THE SOFT MACHINE
BBC Radio 1967-1971 (Hux Records)

Reviewed by Rusty Pipes



This is a double disc import of live recordings that's due to be released soon in the US. It's a must for fans of the Soft Machine, those Canterbury Hippies who once rivaled Pink Floyd in popularity back in the late 60s.

The early sound of the Softs is here in several 1967 tracks recorded for the BBC music show, Top Gear, back when the band was a trio composed of Kevin Ayers, Mike Ratledge and Robert Wyatt. Some tracks like "Hope For Happiness" from the first Soft Machine album show Mike Ratledge presaging the kind of keyboard driven pyrotechnics that Keith Emerson developed into a science a few years later with the Nice and ELP. Other great ones include the previously unreleased "We Know What You Mean," a pleasant whimsy that features Kevin's singing.

The album quickly moves into the post-Ayers lineup that included Hugh Hopper on bass and Wyatt taking over all the vocals. Hugh's brother Brian is featured on one cut, "Facelift" from 1969, providing some transition to the period when Elton Dean is on horns.

Several wonderful renditions of favorite Soft Machine tracks from the 1969-1971 period are enshrined here, when the band turned away from psychedelic pop to experiment in long jazzy instrumentals. Well, it's not completely jazz. A favorite is the live version of "Moon in June" where Robert noodles through some lyrics about playing for the BBC and saluting his "mates, like Kevin Caravan and the old Pink Floyd" that are quite pleasing.

Prominent on the later sessions are Hugh Hopper's magnificent fuzz bass work, which most ears will mistake for a guitar, and Mike Ratledge's trademark electric piano and Lowry organ, plus of course Robert Wyatt's drumming and vocals. And don't forget Elton Dean's brilliant saxophone, which plays perfectly off of Hopper and Ratledge's work; check out "Fletcher's Blemish" from 1971, a happily chaotic 12 minute romp that you'd never think came from a bunch of English longhairs. There's even some echoey vocal experimentation by Wyatt found on "Dedicated To You But You Weren't Listening," but most everything here is instrumental. Often they sound like Frank Zappa's "King Kong" or some of his work from the Hot Rats/Burnt Weeny Sandwich period. Most all their fans would agree jazzier tracks are their best material; the sound owes as much to John Coltrane as to anyone in rock, and they prepared the way for European fusion groups like Brand X that came a few years later.

Appreciation of the earliest cuts may benefit from the application of some aerosolized cannabinol, but there's no denying the artistry in the later extended pieces when their hippie roots are totally submerged in improvisational jazz. It's a much appreciated blast from the past and may help you prepare for the new work from Hugh Hopper and Elton Dean that is expected this summer.

© 2003 - Rusty Pipes