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 The Soft Machine - Downbeat - July 11, 1968


By Mike Zwerin

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.

Although 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 drums."

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 explains himself:

"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 rock itself.

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 silence.

I have never heard (or seen) any thing quite like it.

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