To You But You Weren't Listening - The Concise SOFT MACHINE
Handbook - Strange Things - Volume 1 * Number 6 - Summer
THE CONCISE SOFT
by John Speeding
I was working the hole
with the sailor and we did not do bad.
So begins The Soft Machine, a William Burroughs
novel from 1961. That same year, the posse of Canterbury
misfits who'd assume that same name began to interact.
The Simon Langton School has assumed a latent reputation
as a place of education for the sons of 'intellectuals'.
Robert Wyatt, however, only remembers a dull grammar
school with little or no cultural direction. Perhaps then
it was only coincidence that something of an avant-grade
filtered through its upper forms.
Mike Ratelidge was eighteen and about to read Philosophy
at Oxford, but was also known to play jazz-based variations
with a saxophonist, Brian Hopper. The afforementioned
Robert, two years younger, had meanwhile befriended Brian's
brother, Hugh Hopper, in a mutual consuming passion
for music. A final piece of the jigsaw, David Sinclair,
was a further year behind and, in Robert's words, "played
piano at morning assembly." He also recalls that
there was little relationship across the forms, "I
only met Mike twice, once when he was a prefect. He came
up to me and said, 'I believe you have some Cecil Taylor
records. Can I borrow one?'"
Since the dawn of the 1980s, Robert Wyatt has picked at
the balloon which suggested the Canterbury scene's idyllic
genesis. Despite his self-effacing honesty, a powerful image
of such comparitive youngsters, embracing the wild jazz
of Mingus, Monk and Coleman with the
'Please Please Me' revelation still a year away remains,
The chronology here gets somewhat sketchy. At some point
the stilled Wyatt quit school to study sculpture at the
local Art College. Its regime proved as restrictive and
he abandoned study for a penniless trip to Spain. At some
point, either here or on a
previous visit, he met one George Neidof, who returned
to Canterbury with him and stayed with his family, in return
for which he taught Robert drums. Neidof also knew Daevid
Allen, who's introduction to the circle was crucial.
Allen's exploits are detailed elsewhere in this issue, but
his early involvement was not only inspirational, but innovative.
In early 1963 both Hugh Hopper and Robert joined him in
his London flat. Hopper recalls playing with Michael
Horowitz, backing his poem, 'The Dalai Lama Is Coming
To Tea', "with our very loose version of Bizet's
Hopper and Allen then made plans to travel to Tangier and
play at a club called the Fat Black Pussycat. Instead
Hugh joined Daevid in Paris, making the tape loop experiments
which were later essential to The Soft Machine canon,
before returning home with Wyatt and forming The Wilde
Here they were joined by the elder Hopper, Brian, Richard
Sinclair and Kevin Ayers. Mutual fashion rather than a common
education had brought Kevin into the group, who's debut
gig was at Whitstable's Bear and Key Hotel. "They
try for an Indian
influence," noted the 'Canterbury Gazette',
"but their Rolling Stones haircuts make the
fans go crazy." The Wilde Flowers set was British
R&B, some Beatles and some originals, a flavour of which
was caught on a brief 1965 demo. recorded at the unlikely
Wout Steenhuis studio. The groups leafs its way through
two covers. Chuck Berry's 'Almost Grown and
Mose Allison's reading of 'Parchman Farm',
alongside two originals, Hugh Hopper's reflective 'Memories'
and Kevin's rumbustuous 'She's Gone'.
In common with their future aggregations, The Wilde Flowers
were notoriously unstable. Ayers left, a new guitarist,
Graham Flight, appeared and vanished and Richard
Sinclair traded rhythm guitar for college. Robert stopped
drumming in favour of permanent vocals. Richard Coughlan
replaced him at the kit. and one Pye Hastings latterly
joined on lead. By 1966 The Wilde Flowers were altogether
smoother: they entered competitions both for Melody Maker
and Radio Caroline, winning the latter with a heady
mix of 'Sunny', 'Papa's Got A Brand New Bag'
and 'You Put A Spell On Me'. This line-up, however,
crumbled around October 1966 with the departure of Robert
Wyatt. (Hugh Hopper quit some five months later, the rest
then added David Sinclair and became Caravan.)
Wyatt, Ayers and Daevid Allen had reestablished contact
and a frustrated Mike Ratelidge had left university. The
new group flirted with several names, another William Burrough's
title, Nova Express, was considered, but Soft
Machine was finally selected with Alien telephoning
the author for permission and a blessing.
Following a disastrous opening at London's Zebra Club.
Daevid's connections with the fledgling London Underground;
John Hopkins and the Indica gang, provided
the Softs with their spot at the party to launch
'International Times' and subsequent residency at
the hallowed UFO. On these early dates the group
was supplemented by Larry Nolan, an American guitarist
who vanished as mysteriously as he appeared, and by Mark
Boyle's evocative light show, which formed the perfect
counterpoint to a collective increasing it's weirdo quotient.
Pete Frame recalls their appearance at The 14
Hour Technicolor Dream in April 1967.
"Robert Wyatt huffing and puffing and singing from
his drum stool, Kevin Ayers with rouge on his cheeks and
u black cowboy hat surrounded by a huge pair of glider's
wings and Daevid Alien with a miner's helmet (light switched
on) and a fixed maniac stare."
In the meantime Kevin had tried to
place some of his songs with The (New) Animals, an
effort which brought the Softs into contact with
Mike Jeffries and Chas Chandler. The former
became their manager, the latter their early producer, responsible
for the topside of the group's first single. 'Love makes
Written by Kevin at his commercial best, it moved with an
effortless, magical ease, both confident and irresistible.
Its coupling. 'Feelin Reelin' Squeelin", was
produced by the itinerant Kim Fowley and reflected The
Soft Machine's wilder conceptions with Ayers' maniacal
growl and Allen's liquid guitar.
Despite soaring to the dizzy heights of No.28 on the Radio
London chart, 'Love Makes Sweet Music' made little
impression and Polydor dropped any option. A series
of demos were subsequently cut at De Lane Lea studios,
with Giorgio Gomelsky producing. These tapes have
cropped up in various guises, most recently as Jet
Propelled Photographs. Although certainly rough
and ramshackle, they mix missed notes with a raw ambition
The songs are split between Robert, Kevin and Hugh Hopper,
now on the fringe of the group as their roadie. Both 'She's
Gone' and 'Memories' are resurrected from The
Wilde Flowers tape. The latter is as haunting as the
group from this era could be, while
other highlights appear in the splendid 'I Should've
Known' (freak-out via the 'Shotgun riff) and
Robert's melancholic 'That's How Much I Needed To Know',
the melody of which would, alongside that of 'You Don't
Remember', reappear, shorn of its adolesent lyric, on
Third's 'Moon In June'. Indeed much of the
collection would surface elsewhere; Kevin's 'Jet Propelled
Photograph' became 'Shooting At The Moon', while
'Save Yourself" and 'I Should Have Know'
were recut for the first official album,the former relatively
intact, its counterpart, however, was somewhat remodelled
and became 'Why Am I So Short'.
The boys then recorded a third 'She's Gone', this
time with Joe Boyd producing. Scheduled as a single,
and featuring Bill Burroughs on "barely
audible aphorism", it was never released as such,
although it was subsequently aired on Triple Echo,
retrospective. 'She's Gone' also marked the end
of Daevid Allen's involvement, his de facto deportation
reduced the line-up to a trio and increased the "jungle
warfare" (Allen) simmering within the group.
1967 ended with the Christmas
On Earth concert, 1968 began with a marathon American
tour, supporting Eire Apparent and the Jimi Hendrix
Experience. Each was a part of the Jeffries stable,
indeed Hendrix had some rhythm guitar to an early, rejected
'Love Makes Sweet Music' while Ayers, Wyatt and Alien
sang at the back of a similarly canned 'Stone Free'.
At least that's the legend. And while we're weaving webs,
don't forget Hendrix makes a splintering, but brief, appearance
on Eire Apparent's only album. (UK pressings only!) The
U.S. tour lasted six months, and was gruelling. In an effort
to diffuse the instrumental strain, guitarist Andy Summers
was briefly drafted in, but he switched instead to The
New Animals. "Nightmare-ish" was how
Wyatt described one particular date at Madison Square
Gardens, where the touring party was supplemented by
Albert King, The Chambers Brothers and Big
Brother and the Holding Company. The marathon closed
at the Hollywood Bowl and an exhausted group was
flown back to New York to cut their debut album.
Ostensibly produced by Tom Wilson, ("We'd
do a take," remembers Wyatt, "go hack into
the control room, and he'd he on the 'phone to some girl.").
the set is a triumph of imagination over adversity, and
captures many of The Soft's most thrilling moments.
In 'So Boot If At All' the group capture the essence
of Underground improvisation, and match the cascading genius
of 'Interstellar Overdrive'. Another Hugh Hopper
revival. 'Hope For Happiness', provides an ideal,
stylistic introduction, while the rest of the record matches
Kevin's angular eccentricity, the studied seriousness of
Ratelidge, and Robert's heartfelt passion.
On completion, The Soft Machine disintegrated. Wyatt
stayed behind in New York, completing 'Moon In June'
from his diary cum scrapbook, Ayers made for Ibiza and Mike
flew back to London to compose. By winter Robert was in
L.A., writing and recording
enough for two demo albums, one featuring the full 'Moon
In June', the other fragments of older Hugh Hopper material,
rearranged and given new lyrics, much of which appeared
on their next album.
In the meantime Probe had released The Soft Machine.
It became a cult success, and a demand grew for some kind
of group to tour behind it. Wyatt and Ratelidge were, somewhat
guardedly, reunited, but Kevin Ayers, who's quirky compositions
were at odds with the studious keyboard wizard, was now
uninterested and had sold his bass to Mitch Mitchell.
Hugh Hopper provided the natural replacement and a reconstituted
Soft Machine began rehearsing almost immediately.
They openned with a blow at The Roundhouse with Andy
Summers and Zoot Money, before appearing, properly, in public
at The Albert Hall alongside Hendrix and the Traffic
substitute, Mason, Wood, Capaldi and Frog. A second
album, Volume Two, was recorded over February and
March 1969, and although another wonderful work, the divisions
within the group seemed wider than ever. A scan of the titles
reflects the gap: "Thank You Pierrot Lunaire'.
'Have You Ever Been Green'' (the surreal Wyatt),
against the formal eccentricity of 'Fire Engine Passing
With Bells Clanging' and 'A Door Opens And Closes',
two of Mike Ratelidge's moments. Although inevitably distanced
from The Soft Machine's paisley patterns, the new
collection boasted a real maturity, and a sound refined
to suit a studio environment.
Brian Hopper had re-emerged
on the album to add both soprano and tenor sax, an indication
of the group's future development. Between October and the
end of 1969, the trio was augmented by a radical horn section;
Lyn Dobson (flute & soprano sax), Elton Dean (alto sax & saxello), Nick Evans (trombone) and
Marc Charig (cornet). Their collective pedigree included
Manfred Mann, Keith Tippet and Bluesology,
but the experiment proved too expensive and was dropped.
Although the septet would not offically record as such,
a session was cut for Peel's 'Top Gear' that
November. 'Esther's Nosejob' and 'the 'Mousetrap' /'
Noisette' /' Backwards' / Mousetrap Reprise' workout
thus gave a glimpse into a somewhat unrealised potential,
hut also showed the eclipse of the drummer's own ideosyncratic
direction. The session was also revived on Triple Echo,
along with two corresponding pieces. The first featured
the basic trio on an inspired reading of Robert's 'Moon
In June', the lyric of which was specially written for
the occasion to include references to the programme, BBC
tea, Caravan and Pink Floyd. It was, and is,
quite simply, a masterpiece.
The remaining session was from May 1970, and contained three
Ratelidge compositions, 'Slightly All The Time',
'Out Bloody Rageous' and 'Eamonn Andrews',
the first two of which appeared (in different forms) on
Third, the Soft Machine's next album.
Although it featured several extra musicians, including
Dobson and Evans, Elton Dean remained the only permanent
addition to the Wyatt/Hopper/Ratelidge triumvurate. A double
set spread over four basic pieces, the estrangement between
Robert and the rest was near complete. They hated 'Moon
In June' and initially refused to play on it. Wyatt
added his own bass and keyboards and although both Hugh
and Mike would latterly play a minor role, it is, obstensibly,
a solo effort. The ultimate irony, perhaps, was that Robert
admired what the rest were attempting, especially Hopper.
"(Hugh) was the most creative. Excellent though
Mike's things were. they could have been written by Herbie
Hancock or Wayne Shorter. It was putting us on the fringes
of other people's worlds rather than at the centre of our
own. To he to, say. Tony Williams, what The Stones were
to Muddy Waters, was not really my ambition."
The last act of defiance by what was recognisably the 'old'
Soft Machine came in August and their performance
at the Albert Hall's Pop Promenade. Sandwiched between the
respectability of an archaic music establishment was a somewhat
rough-hewn set, evenby the group's own standards, but one
now captured on a new-ish release, Live At The Proms
1970. Whatever the contemporary controversy, the invitation
to appear cemented the ascendant seriousness, as the more
formal programme suggested.
Now somewhat alone, Wyatt embarked on a solo album, the
punning End Of An Ear. Those expecting a further
stream-of-consciousness were caught somewhat surprised,
this was a sometimes impenetrable mix, but one which allowed
an important breathing space. It was, in many ways, the
instrumental interludes of the early Soft Machine,
but without the songs or hooks to 'bookend' them together.
Mark Charig and EIton Dean provided the woodwind, David
Sinclair the organ, while Robert drummed (naturally), sang
a little and began his experimentation with keyboards. If
The End Of An Ear was autobiographical, it was in
the titles; 'To Saintly Bridget' (Bridget St.John),
'To Caravan And Brother Jim', 'To 0z Alien Daevid
And Gilli', although the sometimes furious stew
which spilled out in places doubtlessly reflected the confusion
of the times.
Wyatt indeed took a sabbatical and
toured with Kevin Ayers and the Whole World before
returning to The Soft Machine's fold for Fourth,
a dour, paired-down version of its predecessors. His percussion
aside, Robert's contribution is minimal, and a suggestion,
to manager Scan Murphy, that he might like to try something
else, was eagerly seized upon by Hopper and Ratelidge. Wyatt
was fired in September 1971, and with him went the heart,
soul and humour of a group, once excellent, now doomed to
a future of cold mathematics.
Heartfelt thanks are due to Ian McDonald, Pete
Frame and John Platt for providing the original
detective work and several of the above quotes. Kevin
Ayers' subsequent erratic, but more often than not,
inspired career can he found elsewhere in this issue, while
What happened to Robert Wyatt will he divulged in a forthcoming
volume of this magazine.