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Soft Machine today

Soft Machine Baked Potato 1

It’s many years since, to all intents and purposes, I lost interest in the Soft Machine. One by one, the early members  — Daevid Allen, Kevin Ayers, Robert Wyatt, Mike Ratledge, Hugh Hopper — dropped away, taking their various eccentricities and my enthusiasm with them. Left behind was a constantly shifting corpus of musicians who, for all their individual qualities, didn’t seem to amount to much more than just another jazz-rock band, taking advantage of the mileage left in the name.

And it’s the old conundrum, going back to Theseus’s ship or the woodsman’s axe. Or whichever football club you happen to support. If, over the years, all the components are replaced, is it the same ship, axe or football club?

So when the latest album by the group currently calling itself Soft Machine arrived in the post, I played it out of nothing more mild curiosity, prepared to hit the eject button as soon as the twiddling-and-noodling quotient was exceeded. To my surprise, I found myself listening all the way through with increasing interest and enjoyment. And then playing it again. For the past couple of weeks it’s been a fairly constant companion.

It’s a live set, recorded in February 2019 by the present line-up — John Marshall on drums, Roy Babbington on bass guitar, John Etheridge on guitar and Theo Travis on soprano and tenor saxophones, flute and Fender Rhodes piano — at a Los Angeles jazz club called the Baked Potato, located on Cahuenga Boulevard, just the other side of the Hollywood Freeway from Universal Studios, and owned by the pianist Don Randi, once of the Wrecking Crew. The Softs’ changes of personnel over the decades would challenge even Pete Frame, compiler of all those celebrated Rock Family Trees. For those who haven’t been keeping up, it’s enough to mention that Marshall joined in 1972, replacing Phil Howard, who had replaced Wyatt in 1970; Babbington arrived as Hopper’s replacement the following year; Etheridge joined in 2004 (see note **), and Travis two years later. In the past, I believe, there have been problems over the use of the name; until quite recently they were unappetisingly billed as Soft Machine Legacy.

The set list is a good mixture of ancient and modern, beginning with Ratledge’s “Out-Bloody-Rageous” (first heard on Third in 1970), given a keyboard intro by Travis which recalls the Softs’ early interest in Terry Riley’s keyboard improvisations. Ratledge’s more fusion-y “The Man Who Waved at Trains” is also present, as is Hopper’s moody “Kings and Queens”, a feature for Travis’s attractively Charles Lloyd-ish flute. The Karl Jenkins era is represented by “Hazard Profile Pt 1” and “The Tale of Taliesin”, both reminders of how effective a musical organiser the Welshman could be in this kind of context.

Marshall contributes “Sideburn”, a two-minute drum solo showing the fine touch he always possessed, and there are two pieces from Etheridge and three from Travis, mostly operating in stylistic terms within a triangle formed by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, mid-’70s King Crimson and the Pat Metheny Group. Which is where I would normally take my leave, except that here there’s no sense of the sort of self-indulgence to which so many excellent musicians — particularly guitarists — were prone during the bad old days of the jazz-rock fusion.

All the pieces here are concise and well formed, and all the solos have substance. Etheridge’s “Heart Off Guard” is another vignette: a gentle study for guitar and soprano that slides into his lovely “Broken Hill”. His solo on the circling and rising chord pattern of “Hazard Profile” is genuinely lyrical and emotionally involving. Travis’s flute is again outstanding on his own “Fourteen Hour Dream” (its title surely a nod to the group’s origins in London’s psychedelic scene), where the supportive excellence of Babbington also takes the ear.

So there it is. There may be no pataphysical ramblings or “Moon in June”-style fantasias emanating from this group trading under the hallowed name, nor a sense of a continuing need to stretch boundaries, but it’s a pleasure to discover that I was wrong to write them off. Maybe I’ll have to trawl through their extensive back catalogue from the decades when I was looking the other way. But even if there isn’t time for that, this is a nice surprise.

* The photograph is by Mauricio Alvarado. Live at the Baked Potato is released on Moonjune Records: http://www.moonjune.com or http://www.softmachine.org

** As several people have kindly pointed out, John Etheridge first joined the Softs in 1975, replacing Allan Holdsworth. See? I told you I hadn’t been paying attention.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tom Smith #

    Nice, thanks for the update for us old fans!

    July 19, 2020
  2. John Etheridge first joined the band in 1976, for the “Softs” album. He’s been their guitarist ever since.

    July 19, 2020
  3. Thank you Richard! Nice review with plenty of context. I think John Etheridge appeared as long ago as 1976, on the Softs album.

    July 19, 2020
  4. Thanks Richard, excellent review and I must now get the album as it’s clearly worth a listen. Mark McKergrow is right. John Etheridge started his association with SM in 1976 on Softs.

    July 19, 2020
  5. David McBride #

    Thanks Richard for alerting me to this release. I saw this Soft Machine live in York last year and they were superb. Like you I had lost touch with them in their many personnel changes after buying their first six albums.

    July 19, 2020
  6. Bob Meyrick #

    John Etheridge joined in 1975, replacing Allan Holdsworth who’d gone to the States to join Tony Williams’ New Lifetime. I was present at the Nottingham University gig in October 1975 at which the “British 1975 Tour” album was recorded, when John Etheridge was the “new boy” in the band.

    The current lineup has its origins in the “Soft Works” project put together in 2002 by Moonjune Records supremo Leonardo Pavkovic, which featured Elton Dean, Allan Holdsworth, Hugh Hopper and John Marshall. That lineup lasted until 2004 when Holdsworth left, and Etheridge once again replaced him. That was when the band became “Soft Machine Legacy”.

    When Elton Dean died in 2006, Theo Travis joined. He’d worked with Etheridge in the latter’s quartet, as well as having been a member of Gong. Hugh Hopper left in 2008 due to ill health, and was temporarily replaced by Fred Thelonius Baker. Fred had played with John in the ’80s John Etheridge/Ric Sanders group, his “Canterbury” credentials being his work with Phil Miller in both “In Cahoots” and in a duo with PM. When Hugh Hopper died in 2009 Roy Babbington joined as a permanent replacement.

    The “Legacy” was dropped in 2015 which brings us up to date.

    July 19, 2020
  7. evadenyaw #

    John Etheridge first appeared with Soft Machine as a replacement for Allan Holdsworth in ‘76 or ‘77. His first recording with them was “Softs.” DW

    Sent from Yahoo Mail for iPhone

    July 19, 2020
  8. Mick Steels #

    I’ve seen this edition of Soft Machine a couple of times and as long you don’t expect anything approaching the halcyon years they are a decent band.
    The stellar rhythm section can still deliver the goods and whilst I still find it difficult to accept them as a guitar orientated group Etheridge is a fine musician who proves to be a good frontman.
    I remember the version of “Out-Bloody-Rageous” failing to live up to its title way too polite and quite brief, which I think was the problem with the music overall, well played but lacking in bite.
    I thought it was a somewhat controversial viewpoint when you said many years ago that Trane and Ayler had to die to make SM possible but at least that version of the group tried to capture the spirit and intensity of those masters, particularly the Dean/Howard period.

    July 19, 2020
  9. GuitarSlinger #

    Interesting that ;

    A) This album hit the States before y’all got ahold of it

    B) Though Richard is correct in his assessment of the problem of Diarrhea of Guitar practitioners in the 70’s and 80’s fusion music is correct ( Frank Zappa was a major critic of the practice ) … it’s well to remember that …

    … John Etheridge back in the day was one of its major practitioners …to a fault !

    Good that Jon has mellowed out a bit and gained some taste … but having listened to the album for almost a month … I’m wondering if he’s mellowed out intentionally and due to maturity … or because his fingers have let him down . Cause in all honesty …there’s more than a fair amount of slop in his playing on this album . Hmmm

    Oh well … what ever … the end result is good .. no Diarrhea of Guitar … or any other instrument to be found here !

    C) The one major negative of this album is the almost complete lack of any new material

    D) Overall … I’d give this album …. a C + .. or maybe a B – if I’m feeling generous . e.g. Interesting enough to introduce the younger generations to the joys of Soft Machine .. or slap in the car to accompany a road trip … but just disappointing enough to be a bit of a let down for those of us that have been listening for decades

    July 19, 2020
  10. GRAHAM ROBERTS #

    Thanks Richard; I have also been indifferent to post-Wyatt/Ratledge/Dean/Hopper line-ups of Soft Machine but your enthusiasm for the ‘Live at the Baked Potato’ album will provide an opportunity for me to overcome my prejudices.

    I smiled when I read your reference to Peter Frame’s fondly remembered Rock Family Trees. This sent me back to my LPs to seek out ‘Triple Echo’, a fantastic 3-album collection on the Harvest label of the Soft Machine’s glory years, including (at some length) wonderful BBC ‘Top Gear’ recordings of material from ‘Third’/’Fourth’ era Soft Machine. My memory had not let me down – there, in a centre spread in the large format booklet accompanying ‘Triple Echo’, is as fine an example of the Family Tree as you could wish to see. It’s a vast, sprawling thing, taking in links with Caravan, Gong, Hatfield and the North, and others. And it ends in 1977 – the mind boggles at what a Family Tree covering the subsequent decades would look like!

    July 20, 2020
  11. Derek Styles #

    Thanks for that Richard – has made me listen to it as well. I remember sitting with you at Ronnie Scott’s in 1970 when Softs opened for Thelonious Monk – a lifetime ago!

    July 23, 2020

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