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  Our week at Ronnie's made us improvise - Melody Maker - June 6, 1970

THE SOFT MACHINE are probably the only non-jazz group in Britain who could command a week in the hallowed precincts of Ronnie Scott's Frith Street emporium in London.
In great measure that's a tribute to the way they've synthesised elements from many diverse musical sources, grafting them onto their own well-defined personalities to form an organic and readily identifiable style.
Mike Ratledge is their organist, a rather saturnine man who wears 1965 McGuinn shades and hovers over his twin keyboards, producing sounds which have the suddenness and intensity of lightning.

The week at Scott's was obviously an unusual and instructive experience for them. After all, how many of their contemporaries get the chance to sit down and play in one place for six nights, with all the opportunity for detailed exploration that it implies? "

It was useful mainly for that reason," says Mike. "The way it stretched our repertoire was very challenging, and we had to push ourselves into areas of freedom where we wouldn't normally need to go. "

We had to improvise more than we usually do, because we didn't have enough material. In that sense it certainly taught us something.

In terms of audience reaction, the week was not a success. Ronnie's regular patrons were unsympathetic, and few of the Softs' fans could afford the necessarily high prices.

" I think we left the audiences pretty much as we found them, except for those who came specifically to hear us, and they were spread out over the week. I can't see that it had much value as far as exposure to a different audience goes."


The group have now played three London concerts — two at the Fairfield Halls and one at the Queen Elizabeth Hall — within a comparatively short space of time. Mike says that this was purely coincidence, and comments: " My ideal is to play a set repertoire twice, in the same place, and then come back later with new material.

" That's why we're resting at the moment: it's in order to write some new stuff, and I think we'll be playing in London again soon."

Mike and bassist Hugh Hopper write roughly an equal amount of the repertoire. Drummer Robert Wyatt composed early in the band's life, and wrote several of the tracks on their second Probe album (" Volume Two "), but now it's fairly divided between Mike and Hugh. Ratledge doesn't find it easy to talk about the difference in their writing.


" Our different backgrounds don't come over. There's as much difference between two of my pieces as there is between one of mine and one of Hugh's. Hugh tends to write a theme, have a blowing section in the middle, and then return to the theme at the end... but then I've written things like that too.

" I tend to write things with a given concept. I'm very lazy and don't have much confidence, so I need something — like a progression or a time signature — to get to compose. These conceptual elements are really something I use to con myself into believing in what I'm writing.

" I'm very interested in unusual time signatures, but at the moment I'm writing a piece in 6/4, which isn't exactly far out. But in terms of a general direction my music is heading for more complex structures.

" Our sets are an amalgamation of different tunes by different people, and when you string them together into a 45-minute entity there's bound to be a somewhat ad hoc quality about the arrangement. You try to make the transitions as organic as possible, but it's not the total piece of music that I'd like it to be at the moment. The sudden switches that people criticise aren't inside each piece, they come when we go from one piece into another."

Unorthodox time signatures are becoming more commonplace, partly because young musicians are growing up around them and thus can "feel" them much more easily than their elders, to whom playing in 7/4 was like going to the Moon.

" I've been aware of them since I started writing," says Mike, " and I guess it was with Messiaen (the 20th Century classical composer) that I first came up against them, although of course they-ve been used throughout musical history in so-called primitive music as well as so-called classical music. But Messiaen was the first person I'd come across who'd obviously spent a lot of time getting into it."


Mike uses a Lowrey organ, in contrast to the almost ubiquitous use of the Hammond, but it wasn't originally a voluntary decision.

" I bought it when we hadn't got the money for a Hammond, and I got to know what I could do with it. It's worked out well because the majority of organists use Hammonds, so the Lowrey's characteristics stand out a bit.

" I suppose that a large number of my stylistic idiosyncrasies are due to the inherent peculiarities of the Lowrey."

For the future, the Softs plan to remain as a quartet, with altoist Elton Dean, but may add other musicians for selected performances. One innovation will certainly be the use of prerecorded tapes.

" The tapes will mean difficulties like keeping the pitch constant throughout the electronic fluctuations, but they won't be tied down to anything very specific and the musicians will be fairly free on top of it. It won't be like laying down specific drum or piano tracks — it'll be loops and things like that."


The group's new album, " Third," will be out soon after you read this, and Mike is very pleased with the speed and care with which CBS have handled it. " My feelings about the music on it change constantly. I liked it while we were making it, of course, but listening to it now I'm aware of the mistakes, while assume a disproportionate importance. " None of us can be objective about it now, but I think that each of our albums has been better than the last, although none is as good as it should have been."

Richard Williams

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