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Soft Machine: Softstage: BBC In Concert 1972

John Kelman By

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If a band exemplified the term mercurial, it was Soft Machine. Starting as a kind of post-Dadaist pop band in the late '60s only to end a little more than a decade later as a guitar-driven fusion group, Soft Machine went through so many personnel changes that it's a challenge, even in retrospect, to keep up. And while almost every recording represented some kind of significant directional shift, the recruitment of woodwind multi-instrumentalist/keyboardist/composer Karl Jenkins, previously a member of trumpeter Ian Carr's prototypical jazz-rock band Nucleus, probably sparked the greatest change since the departure of original members Kevin Ayres and Daevid Allen. By the time Softstage: BBC In Concert 1972—the latest Hux rescue from the BBC Archives—was recorded, big changes were in the wind.

First, saxophonist Elton Dean had left not long before, apparently frustrated at both the group's summary dismissal of drummer Phil Howard—who had replaced departed founding member Robert Wyatt for the first half of Fifth—and its clear discomfort at the freer direction that he and Howard were forging. While bringing in John Marshall, another Nucleus alumnus, would prove a consolidating move—the brief Ratledge/Hopper/Dean/Marshall version was nicely documented on Cuneiform's double set Live in Paris—it was Jenkins' more dominating compositional presence that would ultimately force bassist Hugh Hopper to exit, with only keyboardist Mike Ratledge left from the classic lineup that released Third and Fourth. Curious to be sure, considering it was Hopper's suggestion to recruit Jenkins in the first place.

But Jenkins' writing style pushed the group into a more riff-based and distinctly fusiony direction that was at clear odds with Hopper's vision of jazz-rock—albeit one where the riffs were of a complex, metrically-challenging variety. But when this recording took place in July '72, the Softs' new incarnation was still fresh, hungry and working things out. This was, in fact, their fifth performance—even exposing a misstep by Jenkins as the opening "Fanfare" segues into "All White." Perhaps that explains why this recording is rawer, more immediate and vital than the live recording that took up the first half of Six, the first commercial release to feature the new lineup and Hopper's swan song with the band.

The majority of the music on Softstage comes from Ratledge's pen—Hopper is only represented by a brief version of the more open-ended "MC" that links a radically altered "Slightly All The Time" to "Drop," and Jenkins is only beginning to flex his compositional muscle. But while change is in the air, this is a clear and logical link from the group that recorded Fifth to the one that would release Six and beyond.

The nature of the group's spontaneous approach to musical invention would inexorably shift, but Softstage proves that Soft Machine was still a powerful improvising band. It would continue as one almost to its ultimate with-a-whimper demise at the end of the '70s.


Track Listing: Fanfare; All White; Slightly All The Time; MC; Drop; Stumble; One Across; As If; Riff; Gesolreut.

Personnel: Hugh Hopper: bass; Karl Jenkins: baritone saxophone, oboe, keyboards; John Marshall: drums; Mike Ratledge: piano, organ.

Title: Softstage: BBC In Concert 1972 | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Hux Records


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