Soft Machine - Biography

By Scott Feemster

Soft Machine started as a psychedelic band involved in the late 60's London psychedelic scene, and quickly went on to be one of the bands that laid the foundation for what would be come to be called progressive rock, veering also in to what would soon become jazz fusion. The band became very influential upon subsequent progressive rock bands and the bands revolving membership helped to spawn other bands and musical projects for many years to come.


            Soft Machine was formed in 1966 from players who had previously played together in different incarnations in the Wilde Flowers and the Daevid Allen Trio. The first line-up of the band included Kevin Ayers on bass, guitar and vocals, Daevid Allen on guitar, Mike Ratledge on organ, Robert Wyatt on drums and vocals, and, for the first few gigs, Larry Nowlin on guitar. Soft Machine, as well as other bands including Caravan, Matching Mole, Hatfield and the North and National Health, to name a few, are often included in what was called the Canterbury Scene, a loose affiliation of musicians who met or came out of the area around the college city of Canterbury, Kent, England , in the late 60's and early 70's and went on to forge similar paths in avant-garde, jazz fusion and progressive rock music. While members of Soft Machine had met and lived and worked around Canterbury, the band was based in London and, minus Nowlin on guitar, quickly gained a reputation in the British underground scene as one of the leading lights in psychedelic music. The group gigged consistently in such legendary London clubs as the Roundhouse, Middle Earth, the Speakeasy and the UFO Club, making the same rounds and gigging with such bands as Pink Floyd, Procol Harum, Tomorrow and The Incredible String Band. The band used the momentum from these gigs to record their first (and only) single, “Love Make Sweet Music/Feelin',Reelin',Squeelin'”, and, a few months later, recorded a series of demos with producer Giorgio Gomelsky. ( The demos wouldn't see a commercial release until 1971). Within the first few months of 1967, the group became one of London's most popular cult bands, and were invited to play gigs and “happenings” in continental Europe, including participating in an avant-garde theatre project in St. Tropez, on the French Riviera. Guitarist Daevid Allen was an Australian citizen and was not legally supposed to be in England, so on the band's return to England ,Allen was refused entry. Allen stayed behind in France, eventually moving to Paris and founding the band Gong.


            The remaining trio of Wyatt, Ratledge and Ayers returned to London. Soft Machine shared the same management as the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and were asked to tour with the new psychedelic rock darlings in the United States through 1968. At the end of the first leg of the tour, the band booked time at a recording studio in New York, and recorded their first album, The Soft Machine (ABC/Probe), with producers Tom Wilson and Chas Chandler, former Animal's bassist and Jimi Hendrix's producer. The album was quickly made and not terribly well recorded, but became a classic and an excellent document of what was happening in London at the crux of psychedelic rock turning into progressive rock. The band recruited a young guitarist named Andy Summers to tour with them for the next leg of the American tour, but he did not get on well with Ayers and was let go mid-tour. Summers would go on to gain fame years later as the guitarist in The Police. The trio completed the tour, and after growing tensions between Ayers and the other two members of the group, the band effectively split-up after their final gig at the Hollywood Bowl. Robert Wyatt stayed in Los Angeles to work with Jimi Hendrix, while Ayers and Ratledge flew back to London, Ratledge embarking on composing new tunes.

            At the end of 1968, Wyatt was contacted by Soft Machine's record company, Probe, and was asked if the band could play some gigs in support of the first album, which had just been released. Wyatt and Ratledge recruited former road manager Hugh Hopper to play bass, and this new line-up rehearsed and played their first gig in February of 1969 at London's Royal Albert Hall. A few days later , the group entered the studio and recorded their second album, Volume Two (ABC/Probe) and augmented the trio line-up with Hopper's brother Brian Hopper on saxophone. The new album showed the band drifting more towards a jazz sound, and to that end the group added a permanent brass section in late 1969. The brass section included Brian Hopper, Elton Dean on saxophone, Lyn Dobson on saxophone and flute, Nick Evans on trombone and Marc Charig on trumpet. This septet version of Soft Machine was only together for a few weeks, long enough time to tour France and record a live session for BBC radio. Soon after Evans and Charig left the band, though they did guest on subsequent albums.


            By the beginning of 1970, Soft Machine was again ready to enter the recording studio and released their third album, the double album Third (Columbia).The long tracks on the album showed the band at the height of their instrumental interplay with one another. Each of the four sides of the album were side-long pieces, two written by Ratledge, one by Hopper and the last written by Wyatt. All of the pieces used tape collages and loops and used bits of earlier live performances spliced together to create longer pieces, Wyatt's being the only one to include vocals. The group was becoming an almost entirely instrumental outfit, something that Wyatt didn't necessarily agree with. In fact his composition, “Moon In June”, was performed almost entirely by himself. During the summer of 1970, Wyatt recorded his first solo album, The End Of An Ear, which featured experimental  improvisation and Wyatt's heavily treated, mostly wordless vocals. Third went on to become Soft Machine's most popular and long-lived album, becoming influential not only in progressive rock circles but also among fans of the emerging jazz-rock fusion genre.


            Soft Machine continued gigging as a four piece of Wyatt, Ratledge, Dean and Hopper, augmenting the core group with brass and woodwind players including Evans, Charig, saxophonist Alan Skidmore and woodwind player Jimmy Hastings for their next album, 1971's Fourth (Columbia). Fourth carried on the heavy all-instrumental jazz fusion sound the band were becoming known for, and during the course of 1971, the band further experimented with adding various brass players, drummer Phil Howard and upright bassist Roy Babbington to live gigs and radio sessions. In July of '71, Wyatt left the band, going on to form the band Matching Mole and, later, even after a disastrous fall that left him crippled, a rich and long-lasting solo career. Wyatt's natural replacement on the drum stool would have seemed to been Howard, but midway through recording sessions for the band's next album, 5 (also called Fifth)(Columbia), released in 1972, Howard was let go and was replaced by John Marshall, a veteran of numerous British bands including Nucleus. The new album pulled the reins back in on the band's drift towards straight jazz, setting them back on a course of more jazz-influenced rock. Elton Dean, apparently, was not enthused with the new direction the group was taking, and left in mid 1972, going on to a career playing in mostly acoustic jazz ensembles.


            Instead of replacing Dean and his instrument, the band next asked keyboardist/woodwind player Karl Jenkins to join the fold. The new version of Soft Machine, with the formidable rhythm section of Hopper and Marshall, recorded another double album, 1973's Six (Columbia), this time consisting of one live record, one recorded in the studio. More membership turmoil reared it's ugly head, this time with Hopper deciding he had enough. The remaining band asked frequent guest Roy Babbington to join, and Babbington switched from double-bass to a six-string electric bass to better augment the group. This version of Soft Machine recorded 7 (Columbia)(1973), a natural progression on from the solidly jazz-rock direction the band had pursued the previous couple of years.


            Soft Machine, never a band one could accuse of standing still, began to feel their music needed some kind of new infusion, and found that infusion in adding, for the first time since the inception of the band, a guitarist. The guitarist in question was Allan Holdsworth, and his blazing, more “rock” approach gave the band's new album, Bundles (Harvest)(1975), a shot in the arm. The shot, in true Soft Machine fashion, was short-lived from Holdsworth, and he left after the album was recorded. He recommended another guitarist, John Etheridge, to the band, and after rehearsals together, the band embarked on on what became an ill-fated European tour with compatriot bands Caravan and Mahavishnu Orchestra. Feeling the wind finally going out of the band's creative sails, only remaining founding member Mike Ratledge left the group in March of 1976. Soft Machine was now under the creative control of Marshall and Jenkins, and the pair decided to carry on with Babbington and Etheridge and added new member Alan Wakeman, (cousin of Yes keyboardist Rick), on saxophone for the band's 1976 album Softs (Harvest). Wakeman only lasted six months in the band, and the band opted to have violin player Ric Sanders join the core quartet after Wakeman's departure. By 1977 the band definitely seemed to be falling apart quickly, this time losing bassist Babbington, who was replaced briefly by Brand X bassist Percy Jones, and then by ex-Gilgamesh bassist Steve Cook. This last version of the band recorded the almost ironically titled live album Alive & Well: Recorded In Paris (Harvest) in July of 1977, and the album was released the following year. Soft Machine continued touring until the end of 1978, eventually performing their last gig together in West Germany in December.


            The name Soft Machine was used one more time for the 1981 studio album Land Of Cockayne (EMI), but the reformed band of Jenkins, Marshall, Holdsworth and ex-Cream bassist Jack Bruce contained none of the original members of the group, and the album received scathing reviews from both critics and fans of the original band. A line-up of Marshall, Jenkins, Etheridge, MacRae and bassist Paul Carmichael played some gigs in London in 1984, but further plans to continue with this version of Soft Machine were shelved.

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