The Softs blow hot and cold in Holland - Melody Maker - October 31, 1970
WHOEVER it was that picked on the title of a Burroughs' novel as the name of The Soft Machine made a curiously appropriate choice. That particular author's conception of the cut-out technique as a means of obtaining interestingly incongruous juxtapositions in literature could well be applied to the Softs in the sense that although they are identified with and receive the same sort of popular acclaim as the rock bands of this period, their lifestyle emphatically does not belong to that context.
They eschew all that bit about casual chick-pulling, booze, drugs, and general looning, for instance -those associations that people invariably make with bands who play to the audiences that they do - and they totally lack the public persona to go with the admiration and adulation that they are accorded everywhere.
One must therefore draw the happy conclusion that their obvious success is based on purely musical values rather than because one or all of them has a spurious superstar tag, or indulges in visual exhibitionism.
They are unlike, say, The Nice, whose musical shortcomings lack of rhythmic invention, for example – were obscured for many people by Emerson's onstage dynamics, or Cream, whose undoubted talent was buttressed by the images of its three members.
With the exception of Robert Wyatt, the drummer, they are very much introverted people, with a self-containment that is difficult to pierce.
Musically, however, there is nothing self-effacing about Soft Machine. Hugh Hopper, on bass, works within a small framework of chords, but using a heavy fuzz tone he slides out scalding sheets of sound, like thick steam, that gives the music its distinctive under-pinning.
Wyatt, who is the only one of the four who cannot read, is probably in the top half-dozen drummers in Britain, with an attack and an energy that derives not so much from being conventionally heavy in the use of the bass drum, but more from his extremely powerful wrist action. Anyone who has picked up his sticks, which are very wide and solid, will appreciate just what strength there is in those wrists. But on top of that he has an instinctive subtlety and understanding of complex time signatures that set him apart from most of his fellow drummers.
On electric piano and organ, Mike Ratledge, who at 26 is the oldest member has a tendency to use Brubeckish piano phrases at times, but he establishes most of the light and shade in the music, ranging from the tumbling, rolling piano sound to the stabbing nasal alto tones of the organ, with which he comes in behind Elton Dean, and saxello.
Dean is for me the most interesting soloist. He combines a cool lyricism, full of sweet and mellow tones, with a strutting jaunty air that soars into high-pitched atonality in key passages - a series of tight squeals and shrieks that punctuate the heavy organ sound in sharp bursts and lift the music to its peaks.
I make these observations after spending three days with them during their short trip to Holland, where they played in Eindhoven, the Doelein in Rotterdam, and the Gebouw concert hall in Amsterdam, where the tour ended on Sunday evening.
The Eindhoven concert began at about midnight on the Friday. Eindhoven itself somehow fits one's conception of a flat, featureless Dutch town. There are 200,000 people living there and most of them seem to work making bits of electronic equipment for Philips, which has its headquarters there.
Driving through the street I got the impression that most of them were still doing overtime because nary a soul was abroad, apart from those who were going to the concert, and they did not look too many, either.
They did not sound too many as well, from the half-hearted applause that the band got, and this did nothing to help lift their performance, which struggled feebly to get off the ground.
A large part of the trouble was that they playing on a huge stage, grouped together in the centre on an island of amplifiers and drum kit. Wyatt, particularly, had trouble in getting his sound across, and the resonance of the snare and the rest of his equipment was lost in the pool of space. The only one who seemed to get it on at all was Hopper, standing gangling and awkward at the edge of the amps, shifting untidily from one foot to the other.
With his horn-rimmed spectacles, his thinning hair and casual but unfashionable clothes, Hopper has the air of a student who has spent all his life at college passing exams. In fact, he never took his, although he studied bio-chemistry for a time. He dropped out and became a roadie, for The Softs eventually, until he graduated to playing with the band on the departure of Ayers.
Almost all of the time on the tour he stuck with Ratledge. Maybe it's because he was a student as well - at University College, Oxford, where he says he got a "good second" in philosophy.
Philosophical he certainly is. Despite the musical hangups that occurred, he just looked calm and saturnine, peering quietly through oblong shades which he never took off all the time.
He and Hopper behaved with total unconcern about the process of going along to a gig and getting up and playing. After a performance was over they sat back quietly in the dressing room and indulged in some obscure word game they had devised, in which Dean would join in, or maybe they would decide to have a game of Dutch billiards, other times they just went to bed.
Wyatt, a short, stocky figure, with lank fair hair that droops around his shoulders, is the most outgoing of the four and the most instantly likeable. Also the most temperamental, living off his nerves for some of the time, it appeared.
Wyatt did, in fact, blow up on the Saturday, at the Rotterdam gig. The band played two sets and an encore, the music being drawn basically from the Third album and revolving around versions of "Facelift", "Slightly All The Time" and "Out-Bloody-Rageous". Wyatt, it seems, was not happy with the material on that night and he stormed into one dressingroom at the interval while the rest of the band went into another room.
"It's like playing at a bloody Dutch tea party", he remarked bitterly over a bottle of beer. "The audiences here will clap anything you do".
Basically, he was unhappy with the strongly jazz-orientated approach that the band evinced on the tour. Robert prefers to work within the rock context, but none of his compositions were used on the tour because he has kept them aside for his solo album.
The Doelein concert was an improvement on the night before, but their playing lacked any real fire and tension. This was not really Wyatt's fault, it was as if the band was slowly flexing the muscles and waiting for some catalyst to spark off their collective energy.
Amsterdam was the ideal place for this to happen. The city has a youth and vitality about it that you immediately notice when you have just left London.
|SOFT MACHINE : success based on musical value.
Picture by BARRIE WENTZELL
It's also a city where the audiences are more responsive to the Soft Machine than any other in Europe, because they were among the very first to grasp the coat tails of the band on its way up. In a sense, the Dutch, and the natives of Amsterdam particularly, have adopted the Softs as their own, and they all turned out on Sunday to welcome home their protege.
This obviously gave The Softs the emotional lift they needed. Playing the Gebouw concert hall, which is a favourite stomping ground, they ripped into their standard programme of the tour, kicking off with "Facelift" and a new Hopper composition, "Virtually", changing gear into "Out-Bloody-Rageous", with its dipping and swelling piano parts, and rounding things off with a new Elton piece, "Neo-Caliban Grides".
The band came out really lathered up for the second half. Wyatt had forgotten his prejudices, and he was solidly behind the rest with some sharp swishing cymbal work on the first three pieces, "Teeth", "Slightly All The Time" and "Eamon Andrews" - all Mike's compositions, which had a nine to the bar feel about them. Elton's long winding solo, which rose and fell like a gentle landscape, was picked up by Hopper on his own composition, "Kings And Queens", which contained some rasping bass lines, and then they swung into "Esther's Nose Job", very fierce and pounding, which featured a climatic ending with Dean shrieking in the upper register over a huge slabby backdrop of sound.
They did not need too much calling to go back for an encore. Ratledge was the first back on stage, immediately jumping into an extract from his own work, "Slightly All The Time", whose lovely melodic alto phrase, that runs throughout the whole number, got an immediate response from the crowd.
Just one further thing. If, as Tony Palmer says, the Soft Machine are a band distinguished only by a lot of bombast, well, then I'm a Dutchman.