The Soft Machine

Released 1968 on Command/Probe
The Seth Man, March 2004ce
One would think that at the conclusion of a major tour of extraordinary length in a foreign land would be the most inopportune time for a band to record a debut album: frayed nerves, tapped inner reserves, patience in short supply and that’s only if they weren’t terminally exhausted or homesick. But the Soft Machine got right down to it and stormed through at top strength what was in all probability the set list of their tour, one of countless factors that make the first Soft Machine album so weird and fantastic. And then there’s the moveable parts sleeve design that was a fantastically timed pop art statement and a beautiful sleeve to boot...if at all.

Recorded live in the studio, scant overdubbing did nothing to stem the tide of its rolling rhythmic sense of harsh discordances, sweet melodies and soulful, natural vocalising “The Soft Machine” was recorded eight months after itinerant Australian guitarist and founding member Daevid Allen was denied re-entry into England leaving the remaining trio comprised of Robert Wyatt (drums and vocals), Michael Ratledge (organ) and Kevin Ayers (bass and vocals.) Once the album was completed but prior to its release, there was a brief tenure as a four piece unit with ex-Dantalion’s Chariot guitarist Andy Summers in tow.

Recorded over four days after completion of their nine week American tour with The Jimi Hendrix Experience, what they set down were thirteen tracks that but for a brief break midway through side one and both sides’ conclusions, ran together as a continuous live performance that sounded as freewheelin’ perfect as poetry, explosively driven and fuckingly avant-garde with a clue. Inauspiciously, it was released on the American Command/Probe label and never saw a contemporaneous English release (possibly because there was no viable band at hand to promote it, as Ayers had already departed to Ibiza for an extended period after handing off his hollow-bodied, F-holed bass to Mitch Mitchell. This redoubtable bass of unique quality of tone and wood would reappear on Jimi Hendrix’s “Electric Ladyland” album the following year.)

The trio had tightened itself up and propelled headlong through explorations that encompassed and reinvented earlier material into far looser terrain that remained focused and alert at all times with its pop element intact and seamlessly incorporated into improvisational and purposeful ensemble spontaneity that was topped to the hilt with all manner of phrasings that free-flowed into instrumental plateaus, discordant freaking, timings that swung and wrung themselves dry while the breathless vocal musings of Robert Wyatt kept the clatter and din of his well-placed drumming sweetly at bay. Various elements of the album are treated sparingly with echo, tape effects and a sprinkling of stereo panning though always at specifically perfect junctures. So much so that when Wyatt’s yearning and whispery vocals enter for the first time, his manner of repeating words and segments of sentences are naturally dub echo chamber when in fact they’re sung in real time, as his overdubbed harmony vocal soothes everything into a truly ethereal day-dream-time while his drumming defines everything ALL AT ONCE. The intensely overdriven organ of Michael Ratledge is wielded so harmonically distorted with stabbed out embankments that the outcome is truly fuckingly punk for all his mathematically inclined touches that constantly shift between extremes consistently on cue. Ayers’ driven F-hole, hollow (and full-) bodied bass playing groaningly drives countless moments of the album down to its knees and up again.

“The Soft Machine” is a roller coaster ride of such depth, it’s nearly impossible to describe at any length, except to say that it opens with slippery echoed sparse drums into the full gale force sandwiching that is “Hope For Happiness” / “Joy Of A Toy” / “Hope For Happiness (Reprise)” and according to the liner notes by Arnold Shaw, “the track of ‘Joy Of A Toy’ tells it like it is!” But according to me it’s as though every idea they ever had was poured into one track two sizes too small, and since their inspiration was so jacked up, it came so fast and furious it spread and oozed out into a second separate track and then into my mind. Forever. Which suits me fine, because this is the only Soft Machine album I own and frankly, I’m a sick boy who needs it. I’ve spent wads of cash in my time on albums of Rock Music but I don’t even think any of it was a waste: ‘Specially when the payoff is as bright, bold, beautiful, and breathes some much life into me when I play it on a whim for the first time in eons like this one. “Why Am I So Short?” / “So Boot If At All” begins and ends with the Wyatt-sung line, “You may laugh at me” and in between them is a quickly paced blow out of furiousness with so many twists and turns I always lose track of what’s going on even though The Softs definitely do not: A stereo-panned drum solo, echoed and backward piano tinklings smears across the background keeping the melody despite all the tearing away by the electronic studio effects, the band and Ayers’ explosive bass’s all a whirl until Ratledge switches gear into the gentlest tones he’ll apply to the album with the celestial opening of “A Certain Kind.” Written by Soft Machine roadie/future Soft Machine bassist Hugh Hopper, it’s a sweet, beautiful love hymn from the heart that towers on high akin to Zeppelin’s “Thank You.”

Side two busts down the door with the entry of “Save Yourself,” a track The Soft Machine had demoed it the previous year and it didn’t sound nearly as vicious as it does here: what with the dangerously mono-fingered stentorian blasts from Ratledge’s fuzz-organ and background skittering riffing down the keyboard slipping occasionally into psychedelic au-go-go tones that get quickly swapped back and forth quickly with other more complex riffs that you know he’s conscious of the clichés they are. Ratledge soon slips into near Rick Wright keyboard tones of “More” vintage for the brief instrumental “Priscilla.” This then quickly links via a tremendous bass rumble shot through a funnel tunnel and down, down into Kevin Ayers’ “Lullabye Letter” with Wyatt on vocals, Ayers on rumbling F-hole/hollow bodied bass frequencies as Ratledge gives it primo blaring “Louie, Louie”-ness with sharp, precise accenting then switching to playing his two tiered organphonics through a horribly strangulated fuzz-wah pedal. This then soon implodes into a middle free-form bridge with thousands of tiny, sharp needles from the multi-fingered Ratledge organ, who make it more and more horribly distorted with each interval. Soon, it breaks down with tinny distortions and into squealin’, direct express connection to the retarded Kinks from hell exhaustive exercise, “We Did It Again.” Kevin Ayers wrote the lyrics and performed the bass amp shaking four-stringed assault while Wyatt sings the title repeated for three minutes as the sole lyrics and all to the tune of “You Really Got Me.” It’s disorienting in its breath-controlled manner, and they don’t come up for air for a long, long, time. Ratledge’s shearing organ starts sneaking up from behind, amassing like a dark cloud on the distant horizon and then it’s suddenly hovering directly above. Ayers adds to the vocal dum-dum mantra, handclaps while Wyatt restrains himself to the snare in a beautiful way. Slowly it breaks down and into the foghorn organ theme of “Plus Belle Qu’Une Poubelle” (“More Beautiful Than A Dustbin”) that then regroups into the main theme of Ayers’ “Why Are We Sleeping?” which sees him finally taking the vocal spot. Poignant and reflective, it ends on a note of undying personal resolve that is uplifting. “Box 25/4 Lid” is an unquiet vignette with no beginning, ending or any resolution whatsoever: composed for piano and growling bass, it’s probably where Deep Purple lifted the opening riff for “Space Truckin’.”