BBC In Concert 1971
 (Soft Machine & Heavy Friends)

Soft Machine


FACELIFT - N° 11 - September 1993

SOFT MACHINE - Live In Concert - Windsong WINDCD 031

From a period in their history which produced a prolific number of tape bootlegs, this official Soft Machine release from the BBC archives spotlights one of their more unusual performances. Many regard the period between 1969 and 1971 as the finest in the band's history, although those distrustful of the Softs' jazz leanings watched the vocal contribution of Robert Wyatt (and Kevin Ayers before him) dissipate to nothing by the time this set was recorded. This release probably represents as free a blow as the band were to extend to, before the tighter structures of the Karl Jenkins version reined the band in once more. What's unusual about this concert is that the band's accepted line-up by this time was the quartet of Hugh Hopper, Mike Ratledge, Robert Wyatt and Elton Dean. Yet now we see the band not only augmented by Elton Dean's freeblowers on all three tracks, but on the first two more or less hijacked. 'Blind Badger' and 'Neo Caliban Grides' are both taken from the admittedly excellent Elton Dean solo LP, two of the more accessible moments from that release, yet still demanding listening. Neither Hugh Hopper nor Robert Wyatt appear on 'Blind Badger' - the line-up incorporates instead bassist Neville Whitehead, cornet player Marc Charig and drummer Phil Howard, who appear, on 'Grides' too. So this part of the concert is very much Elton Dean territory, reflective of the Soft Machine's direction at that time, if not necessarily their normal sound or make-up, given the absence of Hopper and Wyatt.

The medley which comprises the third track is more recognisable, since the band is cut to its basic quartet until the final moments, and plays entirely Soft Machine compositions. Even given the rousing big band cacophony of 'Teeth' (where the band arc, joined by Charig, trombonist Paul Nieman and Roy Babbington on acoustic bass, as well as an understandably bemused Ronnie Scott), the medley's finest moments are Elton Dean's solo parts on 'Kings and Queens' and the everimpressive 'Out Bloody Rageous'. I never tire of hearing new versions of the exploratory, stretched-out themes that dominated Third and Fourth, not least because every version asks new questions or showcases a different player. It's common knowledge that Robert Wyatt was alienated from the band within its latter stages, but his inventive drumming provides the bulk of the backdrop for 'Eamonn Andrews' and is a tower of strength through 'All White'.

Whilst the Softs' Proms release represented a slice of cultural history, this collection finds the band on better form, yet on far from safe ground given the uniqueness of both the lineup and material. There are many better documents nf the live history of this band but since most are only taped bootlegs, it's unlike', that we'll ever hear them in this sort of sound quality. Certainly in such a fascinating environment.