Soft Machine enjoyed two distinct phases in its relatively long existence. The band first emerged in the late 1960s as the most distinctive and original of the “Canterbury school” of progressive rock and became one of the pioneering British psychedelic groups. The band then morphed into a jazz-rock fusion act that, despite incessant personnel changes, continued to produce albums until the early 1990s. Though commercially unsuccessful and largely unknown, Soft Machine retains cult status as one of the most influential and intellectual underground bands of the late 1960s and is noteworthy for having launched the solo careers of founding members Robert Wyatt and Kevin Ayers.
Soft Machine’s roots extend back to the Wilde Flowers, a band formed in 1963 by a loose conglomerate of precocious friends who enjoyed literature, improvisation, and the jazz recordings of Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, and Cecil Taylor. Drummer Robert Wyatt, keyboardist Mike Ratledge, bassist Hugh Hopper, and guitarist David Sinclair all met at the Simon Langton School in Canterbury and frequently jammed at the home of Wyatt’s mother, a writer and deejay who introduced her son to jazz. The Wilde Flowers existed
Members include Daevid Allen (left group,1967), guitar, vocals; Kevin Ayers (left group, 1968), guitar, bass, vocals; Roy Babbington (group member, 1973-78), guitar; Jack Bruce (group member, 1980-81), bass; Marc Charig (group member, 1970-71), trumpet; Steve Cook (group member, 1978-80), bass; Elton Dean (group member, 1970-73), saxophone; Lyn Dobson (group member, 1970-71), flute, saxophone; John Etheridge (group member, 1976-80), guitar; Nick Evans (group member, 1970), trombone; Alan Holdsworth (group member, 1975), guitar; Hugh Hopperr (band member 1968-73), bass; Phil Howard (group member, 1972), drums; Karl Jenkins (joined group, 1973), saxophone, keyboards; John Marshall (joined group, 1972), drums; Dick Morisey (group member, 1980-81), saxophone; Larry Nolan (group member, 1967), guitar; Alan Parker (group member, 1980-81), guitar; Mike Ratledge (left group, 1976), keyboards; Rob Spall (group member, 1970-71), violin; Alan Wakeman (group member, 1976-81), saxophone; Robert Wyatt (left group, 1972), drums, vocals.
Group formed in Canterbury, England, c. 1965; released debut album, The Soft Machine, on Probe Records, 1968; recorded for Columbia Records, c. 1969-73; recorded for Harvest Records, c. 1975-78; recorded for EMI Records, 1980; disbanded, c. 1981; regrouped, c. 1984; disbanded, c. 1990.
in various lineups through 1965, when Wyatt enrolled in the Canterbury College of Art. He soon dropped out to travel in Europe, where he met beatnik guitarist Daevid Allen. The two returned to England shortly thereafter and, with guitarist Kevin Ayers, resurrected the Wilde Flowers. Ratledge, who had left the band earlier to earn degrees at Oxford University in psychology and philosophy, rejoined when he applied too late for a university grant to study poetry in the United States. Hopper left with Sinclair to form Caravan, another flagship band of the Canterbury school. Wyatt, Ratledge, Ayers and Allen remained and rechristened the band Soft Machine (after the William Burroughs novel of the same name). The band reportedly telephoned Burroughs in Paris to obtain his permission.
The music produced by the first incarnation of Soft Machine was somewhat pop oriented but largely experimental, relying on free-flowing, jazz-based improvisations and whimsical lyrics inspired in part by Alfred Jarry, a nineteenth-century French playwright and absurdist. The band first gained attention in 1966 as part of the London underground psychedelic rock movement, playing gigs at the UFO Club along with other pioneering psychedelic acts like the Pink Floyd and Tomorrow.
Most of the band’s earliest recordings were not released until the mid-1970s; its one and only single, “Love Makes Sweet Music” backed by “Feelin’ Reelin’ Squealin,” was a flop. Considered too radical to be commercially successful, the band moved to the south of France in 1967, where it gained notoriety for performing at Jean-Jacques Libel’s Festival Libre in St. Tropez following performances of Pablo Picasso’s play Desiré attrapé par la queue. When the group returned to England in late 1967, Allen was forced to remain due to visa problems. He stayed behind in France where he formed the band Gong.
Soft Machine continued as a trio and was hired to open for the Jimi Hendrix Experience during its 1968 American tour. During a stop in New York City, the band made its first album in a four-day recording session. This self-titled effort, released only in the United States, was an unorthodox recording that blended Wyatt’s raspy vocals and intricate time signatures, Ratledge’s frenzied keyboard solos tempered by a classical sensibility, and Ayers’ odd lyrical contributions. In “We Did It Again,” Ayers sang those words over and over in his basso profundo voice for three minutes and 46 seconds.
Though well received by the critics, The Soft Machine’s mixture of psychedelic rock, jazz, and intellectualism only reached 160 on the charts. Part of the problem in gaining an audience was the difficulty in categorizing the group’s sound. “The Soft Machine is not part of anybody’s musical establishment,” wrote Down Beat’s Mike Zwerin. “The jazz establishment will not accept it because of the rock format, instrumentation, and appearance. At the same time it is not commercial enough for the pop world… ‘serious’ musicians right now don’t consider this sort of thing legitimate.”
Of his own music, Wyatt later told the International Herald Tribune: “I’m not even sure what culture I’m in: rock or jazz. My head is fullof jazz but that’s not quite the whole story. I’m not a rock musician; I can’t work off power chords.” Ayers concurred, noting that Soft Machine had no desire to cater to any particular audience. “Our music is just an extension of what we were fooling around with when we were all living together in Canterbury,” he told Down Beat. “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 teeny-boppers. Our music is different.”
Exhausted and disillusioned by the long grind of a major tour, Ayers left the band for Majorca, a small island off the coast of Spain, where he began his solo career. Hopper, who had been acting as the band’s road manager, joined once again as Ayers’ replacement. The group disbanded briefly but re-formed under pressure from its record company to record Volume Two, an album further relying on extended jazz-like improvisational suites and Wyatt’s scat vocals. “A Concise British Alphabet,” in which Wyatt recited the alphabet both forwards and backwards, reflected the band’s surrealistic and quirky tendencies. “As Long As He Lies Perfectly Still” was written as a tribute to Ayers.
The band went further into jazz with its next release, a double album titled Third. For this recording the band expanded to seven members by adding a horn section from Keith Tippett’s Centipede Orchestra. Third consisted of four side-long compositions and completely did away with vocals save for Wyatt’s acclaimed “Moon in June,” the group’s final vocal offering. While praised by critics and historians alike as a landmark progressive rock and jazz-rock recording, Third sold only moderately, and Soft Machine became even less accessible to listeners.
Soft Machine scaled back to a four-man lineup, retaining saxophone player Elton Dean for Fourth, an uninspired effort. Wyatt felt increasingly disenchanted with the band and left in 1972 to form the group Matching Mole (machine molle is French for “soft machine”). Wyatt’s band recorded a pair of albums before he launched an active solo career. In 1975 he fell three stories from a window and was paralyzed from the waist down, forcing him to turn from drums to keyboards.
Ratledge, Hopper, and Dean recruited members from other bands to record Fifth, but Wyatt’s departure severed Soft Machine from its playful and lyrically imaginative early period. Saxophonist and keyboardist Karl Jenkins arrived from the British band Nucleus to replace Dean on the 1973 release Sixth and became Soft Machine’s de facto leader upon Ratledge’s departure in 1976.
With no original members remaining, Soft Machine continued to record instrumental fusion albums through the remainder of the 1970s with little commercial success. Former Cream bassist Jack Bruce played on the band’s 1980 release Land of Cockayne. Soft Machine disbanded in 1981, but Jenkins and drummer John Marshall reunited in 1984 and performed with various musicians under the Soft Machine name through the early 1990s.
The Soft Machine, Probe, 1968.
Volume Two, Columbia, 1968.
Third, Columbia, 1970.
Fourth, Columbia, 1971.
Fifth, Columbia, 1972.
Sixth, Columbia, 1973.
Seventh, Columbia, 1973.
Bundles, Harvest, 1975.
Softs, Harvest, 1976.
Triple Echo, Harvest, 1977.
Alive and Well in Paris, Harvest, 1978.
Land of Cockayne, EMI, 1980.
The Peel Sessions, Strange Fruit, 1990.
Live at the Paradiso, Voiceprint, 1995.
Pareles, John, and Patricia Romanowski, editors, The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Summit Books, 1983.
Schaffner, Nicholas, The British Invasion, McGraw-Hill, 1982.
Down Beat, July 11, 1968, p. 21.
International Herald Tribune, September 11, 1997, p. 22.
“Soft Machine,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusicguide.com (January 13, 2002).
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