When I was about 13 years old I became a regular customer at Platypus Records on Hollywood Blvd about a half a block east of Vermont in Hollywood. It was all about their inexpensive used records. I still spent a small fortune from money I earned the old fashioned way; recycling cans and bottles, mowing lawns and stealing money from my mom’s purse. I found great records for pennies. And one that left an indelible mark on my rookie ears was the Soft Machine album, Volume Two, released in 1969 and featuring Robert Wyatt on drums and vocals, Mike Ratledge on piano and Hammond organ, Brian Hopper on saxophone and Hugh Hopper on bass and guitars. I think I paid 99 cents for the album.
When I bought that record all I knew about Soft Machine was that they were part of some mysterious and legendary English Canterbury music scene, they hung out with Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd and once toured the US as an opening act for Jimi Hendrix. Volume Two is still one of my all time favorite records. Over the years I’ve worn out more than a few copies.
This past Monday, idiosyncratic composer, art-rock bassist extraordinaire, veteran of some two dozen diverse solo albums and Soft Machine member, Hugh Hopper, succumbed to his year long battle with leukemia. He was 64.
In his years before Soft Machine, Hugh Colin Hopper, born April 29, 1945 in Canterbury, Kent, found himself immersed in the burgeoning Canterbury scene and emerging bands like Gong, Hatfield and the North and Henry Cow. In the mid sixties he was working with Daevid Allen and Robert Wyatt in the Daevid Allen Trio. That band evolved into the Wilde Flowers, an almost mythic pop and soul band consisting of his brother Brian, Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers and Richard Sinclair that spun off into two influential progressive rock groups, Caravan and Soft Machine.
Hopper joined Soft Machine in 1968 after their tour with Hendrix, contributed two compositions to their first self titled album, recorded in New York. Their sophomore release saw Hopper not only adding his virtuoso bass work to the mix but also composing half the tracks. He would remain with Soft Machine through 1973 and the album entitled 6. About the time Soft Machine was moving from a psychedelic, progressive rock sound into more of a jazz/fusion outfit, Hopper departed, recording his classic solo record 1984 at about the same time. His first effort was a decidedly non-commercial adventure filled with avant-garde soundscapes, tape loops, and free improvisation.
After his stint with Soft Machine, and in between his own solo projects, Hopper worked with some of the most original musicians of the last thirty years; Carla Bley, Keith Tippett, Robert Wyatt, Elton Dean, Pip Pyle, Stomu Yamashta, Phil Miller, Lol Coxhill, Allan Holdsworth, Chris Cutler, Yumi Hara Cawkwell and bands like Gilgamesh, Isotope and Soft Heap. In 2002 Hopper began a new association with several former Soft Machine members. Originally named Soft Works, they later renamed the reunion Soft Machine Legacy; besides touring extensively throughout Europe and Asia, they’ve also released four CD’s, two studio and two live recordings.
After his diagnoses last summer with leukemia, a benefit concert was held for him at London's 100 Club in December, featuring friends and many of his legendary musical collaborators from all phases of his career.
Just two days before his death he married his longtime companion Christine.