flyer for Soft Machine concert at UFO club
the book with the name
daevid - robert - kevin and sixties fashion
robert - mike - daevid - kevin
kevin - robert- daevid
jimi hendrix - chas chandler
1967 - mike and friend in france : sunlove happening
Jimi Hendrix Experience - Soft Machine - and crew
Soft Machine to her skin: Robert Wyatt’s wife Pam Howard (left), with Michele Heyer, who married his half-brother, Mark Ellidge.
official french certificate for Soft Machine
the colourful Volume Two band: hugh - robert - mike
fotoshoots are boring
allan holdsworth - john marshall
john - roy - john - karl - mike: softs rehearsel
after Softs: karl & mike
elton dean (1945-2006)
hugh hopper (1945-2009)
kevin ayers (1944-2013)
SOFT MACHINE, a remarkable band; their music reaching from psychedelic,
alternative pop songs in the sixties to highly complex fusion in the
seventies. In between there were lots of changes in personal. In the
beginning the band was as famous as Pink Floyd, but their last record
seemed to be written for just a small group of aficionados. The complete
story? Here it is:
Soft Machine was a very popular band back in the sixties. Their music, combined with a spectacular lightshow, was unknown for that time. With Pink Floyd they shared the honour of being an example on how to bring a huge multimedia spectacle on stage.
After their first album, the jazz influences grew bigger and the band was spoken of as “a rock band with jazz influences”, shortly said: “rock jazz”.
Not long after that (the jazz part appears to be grown) the appellation turned around into: “jazz-rock” (later on, this kind of music became known as “fusion”). But by that time it was clear that Soft Machine was nearly forgotten; after all: neither a pop band nor a jazz group. What should one think of it? There was no hit single and the music press wrote half the time, if ever, negative about the band. They always found a reason: if not the vocals, then they criticized the sound or the jazz influence or…
However, to me Soft Machine is a band with a history, it’s own as well as mine, and most of all: a band with emotion. Now some pieces may sound dated, but yet every time I listen to Soft Machine, I get touched again.
The name of the band is similar to the book with the same title written by William Burroughs: “the Soft Machine”. Daevid Allen got the not-enviable task to approach the writer and ask his permission to use that name. As history shows; he got it.
About the book: Hanged soldiers, North African street urchins, addicted narcotic agents, Spanish rent boys, evil doctors, corrupt judges and monsters from the mythology of history or the laboratories of science - Burroughs is truly the Hieronymous Bosch of our time. In this surreal, savage and brilliantly funny sequel to Naked Lunch, Burroughs's famous 'cut-up' technique, the slicing and random folding in of words, was fully developed, transforming the narrative into an extraordinary, unequalled new form of prose poetry. Mike Ratledge "We choose the name Soft Machine because us people are actually all Soft Machines".
The story of Soft Machine starts in 1960 when Daevid Allen leaves Australia. After wandering around for a while, he arrives in Paris. Soon he starts visiting concerts of jazz celebrities like Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Eric Dolphy and Sonny Rollis. Daevid’s next stop is Canterbury where he meets Robert Wyatt. The home of Roberts’s parents was one where art, creativity and intellect went hand in hand. Robert painted, played the piano had musical friends: the brothers Hugh and Brian Hopper and Mike Ratledge. Music was their life: Hugh learned how to play the bass “Charlie Haden style” particularly as found on the albums of Ornette Coleman. Mike and Daevid loved electric and urban sounds. Robert’s home was filled with music, Bartôk, Stravinsky, Varèse, bebop: you name it.
Their preference for tape loops, endlessly repeating sounds that often return in the Soft Machine music, starts right here. Daevid was the motor behind these tape loops. He’d made such loops earlier with Terry Riley in Paris. Back in the sixties, Riley was fulltime busy, recording repetitive sounds, coming from endlessly spinning tapes. The hours that the two didn’t make music themselves, they spend listening to jazz programs broadcasted by AFN (American Forces Network).
Daevid, Hugh, Robert and Mike decided to start a jazz group, but it soon turned out that their music was a little bit too experimental for jazz-lovers. Thereby, Daevid was wise enough to see he would never become another Charlie Cristian, so he exchanged England for Deya (Ibiza) to become a fulltime poet. In Deya, he runs into Kevin Ayers. Kevin loved pop music: The Beatles, the Yardbirds – in fact music that Daevid hated. It’s only after a good trip Daevid opens his mind to pop music and comes to a point where he can regard it as a cultural phenomenon. That gives him the freedom to make pop-a-like music himself.
In 1963, Daevid returns to England and Kevin decides to accompany him. Daevid’s first performance was with the Wilde Flowers, a legendary band; although it was more of a run-through-project. After all, every to-be-taken-seriously musician at Canterbury once was a member of the Wilde Flowers. The name Wilde Flowers was derived from a book Hugh was reading at the time. What the Wilde Flowers sound like is to hear on a cd from 1994(!) on which you can hear tape-recordings from the Brian’s hand, a mixture of jazz, pop, classical music and even soul.
Early in 1965, Kevin and Daevid returned to Ibiza where Wes Brunson, a rather eccentric owner of a nightclub, donates them money to buy an amplifier and proper instruments. At least someone liked the sound of the band! This action leads to a new band: Mr. Head, featuring Kevin Ayers (bass, vocals), Daevid Allen (guitar, vocals) Robert Wyatt (drums, piano, vocals) and Larry Nolan (guitar). Mike Ratledge studied psychology and philosophy at the Oxfort University at that time. (He earned a grade in both subjects). The name Mr. Head did not make much of an impression and was changed, after turned down suggestions as “the Nova Express” and “Dingo Virgin & the Foreskins”, into “the Soft Machine”. Again a book title. This time the suggestion came from Mike who, up to more then just being a student, had just joined the group.
Now that Soft Machine was born, they had to arrange some gigs. One of the first appearances on stage took place in the Star Club in Hamburg. It didn’t last long. The first night already the band was forced to leave the stage in great haste. Back in London, they play at one of the first Underground Happenings in the Marquee Club and in The All Saints Hall. Guitarist Larry Nolan was part of the band untill October 1966. After a few concerts, he disappeared into the dark. Meanwhile, Daevid had some connection with impresario John Hopkins, co-founder of IT-magazine and the UFO-club; the club where Soft Machine would play often. Kevin knew people at the office of the Animals, where Chas Chandler was looking for fresh talent. Chandler arranged concerts for Soft Machine at the end of 1966 at the IT and the Roundhouse. Often they shared the stage with Pink Floyd.
In January 1967, the band was found at the Olympic Studio’s to record their debut single: “Love Makes Sweet Music / Feelin’ Reelin’ Squeelin’ “. Unlike “Arnold Layne”, the single from their music rivals Pink Floyd, it did not get any attention. On top of that, at interviews Soft Machine seemed to react quite different from the average pop bands at that time. Perhaps their universal background had something to do with that? John Peel was the only one who took notice and played their single in his radio program “Perfumed Garden”. Concerts outside hip London were more difficult to arrange for the experimental band; one didn’t always understand what the musicians were up too, and that didn’t lead to much comprehension.
Early in 1967, the band were recording agian, this time at the Lane Lea Studios. Nothing was done with that material, the band thought of their recorded parts as demo-material. Robert sang and played his part very well, but Daevid was not at his best. Later on their producer, Giorgio Gomelsky, discovered the eight tracks. and released them not to everybody's favour, on two albums with, on each album four of the tracks on one side and different artists on the other side. In the cd-era, the Soft Machine tracks were brought together on a 'new' disc, named 'Jet Propelled Photographs'. These tracks were released over and over again in many other packages; some even with other arrangements, mentioned as part of the first authentic Soft Machine album...
April 1967 brought their first success. Their appearance at the Alexandra Palace on 29th of April, at one of the biggest psychedelic happenings ever: Technicolor Dream was, frankly speaking, impressive.
That summer, Soft Machine played a lot in Southern France and recorded music for Pablo Picasso’s play “Le Désir Attrapé Par La Queue”. Soft Machine especially made name with the concert they gave in Saint Tropez. They played a one-hour lasting version of “We Did It Again”. It was reason for the French Department of Culture to give the band a document of honour. On their way back home to England, customs refused to let Deavid into the country with, as reason stated, an expired visa. Soft Machine there fore is reduced to a trio. Daevid forms his own band in France: “Gong”
The Soft Machine threesome gave many concerts on the continent: Belgium, France and the Netherlands. Their mixture of jazz, Asian and modern classical music appealed more to the public as it did in their own country. For a very short time, guitarist Andy Summer played with Soft Machine. Later on, he would become famous with another band: the Police.
Because of his lack of money, Mike played on a Lowry organ (instead of a Hammond) and he tried – fed up with guitarist who steal the show – to sound as wild as for example Jimi Hendrix.
Through Chandler, the band got the possibility to tour with Jimi Hendrix. During the tour, they got to know each other quite well. Jimi’s drummer, Mitch Mitchell, happened to have the same ideas about drumming as Robert: 'play as freely as you like, you can do so much more on drums than just mark the rhythmic or beat'. As a token of appreciation for Robert’s style of playing and out of friendship, Mitch presented Robert his drum kit at the end of the tour.
While they were touring, they also got the opportunity to record an album. Tom Wilson, known as producer of the Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan and (a little less) the Mothers of Invention, produced their album. The result was rather disappointing. Kevin found it plainly flat and accused Wilson of bad production. The other members shared the discontent. Maybe it was due to fatigue after a nightmare-tour through the States as support act of Jimi Hendrix, or maybe it was to blame on a lack of time: they only had four days to record the album.
Most remarkable thing on the album was the turning disc on the cover and the picture of a naked woman inside. The album was released at the Probe-label in November 1968 under the brief name “Volume one”. Some of the editions came with the woman dressed in a blue bikini…
The record, that tour – it took a heavy toll of the band. Quarrels, disagreements or simple “not feeling ít anymore” almost led to the end of Soft Machine. Kevin Ayers, by that time a macrobiotic, could not maintain himself in all this hectic and fled to relaxed Ibiza. Mike Ratledge returned to England and Robert Wyatt stayed in LA with the vague idea to start on his own. However, the band had a contract to make two records. Kevin refused to return to the band and declared he won’t have anything more to do with Soft Machine. (Later he forms his own band: “the Whole World”) Hugh Hopper, friend and roadie during the US-tour and also a gifted bass player, replaced Kevin.
The second album of the Soft Machine, “Volume Two”, was released in 1969 and turned out to be a classic. It was sedimentation of all musical- and ideological ideas of the band with a considerable reference to literature, modern classical music, art and, naturally, jazz. The titles of the songs speak for it selves: “Pierrot Lunaire” (Arnold Schönberg), “DaDa”, “the British Alphabet” etc. The tearing sound of the organ and piano, Hugh’s fuzz bass and Robert’s often rare voice: it fitted perfectly. The fact that the album sounded here and there jazzy was own to Brian Hopper, who played sax although his name isn't mentioned. Most tracks on the album melt into each other, most common in jazz, but not in pop. The way Robert looks at it, however, is rather different: “It’s harder to boo when there aren’t any pauses!”
Each side of this record has its own title: “rivmic melodies” and “Esthers nose job” The album was received positive and it brought the band lots of concerts and publicity. They even got to play at the Royal Albert Hall at the Proms. Something not every band gets the opportunity too… the concert lasted only 45 minutes, too short to lay down a good concert.
After many concerts as a trio, the group faced the limitations of such a small formation. From October untill December 1969, Lyn Dobson, Elton Dean, Nick Evans and Mark Charig were added to the group and thus the band expanded to a septet. They all liked it a lot, but it appeared to be too expensive. There also was talk of a quintet, the main band expanded with Lyn Dobson. The various expansions did however influence the sound of the following album.
“Third” (1970) was (as the title shows) the third album. For the first time in Soft Machine's history a double-album was released with only four pieces on it. It was obvious which direction the band took. “Third” was mainly an instrumental album, lots of cut-and-paste work: live pieces combined with studio tracks. Only side three contained some kind of sining of Robert: “Moon in June”. The limitations of the trio, as one saw it, on Third were filled up with guest musicians as Elton Dean, Lyn Dobson and Nick Evans. Not everyone was happy with the result. Mike and Hugh, supported by new and now permanent member Elton, wanted to produce a more fusion sound, with the accent on jazz, while Robert wanted a more “pop-like” sound with jazz influences.
Robert, although a big jazz lover, was not satisfied with the changes and put his creativity into bands as Centipede, the Whole World and other groups. It was not surprising that after a short time his first solo album was released: “The End Of An Ear”.
The discussions about yes-or-no leaving the band went on for a long time. Only after the fourth album, “Fourth”, was released, Robert left Soft Machine. Well eh, left…? It was more like he was thrown out, and until this day he can’t quite live with that fact.
With him, so the fans say, the humour left. That became clear when Robert introduced his new band: Matching Mole. The very name of it is amusing: Matching Mole is a pun of the French “Machine Môle”, and the translation of it, which is… Soft Machine!
“Fourth”, released in 1970, is an album with a lot of jazz material on it, mostly written by Hugh, and again made with help of guest musicians. Among them Roy Babbington on contrabass. It was the last album with Robert hitting the drums. He was replaced by the Australian free jazz drummer Phil Howard. Phil's ideas about the directions the music should take lead to recurrent discussions with the other members. It all came down to pop versus jazz. Right in the middle of recording “Fifth”, Phil left the band after yet another conflict and unsatisfied John Marshall, playing in Nucleus, was found willing to take his place. So “Fifth” (1972) has the curiosity that there are playing two different drummers, one on each side.
After Phil left, Elton in his turn got the “free jazz itch” and left the band too. Together with Phil, he formed the band “Just Up”.
It was a time when Mike and Hugh didn't want te compose anymore. They searched for a multi talented musician and composer as well. Elton’s place was taken by Karl Jenkins, also from Nucleus. He played the baritone sax, hobo and keyboards and - more important - was an excellent composer.
The new version of the band has a rather positive effect. It is heard back on another double album “Six Album” (1972). One of the records is live, the other contains studio tracks. On “Six Album” a scala of music sounds can be heard. From film music in “Chloe and the Pirates” until tape loops and experimental sounds in “1983” This last song is Hugh’s announcement of his first solo album “1984” and, with that, also an announcement of his departure.
Here we have Soft Machine, with only Mike as original member of the band. Hugh than is replaced by Roy Babbington, who familiar with the group and it's music. With him on six-string electric bass “Seven” (1973) becomes their new album. According to the critics a rather weak album. According to the Soft Machine members “a good album but produced flat” (we heard that before….) Maybe the use of synthesizers, which in those days, were hard te record well, is guilty of that. Besides the well known sound of Mike’s organ, Karl got most of the attention by composing most of the music.
Then the band agrees that time has come - speaking of 1972 and al kinds of new sorts of music going on - to produce another, new and more agressive sound. They try to reach that goal in two different ways: exchanging record company CBS for Harvest, and add different musicians in their line-up. Most impressive is the rather unknown guitar player Allan Holdsworth. The impact (Alan is the first guitarist since Daevid Allen left Soft Machine) is huge. To do everything new, even the numbered editions of the records is put aside. What could have been “Eight”, is now titled “Bundles”. Indeed, heavy drumming and splashing guitar sounds, but still recognizable as Soft Machine with sounds including minimal loops - this time from an alto flute. Remarkable is the cohesion of the band as a whole, and the less shrieking sound of Mike’s organ in favour of the synthesizer. Allan turns out to be an excellent guitarist. Popular and often asked by other musicians. Perhaps that’s the reason for his inconsistent behaviour in this period. He soon leaves the band to play with Tony Williams’ Lifetime. Leaving his place to be filled by another unknown guitar player: John Etheridge.
In 1976, and with a second John in the band, they start working on a next album. Then, Mike declares that he too sees no point in going on. He feels less and less comfortable in his own group and its musical directions. On the album “Softs”, the band is complemented with saxophonist Alan Wakeman. Mike is only to be heard in two numbers: on synthesizer! All other keyboard parts are due to Karl’s account., who once again has written most of the music. “Softs” sounds a bit drifting; the direction seems to be missing.
That becomes more evident on their last album “Alive & Well”, recorded in Paris (1978). It then shows that Wakeman and Babbington too had left the band. They are replaced by Rick Sanders (violin) and Steve Cook (bass), and sometimes on live settings by Percy Jones of Brand X fame. The title of this album is not to be taken too seriously because the album may have a Soft Machine sound, but it is never as impressive or lively as before. And above all that: the last track “Soft Space” sounds like it could be wriiten by Georgio Morodor to accompany Donna Summer.
After this rather strange record it becomes remarkable quiet around Soft Machine. After three years of silence, in 1983, all of a sudden “Land of Cockayne” lies in the music store. On that record, Soft Machine consists of two members: Karl Jenkins and John Marshall. These “old” group members are accompanied by Jack Bruce (known from Cream) and a few excellent studio/jazz musicians and a slight return of Allan Holdsworth. Big surprise is the use of a string orchestra and backing vocals. It certainly is a fine record, but it has not much to do with Soft Machine anymore.
The very last concert was in 1984 at Ronnie Scott's on July 30/31 and August 1-4. Band members at that concert were Paul Carmichael (bass), John Etheridge, Karl Jenkins, Dave McRae (once upon a time keyboard player with Matching Mole), Ray Warleigh and John Marshall. Then it was over.
This later part of the Soft Machine story mainly exists of re-released cd’s from all the old albums. For a fan, it’s no sinecure to collect these series. The cd’s are released at lots of unknown and small record companies and often only for sale for a limited time. Sometimes, albums are joined together on one cd, and there are even cd’s that are only released in Japan. Most remarkable thing is that, after Soft Machine fell apart, more tracks then ever before came out. Amongst it some beautiful cd’s. Especially the short existing big band (1969) makes clear what the Soft Machine meant in it’s time. Despite the great number of all these new editions, there’s little material left of the later bands. The primary lays at the beginning of Soft Machine, often with Robert, Mike & Hugh or the quartet (with Elton). All cd’s are listed in the cd-overview.
Most of the group members are still in the music business. Mike and Karl exploit their own music company: Jenkins Ratledge. They deliver jingles for commercials and Karl had a big hit with his Adiemus project. The others tour with friends, old acquaintances and newcomers in different bands and formations. Describing each one of that would go a little bit too far for this Soft Machine site. Remarkable however is that, during the writing of this story, a cd of a certain Soft Works is released with the title “Abracadabra” with band members Elton Dean, Hugh Hopper, John Marshall and Allan Holdsworth. Besides this, different formations/groups tour under names as “Soft Machine Legacy”, “Soft Works”, “Soft Bounds”, “Soft Mountain” and “Polysoft”. These outings can be found under: More Machines
Hugh Hopper and Elton Dean participated in all of these groups. But, unfortunately, Elton Dean passed away at February, 8th 2006 at the age of sixty. And he was not the only one. Hugh Hopper more and more complained about his health. He seemed to have leukaemia. He is treated and for some time it looks if he's going to be well. Friends organize a benefit concert to help his family. But suddenly on june, 7th 2009 he dies, 64 years old. With him a central figure in the Canterbury scene leaves. Hugh knew many facts and figures by head and had a good documentation. Besides that we all are going to miss his extraordinairy bass-sound.
Maybe the true hippy by life and Soft Machine member from the beginning, Kevin Ayers, died on February 19th, 2013. Born in England, Ayers parents soon moved to Malaysia where they stayed for years. Not used to the English lifestyle Ayers couldn’t find his peace back in England and moved to Mallorca and later on to France. The best way to describe him is by using the word ‘mellow’. The indulgent mood he was looking for was found in The Wilde Flowers and later on in the first edition of The Soft Machine. In meeting Daevid Allen, another hippy from Australia, it was like meeting a soul-mate, but after Allen was refused entry in the UK, Ayers was once more alone. A killing Soft Machine-tour in the US, was the utmost for him so he decided to leave Soft Machine and return to Mallorca and find some rest. His first album Shooting at the Moon was some kind of blueprint for his forthcoming work: romantic, surrealistic, sweet and sometimes experimental. Ayers started touring with his new formed band The Whole World. A band with a very young Mike Oldfield and a very adept Lol Coxhill. He made lost of records, not all that good and/or successfully. Surprisingly good was his last The Unfairground (2007). Ayers seemed to be happy and full of energy again. Unfortunately he passed away in his sleep. He was a very special person with his own view on music and lifestyle and also a person who just maybe didn’t fit on our hectic western society.
text/story © 2005-2009 by Paul Lemmens