Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Julian Cope’s Album of the Month

Early Soft Machine (1966-68)

Early Soft Machine (1966-68)


AOTM #120, May 2010ce
PHASE 1 – 1967
  1. I Should Have Known (7.29)
  2. Feelin’ Reelin’ Squealin’ (2.51)
  3. Memories (2.58)
  4. Love Makes Sweet Music (2.31)
  5. She’s Gone (2.27)
  6. We Know What You Mean (3.09)
PHASE 2 – 1968
  1. A Certain Kind (4.14)
  2. Why Am I So Short?/So Boot if at all (9.02)
  3. Lullabye Letter (4.42)
  4. We Did It Again (3.46)
  5. Plus Belle Qu’un Poubelle (1.01)
  6. Why Are We Sleeping? (5.32)


Note: This review is dedicated to my darling daughter Avalon – just turned 16 – whose higher appreciation for all things K. Ayers-related threw up the need for this Album of the Month.

Note 2: As a big fan of THE SOFT MACHINE debut LP, I was initially tempted to proffer that whole record as Album of the Month. Instead, however, I’ve picked only my very fave raves from the debut, inserting them all into ‘Phase 2 – 1968’. I’ve dedicated ‘Phase 1 – 1967’ to the band’s debut 45 (‘Love Makes Sweet Music’ b/w ‘Feelin’ Reelin’ Squealin’), interspersed with the quartet’s two most successful Giorgio Gomelsky demos (‘I Should Have Known’ and ‘Memories’) plus an unreleased B-side from ’67 (‘She’s Gone’) and one BBC Top Gear session from September ’67 (‘We Know What You Mean’). Ta muchly, JULIAN



Repping the Intuitive Non-Career Mover

Kevin Ayers, Robert Wyatt, Mike Ratledge and Daevid Allen, 1967

Recorded in the seventeen short months between December ’66 and April ’68, the intensely psychedelic music contained within this Album of the Month displays such a rush & roar of Mithraic fire, such a manic intensity of youthful ardour, and such a burning desire to capture the spirit of Right Now that, despite having been recorded in umpteen different studios and with four very different (and highly successful) producers – Giorgio Gomelsky produced the Yardbirds’ hits, Chas Chandler produced Jimi Hendrix’s ARE YOU EXPERIENCED, Tom Wilson produced the Velvet Underground and the Mothers of Invention, Kim Fowley produced everyone – nevertheless, on these early recordings it is still only the extraordinary sound of the Soft Machine that ever shines through… that and the excellence of their self-written songs, of course. Back then, in the heaving & heady days of 1967, the Soft Machine’s forever-bare-chested singing drummer Robert Wyatt was a brazen & burning warrior elf with a dulcet tone like Dion Warwick and a splatter-clatter drumstyle unlike any outside the jazz scene, whilst the band’s leather-coated organist, the Norman six+ footer Mike Ratledge, evinced a keyboard sound close to the Animals’ Alan Price… but with wings. On guitar and several years older than the rest of them was the band’s mentor, the Australian beatnik poet (and future Gong founder) Daevid Allen, whose days in Paris had led him to novelist William S. Burroughs, from whose 1961 novel the Soft Machine took their name. But the band’s two high aces were undoubtedly their songwriters, singer/bassist Kevin Ayers and roadie Hugh Hopper, who’d played bass in Robert Wyatt’s earlier band The Wildeflowers. His hair receding by his early 20s, with buck-teeth and ugly as sin, Hugh Hopper nevertheless wrote poetic and desperately aching, lonely songs that the R&B obsessed Wyatt could deliver with heart-rending sincerity. In stark comparison to Hopper, the occasionally face-painted Kevin Ayers was a beautiful and beguiling psychedelicized Hans Christian Andersen figure, a Pie-eyed Piper with a flair for writing archetypally great Sandozian pop songs (check out ‘We Know What You Mean’ and ‘She’s Gone’ included herein), or intoning, nay, doxologizing lead vocals in a register deeper than Lee Marvin, and deploying – from his archaic-looking Gibson EB2 – a Molto-munting semi-acoustic bass sound even more radical than that of Jefferson Airplane’s Jack Cassady’s always-overloden (and equally archaic-looking [even to us back then, U-kiddies]) Epiphone semi-acoustic.

‘Love Makes Sweet Music’ 45

In September ’66, having followed Daevid Allen’s international beat connections from cloistered Canterbury up to London, the Soft Machine found themselves performing at one of the Marquee Club’s earliest Spontaneous Underground performances, soon afterwards being invited to share the stage of Tottenham Court Road’s UFO Club with Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd. It was in this fertile and lysergic atmosphere of experimentation that the Soft Machine rose to the challenge of re-arranging and deconstructing all the best songs that Hugh Hopper and Kevin Ayers could heave at them. Producers flocked to produce the band’s debut 7” single, but it was sleazoid LA scumbag Kim Fowley who dragged them through the portals of CBS Studios and successfully transformed Kevin Ayers’ darkly monstrous and highly experimental ‘Feelin’ Reelin’ Squealin’’ – a real Ayers vocal and bass tour de force – into a veritable Boris-the-Spider-thon. Displaying typical Fowley overkill, the producer emphasized the doomy discord of Ayers’ lyrical bombinations by layering the super sweet choruses extra-saccharine harmony vocals from Daevid Allen and Robert Wyatt, then undermining the entire song with an almost musique concrète approach to its bizarre instrumental section of piano-and-flute cut-ups, all achieved in a manner guaranteed totally to blow the band’s collective mind. Daevid Allen later commented:
“The thing about Kim Fowley was, he was a complete codeine freak. So he never stopped talking. But secondly, he astonished everybody by taking the 8-track master tape and cutting; splicing the eight-track master tape, which nobody had ever seen done (laughs). It was really wild to make "Feelin', Reelin', Squealin'." So [Fowley] made these huge massive splices right across all of the 8-track… if you fuck it up, that's it, that's the end of the master.”[1]

Believing Fowley’s recording of ‘Feelin’ Reelin’ Squealin’’ to be an excellent B-side but just too uncommercial for the single, the band next – just one month later – entered London’s Advision Studios with Jimi Hendrix’s producer Chas Chandler, who’d chosen for the prospective A-side another highly catchy Kevin Ayers song ‘Love Makes Sweet Music’, with Robert Wyatt as lead singer. This time the delightful results were picked up for a one-off record deal by Polydor Records, who released both tracks in February ’67, a full month before Pink Floyd’s own 45 debut ‘Arnold Layne’. Unfortunately, despite mucho airplay from John Peel and Radio Caroline, ‘Love Makes Sweet Music’ totally failed to chart. The band was nonplussed. To the fascinated media, the Soft Machine were – alongside Pink Floyd – considered to be co-heralds of the so-called Psychedelic Underground. And yet, with no long-term record deal forthcoming, no money could be made available to them for recording a debut LP. Refusing to appear discouraged, the band now entered London’s De Lane Lea Studios with Yardbirds producer Giorgio Gomelsky with the sole intention of creating a demo with which to sell themselves to a record company. Unfortunately, Gomelsky’s De Lane Lea sessions were haphazardly prepared and the results extremely patchy: the incredible clatter of R. Wyatt’s drums being lost in the colossal reverb of the studio, the sinewy Stylophonic Ratledge organ oft reduced to nowt but a distant chordal pad, Daevid Allen’s guitar too often merely perfunctory, and the molto-hefty Ayers bass merely dancing around the head of the listener, rarely landing a truly sonic KO. Inappropriately, time that should have been better spent on new songs by Kevin Ayers and Hugh Hopper was instead forfeited on a couple of Robert Wyatt’s oldest, most jazzy mid-60s songs (’You Don’t Remember’, ‘That’s How Much I Need You Now’), which here in Spring ’67now sounded merely anachronistic. Despite all of this, a wonderful version of H. Hopper’s magnificent ‘Memories’ was committed to tape replete with D. Allen’s moody signature blues lines, as was a stupendous 7-minute burn-up of Hopper’s “I Should’ve Known’, today perhaps the only recorded evidence of Daevid Allen’s guitar genius during his entire time in the band.

The trio in Dulwich Park, London, 1967

In late April, the Soft Machine joined the Move, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, the Flies, the Deviants and the Floyd at Alexandra Palace for the now-legendary all nighter THE 14-HOUR TECHNICOLOUR DREAM,[2] but their recordings with Gomelsky had clearly come to nothing. In June, two new recordings of Hugh Hopper’s songs ‘She’s Gone’ and ‘I Should’ve Known’ were recorded for a possible second Polydor single, but no offer was to be forthcoming. Without a record deal, the summer was spent jamming almost unpaid at various happenings throughout France. However, disaster struck on August 24th when, on returning to the UK, Daevid Allen was refused re-entry for having previously overstayed his visa stipulation. Continuing as a trio, Ayers, Ratledge & Wyatt made several European TV appearances throughout the autumn, also making their first trio studio recordings for the BBC’s Top Gear, before joining the Who, Eric Burdon, Tomorrow, Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix at London’s Olympia for December 67’s CHRISTMAS ON EARTH RE-VISITED. And it was here that Jimi Hendrix’ managers, Chas Chandler and Mike Jeffrey, offered the flagging band a management contract plus the support slot on Jimi Hendrix’s forthcoming US tour. Touring with Hendrix throughout February and March ’68, the trio honed down their songs into such immaculately-performed jewels of turbo-charged performance that they (at last) secured a record deal with ABC Records, who booked the band recording time at New York’s Record Plant Studios, to be overseen by Velvets/Mothers of Invention producer Tom Wilson. At last, at long long last, the Soft Machine received their belated opportunity to create a worthy LP statement and the results were spectacular. Gone was the lumpen chord work which had pervaded the weaker performances of the original quartet, replaced instead by a sound of extraordinary economy. Where once both Daevid Allen and Mike Ratledge had been content to punctuate the sound with stabs and sweating chords, now Ratledge entirely backed off, forfeiting his chordal organ washes for the sweet harmony vocals of Ayers and Wyatt. Where the quartet’s guitars and organ had previously drizzled sound across the entire rhythm section, now vast sonic spaces appeared that teased out every drum roll, every atonal freakout, every overdriven proto-Lemmy bass chord that Kevin Ayers thrummed out of his big semi-acoustic bass. More importantly, despite its re-write this self-titled trio album was a masterful exercise in jagged futuristic song experiments, songs such as the expansive & exhilarating ‘Lullabye Letter’ and ‘Why Are We Sleeping?’, radically confident garage soul songs quite unlike the cocktail jazz-tinged psychedelic R&B soul hybrid of just one year earlier. Despite its excellence, however, THE SOFT MACHINE was also far too little and far too late. Further held up until November ’68 for its US release, THE SOFT MACHINE would not even gain its own UK release until the 1970s. Exhausted by their seemingly endless US tour and unable to control his naturally hedonistic ways,[3] Kevin Ayers quit the band to pursue a solo career. Their psychedelic beginnings clearly over, roadie H. Hopper now laid to rest his years of superb songwriting and replaced Ayers on bass, joining Mike Ratledge on his curious quest to turn the Soft Machine into a pure jazz rock ensemble.

Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt on Belgian TV, 1967

In Conclusion

So listen now to this Album of the Month and think of what might have been.
With the plethora of hip producers already involved in creating the early Soft Machine canon, I’ve often fantasised how great the band’s debut LP could have been had strung-out soul visionary Guy Stevens been hired as their producer in late 1966. With their R&B and soul fixations, perhaps Messrs. Ayers, Allen, Ratledge & Wyatt would have followed the Hapshash & the Coloured Coat trajectory and delivered us a stylish & freeform psychedelic soul debut LP on the Minit Records label. I know it’s daydreaming, but let me daydream. Music this adventurous should make its listeners daydream. Furthermore, just take one final look at the sheer Visionary breadth of musical and songwriting talent (barely) contained within the ranks of the early Soft Machine and try NOT to gasp at the possibilities and potential of what more coulda been.


Footnotes:

  1. Daevid Allen interview with Richie Unterberger.
  2. Former anarchist and Deviants singer Mick Farren, commenting on the backstage arrangements at the legendary psychedelic event THE 14-HOUR TECHNICOLOUR DREAM that many of the members of even the supposedly most illuminated and experimental of bands exhibited a disturbing ‘brown ale consciousness’.
  3. In the same interview with Richie Unterberger, Daevid Allen remarked of Kevin Ayers: “I've never seen anybody take so much alcohol, so much damage. It would kill anybody else. I've never seen anyone drink like him. He's got an extraordinary ability to drink, and an extraordinary ability to rejuvenate himself. He goes right to the edge, and then he goes swimming and runs around for a week and then comes out and starts again. I've never seen such an extraordinary level of ability to drink so much, and get away with it. He's gotten away with amazing amounts of stimuli. He really put it away.”