Mike Ratledge Interview - Oz - n°18 - February, 1969
MIKE RATLEDGE INTERVIEW
The interviewee prefaced the text below with the fact that he had no opinions on any subjects. It was 'ridiculous to attempt an interview.' The tape recorder was switched on. The interviewer gives the impression of being both stupid and innocent — which is quite genuine. For him, pop begins and ends with the Four Seasons & the work of Phil Spector - a fact of no particular relevance.
F W: Are you an Underground group?
M R: That can mean two things. Are we regarded as the subject of cultisms in the Underground? The answer to which may or may not be true, it is not for me to say. The second thing is whether that is desirable. I would say that none of us wish to be a cult in the Underground. The Underground is basically what Taylor Meade described it as — 'Doing something for nothing.' And that's what it's turned out to be. When you're asked to do an Underground benefit, and the promoter starts talking to you in terms of the art you're offering, you know very well that you won't get any money for it, you'll even have to pay your own expenses. It means no organization, the stage will be a shambles, the P A will be hopeless and everything else. But good things have still come out of the Underground. The U F 0 was good when Hoppy was running it. It was well run. But the Underground is usually shambollic.
F W: Would you like to be disociated with the Underground, move out, make a lot of money, a lot - like Hendrix?
M R: I'd hate to have the position of Hendrix in terms of his work schedule and what it's doing to him. I'd hate to be on the road months at a time, working every night and never rehearsing. I mean, still playing numbers like Hey Joe after three years to an audience that shows it doesn't listen to what you're playing because the
applause at the beginning of a number when it identifies it is louder than the applause you get at the end. That's all they're interested in.
F W: Off-stage sounds like a nightmare. What's it like?
M R: Exactly as they say it is - working with Hendrix it is anyway. And travel in the States with a pop group is like a luxury purgatory. You stay in Hiltons, then a Cadillac Fleetwood takes you to the airport first thing in the morning. Another Cadillac Fleetwood meets you, takes you to the hotel. You wash, the Cadillac Fleetwood takes you to the gig and back to the Hilton. You sleep. In the end it completely destroys your sense of geography. You're manipulated like a piece of baggage. You have no control over the direction your life takes. It's like those experiments where they deprive rats of control over their bodies. In the end you suffer from depersonalisation, loss of identity. It sounds heavy but it does happen like that. There is no longer any 'I' that travels, the travel subsumes you, there is no such thing as place because air destroys that as a form of travel. And America is constructed in such a way that it denies any individual differences from place to place. This is the blueprint for America.
F W: Alright.
M R: What do you mean alright? I haven't finished yet.
F W: O K What about American groups?
M R: There are the Mothers' and the Spirit. They were the only two groups I was interested in, or impressed with at all. (pause) There are four types of groups. Firstly, the group that has technical proficiency on their instruments and have got ideas of their own. The Second has ideas but no technical proficiency. Then those that have no ideas of their own but have the proficiency. And lastly, those who have neither ideas nor technical proficiency.
F W: But they have publicity.
M R: Yes. The Mothers and the Spirit come into the first group. There are thousands of other groups that have either technique or proficiency. Or blues groups doing blues arrangements better than the people did them originally. Then there are weird underground groups in places like Chicago who have ideas but no proficiency - like the M C Five. But most are not worth mentioning because they are so technically bad.
F W: What about the Doors?
M R: The Doors I can't really see, except as a sociological phenomenon. The Doors are a chance for all the little teenyboppers in the States to think they're digging something avant garde when they're not at all. They have, got all the symptoms of being avant garde. They've got the proselytising lyrics, the sex figure of Morrison who masturbates on stage, so he's really iconoclastic and you're worshipping an iconoclast — who is not actually moving the art forward in any way. They go into old blues riffs, none of them are proficient, they have no authority on stage, their sound is appallingly weak. In all the ways that pop music has broken through in five years, they don't possess any of these features that caused the breakthrough. Hendrix contributed a new searing sound. But they have no sound identity. They're contributing nothing musically.
F W: Groups like the Jefferson Airplane — how do they fit into the scale you just suggested?
M R: The J A and the Big Brother Holding Co. are big cult figures on the American underground.
I've never seen the J A live, but apparently they're much better than on record. They're too tidy on record for me and the soloists aren't what they're reputed to be. They have strong voices sure. But there's still a blues tyranny in America basically.
To be a substantial hit you have to be a blues group. B B & T H C are not an avant garde group. They're just a big super-charged, super-heat blues group. You read in the papers in England about the
avant garde in America, their names — when you hear them they're just blues groups.
F W: You started as a straight jazz group and moved into pop. This isn't typical, because the usual group starts with blues and ends up with an avant garde reputation. But you never were a blues
M R: This jazz/pop thing is very difficult. There are two types — the jazz group that goes into pop, and the pop group that goes vaguely into jazz. Don Ellis and Gary Burton have gone into pop. And in a
peculiar way they tend to lose something. Whereas pop groups going into jazz don't. Jazz groups going into pop tend to misconstrue what the actual excitement about pop is. They tend to simplify their structures, but what makes pop is the sound. The excitement of the sound is something- which somebody like Don Ellis
hasn't got, nor Gary Burton. So they lose both ways. Whereas pop groups in jazz, if they're any good, maintain the excitement of the sound. The best example of this is the Mothers', although they're not really a Jazz/Pop group — there's no such middle
stream. But they use devices as in jazz, and they have jazz soloists. But they still have the tough rock sound. The Spirit is another example of this.
F W: Do you have a tough rock sound?
M R: It's tough. I don't know whether it's rock. It's very distorted and individual.
F W: If somebody who manufactures hits (like Spector used to) came to you and asked to record for him — would you?
M R: No, largely because you can't calculates hit ever. It's chancy. So you'd be left recording something which is neither a success nor a pleasure to perform. The only thing to do is to do what you really like doing. (pause) Supposing Jim Webb came up to me with a song. That's a better example. I wouldn't mind doing it if I liked the song — but not as the Soft Machine. That would be unfair on what little public we have. But I love playing with other people whatever music they play. If Kevin in the group did a pretty-pretty single I wouldn't mind playing on it with him. But not as a Soft Machine. It just confuses the consumer.
F W: How do you react to pop journalism?
M R: The basic trouble is that all journalists are outside us. i.e. they don't play instruments, they've certainly never played in a pop group. They probably, until recently, haven't listened to pop music, not until the Beatles. They're not equipped in terms of musical knowledge to make any kind of judgement. If they confined themselves to saying who they liked and didn't like that would be acceptable. Unfortunately, they try to give musical reasons why they approve. These musical reasons tend to become a series of cliches that people bandy around, which usually have no relevance to the people they're talking about. A specific instance is Tony Palmer who claims qualities for The Cream which they don't possess. He says they expand the structure of common pop song chords, whereas they're still using blues structures basically, and more than any other group around. It's the same for all groups designated avant garde. It reminds me of the beginning of jazz where they tried to make jazz respectable by comparing jazz musicians to Stravinsky & Schoenberg & Bartok. But this is confusing the form because each medium has its own syntax. To make cross-judgements is confusing. It doesn't respect the identity of the medium, like all people writing film criticism in terms of theatre. Thereby you miss the basic point of what cinema is. So Tony Palmer and the rest of them — when they talk about the Beatles being better or as good as Schubert or Schoenberg or whatever are missing the point about what makes Pop special and different from these people. Cross-judgements simply confuse rather than illuminate. Apart from not being really desirable.
F W: So how would you evaluate the Soft Machine in your musical terms?
M R: It's difficult. I think we're using a lot of things that modern jazz is now using. The most recent numbers use time-signatures like 13/4 and 9/4. We're tending to get more onto a completely compositional basis and not the idea of the cyclical song that's repeated. We're getting a way from the idea of a song as a repeated structure A B A. And more onto song as complete composition. With our definite structure, the structure is a straight fifteen minutes which doesn't actually repeat, which is more of a classical procedure if you like, but then that's not saying that we're jazz/pop or that we're classical. That simply confuses it. We have a straight pop sound inasmuch as it's very abrasive, direct and immediate.
Most criticism tends to be based on this pointless comparative system. To say we're like Coltrane or like Cecil Taylor doesn't really help all that much.
F W: Well, you particularly sound like those people to me.
M R: Sometimes it might. But I know that everyone in the group has liked Coltrane at some stage, and the group feeling he got was something one liked. But I prefer to think that we had assimulated it. Because what makes it worth talking about us, or any other group, is what makes them different from the people they've been influenced by.
F W: Is there a pop-musician who even approaches Coltrane as a musician? I'm sorry.
M R: Certainly not in the terms of technique. But they have things which Coltrane doesn't have, and vice versa. I personally don't think that pop has got to the stage where I'd rather listen to any pop group than Coltrane. I'd rather listen to Coltrane any day. You see, you idiot, I don't see that there should be this exclusive choice. Everybody tries to set it up in terms of exclusive preferences.
F W: What of the present claims for pop music, claims which I find pretty screwy, that it is the complete reflection of our time, pop singers being its best interpreters.
M R: As MacIntyre would say - That's either trivial or false. Either you make it tautologically true in terms of retrospective criticism that every artist has always reflected his age — he has no choice. Or it's false because certainly the people one meets in the pop world have no motives in those terms of expressing this thing.
F W: Some of them make these precious claims for themselves.
M R: So do a lot of other people. We all over-estimate our importance, and quite often this is necessary to survive. If you didn't think that you were doing something worthwhile you'd never do it, so
again that's inevitable.
F W: I think pop music's importance is
over-inflated. Why is there this importance
attached to it?
M R: In the last ten years it's been possible to get a lot of money from pop. It was always true of people like Presley. But now the 'star' thing isn't so strong. Today it's friends next door who make a record and become successful or make money. There
can't be a person living who doesn't know through somebody or other a pop group that's actually made a lot of bread. So it draws more and more people into it, like supposed intellectuals and everybody else. There's this possibility of so much money to be made. And in the early fifties there was a beginning of a whole concern with the gap between the cultures. Michael Tippet used to have a big thing about the high brow and low brow culture. With this concern the gap began to narrow. At the same time things were becoming more available.
F W: So if poetry made people a fortune, we'd probably now find thousands of poets - is that what your reasoning?
M R: If you could make a huge amount of bread from writing poetry it would work this way. Money means a/ you'll be a social success b/ you have dozens of chicks c/ it means amazing publicity d/ money must
imply a large audience because nobody makes a lot of money without a huge audience e/ it would have to involve a Personal confrontation.
If all these conditions were satisfied you would find poetry practised by thousands of people.
FW: What about you?
M R: I'd do whatever I like doing. It sounds strange but I don't do things for economie motives. I fantasize about doing things for money like robbing banks, or huge advertising cons, or writing a con novel. But I never do it.
F W: Why not?
M R: Because I'm too fucking lazy, and I have no real conviction that they would ever work.
Both questions and answers ran out at different points in the interview. To start things off it was necessary to establish what the Soft Machine were NOT doing. As below.
M R: There is nothing to connect us with people like Cage in terms of operational procedures. We don't use chance methods like throwing the I Ching, or I.B.M. random charts, or throwing coins or that stuff. Occasionally we have written a piece which is written by chance in that every note and the rhythmic structure of the piece was written by chance. But that's not our basic working procedure.
FW: You play a long number though called WE DID IT AGAIN? What was that all about? For five or six minutes, or more.
M R: Everybody in the group saw it in a different way. Robert saw it as a chance to do soul drumming for thirty minutes or whatever it was. Kevin saw the whole idea of the repeated figure as being spiritual liberation, the ultimate effect.
F W: Being boring?
M R: It was his idea that if you find something boring, a basic Zen concept, then in the end you find it interesting. And there is something in that if you listen to something repeated in the same way your mind changes the structure of it each time, the ear either habituates or forces a change on it itself, which is similar in a way to the stuff Terry Riley's doing. I saw it mainly as an irritant source.
F W: For yourself or the audience?
M R: I saw it directed at the audience. And the only times I wanted to use it was when I felt like saying fuck you to the audience. But Kevin wanted to use it at any time possible. And Robert saw it as a gesture too. Kevin saw it half way between this spiritual liberation thing, and showing how hip we were. These ostenato techniques. I saw it as an irritant source though mainly.
Fletcher Watkins - Michael Broome - Mary Moore