The Soft Machine Turns You On

Nic Jones By

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The significance of this music has only grown with the passing of time...
Any 'golden age' is always questionable, but in the period 1967-71 the British band Soft Machine are reckoned to have enjoyed such an age, and releases on the Cuneiform and Hux labels make the case. The band was built around keyboard player Mike Ratledge, bassist Hugh Hopper, and drummer/vocalist Robert Wyatt. Reed player Elton Dean was often present, and was but one of a number of horn players who passed through the ranks. At one time the band was a septet, whilst the quintet to be found on Noisette (Cuneiform 130) consists of the quartet mentioned plus Lyn Dobson on soprano sax, flute and vocals. The group's changing line-up did not make for erratic music -what's here is a band at the height of its powers. In common with the original Velvet Underground and the German band Can, the musicians brought a diversity of musical interests to the group, but sadly the precariousness of the balance struck ensured the line-up's premature demise.

BBC Radio 1967-71 (Hux 037) documents the band as it goes from being an eccentric pop group to being 'some sort of improv-electric fusion spaceship from the Planet Us' to quote Hugh Hopper in his booklet note, and the fact that the BBC was happy to put them out on the radio is testament to less blinkered times. Guitarist/Bassist/Vocalist Kevin Ayers is still on the earliest session, and of the five songs recorded only "Strangest Scene (a.k.a. Lullaby Letter)" hints at what was to come.

At least five -make that ten- years worth of musical development was crammed into the 18 months between that session and the one recorded in June of 1969. Here there are improvised segues from one scored section to the next, and the form of the music is largely the product of the moment. The fact that the group doesn't succumb to self-indulgence is proof of their rigour -this is music purged of excess despite the fact that they were playing for anything up to nineteen minutes at a time.

The quintet on Noisette was short-lived. Robert Wyatt had by this time become a kind of British Elvin Jones, and he and Hugh Hopper were taking extraordinary liberties with meter. Here was a band with the enthusiasm and nous to produce something radically new.

Virtually (Cuneiform rune 100) was preserved on tape thanks to Radio Bremen 2 in Germany, a station with an obviously enlightened music policy, and it consists of two sets from March of 1971 played by Dean, Ratledge, Hopper and Wyatt, who'd gelled to such a degree that they provide a working definition of what jazz-rock could have been, namely the product of musicians who loved both genres and who were capable of expressing that through music drawing on the worthwhile elements of both.

Finally, Backwards (Cuneiform rune 170) contains some tracks from the short-lived septet line-up. The minimal arrangements for the four horns don't get in the way of improvisation, and there's plenty of Ratledge's distinctive Lowry organ to enjoy. Despite the fact that the disc overall is drawn from different times, there's still a surprising unity of purpose.

The significance of this music has only grown with the passing of time, and it's the best kind of record for listeners with big ears and open minds. Whilst an awful lot of fluff might have been spouted in the name of revolution in the mid- to late 1960s, not much of any substance came out of it, though music of this quality and distinctiveness is evidence of interesting times for those with ears for listening.


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