Soft Machine were formed in Canterbury in June 1966; the members originally being Daevid Allen, Kevin Ayres, Robert Wyatt, Larry Nolan and Mike Ratledge. At this time the group were called Mister Head, but soon changed their name to The Soft Machine, after the novel by William Burroughs .
Larry Nolan left the group in October 1966, however by then Soft Machine had built up a strong following playing alongside The Pink Floyd at various ‘underground happenings’. During 1967 the group successfully toured in France and had by that time recorded their first single.
Upon their return to the UK, Allen (an Australian) was refused entry as his visa had expired, so he returned to France. Settling in Paris, Allen would later form the group Gong. The remaining trio of Ayres, Wyatt and Ratledge continued working in Holland, Belgium and France. They recorded their first LP in April 1968.
Soft Machine (aka. Volume 1)
Consisting of Kevin Ayres (guitar and occasional vocals), Mike Ratledge (keyboards) and Robert Wyatt (drums and vocals), the debut Soft Machine is typical late ‘60s pop/progressive rock with some jazz and avant-garde influences thrown in for good measure. The sleeve notes  somewhat pompously announce that it was the “sound of music updated by the music of sound”. Be that as it may, the notable tracks on this album are:
We Did It Again
Why Are We Sleeping?
Hope for Happiness
Joy of a Toy
Wyatt has a weak voice barely spanning an octave (‘Hope for Happiness’), and is the most unlikely choice for a vocalist, yet is almost perfect for the Dada influenced and whimsical lyrics he ‘sings’. The influence of Dada on the lyrics is best heard on ‘Plus Belle Qu’une Poubelle’ (= ‘More beautiful than a waste bin’), demonstrating that it is the sound the words make, rather than their sense that is important.
In ‘Why Are We Sleeping?’ the lyrics are read as a piece of poetry by Ayres. This track has a sound that would continue into ‘Volume 2’ and ‘Third’.
With this album, Soft Machine ‘set out their stall’ as to the direction they would take, developing the quirky whimsy and word play of their first record with jazz and late 60’s ‘psychedelic’ sound. Hugh Hopper, formerly the ‘roadie’, joins the line up playing bass and replacing Ayres. Volume 2 is a more experimental and ambitious album than Volume 1, but succeeds by being more complete as a whole.
Side 1 is a Dada-esque suite: ‘Rivmic (sic) Melodies’ consisting of: ‘Pataphysical Introduction’ followed by ‘The Concise British Alphabet’, a welcoming introduction by Wyatt, and a literal recitation of the alphabet; ‘Hibou Anemone and Bear’, a whimsical piece ‘sung’ by Wyatt with a faint echo on his voice, very controlled cymbal work and a nicely fuzzy organ sound from Ratledge. In ‘Thank you Pierrot Lunaire’ (is this a punning reference to Kevin Ayres?), acknowledgement is made to Jimi Hendrix and the Experience when Soft Machine toured with The Experience in March 1968 and to Mike Jeffery, manager for Hendrix:
‘Thank you Noel and Mitch
Thank you Jim for our exposure to the crowd
Thank you Mike for the coda, you did us proud.’
In ‘Dada Was Here’, Hugh Hopper’s distinctive style of bass playing can be clearly heard. ‘Out of Tunes’ is an extended track demonstrating Soft Machine’s experimentation with avant-garde jazz.
The second side, titled ‘Esther’s Nose Job’, further continues the blend of Dada poetry, jazz and experimental pop. ‘Dedicated to You but You Weren’t Listening’ is a perfect example of the influence of Dada poetry on Wyatt’s lyric writing – a combination of nonsense words and a touching expression of self-doubt:
‘Famous parabolic versions
Songs that promise:
Beauty, sleep, love, sadness
Do I dream that something’s missing?
Hungry, thirsty, open off-peak mind
Give me the truth, give me the truth,
give me the truth, tell me…
Songs and verses
Real-life action, horror, madness
Can it be that something’s happening?
Wash me, paint me, but please don’t taint me
Give me a chance, give me chance,
give me a chance…
When I was young, the sky was blue
And everyone knew what to do
But now it’s gone, the telly’s here
Mass media, the sewer too
Eight rare cases
Chickenpox and crawling gladness
Seemingly it’s nothing happening
Cure my doctor
Don’t swallow him down
Give me the cure, give me the cure,
give me the cure…
The night was cool, the moon was bright
The air was clear with oxygen
The stars were there, and in my eyes
Were thousands of chrysanthemums
Don’t use magnets –
Geophysics carry you back
Wholesome, healthfood, homepride
Something outside gives out hunger
Face my mirror
‘Fire Engine Passing with Bells Clanging’ is a piece of sonic onomatopoeia (if that doesn’t sound too pretentious and worthy of ‘Pseud’s Corner’), in the sense that after hearing it, what else could it be called? A piece of free form instrumentation starting with a crashing organ toccata and drumming, with Hopper’s bass playing holding it all together. In ‘Pig’ there is additional instrumentation of saxophone and flute, although I don’t know who the players are and they do not seem to be acknowledged.
‘Orange Skin Food’ starts with a Miles Davis ‘Kinda Blue’ refrain, and continues with a tight bass line and a nice ‘bubbly’ guitar-sounding organ. ‘A Door Opens and Closes’ has wah-wah and fuzz box effect on organ with Wyatt doing a bit of ‘scat’ singing here.
The final track, ‘10:30 returns to the Bedroom’, returns to the underlying riff of ‘Orange Skin Music’ with a growling bass (played by Wyatt) and insistent drumming before opening out, then a series of drum rolls on various drums start a short drum solo. The organ and bass return for a final bit of ‘scat’ and crashing organ that settle down to gentler sustained chords, fading out to finish the side.
Soft Machine’s third offering, logically, if unimaginatively, entitled: ‘Third’ sees Elton Dean join the line up playing alto sax. As would be expected with this addition, the music is more strongly jazz oriented and the double LP has four extended pieces, taking up a side apiece. At this time extended side-long tracks were becoming the norm, examples being Pink Floyd’s ‘Ummagumma’ and Miles Davis’s ‘Bitches Brew’. Third is also the last album that would feature any vocals. Anoraks will note that the group have dropped the definite article, now simply calling themselves Soft Machine.
The first track ‘Facelift’ was recorded live at the Fairfield Hall, Croydon and has additional instrumentalists on flute and clarinet (Lyn Dobson), violin (Rab Small) and trombone (Nick Evans). Starting with a simple sustained bass note, then some toccata virtuosity by Ratledge, it bursts into a buzzy feedback sound. Bass and sax come in, tentatively at first, then, with Wyatt’s drums, they become more confident leading to a discernable tune or ‘riff’. This is then extemporised with organ and horns playing off one another. Then a mechanical, industrial piece of percussion causes the mood to change with a delightful flute solo. And then the ‘machine’ returns, like some lumbering dancing mechanoid, whilst the flute flutters around it like a small bird, to be replaced by the sax. The final movement sees a return to the fuzz organ that started the piece and superimposed on it is a backward running tape of the introduction.
‘Moon in June’ is virtually a solo piece by Wyatt who plays the organ as well as drums, the other members making only small contributions. The track is in some ways a knowing nod back to the first two albums, and Third is the last of the Soft Machine albums to feature Wyatt’s vocals; an aspect, which would be the cause of some friction within the group.
‘Moon in June’, is the only track to feature lyrics and surprisingly they are relatively straightforward, apart from a couple of places which make the listener do a ‘double take’. These are at the end of verse 4, verses 5 and 10 (highlighted).
‘On a dilemma between what I need and what I just want
Between your thighs I feel a sensation
How long can I resist the temptation?
I’ve got my bird, you’ve got your man
So who else do we need, really?
Now I’m here, I may as well put my other hand in yours
While we decide how far to go and if we’ve got time to do it now
And if it’s half as good for you as it is for me
Then you won’t mind if we lie down for a while, just for a while
Till all the thing I want is need
You are the thing I are, I knew
I want you more than ever now
We’re on the floor, and you want more, and I feel almost sure
That ’cause now we’ve agreed, that we got what we need
Then all the thing us needs is wanting
I realized when I saw you last
We’ve been together now and then
From time to time – just here and there
Now I know how it feels from my hair to my heels
To have you haunt the horns of my dilemma
– Oh! Wait a minute! –
Over – up – over – up… down
Down – over – up – over… up
Living can be lovely, here in New York State
Ah, but I wish that I were home
And I wish I were home again – back home again, home again
There are places and people that I’m so glad to have seen
Ah, but I miss the trees, and I wish that I were home again
Back home again
The sun shines here all summer
It’s nice ’cause you can get quite brown
Ah, but I miss the rain – ticky tacky ticky
And I wish that I were home again – home again, home again…
Living is easy here in New York State
Ah, but I wish that I were home again
Back in West Dulwich again
Just before we go on to the next part of our song
Let’s all make sure we’ve got the time
Music-making still performs the normal functions –
background noise for people scheming, seducing, revolting and teaching
That’s all right by me, don’t think that I’m complaining
After all, it’s only leisure time, isn’t it?
Now I love your eyes – see how the time flies
She’s learning to hate, but it’s just too late for me
It was the same with her love
It just wasn’t enough for me
But before this feeling dies
Remember how distance can tell lies!
You can almost see her eyes, is it me she despises or you?
You’re awfully nice to me and I’m sure you can see what her game is
She sees you in her place, just as if it’s a race
And you’re winning, and you’re winning
She just can’t understand that for me everything’s just beginning
Until I get more homesick
So before this feeling dies, remember how distance tells us lies…,
‘Out-Bloody-Rageous’, starts with the use of reverse tape loops , which build up in volume followed by overdubbed ‘forward’ playing organ. This then leads into a straightforward piece of jazz saxophone playing, quickly followed by an organ solo by Ratledge and then horns. Another piece of backward tape loop introduces a change of pace allowing Dean and Hopper to display their talents. The piece ends as it began. Not the most successful of the four pieces on this LP and it does not, in my opinion, justify the tomeisis of the title.
Returning to the quartet (and hence the title: Elton Dean now being the fourth member, as well as it being the group’s fourth recording) of Dean, Ratledge, Hopper and Wyatt, Fourth is more strongly jazz orientated than Third; placing the groups work firmly within the genre of jazz-rock.
Side one, comprises three tracks. ‘Teeth’ is a straightforward piece of post ‘Bitches Brew’ jazz. ‘Kings and Queens’ sees a return to the sound of Third. Dean improvises against a solid background provided by Wyatt, Hopper and Ratledge. In ‘Fletcher’s Blemish’, a free-form piece of jazz, one can hear the influence of Coltrane and Coleman.
Side two is devoted to one suite: Virtually, Parts I – IV. The entire suite was written by Hopper. Virtually Part I is, in some ways, reminiscent of Slightly All the Time of Third: Part I affords Hopper a short solo. Part II is a good example of the group working well together, without any one member dominating. Part III starts with a backwards tape loop and the now familiar sustained segued organ chords of Ratledge and another opportunity to hear Hopper’s Bass. Part IV is a recapitulation of the theme in Part III, with Dean’s sax gently playing the riff accompanied by wah-wah organ, bass and near inaudible percussion.
After recording Four, Wyatt left the group to record his first solo LP: ‘End of an Ear’. Wyatt’s linguistic skill was also beautifully demonstrated by his second Parthian shot: the ensemble put together for his second solo LP was called ‘Matching Mole’, a punning word play on Soft Machine, which translates as Machine Molle in French.
Five (aka. Fifth)
On this LP, drummer Phil Howard replaced Wyatt. In Five, Soft Machine’s direction was even more defined in the direction of avant-garde / free-form jazz. All White sounds reminiscent of Four, or even that Third. This piece has Dean playing alto sax and Ratledge on electric piano, ably supported by Phil Howard on drums. In ‘Drop’, against a backdrop of dripping sounds, Ratledge’s electric piano ‘noodlings’ give way to a tight drumming accompaniment to basically a familiar distorted ‘reedy’ organ solo. ‘Pigling Bland’ is a tuneful and quirky three piece of sax, organ and percussion.
Ex-Nucleus drummer John Marshall replaces Phil Howard and more importantly Karl Jenkins replaced Elton Dean on sax and keyboards. There are two notable tracks on this LP: Gasolreut and Soft Weed Factor.
’Gasolreut’ is reminiscent of Jean Luc Ponty’s King Kong and Zappa’s post ’71 output; a tight caprice of horns, keyboards and drums, all held nicely in place by Hopper’s understated bass playing.
’Soft Weed Factor’ (perhaps a nod to Wyatt and his possible punning of the 1960s novel: The Sot-Weed Factor) starts with a repetitive run of notes on organ followed by overdubbed development of the theme. Drums introduce the bass line and then with additional keyboards and horn lines, the piece becomes a perpetuum mobile – Soft Machine at their best.
In ‘Chloe and the Pirate’, keyboards and drums nicely counterpoise Karl Jenkins’s wailing staccato reeds.
On this album Soft Machine are basically treading water, though two tracks are worth mentioning. ‘Penny Hitch’ starts off similarly to Soft Weed Factor and is a straightforward gentle piece of lounge jazz. In ‘Down the Road’, a ‘yodelling’ horn flutters over a tight guitar and drums rhythm before settling down to introduce a bowed bass that in turn segues into a Talking Heads’ ‘Once in a Lifetime’-like warbling keyboards of the last two tracks: ‘The German Lesson’ and ‘The French Lesson’.
After Seven, Soft Machine recorded Bundles, the last album to have Mike Ratledge on keyboards.
It has been described as ‘Frank Zappa’s Wakajawaka and Grand Wazoo meets the Mahavishnu Orchestra’. Well received at the time, it is very much jazz-rock with John McLaughlin/Al DiMeola style playing by guitarist Alan Holdsworth.
After Bundles, Mike Ratledge, the last remaining original member left the group, marking the end of an era.
The Soft Machine: ‘Volume 1’, (1968) CD, ABC/Probe CPLP 4500
The Soft Machine: ‘Volume 2’, (1969) LP, Probe SPB 1002
Volumes 1 and 2 packaged as single CD: ‘Volumes One & Two’, (1989) BigBeat CDWIKD 920
‘Third’, (1970) 2LP, Columbia 471407-1 and CD, Columbia 471407 2
In my opinion it is best to buy the remastered version (2008) as the, albeit slight, distortion heard on both the LPs and original CD has been removed. The remastered CD also has the three tracks performed at the Late Night Proms:
Esther’s Nosejob (15:39).
‘Fourth’, (1971) LP, CBS 64280
Soft Machine: ‘Out-Bloody-Rageous, An Anthology 1967 – 1973’, (2005) Sony BMG 5200392
Soft Machine: ‘Jet Propelled’, ((p) 1967, © 1995) Spalax Music, Paris, SPALAX 14816
Worth listening to, as it is the only recording, to my knowledge, featuring the original line-up of Wyatt, Allen, Ayres and Ratledge.
For retrospective compilations and recordings of live performances see:
One such recording of a live performance is ‘Breda Reactor’, recorded at Breda, The Netherlands. (Nice to see Wyatt’s punning in the title.)
There is renewed interest in Soft Machine and there are now available a bewildering array of re-issues and compilations.
There are also numerous unofficial or ‘bootleg’ recordings available. Some of these are unofficial recordings of live broadcast performances, most of them made in The Netherlands for Dutch radio.
References and Notes
 For a bit of history see
 Collectors of vinyl might be interested to know that there were four versions of the sleeve. The original version was an elaborate die-cut gatefold design, that had a circular insert in the front which could be rotated, rather like the cover to Led Zepplin’s III. To save costs, a second version dispensed with the insert and further cost cutting dispensed with the gatefold design altogether, creating a third version.
There was also a version for the American market. On the back of the sleeve, the three band members are shown sitting with their backs against the back of a naked female lying on her side (a ‘soft machine’, complete with key emerging from her back). The girl also appeared on the inside of the gatefold. To placate prudish American sensibilities, a special version was made where the girl is given a crudely overprinted bikini, on both the back of the sleeve and inside.
 For the interest of tape enthusiasts, the tape loops were played on a Brenell tape deck.
© Text Copyright 2011 Barry Hunt. Album sleeves Copyright belongs with their owners.
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