969) (Cuneiform, 1996)
- Virtually (recorded 1971) (Cuneiform, 1998)
- Noisette (recorded 1970) (Cuneiform, 2000)
- Backwards (recorded 1968-1970) (Cuneiform, 2002)
- Facelift (recorded 1970) (Voiceprint, 2002)
- BBC Radio 1967-1971 (Hux, 2003)
- BBC Radio 1971-1974 (Hux, 2003)
- Somewhere In Soho (recorded 1970) (Voiceprint, 2004)
- Breda Reactor (recorded 1970) (Voiceprint, 2005)
- Out-Bloody-Rageous (compilation, 1967-1973) (Sony, 2005)
- Floating World Live (recorded 1975) (MoonJune Records, 2006)
- Grides (CD/DVD Recorded 1970) (Cuneiform Records, 2006)
- Love Makes Sweet Music/Feelin', Reelin', Squeelin' (Polydor UK, 1968)
- Soft Space Parts 1 & 2 (Harvest UK, 1978)
- Bennett, Graham: Soft Machine: Out-Bloody-Rageous. London: SAF Publishing, 2005. ISBN 0-946719-84-5 Biography
- Soft Machine discography
- Yet another discography
- Collapso - Canterbury Music Family Tree
- hulloder.nl pages dedicated to the Soft Machine - members' discographies and more
- The Soft Machine - A Chronology
- Facelift Magazine - exploring the Canterbury scene and beyond
- Strongcomet: Yet another valuable resource on the Softs
- Lengthy and insightful interview with drummer/singer Robert Wyatt
- Stephen Yarwood's music pages
- Elton Dean - interview for Facelift Magazine
- Soft Machine: Out-Bloody-Rageous biography
- Hugh Hopper site (hosted by Burning Shed) including link to the Hopper Archives
|Daevid Allen | Kevin Ayers | Elton Dean | Hugh Hopper | Mike Ratledge | Robert Wyatt|
|Roy Babbington | John Etheridge | Karl Jenkins | John Marshall|
|Steve Cook | Marc Charig | Lyn Dobson | Nick Evans | Jimmy Hastings | Allan Holdsworth | Brian Hopper | Ric Sanders | Rab Spall | Andy Summers | Alan Wakeman|
|The Soft Machine (1968) | Volume Two (1969) | Third (1970) | Fourth (1971)|
|Five (1972) | Six (1973) | Seven (1973) | Bundles (1975) | Softs (1976) | Alive & Well: Recorded in Paris (1978)|
|Canterbury Sound - Jazz fusion|