Soft Machine

Soft Machine were an English jazz-rock band that was active between the late 1960s and early 1980s. They were among the first rock acts to make use of asymmetric and compound meters.

Due to numerous lineup changes, the first and final Soft Machine albums feature none of the same members. Nonetheless, the nameplate was passed between dedicated hands that ensured quality control throughout the band’s existence, from the avant-psychedelia of their early recordings to the electrified jazz of subsequent years.

Members: Mike Ratledge (organ, keyboards, flute, 1966-76), Robert Wyatt (drums, vocals, piano, bass, 1966-71), Kevin Ayers (bass, guitar, vocals, 1966-68), Daevid Allen (guitar, 1966-67), Andy Summers (guitar, 1968), Hugh Hopper (bass, acoustic guitar, alto saxophone, 1969-73), Elton Dean (alto saxophone, saxello, electric piano, 1969-72), Lyn Dobson (flute, soprano saxophone, 1969-70), Mark Charig (cornet, 1969), Nick Evans (trombone, 1969), Phil Howard (drums, 1971), John Marshall (drums, 1972-84, 2015-present), Karl Jenkins (keyboards, oboe, baritone saxophone, soprano saxophone, 1972-84), Roy Babbington (bass, double bass, 1973-76, 2015-present), Allan Holdsworth (guitar, 1973-75, 1978, 1980), John Etheridge (guitar, 1975-77, 1984, 2015-present), Alan Wakeman (saxophone, 1976), Ray Warleigh (flute, saxophone, 1976, 1980, 1984), Ric Sanders (violin, 1976-78), Steve Cook (bass, 1976-78), Dave MacRae (keyboards, 1984), Paul Carmichael (bass, 1984)


Soft Machine was formed in 1966 by singer/bassist Kevin Ayers, keyboardist Mike Ratledge, and Australian guitarist Daevid Allen. Ayers hailed from the Canterbury R&B band The Wilde Flowers, which featured several future members of Soft Machine and Caravan. Allen had come to England five years earlier with a penchant for beat authors and free jazz, which inspired his prior combo the Daevid Allen Trio.

Ratledge was a psychology graduate from University College, Oxford, who had played classical piano as a teenager with clarinetist (and eventual Wilde Flower) Brian Hopper. In 1963, he briefly played with the Daevid Allen Trio, which also included two further eventual Wilde Flowers, bassist Hugh Hopper (Brian’s brother) and drummer Robert Wyatt. The latter was soon invited to join the new combo, thus completing the first Soft Machine lineup. Their name was taken from the 1961 novel The Soft Machine by William S. Burroughs.

Soft Machine were quickly swept into London’s burgeoning psychedelic rock scene. As 1967 loomed, the band played the first two Fridays at the underground UFO Club alongside another up-and-coming act, Pink Floyd. That February, the first Softs single appeared on Polydor: “Love Makes Sweet Music” b/w “Feelin’ Reelin’ Squeelin’,” produced respectively by ex-Animal Chas Chandler and Kim Fowley. The band cut further tracks with Swiss producer Giorgio Gomelsky (Brian Auger, Julie Driscoll and the Trinity, Blossom Toes) but these were withheld at the time over a money dispute.

During the summer of 1967, Soft Machine toured Europe and became popular in France, where their performed a 40-minute rendition of “We Did It Again” at the Nuit Psychédélique. On returning to the U.K., Allen was denied reentry for having overstayed his visa on his last visit. He settled in Paris, where he assembled the space-rock/psych ensemble Gong.

The remaining trio spent the first half of 1968 opening for management mates the Jimi Hendrix Experience across the U.S. That April, they recorded their self-titled debut album at NYC’s Record Plant Studios with Chandler and Tom Wilson at the console. The Soft Machine features 13 run-together originals, including the opening three “Hope for Happiness” / “Joy of a Toy” / “Hope for Happiness (reprise)” and the (mostly Ayers composed) side two sequence of “Priscilla” / “Lullabye Letter” / “We Did It Again” / “Plus Belle qu’une Poubelle” / “Why Are We Sleeping?” The album was released in December 1968 on Probe/ABC. Original copies feature a circular cut-out, clockwork-insert cover.

On the second leg of their ’68 U.S. tour, Soft Machine was joined by ex-Dantalian’s Chariot (and future Police) guitarist Andy Summers. After two weeks, he was axed by Ayers, who left himself soon thereafter for a solo career. During a brief band hiatus, Wyatt demoed his song “Slow Walkin’ Talk” with Hendrix on bass.

Back in England, Soft Machine reconvened with ex-Wilde Flowers bassist Hugh Hopper, who’d recently served as the Softs road manager.


Discography:

  • The Soft Machine (1968)
  • Volume Two (1969)
  • Third (1970)
  • Fourth (1971)
  • Fifth (1972)
  • Six (1973)
  • Seven (1973)
  • Bundles (1975)
  • Softs (1976)
  • Alive & Well: Recorded in Paris (1978)
  • Land of Cockayne (1981)

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