Soft Machine - Beat Instrumental - December 1969
"INDEPENDENCE" and "freedom" are words much used today to justify any act from dossing down in Piccadilly to running naked through Trafalgar Square, but Soft Machine use these words with such liberal enthusiasm, that they don't give the impression of just quoting well-worn cliches.
With two LPs under their belts – the first of which was released in America only – the Soft Machine trio strongly believe that the individual and musical freedom they try to practise has formed a great part of the way their career has progressed.
Like so many of our talented groups, they have made a big impact in the States, but have found it very hard to become accepted here. However, having emerged from the psychedelic morass, they have long since dropped the light show as part of their act, and are now intent on earning a reputation on the British scene.
Socially, these three – Mike Ratledge (keyboard), Hugh Hopper (bass) and Robert Wyatt (drums) – don't go around together much, but guard and encourage the right to preserve their own interests.
"We're all horrifyingly independent of each other," said Robert when I met the group recently, "and we're always putting each other down."
An ominous statement when isolated, but the group feel that through this they can progress as a unit. "When we play, we play as individuals. One of us does what he wants to do and drags the others along. If anyone feels bad he is involved with the others and his interest is maintained. This ensures that nobody becomes a passenger. We must be one of the few groups that haven't any passengers, and we're each of us strong enough to have a group built round us and carry it off, but we feel that as individuals we complement one another musically."
This musical independence produces the Soft Machine sound which is impossible to categorise. "We play everything we have ever learnt from rock, pop, jazz – the lot. We're not frustrated jazz musicians, which is what a lot of people think. On the contrary, we like to feel that most jazz musicians are frustrated Soft Machine members."
They never seek to smother one another, merely blend together to produce their own sound. As Robert said: "I'd love to play solid rock, but I would never dream of asking the others to play it all the time."
Another form of independence they're looking for is financial. They wish they had enough money to be able to record more, because they're dissatisfied with both their LPs so far. Their second album is the only one to be released in Britain, and they all feel that it no longer represents the type of music that they are playing.
"The album was recorded months ago, and there's only one track on it that we still play. Admittedly this is because a lot of it is too technical to play on stage, but the record just isn't us at the moment. What we would like is a bit more bread so that we can be free to go into a studio and record how and what we want.
"Time is the big problem. On the last album, because their wasn't much money around, everybody was rushed and the simple and beautiful ideas that we had just didn't come across. They all became fuzzed. It's so frustrating because we know our potential is much greater. The recording studio is a very expensive instrument to play, and not many people can afford to play it well.
"If we don't get more studio experience how can we be expected to learn and progress on record. We're very grateful to the recording company for everything, but actually we truthfully wish that less money had been spent on promotion, and more on getting the record together. At the moment we think we would prefer people to come and see us live, rather than judge us from the album."
Don't get the idea that Soft Machine are content to sit back and dwell on past failures, and dream of future glory. The lads are at present working very hard, and are optimistic about future recording as they have finished some tapes with which they are very happy. They have finished writing the musical score for a French television series, and they have hopes that a film score is in the offing. They also have plans to expand their sound on stage, something that they have always wanted to do.
"Whenever we've got the bread, we're going to play with a line-up of three saxes and a trombone. Two of the saxes are coming from Keith Tippet's band, the other from Mike West's band, and the trombone from Carl Jenkins. We've always felt a bit restricted on stage in the past, but this should really improve our sound."
If they were each given total freedom, what would they all do? The answers came back very quickly. Robert would like "to play rock with soul, do more record production and maybe write more music." Hugh would "produce and write music," while Mike would "do music – period – and extend my interest in the cinema."
There seems to be little chance that the members of Soft Machine will become totally independent and free of each other and go their own ways, for, as I was leaving, Robert said to me: "You know, I couldn't leave Soft Machine, I would feel I was missing something great. I just have to be part of this exciting music we're making." Mike and Hugh just nodded.