Primary Instrument: Band/ensemble/orchestra
Soft Machine was formed in 1966 by Robert Wyatt, Mike Ratledge, Kevin Ayers and Daevid Allen. Wyatt had already worked with Allen in the Daevid Allen Trio (which Ratledge occasionally jammed with) in 1963, and with Ayers in the Wilde Flowers in 1964. Although the band had its roots in Canterbury, it soon became a London-based band.
In January 1967, the band's one and only single ever was recorded : it had two songs on it, Loves Make Sweet Music and Feelin', Reelin', Squeelin'. Three months later, a collections of demos was recorded at DeLane Lea Studios with producer Giorgio Gomelsky, but not officially released until 1971 (on two compilations on the French Byg label). At that time, Soft Machine had already become something of a 'cult' band on the London psychedelic scene, gigging at places like the Roundhouse or the UFO. On April 29th, 1967, they took part in an event set up by the underground paper 'International Times', which also featured the Pink Floyd, and was given the name, '14 Hour Technicolor Dream'.
During the summer, the band was involved in an avant-garde theatre project in St.Tropez, on the French Riviera, and it was on the way back that Daevid Allen was refused re-entry to England. So he stayed in France, moving on to various projects before forming Gong two years later, while Wyatt, Ratledge and Ayers decided to carry on as a trio.
In February 1968, Soft Machine embarked on a 3-month US tour (opening for the Jimi Hendrix Experience), recording their first album in New York in four days in April, with production handled by Tom Wilson and Chas Chandler, former Animals bassist and Hendrix's producer. Although quickly made (most tracks are first takes) and not particularly well-recorded, The Soft Machine is now considered a classic of the extraordinarily creative post-psychedelic, pre-progressive, period of the late 60's... and quite rightly so!
In May, a guitarist by the name of Andy Summers (also on the earlier Hendrix US tour, backing Eric Burdon... later in The Police, of course!) joined, for the second leg of the American tour (July-September), but left mid-tour. Disagreements on the musical direction began to arise between Ayers and Wyatt-Ratledge, leading to their parting company after the tour was completed. Wyatt stayed in Hollywood to work with Jimi Hendrix, while Ratledge and Ayers flew back to Europe. In December 1968, Wyatt was contacted by Probe, who had just released the first album, to discuss possible live dates by the band to promote it. With Ayers unavailable, Hugh Hopper was asked to join (he was about to sell his bass!), and after a month of rehearsal, the new line-up made its live debut at the Royal Albert Hall in February, a few days before entering Olympic Studios to record the second album.
For Volume Two and most of the subsequent gigs, the trio was augmented by Hugh's brother, Brian, who played tenor saxophone. This was the symptom of the band's gradual evolution towards jazz, clearly apparent on the album. In the Autumn of 1969, a permanent brass section was recruited from pianist Keith Tippett's jazz band : Elton Dean on alto sax, Marc Charig on trumpet, Nick Evans on trombone. Another sax (and flute) player, Lyn Dobson, was added following Dean's recommendation. The resulting septet was only together for a few weeks, recording BBC sessions in November and touring France quite extensively towards the end of the year; Evans and Charig then left to pursue successful careers on the European jazz scene (although they guested on subsequent albums).
During the first months of 1970, Soft Machine recorded Third, a double album which included four sidelong compositions. Hugh Hopper's angular Facelift was a collage of live performances made in January, and is the only track featuring Lyn Dobson, who had left by the time the studio sessions for the other four sides had begun. Mike Ratledge contributed two sides : Slightly All The Time, a progressive jazz masterpiece made all the more successful by the inclusion of the Backwards theme (bookended by Hopper's transition theme Noisette) from previous live medleys; and Out-Bloody-Rageous, which showcased the band's use of tape loops and featured strong group interplay. Finally, Moon In June, Robert Wyatt's side, was something of a farewell to Soft Machine's original style, the last piece by the band ever to feature vocals; it was actually a montage of several old songs, some of them dating back to the 1967 Gomelsky sessions, but superbly linked together (Wyatt had recorded a demo of the suite in the USA in 1968). A good indication that the rest of the band weren't too keen on pursuing that kind of direction was that, although uncredited as such, Moon In June was largely a solo performance by Wyatt, who played organ and keyboard bass as well as drums and vocals. Hopper and Ratledge only appeared for a brief instrumental extravaganza at the end of the main part; Wyatt didn't even ask them to play on the rest.
So by mid-1970, Soft Machine had become a purely instrumental band; Wyatt being the only member wanting vocals in the music, the majority won... During the summer, Wyatt recorded his first solo album, The End Of An Ear, on the sleeve of which he described himself as an 'out-of-work pop singer'... But a collection on pop songs the album was not : no lyrics, no conventional singing, rather a very experimental collection of mainly improvised material (the titles of the tracks referred to several Canterbury figures : To Caravan And Brother Jim etc.) except for a cover of Gil Evans' Las Vegas Tango, with the voice used as an instrument and heavily treated, mostly through tape speed alterations. The results were, depending on one's taste, unlistenable or startlingly original and unique.
In the autumn, following a controversial appearance at the Royal Albert Hall for the famous 'Promenade Concerts' in August, the 'classic' line-up of Wyatt , Hopper, Ratledge and Dean recorded 4, in fact their first and last studio album as a quartet, although this incarnation would more or less survive for one more year. This effort carried on in the vein of Third's instrumental tracks (with a welcome return to the septet format on the extraordinary Teeth and Virtually), and in this respect was an impressive achievement, although the complete lack of vocals made some listeners wonder if the band could still go on under the name Soft Machine... If only they'd known how many changes of personnel and musical direction were still ahead of them!!!
1971 was a year of experimentation, as one can tell from listening to the radio sessions recorded on this period. Several musicians (various brass players, string-bassist Roy Babbington and drummer Phil Howard) were sometimes added to the basic quartet, furthering the evolution towards jazz. That same year, Elton Dean released his first solo album, in much the same vein, with his own Elton Dean Band musicians (Howard and bassist Neville Whitehead), and Ratledge among the guests.
When Wyatt finally left in July, later forming Matching Mole, Phil Howard was a natural choice as replacement, but he rapidly left, midway through the sessions of the 5 album - his style was considered too 'free' by Hopper and Ratledge... and a good majority of the audiences who had seen the band play that autumn. He was in turn replaced by John Marshall, one of the very best drummers in Britain, formerly of Nucleus among other bands. With Marshall in, Soft Machine rapidly moved away from the straighter jazz feel of 5, into more 'jazz-rock' territory, which apparently wasn't to the taste of Elton Dean, who left in May 1972. He subsequently worked with mainly acoustic jazz ensembles, although he was also (quite surprisingly) involved in the Dutch 'progressive rock' band Supersister in 1973-74.
Ex-Nucleus pianist/reeds player Karl Jenkins wasn't really a replacement for Dean, as his multiple talents, including that of composer, rapidly made him the co-leader of Soft Machine with Ratledge. With the impressive Hopper/Marshall rhythm section at their disposal, the pair could allow themselves any level of complexity and musical variety. Six Album, released in early 1973, was a double half-studio, half-live set. The latter showcases the interplay between the four musicians, while the former is more experimental, focussing on Jenkins and Ratledge's dual keyboard patterns and the use of Echoplex, most notably on the hypnotic The Soft Weed Factor.
In May 1973, Hugh Hopper decided that four years in Soft Machine was enough and that it was time to move on to pastures new. He had just released his first solo album, 1984, and went on to release several others, and work with countless jazz and progressive bands throughout the decade, and again from the mid-eighties onwards after he stopped playing for five years. Roy Babbington, who had guested on a couple of Soft albums a double-bass player, was a natural replacement, except for the fact that he now concentrated on his 6-string bass guitar. The resulting line-up recorded 7, a natural progression from the studio album of Six Album, with shorter compositions and even less jazz influence.
Perhaps sensing that, for the first time in the band's existence, Soft Machine's music tended to repeat itself, it was decided to add guitarist Allan Holdsworth to the line-up in December 1973. The resulting quintet (which toured North America in early 1974) was a fusion powerhouse, with possibly the best British drummer and guitarist at that time. Consequently, the music took a decidedly 'rocky' character, as documented on Bundles, recorded in the summer of 1974 but only released in the spring of 1975. This was the first Soft album not to bear a number, a sign that times were surely changing : the band had left CBS for EMI/Harvest, and also left the underground scene for a more mainstream approach at a time when American fusion bands were a dominant force (and reached their commercial peak).
Holdsworth left shortly after the release of Bundles, and recommended fellow guitarist John Etheridge as a possible replacement. This proved satisfactory and in the summer of 1975 Soft Machine embarked on an ambitious, but ill-fated, package tour of European arenas with the likes of Caravan and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. From then on, the band's popularity waned as it failed to sustain the momentum initially gathered by its new orientation. Ratledge, the last remaining founding member, left in March 1976, leaving Soft Machine's reins in the hands of Jenkins and Marshall. Softs appeared later that year, with Alan Wakeman (the cousin of famous keyboard wizard Rick) on saxophone; a shortlived addition as he left after less than six months, to be replaced by a violin player, Ric Sanders. Babbington also left after a last appearance in Edinburgh, and was replaced first by Brand X's Percy Jones, and finally Steve Cook (ex-Gilgamesh/Mirage). The live album Alive And Well, Recorded In Paris (1978) documented a series of French gigs in July 1977. Soft Machine subsequently ground to a halt, perfoming its last gig in Bremen in December 1978.
Soft Machine was active again for one more album - the purely studio affair, Land Of Cockayne (1981), with an all-star line-up featuring Allan Holdsworth and Jack Bruce alongside Jenkins and Marshall, but a rather uninspiring mixture of American fusion and orchestral 'muzak' - and a series of gigs at London's Ronnie Scotts club in the summer of 1984, with a line-up of Jenkins, Marshall, John Etheridge, Dave MacRae and bassist Paul Carmichael. Plans for further studio and live projects never materialized and indeed probably never will, as Karl Jenkins has found far more lucrative activities in the field of library, TV and advertisement music, most notably with his Adiemus project.
About Soft Machine Legacy
It all too common to hear of reunion bands that are nothing more than tired retreads of past glories. Soft Machine (Legacy) is something completely different: a band that references the spirit of its roots in seminal British jazz/rock group Soft Machine while avoiding literal homage. The members of Soft Machine (Legacy) demonstrate that the best artists are those who look forward - and if they do occasionally glance back, it from a fresh vantage point.
If Soft Machine constantly changing personnel resulted in equally constant stylistic shifts - from the psychedelic post-Dadaist pop of its early days, to the abstruse writing and jagged free improvisation of its middle period and fusion-centric final days - it was because every member brought a different perspective to the band. The same philosophy applies today to Soft Machine (Legacy), although the broader diversity of environments everyone has seen since those early days creates an opportunity for even greater musical cross-pollination.
The original Soft Machine Legacy line-up, a continuation of the short-lived Soft Works (Allan Holdsworth, Elton Dean, Hugh Hopper, John Marshall; June 2002-February 2004), came together in October of 2004, featuring bassist Hugh Hopper and saxophonist/pianist Elton Dean - members of what many consider to be the classic Soft Machine group responsible for 1970 Third, 1971 Fourth and 1972's Fifth. Guitarist John Etheridge joined Soft Machine in 1975 replacing Allan Holdsworth, and was featured on 1976 Softs and 1978 Alive & Well: Recorded in Paris. Drummer John Marshall joined Soft Machine halfway through the sessions for 1972 Fifth. Remaining with the band until it folded in the early 1980s, he the link that tied the original Soft Machine Legacy together - the only member to have played with Hopper, Dean and Etheridge. When Dean passed away unexpectedly in February of 2006, woodwind multi-instrumentalist Theo Travis was recruited, bringing a fresh perspective and youthful edge to this evolutionary and unequivocally contemporary group.
Travis has recorded space rock with psychedelic jam band Gong, ambient electronica with Cipher and contemporary jazz with a Canterbury slant on his own albums including 2004 Earth to Ether, and was occasional member on some Phil Miller In Cahoots and Hatfield & The North live appearances. With Soft Machine (Legacy) he adds his own eclecticism to Hopper oblique and sometimes riff-based writing, Etheridge high velocity rock edge and Marshall powerful ability to both interact and groove, regardless of context. Together, the forward-thinking mindset, history and experience that unite Hopper, Etheridge, Marshall and Travis make Soft Machine Legacy a thoroughly modern group with limitless possibilities.
Two records for MoonJune - 2005 Live in Zandaam and the eponymous 2006 studio follow-up, both with Dean, and DVD New Morning, Paris Concert on German label In-Akustik, made it clear that this was no mere grab at nostalgia, while still only scratching the surface of the group potential.
While occasionally breathing new life into classic Soft Machine compositions, the emphasis is on new material that provides ample space for exploration and interaction.
With Etheridge and Hopper already utilizing real-time sampling and looping, the addition of Travis and his remarkable system of ambitronics promises to further expand the sonic potential of Soft Machine Legacy. Travis may not have played in Soft Machine but he grew up influenced by the group and is an equal part of the adventurous spirit that has been carried forward into Soft Machine Legacy.
With a new album in the works that promises to be even harder-edged and open-ended than its previous efforts, Soft Machine (Legacy) is that rarest of groups - a collection of musicians with a shared history, linked together in a tradition of experimentation and unfettered improvisational abandon. No dinosaur band this, Soft Machine Legacy is a group who may occasionally glance to the past, but only with both feet moving inevitably towards the future.