Soft Machine

Released 1970 on Columbia
Reviewed by Mindos, 29/10/2002ce

1. Facelift
2. Slightly all the Time
3. Moon in June
4. Out-Bloody-Rageous

Soft Machine was formed in 1966 by Robert Wyatt, Mike Ratledge, Kevin Ayers and Daevid Allen. They became the darlings of the London Underground Scene - playing at the likes of the UFO club and The Roundhouse. Around this time, their music was a mixture of psychedelic pop, interspersed with instrumental wanderings and surreal lyrics provided by singing drummer Robert Wyatt.

After a gig in St.Tropez, Daevid Allen was refused entry back into the UK. Allen decided to stay in France where he formed Gong. The others stayed together and became a trio. Then in 1968, a burned out Kevin Ayers decided to leave after a long tour of the States (his only contribution to their recorded work was the debut album Soft Machine 1) The rest of the band almost split, but after a break, and recruiting their bass-playing roadie Hugh Hopper, they made Soft Machine 2. This album was more jazz orientated and envolved a brass section which included Elton Dean, who would stay on a full time basis for the next 2 years.

So after two psychedelic pop albums, Soft Machine decided to take themselves seriously and move into a pure jazzy direction, which leads us to ‘Third’ the bands next album (a progtastic double!)

“Third” has four side long compositions, each weighing in at around 18 minutes each. More complex than before, and now mostly instrumental, the Softs shift dynamics between dirty feedbacks courtesy of Mike Ratledge's Lowry Organ, to gorgeous flute melodies.

A lot of people complain that the recording is pretty poor for a studio album, and I tend to agree. I think all the Soft Machine albums deserve a proper re-release - remastered and wotnot. But despite the poor sound quality of “Third”, it is a classic unsung bonanza!

The first track "Facelift" was recorded live, it starts with a drone from Ratledge’s keyboards, then builds into kind of lazy free-for-all, with the horns, and ambling bass jostling for position, this lasts for around 5 minutes and then it kicks in with Hugh Hopper's fuzz bass which propels the music along. Beautiful. 10 minutes in, it slows to a quiet ambiance which allows Hopper to come to the fore as he lays down a hypnotic bass line, Elton Dean blows a mean alto throughout, and the whole thing cascades into backward tape loops and fades.

"Slightly all the Time" follows. Hopper begins with some wonderful bass harmonics, leaving Dean to produce a gorgeous alto and saxello theme, which is rich and expressive. A flute solo floats into the mix as the theme changes, and Wyatt punches out a rhythm on his hi-hats and kick drum. The track comes to a tempestuous end, with all instruments coming first in musical race.

"Moon in June" is the only track with singing. Wyatt lisps his way through a jaunty melody for the first half, and the second part is more of a jazz tinged freak-out on keyboards and scattershot drums. It then expires in a cacophony, that slowly reverberates with Ratlege’s keyboards . I guess you either love or hate Wyatt’s voice - it’s a thin and wispy trill, but I love it! One of my mates, upon hearing Wyatt’s singing on this track threatened to throw my cd out of the window if I didn’t turn it off, a bit harsh I thought! There is a version of this track that the Softs recorded for John Peel’s late 60’s radio show “Top Gear”. The lyrics are totally different to the original, and funny too! They we’re put together at the last minute, and pretty much describe how they are now able to play “longer tunes” and that “there’s a tea machine just along the corridor”. Real fine.

Which leads us to "Out-Bloody-Rageous" the last track. It starts with a multi-layered organ with backward loops, building up and up, until it breaks into jazz belter with horns hooting out a kinda bemused babble that Zappa would be proud of.

By this time, Wyatt was started grow tired of the purely instrumental sound the band had. He had to struggle to get “Moon in June” on the album. The rest of the band only played on the second half of the song, while Wyatt played keyboards and bass for the first half!

Wyatt left in 1971 and formed “Matching Mole” which was a pun on the French pronunciation of Soft Machine: "La Machine Moll”.

After that, the Softs became a standard jazz fusion band and members came and went as fast as their complex time signatures. Elton Dean soon left to be replaced by Karl Jenkins. Then Hugh Hopper soon after. Mike Ratledge became the only original member! He hung his coat up in 1976.

The Softs struggled on for a couple more years, with guitarist Allan Holdworth, but then it was all widdly wank.

“Third” is a top album, and it’s only £7.99 on Amazon!

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