Soft Machine - Downbeat - July, 11 1968
THE SOFT MACHINE
By Mike Zwerin
THE SOFT MACHINE IS the world, a woman, a book by William
Burroughs -or a psychedelic pop group from London. Whatever
it is, it recently toured the United States as part of a
package with the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Enveloped in Mark Boyle's moving, abstract projections,
floating in many colors on top of them, the Soft Machine
presents quite a sight onstage, though not an unusual one
in our time. They wear the accouterments expected of the
prototype-shoulder-length hair, hats from thrift shops,
tiny dark glasses, paisley shirts, beads and bells. Drummer
Robert Wyatt sometimes plays dressed only in a bikini bottom.
In short, they look like three freaky dropouts.
Things are not always as they appear. Organist Michael Ratledge
went to Oxford on a scholarship, winning the college prize
in philosophy in 1964 and later taking his honors degree
in psychology and philosophy. He describes himself as having
a "cool but absent mind... I'm very much the kind of person
who does what's there. I'd planned to do graduate work in
American poetry, of all things, but l applied too late for
the grant. The same day I learned it was lost, a lady friend
of Kevin's (Kevin Ayers, the group's third member) gave
him her mink coat. We sold it, bought an organ, and started
an avant-garde jazz group. But London wasn't ready for us
yet. Then we found we could play the way we wanted, call
it 'pop', and have a chance to be heard.
" Robert's parents are liberals, old friends of Robert Graves.
He spent two summers as Graves' house guest in Deya, Majorca,
and the poet and novelist is something of a hero to him.
Robert smiles easily and well.
the most outlandish dresser of the three he is not unconscious
of the bag it puts him in or of his impact on "squares."
"I had a hard time deciding about my hair-had it cut
a couple of times. Any kind of uniform bothers me. But when
I saw the Rolling Stones for the first time, I decided I
just wanted to look that way, regardless. We have been cal!ed
a 'psychedelic' group, which implies we all take acid....
and that turns us into some kind of sideshow. I resent that.
What I do, I do myself. I don't need any drugs to play the
Kevin Ayers is more like what coud be cal!ed hippy. On the
group's press release, he is described as follows "...
vocals bassguitar leadguitar songwriter arranger illustrator
poet eater. Born Herne Bay U.K. 1944 (Leo) educated Singapore
and Chelmsford Essex height 73". Left school early
and hung about London Canterbury Canary Islands Casablanca
Majorca writing his songs en route. Has the gift for writing
most commercially magical songs. (A boy but wild when moody.)
Kevin is also soft-spoken and lucid. "Our music,"
he said, "is just an extension of what we were fooling
around with when we were all living together in Canterbury.
It's the way we prefer to spend time, rather than p!aying
cricket or golf. The fact that we are working, earning bread,
is kind of accidental. When we play concerts, we don't think
about things like pleasing teenyboppers. Our music is different."
How is it different? We were all in his small room in New
York City's Wel!ington Hotel on Seventh Ave., the 6 o'clock
news going unwatched on television. Kevin was stretched
out on the unmade bed, his face half covered by silky hair.
He propped his head on one band and thought for a few seconds.
"I guess it's because it isn't based on the blues,
really. We kind of stay away from those familiar patterns.
That's probably why we haven't made it yet. Managers are
only interested in 'can they make money.' I think this tour
may have started ours thinking maybe we can. The audience
response has been fantastic."
ONE OFTEN HEARS about young pop groups making fortunes
but rarely about the others. When I first met Michael, Kevin
and Robert last summer, they were pretty much stranded on
the French Riviera. Along with two road managers, they had
crossed from London and driven to the Riviera jammed in
a panel truck full of electronic hardware. They were scheduled
to work all summer as part of the "beer festival"
on the beach of St. Aygulf. After a week, they were fired.
It seems the wrong element (penniless) was hanging around
the discotheque but not drinking beer.
Then the trio floated around St. Tropez for some time, sleeping
on floors or the beach. Finally, Jean Jacques Lebel hired
them to be the second half of his Festival Libre, and they
performed each night after Pablo Picasso's play, Desire
Caught by the Tail. It was a good time, but as is so
often the case, they were paid in inverse proportion to
their enjoyment of their own music.
So far they have invested more than their salary in amplifiers,
speakers, guitars and other such things. A new level of
affluence was reached on the tour of the United States:
$100 a week. Out of that, however, they paid Boyle because
they feel his projections are essential, an opinion their
management doesn't share.
Michael has written a scholarly paper on Boyle. "Mark
Boyle's 'events' are content with a direct presentation
of the reality that already exists, with no self-interposition
from the artist... Whereas 'happening' implies agency, 'event'
is the effect of something happening; to perform a 'happening'
it is necessary to act, but one cannot act an 'event.' It
is sufficient to realize the fact that a 'happening' has
occurred. An 'event' is a discovery of what is happening,
a 'happening' an active invention-fact as against act."
Boyle, a Scot with a melodious brogue and establishment-length
hair, has eyes that blaze with warmth and involvement. He
"The most complete change an individual can effect
in his environment, short of destroying it, is to change
attitudes to it. This is my objective...
I am certain that, as a result, we
will go about so alert that we will discover the excitement
of continually digging our environment as an object/experience/drama
from which we can extract an esthetic experience so brilliant
and strong that the environment itself is transformed."
In 1966, Boyle obtained sophisticated projectors that made
possible his most ambitious "pieces" entitled
"Earth, Air, Fire and Water," and "Bodily
Fluids and Functions." In the latter, human body fluids,
such as blood, saliva, bile,vomit and sperm were projected
onto a large screen together with electroencephalogram and
electrocardiogram responses of a couple making love, while
the sounds of the bodies were amplified throughout the auditorium.
Although his projections over the Soft Machine are somewhat
more modest, they add an exciting visual dimension to the
music. Unlike most other light shows, he uses no stills
and no objective images of any kind. The light and movement,
formed by liquid chemicals, are determined by chance factors.
Michael writes, "... These presentations make it possible
for the spectator to rediscover the 'esthetic' aspect of
our environment that has become hidden by accretions of
use and habit and to become aware of... environments that
were previously inaccessible to us."
The Soft Machine is not part of anybody's musical establishment.
The jazz establishment will not accept it because of the
rock format, instrumentation and appearance. At the same
time it is not commercial enough for the pop world. And
although composer Earle Brown loves the group - he may write
a piece for it - "serious" musicians right now
don't consider this sort of thing legitimate.
Despite occasional lack of control and a tendency to extend
length beyond content, the Soft Machine is unique and satisfying,
an impressive synthesis of various elements from Karl-Heinz
Stockhausen, John Cage, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and
Its cloudy sound moves to unexpected places in weird ways.
Everything is filtered through a fuzz box, an electronic
gadget that intentionally distorts sound. (For an example,
listen to the introduction of the Rolling Stones' I Can't
Get No Satisfaction.) There is a good deal of collective
improvisation. Sets are more like suites, each 'tune"
running into the next. Unlike most rock groups, the Soft
Machine makes crescendos and decrescendos and incorporates
I have never heard (or seen) any thing quite like it.