Soft Machine

Soft Machine was never a commercial venture and is still unknown to many of their listeners, even those who were born during its peak years in the late ’60s or early ’70s. They were, however, one of the most important bands of their time and one of the most influential underground groups. They were one of the first British psychedelic bands and also played a major role in the development of progressive rock as well as jazz-rock. They were also the foundation of the British “Canterbury Scene”, a family of British progressive rock bands that included Caravan and Gong, Matching Mole and Hatfield, as well as the prominent pop music careers of Robert Wyatt and Kevin Ayers, and the jazz and jazz explorations of Elton Dean and Hugh Hopper. The roots of Soft Machine were not surprising considering their avant-garde and experimental tendencies. Wyatt was a member of the Wilde Flowers in the mid-’60s. They played more traditional pop and soul music than the Canterbury group. Ayers and Hopper, future Soft Machine members, would also pass through Wilde Flowers. Their original material began reflecting an unusual sensibility that was cultivated by their high education and passion for improvised Jazz. Wyatt formed the first Soft Machine lineup in 1966 with Mike Ratledge, bassist/singer Ayers and Daevid Allen, an Australian guitarist. The Soft Machine, together with Pink Floyd, Tomorrow and others, was one of the first underground psychedelic groups in Britain. It quickly gained popularity in the growing London psychedelic scene. Although their first recordings were primarily pop-oriented (many of them only appeared on compilations of 1967 demos), that doesn’t mean they didn’t have experimental elements or were boring. Their early psychedelic outputs were distinguished by their innovative wordplay and complex, unusually (for rock) instrumental interplay. The band only managed to record one single (very good), which was a flop. Allen, who was the oddest member of an eclectic group of characters, had the nerve to quit the band after being refused entry into the U.K. for a period in France. His visa expired. Soft Machine [Volume One] was the first album that the remaining trio recorded for ABC/Probe. It was released in 1968. Their 1967 recordings had many melodic elements and vocal harmonys. Now, they were moving to more difficult, artistic positions that tried — sometimes with success, sometimes not — combine the energy of psychedelic music with the improvisational pulses of jazz. Jimi Hendrix hired the Softs to support his 1968 American tour. This led to long and exhausting stints as a volunteer for the Jimi Hendrix Experience. This led to the Softs being more popular in the U.S. than its homeland. The debut LP was actually only released in the States. Strangely, Soft Machine was a quartet for a few months in 1968 with Andy Summers (the future Police guitarist), but that didn’t last long and soon they were back as a trio. Ayers left the group by 1968 to be replaced by Wyatt and his old friend Hugh Hopper. Volume Two of the ABC/Probe albums (1969) further submerged the band’s pop elements and favored extended jazzy compositions with a decreasing reliance on lyrics or vocals. Ratledge’s buzzy organ, Hopper’s fuzz bass and Wyatt’s pummeling, imaginative drumming, and scat vocals were the mainstays of the band’s music. The material became more whimsical and surrealistic as it was made inaccessible to the mainstream pop/rock audience. They went further with their 1970 double-LP opus Third. This was their first Columbia album. A horn section was added to make it a seven-piece band. The record was virtually devoid of vocals, except for Wyatt’s long “Moon in June” and traditional rock songs. It is considered a landmark both by progressive rock and jazz-rock fans. However, some rock listeners found it too obscure. Third featured Elton Dean’s first appearance on Softs. Dean’s contributions to alto and saxello, Ratledge’s fuzz organ, and Hopper’s fuzz bass would all become the core elements of Soft Machine’s distinctive instrumental sound. Soft Machine could not afford to continue supporting a seven-member line-up, so they reduced it to what some consider “the classic quartet” (ratledge, Wyatt and Hopper) for 1971’s Fourth (also available on Columbia). However, the band was supplemented by several guest musicians, including Roy Babbington who would later become a permanent member. Wyatt was gone by 1971’s end, having briefly led the Matching Mole and then embarking on a long-running solo career. He was following in the footsteps of Kevin Ayers who had already released several solo albums by the early 1970s. Daevid Allen had, on the other hand, become a principal of Gong which was one of the most enigmatic and prominent ’70s progressive bands. This band continued in different forms into the 21st Century. As of 1972, Dean, the saxophonist, was leading the band in a more free-jazz, more improvised style. This led to Phil Howard’s brief appearance as a drummer on the first side (1972 Soft Machine album). John Marshall was chosen to replace Howard by Ratledge and Hopper. Marshall is the drummer on the second side and all subsequent Soft Machine albums. Dean also left by 1973’s Columbia double LP Six (one disc live, and one recorded in the studio), replaced by keyboardist/reedman/composer Karl Jenkins. Hopper would follow, with Babbington taking over as bassist. Ratledge was the last original member of the band by that time (the release 1973’s Seven, Soft Machines final Columbia album, before signing with Harvest). In fact, Marshall, Jenkins, as well as Babbington, were all members of Nucleus. The group was now a strange mix of three-fourths Nucleus (and one-fourth Soft Machine) Ratledge was losing interest in the band’s “fusion years” and Jenkins started to focus more on the keyboards and dropped his reeds in the mid-’70s. Ratledge’s departure became more likely. After leaving the group in 1976, Ratledge was made a “guest” member of the group. The band, now called Soft Machine, had no original members and still produced a decent fusion-oriented album with 1978 Harvest’s Alive and Well: Recorded at Paris. However, it was not as successful as 1981’s Land of Cockayne (featuring Jack Bruce)! The Soft Machine were only Soft Machine in the name of 1994’s Rubber Riff, which was actually a ’70s-era collection of Jenkins library music that was rebranded as Soft Machine. Elton Dean and Hugh Hopper would continue their Soft Machine-related adventures in Soft Heap and Soft Works over the next decades, even though their deaths in 2006 and 2009, respectively, seemed to end the band’s jazz-rock legacy. However, drummer Marshall, guitarist Etheridge and bassist Babbington (all of which appeared on Softs in 1975) could still be heard on the Soft Machine Legacy album Live Adventures. This album was released by MoonJune and featured an abbreviated version Hopper’s “Facelift”, the album’s opening track, from the Softs’ 1970 Columbia double album Third. Many archival recordings from the various Soft Machine incarnations were released through labels like Voiceprint and Cuneiform. from

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