Monday, December 16, 2013

the soft machine

The Soft Machine recorded the psychedelic fusion of their seminal debut while on a break from their tour with Jimi Hendrix.  The band formed in 1966 in  Canterbury, England with Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers, Daevid Allen and Mike Ratledge  with American guitarist Larry Nowlin, who left after a few gigs.  Wyatt and Ayers had played together in another band Wild Flowers.  Wyatt waxes on how the band took their name from 'The Soft Machine' by William S. Burroughs:    "The name Soft Machine through Mike. He had books like V, that kind of thing. I knew the name was taken from Burroughs but I don't think it intrigued me enough to get a copy.  Wilde Flowers more or less became Soft Machine. We trickled up to London and then regrouped, one by one. When we came up to London there were two connections: Daevid Allen had the connection with people like Hoppy [John Hopkins, underground impresario and co-founder of the magazine IT and UFO Club]. The other connection was Kevin Ayers, who played bass guitar and wrote songs. He was the only other bloke in Kent with long hair. Kevin Ayers knew The Animals' office, where Hilton Valentine and Chas Chandler were already starting to manage, and they signed us up on the basis of Kevin's songs. They were looking for something commercial. Chas was always looking for Slade, and eventually he found them; meanwhile he had to put up with people like us and Jimi Hendrix. Kevin actually got us a deal and turned us into a group that had a manager and so on. He liked bossa nova and calypso. Ray Davies and The Kinks, who started using stuff like that quite early on, were a big influence on him."

The quartet became a big part of the underground psychedelic music scene along with Pink Floyd and recorded their first single 'Love Makes Sweet Music' in 1967 before embarking on a tour through the south of France that was such a success that they were invited to go on French television.  When it came time to return to England, Allen, an Australian, was not allowed back into the country due to an expired visa.  He stayed in France and started Gong.  Allen considers:   "Being thrown out of the country was exhilarating, liberating, the best thing that could have happened to me."

In 1968, the remaining trio was invited to accompany the Jimi Hendrix Experience on their American tour.  Ratledge recalls:    "In seeking a personal style you plagarise so widely from everybody that you end up with an individual style...We began to get interested in it as a cultural excitement rather than a musical one.  Forming a band was a licence to do whatever you wanted to do and call it something saleable – pop music. Kevin was the only one with a real perspective on pop music when we started...It was like a game at first.  It was something tangential to my life. It certainly wasn't a consuming passion...It all seemed incredibly normal. I certainly didn't feel any disruption or change. I felt I'd been around people like that for most of my teens...I only really started taking it seriously when Daevid left and we were down to a trio.  It was then that I started writing for the band...We couldn't afford a Hammond, which was the authentic article; so I was playing this weedy Lowrey and I wanted to approximate the power that Hendrix had. I got sick of guitarists having all the balls."

They recorded their eponymous first album in April over four days at Record Plant Studios in New York during a break after the first leg of the tour.  'The Soft Machine' was produced by Chas Chandler and Tom Wilson and featured Robert Wyatt on drums and lead vocals; Mike Ratledge on Lowrey Holiday De Luxe organ and piano; and Kevin Ayers on bass, lead vocals, backing vocals, and piano;  with Hugh Hopper on bass, and The Cake on backing vocals.  

Back in England the band brought in guitarist Andy Summers from Dantalian's Chariot for a brief stint; but he was ousted from the band before they rejoined Hendrix for the second leg of the American tour.  Ayers would say at the time:   "Our music is just an extension of what we were fooling around with when we were all living together in Canterbury. It's the way we prefer to spend time, rather than playing cricket or golf. The fact that we are working, earning bread, is kind of accidental. When we play concerts, we don't think about things like pleasing teenyboppers. Our music is different...I guess it's because it isn't based on the blues, really. We kind of stay away from those familiar patterns. That's probably why we haven't made it yet. Managers are only interested in 'can they make money.' I think this tour may have started ours thinking maybe we can. The audience response has been fantastic."

Wyatt reflects on his influences:   "I don’t know. When I open my mouth, I do the best I can. That’s all I can tell you. But compared to the people that inspire me, I know fuck all. And that’s not a choice. That’s why I wonder about the idea of free will.  I think it’s particularly hard for people brought up in the Western individualist tradition to accept the fact that ecstasy comes from losing yourself within something else. The simplest way you can do this is through sex — when you lose yourself in someone else. That contradicts the intellectual tradition of finding yourself. Instead, you surrender yourself and become a voice in the choir, where the choir is going on and you can’t even tell which voice is your voice and which voice is that of the person next to you. That to me is ecstasy. This isn’t something that’s available only to artists, although they may articulate it more expressly. But it’s the same thing that makes advertisers realize why they should do these kitsch little dreamscapes of some kind of pinky, bluey dreamy landscape that adverts are full of... I conquered my fear of what jazz fans would compare white drummers with by watching Keith Moon, who didn’t give a shit. He wasn’t sitting there thinking, “Am I reaching some standard set by somebody else?” Keith freed me from trying to think about standards set by someone else. Moon sustained a kind of momentum on the kit, plus a kind of human uncertainty about what was going to happen next. Which is what I wanted to do with my drumming. So, while I got my inspiration from black drummers, I got my confidence from Keith Moon."

The tour was too much for the group and they broke up after the final show.  Ayers asserts:  "Mike and Robert were far more musically literate than I was, and I think my simplicity bored them.  I met Terry Riley and Gil Evans in New York and I liked all those jazz pieces Daevid and Robert introduced me to, but it was all way beyond my musical comprehension, and I didn't have the interest in playing things in 19/7 just for the sake of it. I never really liked 'fusion music' or whatever it was called, even the slick American stuff. I much preferred the jazz as it was to start with, and rock as it was to start with. Fusion all seemed more fun for the players than the listener. People with virtuoso techniques blasting at each other to see how difficult they could be.  So I took my simplicity elsewhere, and lost this family. Being in a pure spiritual state at that time, clean of body and mind, I wasn't terribly worried. It only hit me later on that I was no longer close to these people."

Wyatt and Ratledge would reform the group in 1969 with Hugh Hopper, who had also been in the Wild Flowers.   'The Soft Machine' never charted; but it went on to influence the next generation of progressive rockers.  The album cover features a pinwheel of gears that could be spun to reveal different images of the band.

Clarence in Wonderland / We Did it Again

"A Certain Kind"

"Save Yourself"


'The Soft Machine' 
full album:

Side one
1. "Hope for Happiness"   Kevin Ayers, Mike Ratledge, Brian Hopper 4:21
2. "Joy of a Toy"   Ayers, Ratledge 2:49
3. "Hope for Happines (Reprise)"   Ayers, Ratledge, B. Hopper 1:38
4. "Why Am I So Short?"   Ratledge, Ayers, Hugh Hopper 1:39
5. "So Boot If At All"   Ayers, Ratledge, Robert Wyatt 7:25
6. "A Certain Kind"   H. Hopper 4:11
Side two
7. "Save Yourself"   Wyatt 2:26
8. "Priscilla"   Ayers, Ratledge, Wyatt 1:03
9. "Lullabye Letter"   Ayers 4:32
10. "We Did It Again"   Ayers 3:46
11. "Plus Belle qu'une Poubelle"   Ayers 1:03
12. "Why Are We Sleeping?"   Ayers, Ratledge, Wyatt 5:30
13. "Box 25/4 Lid"   Ratledge, H. Hopper 0:49

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