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Soft Machine

Soft Machine was an English rock band from Canterbury, named after the book The Soft Machine by William S. Burroughs. They were one of the central bands in the so-called "Canterbury scene," and helped pioneer the progressive rock genre.

History

Beginnings, Psychedelic, Jazz fusion

The Soft Machine was formed in 1966 by Robert Wyatt (drums, vocals), Kevin Ayers (bass, guitar, vocals), Daevid Allen (guitar) and Mike Ratledge (organ) plus, for the first few gigs only, American guitarist Larry Nowlin. Allen, Wyatt and future bassist Hugh Hopper had played in the Daevid Allen Trio, occasionally accompanied by Ratledge. Wyatt, Ayers and Hopper had been founding members of the Wilde Flowers, later incarnations of which would include 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 subsequently other London clubs like the Speakeasy and Middle Earth, and recorded the group's first single ' Love Makes Sweet Music', as well as some demo sessions that were released several years later. They also played in the Netherlands, Germany and on the French Riviera. During July and August of 1967, the promoter and manager Giorgio Gomelsky booked shows all along the Cote d'Azur with the band's most notorious early gig taking place in the village square of Saint-Tropez. This led to an invitation to perform at producer Eddie Barclay's trendy "Nuit Psychédélique", performing a forty minute rendition of "We Did It Again", singing the refrain over and over, achieving a Zen-like quality. This made them instant darlings of the Parisian "in" crowd, resulting in invitations to appear on leading television shows and at the Paris Biennale in October 1967. Meanwhile, upon their return from their summer sojourn in France, Allen (an Australian) was denied re-entry to the United Kingdom, so the group continued as a trio, while he returned to Paris to found Gong.

Sharing the same management team as Jimi Hendrix, the band were rewarded with a support slot on the Experience's US tours throughout 1968. Soft Machine's first album - a psychedelic rock/proto-prog classic - was recorded in New York in April at the end of the first leg. Back in London, eventual The Police guitarist Andy Summers joined the group, fresh from his stint with Dantalian's Chariot (previously Zoot Money's Big Roll Band). After a few weeks of rehearsals, the new quartet began a tour of the USA with some solo shows before reuniting with Hendrix for a final string of dates in August-September 1968. Summers, however, had in the meantime been fired at the insistence of Ayers. Ayers departed amicably after the final date at the Hollywood Bowl, and for the remainder of 1968 Soft Machine was no more. Wyatt stayed in the US to record solo demos, while Ratledge returned to London and began composing in earnest.

In January 1969, in order to fulfill contractual obligations, Soft Machine reformed with former road manager and composer Hugh Hopper on bass added to Wyatt and Ratledge, and set about recording their second album, Volume Two, which 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. In mid-1969, this lineup (along with Jerry Shirley of Humble Pie) appeared as the uncredited backup band on Syd Barrett's solo debut album, The Madcap Laughs. 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 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, Mark Charig, Jimmy Hastings, Roy Babbington, Rab Spall). Fourth was the first of their fully instrumental albums, and the last one featuring Wyatt.

All members 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 avant-garde 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.

This period saw them gaining unprecedented acclaim across Europe, and they made history by becoming the first 'rock band' invited to play at London's elite Proms in August 1970, a show which was broadcast live and later appeared as a live CD.

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 Fifth (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, another former Nucleus member, who had already contributed with double bass on Fourth and Fifth and took up (6-string) 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. Ratledge, the last remaining original member of the band, had left during the early stages of recording. Other musicians in the band during the later period were bassists Percy Jones (of Brand X) and Steve Cook , saxophonists Alan Wakeman and Ray Warleigh, and violinist Ric Sanders. Their 1977 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, plus Ray Warleigh and Dick Morrissey on saxes and John Taylor on electric piano), and for a final series of dates at London's Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in the summer of 1984, featuring Jenkins and Marshall leading an ad-hoc line-up of Etheridge, Warleigh, pianist Dave MacRae and bassist Paul Carmichael.

Legacy

Since 1988, a wealth of live recordings of Soft Machine have been issued on CD, with recording quality ranging from poor to excellent. In 2002, four former Soft Machine members - Hugh Hopper, Elton Dean, John Marshall and Allan Holdsworth - toured and recorded under the name Soft Works (initially called Soft Ware). From late 2004 onwards, with John Etheridge replacing Holdsworth, they toured and recorded as Soft Machine Legacy. They released three albums: Live in Zaandam (2005), the studio album Soft Machine Legacy (2006) and Live at the New Morning (2006). Although Elton Dean died in February 2006, the band has continued with Theo Travis (formerly of Gong and The Tangent) taking over. In December 2006, the new line-up recorded the album Steam in Jon Hiseman's studio, released by Moonjune Records in August 2007 before a European tour in autumn.

Graham Bennett's Soft Machine biography, Soft Machine: Out-Bloody-Rageous, was published in September 2005. In 2006 the book won an Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research from the Association for Recorded Sound Collections.

Awards

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.

Discography

Studio Albums

Compilations

  • Rubber Riff (CD Recorded 1976) (Blueprint 2001)
  • 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)
  • Rock Generation Vol. 7 (one side only, 1967 demo recordings) (BYG, 1972)
  • Rock Generation Vol. 8 (one side only, 1967 demo recordings) (BYG, 1972)
  • 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; also issued as Soft Machine & Heavy Friends by Hux, 2005)
  • BBC Radio 1 Live In Concert 1972 (Windsong, 1994; also issued as Softstage by Hux, 2005)
  • Live at the Paradiso 1969 (Voiceprint, 1995)
  • Live In France (recorded 1972; also issued as Live in Paris by Cuneiform, 2004) (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)
  • Middle Earth Masters (CD Recorded 1967) (Cuneiform Records, 2006)

Notable Singles

References

Further reading

  • Bennett, Graham: Soft Machine: Out-Bloody-Rageous. London: SAF Publishing, 2005. ISBN 0-946719-84-5 Biography

External links

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