The original Softies, courtesy of The Groovy Times
A Pataphysical Introduction- The Early YearsFor five years or so in the early throws of the love decade, a group of school chums play around southeast England, crafting James Brown, modern classical, free jazz, avant tape loop experiments into fascinating stylistic formations- some of these early rumblings are collected on the recent Man In A Deaf Corner on Trojan Records. Several members of this aggregation form a Canterbury combo called Wilde Flowers, mostly playing hits of the time with the odd Thelonious Monk cover and original thrown in. Eventually, another quartet coalesces with some WF members, first calling themselves Mister Head but soon changing this to The Soft Machine. They stepped into two different London studios in January 1967 and recorded a most astounding, slightly mod single for Polydor records. Their founding membership read like an all-star line-up: bassist/singer Kevin Ayers, drummer/singer Robert Wyatt, keyboardist Mike Ratledge and guitarist/singer/Aussie-refugee Daevid Allen. (Note: guitarist Larry Nolen would soon leave the band and the music business after only a handful of gigs).
by David Cross and David Manning
Today, crazed collectors will scour auctions for the elusive glimpse of the Dutch faux color edition of the record, and it's worth the effort. Those days, they were barely beyond rehearsing in their drummer Robert Wyatt's parent's front room- not bad for a band who would soon rival Pink Floyd as the ultimate house band for the British underground at the time. Consider this first Soft Machine 7" record a tiny pebble skipping across the water that has caused the ripples of Canterbury music still visible. There were some other early rumbles in the cave, but considering set and setting, this little 7" is where Soft Machine switched on. Reissued only once on the 1977 Harvest Triple Echo boxset, it's the flashpoint of a truly massive set of musical associations where echoes are still sounding and new trajectories are being set.
One really has to wonder what planets aligned to make this little record happen. Picture this: the A side of the record was produced by Chas Chandler, ex Animals bass player (who had left that group to manage The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Eire Apparent, Soft Machine and other acts). The flip side of the record was produced by American West Coast rock rebel/gadfly Kim Fowley. The fadeout of "Feelin' Reelin' Squeelin'" was Fowley's production over the screeching feedback Ayers' line "I close my eyes on your soft guitar..." "I really think we really got it right on our first single," Robert Wyatt said in my 1998 Popwatch #10 interview. Contrary to popular rumor, Hendrix does not riff along with the band on this debut though they would supposedly attend numerous recording dates with him otherwise as time went on. However, the single itself only made the so-so sales, putting a slight crimp in the group's plan for stardom.
Undaunted, the sensational quartet of Wyatt, Ayers, Ratledge and Allen went on to play throughout August 1966 to September 1967. They reputation in the English circles is cemented by arduous gigging at universities and clubs. In August 1966, they play a series of gigs at Hamburg's Star Club, which had only a few years earlier been the homestead of a bright young quartet from Liverpool. In October, they appeared with the also-nascent Pink Floyd at the 'All-Night Rave' to commemorate the launching of alternative publications International Times- note the use of the term 'rave,' years before techno latched onto it. This is quite the shindig as Paul McCarntey arrives attired as an Arab and Yoko Ono among others takes the stage also. At other times in their gig itinerary, they also share the stage with a group called Sam Gopal, sporting a young chap that the world would later know as the lovable Lemmy Killmister of Motorhead. In April of 1967, the Softs quartet entered De Lane Lea studios with another producer of some extraordinary credential - Giorgio Gomelsky. Gomelsky, who had previously worked with The Rolling Stones and The Yardbirds, was becoming well known in his business. The Softs recorded nine numbers with him. Questions arrive about the intent on these recordings. The band might have been looking for another single or they may possibly have been seen them as demos for The Animals. On the liners of the 1988 Jet Propeller Photographs LP edition on Decal, Robert Wyatt states they are publisher demos. Other stories abound that the sessions were never actually paid for, hence their then-unreleased status.
On April the 29th, they played The 14 Hour Technicolor Dream at the Alexandra Palace. This was a benefit gig for the police-harassed International Times (IT), and again, they appeared with the Floyd. The Softs were the UFO Club (pronounced You-foe) house band throughout 1967. To top it off, they were about to embark on a two month summer vacation of sorts. Traveling to France, the Softs were performing live music for a production of Pablo Picasso's play Desire Caught By The Tail and other freaky happenings in and around the French seaside locales. Daevid Allen in Sound Collector #5: "We were initially hired to play in that Sci-Fi Disco along the coast from St. Tropez but were soon banned by the authorities and found more interesting gigs. The first was a Brigitte Bardot Party where we played "We Did It Again" for an hour and a quarter." Robert Wyatt: "...mostly we played on a beach, in a big dome -- a temporary structure that was built. A geodesic dome built by Keith Alban, right next to a German beer festival, I remember. That was a bizarre pairing. We had no money, we were just sleeping around on the beach, half time, which you can just about do in the summer at the south of France."
Problems arose those when the band returned to England and Allen wasn't allowed to enter the country, having overstayed his via. Allen stayed on in France, returned to Paris and eventually formed his forever radiating rotating musical space station, Gong. As a result, the UFO club made a change of house bands- the Softs had to be substituted later in the fall by The Pink Floyd. The loss of Allen and the resulting tangles meant that the Floyd would ascend in the UK scene past their rivals, though nowhere near the commercial success that Floyd would taste in the '70's.
Taking a clue from Cream and Hendrix, the Softs decided to go on as a trio, albeit without a guitarist. There is a great video of this line-up of the band shot in black and white from late Summer 1967 shot for the European TV show Hoepla. Kevin Ayers is in top flight with heavy eye makeup and billowing shirt. Wyatt is shirtless and in short pants and the audience is seated on the floor and playing with balloons. There are some light show effects that are amusing if not made even stranger by the lack of color. Indeed, the group would bill itself with Mark Boyle's Sensual Lab, which had become their exclusive light show (something of a novelty at the time). The group would also do a brief European tour where they would meet up with their old mate Daevid Allen in France. There, they receive an award from the Pataphysics Society whose esoteric philosophy/science the band was quite enamored of.
As a trio, from October 1967 to July 1968, Soft Machine went to America with the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The tour was poorly planned- almost four dozen shows were done in the space of two months. Shows were also added after the tour was already in progress. This made moving equipment and personnel seemingly a nightmare. In addition to that, the luck of the exposure to The Jimi Hendrix Experience fans also meant that the "underground" cache that worked so well in London, Paris or NY meant very little in places like Texas. Audiences had never heard of them nor seen anything like it before.
This account of one show came from the Univibes site: "The performance started (naturally) about thirty minutes late. Then, after an introduction by the two San Antonio top-40 disc jockeys (they were booed), the Soft Machine... came on for about a forty minute set which consisted of one tedious and pretentious number that had the audience yelling for Hendrix after ten minutes...." Another somewhat unsympathetic account called them an out-of-tune beat group. Robert Wyatt in Popwatch: "If you are playing in front of an audience of thousands of people who are perhaps waiting for the greatest rock performer of all time (laughs), they get really impatient with you unless you really come up with something!" After a couple of shows with Hendrix what did they come up with? Turning up the volume. "Oh yeah. It got very loud, yeah," says Wyatt. And get on with it they did.
For the tour, they recruited school friend Hugh Hopper to roadie and drive. Hendrix also had just one roadie. "Really was just the two of us to drive, set up and break down. At first there wasn't much gear and it was shared by both bands, but then Sunn gave Jimi a backline that sounded great but doubled our workload, and various friendly manufacturers donated more and more PA equipment," said Hugh Hopper in a recent interview with me.
Hopper actually figures very highly in the history of the Softs beyond carrying around their amps. Not only was a member of the pre-Softs band Wilde Flowers (which also included Wyatt and Ayers) but he also wrote a number of songs that would become part of the Softs' early repertoire and would become a member of the band himself in late '68.
At the end of the grueling tour, the Soft Machine (Probe CPLP 4500) LP was quickly recorded in four days at Record Plant, NY. "We had supposedly one of the best producers around, Tom Wilson, who just sat there and phoned his girlfriends all day long and talked hip spade jive to the engineer. That's all he did." - Kevin Ayers from Pete Frame's 1977 Soft Machine Family Tree. The debut LP was not released in the UK but was imported and did fairly well in the U.S. because of the exposure and notoriety of the tour.
The first LP opens with the bluesy, doppelganger double-track of two of Wyatt's voices careening along with each other. The record quickly lifts off to the combination of heavy rhythm and loud organ distortion of "Hope for Happiness" and doesn't stop until the end of the side. The band plays with dada and beat literary influences; this should only be obvious given the now departed Daevid Allen had called William S. Burroughs for permission to use the bizarre cut-up novel title as the band's name. Mike Ratledge provides as much distortion & dissonance on the album as anything Lou Reed was doing at the time. This goes for tracks the band recorded earlier on for the BBC like "Strangest Scene" and later like "Instant Pussy" too. The band's interest in repetition is well represented on the LP with "We Did It Again": monolithically repeating riff and title and nothing much else, stretching it over three minutes of vinyl.
Besides the LP there are a couple great recordings made in America by drummer Robert Wyatt while out on the west coast at TTG studio. One actually features Jimi Hendrix on bass on a fine reading of a more blues based number called "Slow Walking Talk" (on Flotsam/Jetsam, Rough Trade R3112). One shudders to think of what else Wyatt and Hendrix could have come up with given a little more time - this is a great little tune. Also appearing thanks to the fantastic and fascinating restoration work of Mike King is the first demo of Robert Wyatt's "Moon in June" (on Backwards, Cuneiform). Already a work of stunning beauty as it was in progress in October 1968, and more than a year before it was actually recorded by the band on the Third LP, where it becomes a high watermark of English pop music.
A second U.S. tour was haphazardly thrown together with Hendrix in the summer of '68 with some two dozens dates covering the span of the country. At this time, they recruited guitarist Andy Summers (later in the Police) though he didn't last long in the band as he and Ayers didn't get along well.
Sadly, the relentless pace of the tour and its poor planning eventually took a toll on some involved. Kevin Ayers (again from Pete Frame) "Mike and I used to go around banging on the doors shouting 'I'm cracking up, I'm cracking up'." The drudgery of being carted around to one hotel after another was balanced by the debauchery. Ayers was the next one to leave the band: interestingly enough, he got rid of his bass just as his soon-to-be replacement Hugh Hopper done at the time also. As the tour came to an end, Ayers found his way to Spain. Ratledge made his way back to England, eventually becoming the only constant member of the band throughout its history. Meanwhile, Wyatt stayed in California where the tour ended for some sessions noted above as well as dates with guitarist Larry Coryell and the Animals.
The Velvet Underground comparison could be a good one for explaining the band's continuing musical influence in Europe. While the first album wasn't released in England, the band's reputation was built on the band's live shows. And like everybody who was a VU fan who went out and started a band, seemly everyone who was a Softs fan went out and started a band too. Beyond a startlingly convergent literary/art, fan-base and aural developments, the bands had few trajectories.
And to think that this was only the beginning for the Softs...
For your pleasure, just recently appearing is an amazing online Soft Machine timeline assembled by Vernon Fitch.
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