Soft Machine – Milano – 28 ottobre 2021
Soft Machine are an English rock and jazz band from Canterbury formed in mid-1966, named after the novel The Soft Machine by William S. Burroughs. They were one of the central bands in the Canterbury scene. Though they achieved little commercial success, they are considered by critics to have been influential in rock music, Dave Lynch at AllMusic called them "one of the more influential bands of their era, and certainly one of the most influential underground ones."
Soft Machine (billed as The Soft Machine up to 1969 or 1970) were formed in mid-1966 by Robert Wyatt (drums, vocals), Kevin Ayers (bass, guitar, vocals), Daevid Allen (guitar) and Mike Ratledge (organ) plus, for the first few gigs only, American guitarist Larry Nowlin. Allen, Wyatt and future bassist Hugh Hopper first played together in the Daevid Allen Trio in 1963, occasionally accompanied by Ratledge. Wyatt, Ayers, and Hopper had been founding members of The Wilde Flowers, incarnations of which would include members of another Canterbury band, Caravan.
This first Soft Machine line-up became involved in the early UK underground, performing at the UFO Club and other London clubs like the Speakeasy Club and Middle Earth. Their first single, "Love Makes Sweet Music" (recorded 5 February 1967, produced by Chas Chandler), was released by Polydor in February, backed with "Feelin' Reelin' Squeelin'" (January 1967, produced by Kim Fowley). In April 1967 they recorded seven demo songs with producer Giorgio Gomelsky in De Lane Lea Studios that remained unreleased until 1971 in a dispute over studio costs. They also played in the Netherlands, Germany, and on the French Riviera. During July and August 1967, Gomelsky booked shows along the Côte d'Azur with the band's most famous early gig taking place in the village square of Saint-Tropez. This led to an invitation to perform at producer Eddie Barclay's trendy "Nuit Psychédélique", performing a forty-minute rendering of "We Did It Again", singing the refrain over and over in a trance-like quality. This made them instant darlings of the Parisian "in" crowd, resulting in invitations to appear on television shows and at the Paris Biennale in October 1967. After their return from France, Allen (an Australian) was denied re-entry to the United Kingdom, so the group continued as a trio, while he returned to Paris to form Gong.
Sharing the same management as Jimi Hendrix, the band supported the Jimi Hendrix Experience's North America tour throughout 1968. Soft Machine's first album was recorded in New York City in April at the end of the first leg of the tour. Back in London, guitarist Andy Summers, later of The Police, joined the group following the breakup of Dantalian's Chariot (previously Zoot Money's Big Roll Band). After a few weeks of rehearsals, the quartet began a tour of the U.S. with some solo shows before reuniting with Hendrix during August and September 1968. Summers was fired at the insistence of Ayers, who departed amicably after the final tour date at the Hollywood Bowl in mid-September, and for the remainder of 1968 Soft Machine were no more. Wyatt stayed in the U.S. to record solo demos, while Ratledge returned to London and began composing in earnest. One of Wyatt's demos, Slow Walkin' Talk, allowed Wyatt to make use of his multi-instrumentalist skills (Hammond organ, piano, drums and vocals) and featured Hendrix on bass guitar.
In December 1968, to fulfill contractual obligations, Soft Machine re-formed with former road manager and composer Hugh Hopper on bass added to Wyatt and Ratledge and recorded their second album, Volume Two, which started a transition toward jazz fusion. In May 1969 this line-up acted as the uncredited backing band on two tracks of The Madcap Laughs, the debut album by Syd Barrett. In 1969 the trio was expanded to a septet with the addition of four horn players, though only saxophonist Elton Dean remained beyond a few months, the resulting Soft Machine quartet (Wyatt, Hopper, Ratledge and Dean) running through Third (1970) and Fourth (1971), with various guests, mostly jazz players (Lyn Dobson, Nick Evans, Mark Charig, Jimmy Hastings, Roy Babbington, Rab Spall). Fourth was the first of their fully instrumental albums and the last one featuring Wyatt.
Their propensity for building extended suites from regular sized compositions, both live and in the studio (already in the Ayers suite in their first album), reached its apogee in the 1970 album Third, unusual for its time with each of the four sides featuring one suite. Third was also unusual for remaining in print for more than ten years in the U.S., and is the best-selling Soft Machine recording.
They received unprecedented acclaim across Europe, and they made history by becoming the first rock band invited to play at London's Proms in August 1970. The show was broadcast live on national TV and later appeared as a live album.
After differences over the group's musical direction, Wyatt left (or was fired from) the band in August 1971 and formed Matching Mole (a pun on machine molle, French for soft machine; also said at the time to have been taken from stage lighting equipment "Matching Mole"). He was briefly replaced by Australian drummer Phil Howard. This line-up toured extensively in Europe during the end of 1971 (attested by the "Drop" 2008 release) and attended the recording of their next album, but further musical disagreements led to Howard's dismissal after the recording of the first LP side of Fifth before the end of 1971 and some months later in 1972 to Dean's departure. They were replaced respectively in 1971 by John Marshall (drums) and in 1972 by Karl Jenkins (reeds, keyboards), both former members of Ian Carr's Nucleus, for the recording of Six (1973), and the band's sound developed even more towards jazz fusion.
In 1973, after the release of Six, Hopper left and was replaced by Roy Babbington, another former Nucleus member, who had already contributed double bass on Fourth and Fifth and took up (6-string) bass guitar successfully, while Karl Jenkins took over as bandleader and composer. After they released Seven (1973) without additional musicians, the band switched record labels from Columbia to Harvest. On their 1975 album, Bundles, a significant musical change occurred with Allan Holdsworth adding guitar as a prominent melody instrument to the band's sound, sometimes reminiscent of John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, setting the album apart from previous Soft Machine albums which had rarely featured guitars. On the last official studio album Softs (1976), Holdsworth was replaced by John Etheridge. Ratledge, the last remaining original member of the band, had left during the early stages of recording. Other musicians in the band during the later period were bassists Percy Jones (of Brand X) and Steve Cook, saxophonists Alan Wakeman and Ray Warleigh, and violinist Ric Sanders. Their 1977 performances and record (titled Alive and Well, ironically) were among the last for Soft Machine as a working band, their last performance (until the 1984 reformation) being the only Soft Machine concert of 1978.
The Soft Machine name was used for the 1981 record Land of Cockayne (with Jack Bruce and, again, Allan Holdsworth, plus Ray Warleigh and Dick Morrissey on saxes and John Taylor on electric piano), and for a final series of dates at London's Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in the summer of 1984, featuring Jenkins and Marshall leading an ad hoc lineup of Etheridge, Warleigh, pianist Dave MacRae and bassist Paul Carmichael.
Soft Machine having been a much loved band since their inception in the late 1960s and having always been at the cutting edge of many music genres (including the early progressive and psychedelic rock scene and then the burgeoning jazz rock and fusion scene), it was inevitable that former Soft Machine members would reconvene over the years, to continue on their legacy.
The first such conception in September 1999 was Soft Ware which featured Elton Dean, Hugh Hopper, John Marshall and long-time friend Keith Tippett. This line-up would only remain together briefly. Then in 2002, another former Soft Machine member, Allan Holdsworth, joined the remaining three members of Soft Ware who would rename themselves Soft Works in June 2002. They had changed their name to avoid confusion with Peter Mergener's band Software. As Soft Works, they made their world live debut on 17 August 2002 at the Progman Cometh Festival (at the Moore Theater in Seattle, Washington), released (on 29 July 2003) their only (studio) album, Abracadabra, consisting of all new material recorded at the Eastcote Studios in London on 5–7 June 2002, and toured Japan in August 2003, Italy in January and February 2004, and Mexico in March 2004.
In October 2004, a new variant of Soft Works, with John Etheridge permanently replacing Holdsworth, took the name of "Soft Machine Legacy" and performed their first two gigs (two Festival shows on 9 October in Turkey and 15 October in Czech Republic), Liam Genockey temporarily replacing John Marshall who had ligament problems (the first Soft Machine Legacy line-up being consequently: Elton Dean, John Etheridge, Hugh Hopper and Liam Genockey). Later on, Soft Machine Legacy released three albums: Live in Zaandam (2005), the studio album Soft Machine Legacy (2006) recorded in September 2005 and featuring fresh material and the album Live at the New Morning (2006). After Elton Dean died in February 2006, the band continued with British saxophonist and flautist Theo Travis, formerly of Gong and The Tangent.
In December 2006, the new Legacy line-up recorded the album Steam in Jon Hiseman's studio. Steam was released in August 2007 by Moonjune before a European tour.
Hopper left in 2008 because he was suffering from leukaemia, so the band continued live performances with Fred Baker. Following Hopper's death in 2009, the band announced that they would continue with Babbington again replacing Hopper.
Soft Machine Legacy released their fifth album in October 2010: a 58-minute album entitled Live Adventures recorded live in October 2009 in Austria and Germany during a European tour.
Founding Soft Machine bassist Kevin Ayers died in February 2013, aged 68, while Daevid Allen dien in March 2015 following a short battle with cancer, aged 77.
On 18 March 2013, the Legacy band released a new studio album, titled Burden of Proof. Travis stated that "legally we could actually be called Soft Machine but for various reasons it was decided to be one step removed."
In September and October 2015, it was announced that the band Soft Machine Legacy (made of guitarist John Etheridge, drummer John Marshall, bass player Roy Babbington and sax, flute and keyboard player Theo Travis) would be performing under the name "Soft Machine" in late 2015 and early 2016: two shows in the Netherlands and Belgium in early December 2015 and a series of seven UK shows in March–April 2016.
In December 2015, it was confirmed that the band had dropped the "Legacy" tag from their name, as the band featured three of the group's 1970s era members – John Etheridge, John Marshall and Roy Babbington – joined by Theo Travis on sax, flute and keyboard.
On 7 September 2018, Soft Machine released Hidden Details, their first new studio album in five years (first album under "Soft Machine" moniker since 1981). In Fall and Winter 2018, they toured the world as part of their 50th anniversary celebration and in support of the new album, and the US in January and February 2019.
On 25 June 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Soft Machine among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.
Soft Machine's music has been described by critics and journalists as progressive rock, experimental rock, jazz rock, jazz and psychedelic rock, as well as being a part of the Canterbury scene of progressive rock. According to Hugh Hopper, "We weren't consciously playing jazz rock, it was more a case of not wanting to sound like other bands; we certainly didn't want a guitarist."
These albums were released by small labels, and most of their content is available on the main albums listed above.