Soft Machine - Jazz & Pop - April 1971
The Soft Machine stirs different associations in different people. Some might think of Claes Oldenberg's soggy typewriters and drums.
For others, it could be William Burroughs' book by that name, a sort of illustrative exercise in man-as nauseated-anal-automaton. The Holy Modal Rounders sang about it. In “Dame Fortune” they told us “... man is just a soft machine...” And then, of course. Mick Jagger mentions the phrase in “Memo from Turner”, something about “the man who hides behind the soft machine.”
But the soft machine in question here is the band by the name... And they may well be the best of all possible soft machines. Now, somehow, in some way, all of these references fit together; somewhere in the world of nihilism, absurdity, Zen, Dada, fatalism and assorted underground phenomena, they are all in the same family: a soft machine is a Soft Machine is a soft machine.
The Soft Machine (de musica) is a strange mixture of personality clashes and uniformly talented musicians. They first got together about five years ago, while bumming around in the south of France. At that time, the members of the group were Mike Ratledge on keyboards, Robert Wyatt on vocals and assorted percussion, and Kevin Ayers on bass guitar. Their main claim to fame was their musical accompaniment for a play, Desire Caught by the Tail, written by that noted dramatist Pablo Picasso... and their seeming penchant for living out On the Road.
A couple of years later, they did a tour of the U.S. with Jimi Hendrix: the general audience reaction at that time was a sort of mild bewilderment: no one was too certain about exactly what they did, but everyone knew that they sure did it in a strange way. You see, in the first place, they didn't sound like either the Beatles or the Stones — not even Chuck Berry. Secondly, their stage presence was a bit on the outlandish side: it wasn't that they carried-on or anything... but they looked so strange. For example, Robert Wyatt caused quite a ripple in the trendy set during their week-long gig at The Scene due to his unusual jacket and tie. (They were painted onto his skin.) Actually, they all looked like a bunch of punk kids, which, I suppose, is exactly what they were.
Shortly after their return to England, their first album was released on Probe records, and received a less than ecstatic reaction from the record-buying public: it was, and still is, a very strange record. The Soft Machine were among the first to espouse a desire to combine jazz and rock music, and their approach to the problem is to this day unique - no one sounds like this. The sleeve notes described it as “rock” music. but I'd say that would be stretching things a bit — it really wasn't rock'n'roll at all. It was more a musical montage, a crazy-quilt, loosely strung together by their own weird idiosyncrasies. Now, while this definitely was not one of the best albums in the world, it did from time to time rise to a peculiar sort of greatness. Robert Wyatt's vocals were haunting, actually beautiful; and while the music was generally on the over-indulgent side, the musicianship was superior. Each song contained something really fine, but somehow, nothing was sufficiently developed or explored; the group seemed hung-up in an effort to turn each song into a rock'n' roll thing, when they could have been much better as something else; it lacked continuity.
One year later, in 1969, the Soft Machine released a second album, Volume Two, also on Probe. Somewhere in-between the two albums, there was a change in personnel: Kevin Ayers left the group, and bass player Hugh Hopper, who had collaborated on some of the songs on the first album, joined them. (Kevin Ayers now has his own group called The Whole World.) The degree of improvement on the second album was phenomenal; the group trimmed off much of the excess baggage, and got into some really interesting things.
This second record was one of those “concept” albums: the first side consisted of ten pieces, collectively named “Rivmic Melodies”, written mostly by Hugh Hopper. Much of the lyric material was straight theater of the absurd, such things as “A Concise British Alphabet, Parts I and II”, amounting to a grand total of 22 seconds of music and 52 letters of the alphabet (A to Z, backwards and forwards). Several of the pieces were simply mental musings. such as “Hulloder”, which starts off “If I were black...” (I'd want to be a big man in the FBI or the CIA, but of course I'm not... etc.); and “Thank You Pierrot Lunaire”, in which they wonder why the audience is there watching, not doing. Personally, I wonder why they chose that title. (Pierrot Lunaire is the name of a cycle of 21 speech-songs written by Arnold Schoenberg in 1912. The pieces were based on the poetry of A. Giraud, who wrote about this weirdo pervert named Pierrot in the moonlight.) Then you have “Have You Ever Been Green?”, in which they offer thanks to “Noel, Mitch and Jim,” among others.
Robert Wyatt also has a go at absurdity with his Pataphysical Introduction, parts I and II. Pataphysical? Assuming that the spelling is dialectic phonetics, like Rivmic, I still can't find such a word in the dictionary. There is “paraphysis: one of the slender sterile filaments borne among the sporogenous or gametogenous organs in cryptogamic plants.” Let's just leave it at “akin to physics” and forget about it. The music which accompanies the title sounds. like what comes through the door at your local cocktail lounge, with even a bit of “These Foolish Things” thrown in… Very funny, really. There is something about this album which reminds me of what The Who Sell Out might sound like, if the Who were the Soft Machine.
Most of the seven songs on this side were written by Mike Ratledge: the melodic lines are fairly analytical, and very difficult and in view of that, Robert Wyatt's vocals are remarkable. This boy can carry a tune. The melodic and harmonic patterns sound rather similar to the 12-tone school of composition. The rhythms, actually polyrhythms, although still somewhat embryonic, seem to come from Medieval sources and their Twentieth Century adaptations. Once again, the lyrics are pretty absurd; for example, “...time wasted, time that could be spent completely nude, bare naked...” from “Pig”. However, Ratledge's compositions seem to be more sound-oriented, while Hopper's lean more towards idea-orientation. I could probably write pages about this album —it's that interesting – but skip that and simply suggest that you buy a copy. Although it's two years old, it is still way ahead of most of this year's music, both in concept and execution.
1970 gave birth to yet another album, Third. Hopper, Wyatt and Ratledge are still with us, despite any number of intra-group hassles, but someone new has been added: sax player Elton Dean, who can not be over-rated. On record, but especially live, this man is brilliant; his presence seems to have added a new dimension to the group, a control of feeling and mood which was often lacking in the past. Everything about the group seems to have been streamlined in the past year. The album cover is a perfect example: the first two covers were complicated, on the gimmicky side, illustrating that, in their minds perhaps "woman is just a soft machine." (Bah!)
The third cover is different, simply black lettering on a sienna background and actually, the effect is more dramatic. Everything is more effective, totally uncluttered. The first album, precocious child that it was, had 13 songs on two side; the second (adolescent prodigy'?) contained 17 songs on two side; the third, a double album. has only four songs, one each by Wyatt and Hopper and two by Ratledge. This is the first really mature work, and each piece is given ample time for growth. Each man seems to have found his direction here, and although the paths are quite divergent, the musicians seem to function equally well in any environment. Hugh Hopper's composition “Facelift” seems to float somewhere in outer cosmic spaces, with passages of seemingly random, distorted sounds juxtaposed with eery melodic sequences. Everything is cyclical, but everything is strangely distorted and ultimately static, moving one step backward for every step forward. About 2/3 through the piece, a flute joins in, played by one Lyn Dobson; I don't know who he is, but the passage is beautiful, really beautiful. This piece was recorded live, and is one of the best live tracks I've heard in a long time, although something at the end of the piece gives the impression that a bit of extra labor was done in the studio — not that anything is wrong with that.
Robert Wyatt's piece, “Moon in June”, is one of those songs that I've always wanted to hear. There is something about it, something so deranged yet reasonable, which makes this listener feel really good. I have several #1 favorite vocalists, and Robert Wyatt is among them. In “Moon”, he seems to be singing a letter which no one ever wrote and no one could read… It's a weird song. The music is liberally seasoned with bits of melodrama, occasional spoken directives, with a little Ray Charles-type backing, lots of la-la's and dada's, and this almost aimlessly wandering vocal; the first half of the piece lopes along at a lazy 4/4 pace, and then at half-time shifts to a faster, more complicated variation. The last few minutes of the track are dominated by a sort of warped violin and frequency hum, which, when heard through earphones, have a rather numbing effect on the brain… As I said, it's a weird song. One more thing: for his act of composing 19 minutes and 18 seconds of continuous music without a single drum solo, Robert Wyatt definitely deserves this year's Sublimated Ego and Elevated Taste awards. Recently, he has recorded a solo (sic) album, called The End of An Ear which, so I hear, is absolutely fantastic... and, like “Moon in June”, contains no drum ego-tripping, just a lot of fine, spacey music.
A couple of months ago, I saw Robert and Elton Dean participating in an improvisational jam at the London School of Economics. Their rather formidable talents were aided and abetted by several other fine jazz-based British musicians, notably Mark Charig on cornet, Nick Evans on trombone, Gary Boyle on guitar, Roy Babbington on bass and the astounding Keith Tippett on piano. Aside from doing some of the best drumming I've heard anywhere, he also crawled around on the floor with a microphone, rubbed the mike along the edges of a cymbal tied to Tippett's chair, and generally came up with some pretty outlandish but amazingly good sounds. Elton Dean's efforts at the LSE were equally incredible; whether alone, or in harmony with Charig and Evans, he managed to conjure up delights which literally gave me the chills.
“Um, yeah, I think that's a fair observation. I don't really believe in the language theory of music . It is a purely non-verbal form; any analogies to it are bound to be on the fallacious side. What we're really trying to do is produce a good auditory experience for ourselves and everybody else.”
Soft Machine music seems three-dimensional, as opposed to one- or two-dimenstional.
“Well yes, in the sense that every single person in the group has a very strong role. There are no real subordinate roles. Each person as a force should be equally strong, equally contributary. And to that extent, it is three-dimensional. It isn't just a plain background with one instrument in the foreground. It should be a constantly evolving texture that each person is modifying."
For a contemporary group, especially a British group, the band seems very introverted on the stage, almost oblivious to the audience.
"Yes. Hugh, the bass player, doesn't really like the on-stage thing in a way. He finds it difficult to relate at all to audiences. I do slightly; I think Elton probably does too. We're all kind of vaguely shy people anyway, and especially in this kind of set-up, which we don't do very often - the club. You know, when you are playing in a concert the audience is completely anonymous. But in a club you are kind of forced right up against them, and this is a very strange feeling for us.”
Now although the crowds here at the club have been very attentive, in fact I'd say well-behaved as far as most club audiences go. I still started to think about watching the Mothers and watching Frank Zappa get so incredibly angry because the audience just didn't understand what was going on with the music. Has the band ever run into any of that?
“Oh yeah, we have. When we first started, it was always like that; it was always bad. But we didn't feel too strongly because we weren't very good, and we completely sympathised with the audience anyway, although they probably weren't reacting to the fact that we were bad, but to the fact that they didn't know what was going on. Nowadays, each of us reacts to the situation like any situation where there are different people. It depends on what mood you're in; sometimes I do get annoyed. But generally speaking, in the concert situation one isn't aware of it, because we create so much power on the stage, and because we never stop during the set. We're never really aware of the audience reaction right till the end, by which time it's too late to react anyway.”
Greg Lake told me that when Emerson, Lake and Palmer go over to the States, they are going to try to play only in places that cater more to “serious” music, because they want that sort of audience.
“I really don't care, as long as the place has got good acoustics; that's the most important thing. I think you're going to attract the kind of audience that you deserve to attract, ultimately. So I don't think it matters a great deal what kind of place it is as long as it's got good acoustics.”
Do you enjoy recording?
“When it's going well, yes I do.”
Do you work out a piece on stage before recording, or do you do it the other way around?
“We'd rather work it out live, because we find that we can't really get a piece to where it should be just simply by rehearsing. Something peculiar seems to happen; one or two people get their parts together very quickly, and then if someone else is struggling to get it together, the others get very bored; whereas, a live situation always makes it very interesting for everybody. The music comes together much more quickly. So when it's possible, we try to work a piece out live before we record it. Although on the second LP, none of that was performed live, it was all done straight and rehearsed in the studio. And I think it suffered because of it. And some of the pieces on the third one too, we didn't play them enough live. We only did about five or six gigs; we should have played them a bit more. If we recorded them now, I'm sure they'd sound much better, but I think that's always true.”
Do you have any idea at all of where you want the music to go?
“No, I don't think you ever do. I think you are only aware of it when you start doing something new. What usually happens is that there is a dissatisfaction with the writing, and the material you are performing at the time. Sometimes you have definite ideas that you want to change even though its only in a vague, conceptual level. But other times it just stays a period of dissatisfaction, and then suddenly something happens and the whole direction is changed, and you really haven't planned it at all.”
I keep reading things that say you are always perilously close to self-destruction as a band...
“Yeah, true,” Mike laughed.
But you still sound really tight just the same: what keeps you together?
“Um… I don't know, I don't know. I think that we're forced back on each other all the time, in the end; although any one of us can go off and work in another situation, ultimately one is forced back into this situation. Although there might be personality conflicts sometimes, it works out for the music. It's because we are different people that it somehow works.”
Could you give me an idea of how you put together, of how one of your pieces will take shape, starting off with composition?
“That varies enormously, depending on who wrote it and how structured it is. Some of the pieces are written out pretty well completely; every part is written and there are areas of freedom in it. And obviously, areas of freedom will change every night. After a while, the actual written parts will begin to change. Sometimes the piece is less heavily structured, and therefore open to modifications during the rehearsal by the rest of the group. There is no real fixed rule or procedure.”
How involved are you in technology, in electronics in the music?
“Not completely dependent on it, but a large part of whether we play well is whether the technology is working for us. So you have to, in self-defense, become accustomed to... you have to acquire a certain knowledge about the machinery you are using. We are interested in using new technologies as they become available to us. but so far we haven't really done much work with it.”
Have you ever used a Moog?
“Ah, no. We used a VCS 3, which is the English equivalent… It's better. We've only done that once at the Radiophone Workshop. I wouldn't mind using it, but I think it would take me about six months' hard work to use it in a really intelligent way, instead of becoming victimised by having only a limited number of patterns… Not really having enough control over it. I think it would take as long to learn the VCS 3 as it takes to learn to play any other instrument completely from scratch. Ideally, I think it shouldn't be played like an organ. People will set up a certain sound and then play it like an organ; but the whole thing about a VCS 3 is that it's a completely new different system of playing. It offers you that, and if you don't use that, then there's no real point in using a VCS 3.”
Mike got up. The rest of the band was ready to start rehearsing. One wishes there had been more time - time enough to speak to all of them. This group is notorious for its differences. Ask them a question and you get four different answers… It could have been very interesting. But they like to tour the States and maybe, now that they've moved over to Columbia and have been getting some backing, they'll actually do it. As good as the records are, they really don't tell the whole story. In spite of the group's dubious feelings about playing live, they remain one of the best live groups around. So if they do show up in the U.S. of A., don't miss them. Soft Machine are a quite unforgettable experience.