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Posts tagged ‘Soft Machine’

Soft Machine in Croydon, 1970

Softs in CroydonCroydon’s Fairfield Halls art complex closed this week for a complete renovation that is expected to take two years. The news reminded me of the night back in January 1970 when I got so badly lost in my Fiat 500 in the one-way system around the town’s high-rise office blocks that I missed most of the first half of an important Soft Machine concert.

It’s always interesting when a gig you attended turns up on a CD decades later, even though part of one track, “Facelift”, was taken and used, after editing and overdubbing, on the Soft’s first album for CBS, the classic Third, later that year. Some years ago the Cuneiform label released the complete 75-minute show under the title Noisette; it’s still available, and well worth investigating.

Back in 1970, this is how I started the review in the following week’s Melody Maker: “It seems to me that this might just be Soft Machine’s year. Having done things the unconventional way by finding first fame on the Continent, the group should find the musical climate of Britain coming round to embrace them in the near future.”

The hall was “all but sold out”, the audience “young and attentive”. I got there in time to hear “Hibou, Anemone and Bear”, the final number of the first half. Thanks to the Cuneiform disc, I now know that Robert Wyatt — for whom, having been brought up in Dulwich, this was practically a home fixture — introduced the concert with these words: “The programme for this evening is that we do a bit and then we stop for a bit and then we do a bit more.”

It turns out that I missed 25 minutes of excellent music. Had I heard it live, I might not – after praising the playing of Wyatt, Mike Ratledge, Hugh Hopper and Elton Dean — have written the following about the fifth member, the saxophonist and flautist Lyn Dobson: “I have grave reservations about Dobson, who seemed to be trying to do too much. Only on tenor did he say the piece of which he is capable”.

Dobson had joined the Softs the previous year, as part of a four-strong horn section. The other three members — Dean, Marc Charig and Nick Evans — had been nicked from the Keith Tippett band. Charig and Evans had left at the end of 1969, after a French tour. (Here and here are rare glimpses of that shortlived seven-piece line-up on a French TV show, L’invité du dimanche, with the added attraction of the great Delphine Seyrig.) The five-piece didn’t last long, either. Here they are in Paris that spring, shortly before Dobson left, thereby missing the band’s historic appearance at the Albert Hall in August, when they became the first ensemble from the field of popular music to appear at the BBC Proms.

At the time of his stint with the Softs, Lyn was a well-known face on the London scene. He had played the flute solo on Manfred Mann’s “Pretty Flamingo” and recorded with the Small Faces. He was a member, along with John McLaughlin, of Georgie Fame’s first post-Blue Flames bands in 1967, and could be heard with the People Band, which also included Terry Day and Mike Figgis. He played with the Keef Hartley Band, he would appear on the title track of Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter and on John and Beverley Martyn’s The Road to Ruin, and in the 1990s he made a couple of albums with the Third Ear Band before going to live, I believe, on Crete.

Anyway, I can now admit that in the section of the evening I missed was one of the concert’s highlights: Lyn’s flute solo on Ratledge’s ballad, “Backwards”. Introduced by the composer’s wah-wah’d electric piano, he produces a beautifully constructed improvisation that achieves an excellent blend of Eric Dolphy’s pure-toned inventiveness and Roland Kirk’s funky distortion, the latter feature coming to the fore as the piece goes into a wild Mingus-like 9/8 vamp. (Mingus, along with the Coltrane quartet of “My Favourite Things” and Uncle Meat-era Zappa, seemed to be the Softs’ most powerful influences at the time.) His tenor solos, like the one on Hopper’s “12/8 Theme”, manage to retain their clarity and logic in the heat of a furnace stoked by the non-stop focused clatter of Wyatt’s impassioned drumming.

As it happens, Wyatt was already beginning to become detached from the band. “Hugh, myself and Elton were pursuing a vaguely jazz-related direction,” Ratledge told Rob Chapman in a Mojo interview in 1997. “Robert was violently opposed to this, which is strange looking back on it because he was passionate about jazz. But he had defined ideas of what pop music was and what jazz was.” Wyatt’s verdict, quoted by his biographer Marcus O’Dair in Different Every Time: “To me, fusion jazz was the worst of both worlds. It was rock rhythms, played in a rather effete way, with noodling, very complicated solos on top.”

Robert may have been right in general terms, but that’s not true of the music preserved from the Croydon gig, which has power and inventiveness and its own kind of authenticity. To me, the five-piece was the last great Soft Machine line-up, before the noodling began to take over.

By the time Dobson joined the Softs, he had already developed a serious interest in eastern music and mysticism. Not long after he departure he generously lent me Hazrat Inayat Khan’s book about Sufism and music. It stayed with me through many house moves but eventually went missing. Maybe, like the recording of the enthralling Croydon concert, it will one day magically reappear, ready to provide a reminder of a time of open-minded, open-hearted creativity.

* The photograph of Lyn Dobson, Hugh Hopper and Elton Dean was taken by Mark Ellidge, and is from the booklet accompanying Noisette.

Soft tissues

Artchipel Orchestra 3If you happen to be in Italy, and you get a move on, you can probably still buy the September issue of the monthly magazine Musica Jazz, which has a cover-mounted CD: Ferdinando Faraò & Artchipel Orchestra Play Soft Machine. For several reasons, this is a good thing to own.

Faraò set up the orchestra four years ago, with an unusual mission: to reinterpret the work of British jazz and jazz-rock composers of the late 1960s and early 1970s. After making a start on Mike Westbrook, Fred Frith, Dave Stewart and Alan Gowen, he moved on to the Soft Machine. Most recently, in June, the orchestra’s guests at the Fasano festival were Keith and Julie Tippetts. Their leader obviously sees something he likes in the music being made in London during an all too brief era when young rock and jazz musicians worked freely together and anything seemed possible.

The CD that comes with Musica Jazz concentrates in particular on the compositions of the late Hugh Hopper, the Softs’ bass guitarist from 1968 to 1973. Five of Hopper’s tunes — “Facelift”, “Kings and Queens”, “Noisette”, “Dedicated to You But You Weren’t Listening” and “Moustrap” — are among the seven tracks on the 55-minute CD, which was recorded in a Milan studio last December. The other two are Faraò’s “Facelift: Prelude”, an atmospheric introduction to the set , and Robert Wyatt’s classic “Moon in June”, concluding the album in a loose but well organised interpretation featuring Filippo Pascuzzi and Serena Ferrara, two of the ensemble’s four singers.

Faraò and his fellow arranger, Beppe Barbera, aren’t making carbon copies of the originals here. They’re devising revisions that bring unusual resources to bear on the material, exposing facets of beauty that we might not have imagined to be present, even in embryo. To “Kings and Queens”, first heard on Soft Machine’s 4 in 1971, they bring the vocal quartet, a bass riff doubled by Simone Mauri’s bass clarinet, and colouristic interventions by Flavio Minardo’s sitar, Eloisa Manera’s violin and Paolo Botti’s viola. “Dedicated to You…”, which dates from 1969, is successfully rearranged for acapella voices in a treatment inspired by the Delta Saxophone Quartet’s version.

This band has improvisers of substance, too, as we learn from the thoughtful contributions of Germano Zenga’s tenor saxophone, Felice Clemente’s soprano and in particular Massimo Falascone’s unaccompanied alto on an expansive reading of “Noisette”, which Hopper wrote in 1969 and which first appeared on the Softs’ Third in 1970.

I’ve been listening recently listening to Hopper’s solo album, 1984 (released in 1973), and to Canterburied Sounds, the four-CD set of archive material recorded between 1962 and 1972 in mostly informal situations by the various early members of the Softs, and released in full last on the Floating World label. The Artchipel Orchestra’s album presents another perspective on the work of a fascinating musician, and deserves a proper commercial release.

(Addendum: See Alessandro’s reply for information on how to get hold of the relevant issue of Musica Jazz.)

* The photograph of Ferdinando Faraò and the Artchipel Orchestra was taken by Angela Bartolo at the Ah Um festival in Milan in 2011 and is taken from the band’s website: https://sites.google.com/site/artchipelorchestra/

 

 

Something in the Air

Apres MaiIt wasn’t really a surprise that so many British film critics greeted Olivier Assayas’s Something in the Air with such a grudging response on its release last month (among the honourable exceptions, inevitably, was the Observer‘s Philip French). The film’s French title, Apres mai, is a reference to the disturbances of May 1968, and on this side of the Channel there is always a tendency to sneer at the youthful idealism that lay behind les evenements. Some form of cultural and/or generational jealousy at work there, I imagine.

Please take it from me that this is no two-star film, as some seemed to think. It may not be a five-star classic, either, but the director succeeds completely in achieving his aim of portraying the uncertainties of a group of young French people who were leaving school and starting a college education two or three years after the historic events in question, hoping to emulate their predecessors but discovering that the world had changed — and not in the way that such soixante-huitards as Daniel Cohn-Bendit or Jean-Jacques Lebel might have hoped.

As far as this blog is concerned, however, the point is that Assayas makes the soundtrack an integral part of his film, and he gets that right, too. For his party and bedsitter scenes (see the still above) he uses the kind of music that would have been heard at UFO or the Round House in that era: the early Soft Machine, Nick Drake, the Incredible String Band, Dr Strangely Strange, Amazing Blondel, Captain Beefheart (“Abba Zabba” from Safe as Milk) and Tangerine Dream. There is a very amusing scene in which the young protagonist flicks through his album collection: Blind Faith, Electric Ladyland etc. The Soft Machine’s “Why Are We Sleeping” makes a particularly powerful contribution to the evolving drama, and Kevin Ayers’ “Decadence” forms a resonant coda. (The song from which the film’s English title is borrowed, Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air”, doesn’t feature.)

I’m afraid, however, that in terms of sheer enduring quality one piece of music blows the rest of the soundtrack into the weeds, and it comes from almost a decade earlier: the freshness, clarity and authority of Booker T and the MGs’ “Green Onions” make this simple riff-based 12-bar-blues sound as though it was recorded last week rather than in 1962. If you were being cynical, or perhaps a British movie critic, you might argue that the post-psychedelic “progressive” music of the late Sixties and early Seventies mirrored the fumbling evanescence of the political ideas and movements to which it supplied the accompaniment. But I’m not the one to trample on all that idealism, social or musical. See the film, anyway; thanks to those discouraging reviews, it probably won’t be around much longer.

Stranger in blue suede shoes

This wonderful half-hour French TV film features my favourite incarnation of the Soft Machine at their very best: Mike Ratledge (organ), Kevin Ayers (bass) and Robert Wyatt (drums). After yesterday’s announcement of Kevin’s death, Robert paid him a lovely tribute on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: Kevin, he said, had no sense of career, in which respect he was the exact opposite of an X Factor contestant. As his A&R man at Island Records for a short time in the mid-’70s, that was also my experience of a man who came closer than anyone else I ever met to incarnating the archetype of the golden hippie.

I’d first encountered Kevin in the days of the Whole World, a wonderful band with David Bedford on keyboards, the teenage Mike Oldfield on guitar, Lol Coxhill on soprano and tenor saxophones, and Robert on drums. They were not, perhaps, the most consistent of performing units, but I remember one night at the old Country Club on Haverstock Hill when they completely lived up to their individual and collective potential.

Muff Winwood had just signed Kevin to Island when I joined the company in 1973, and Muff produced his first Island album, The Confessions of Dr Dream and Other Stories. The next move was mostly my idea, turned into reality at a lunch with Kevin, Brian Eno and John Cale at the old Trattoo restaurant in Abingdon Road (close to the location of the original Biba, trivia fans). I’d signed Cale and Nico, and the June 1, 1974 concert and live album project was conceived as a way of expanding the audience for all of them. Each had a cult following, and deserved more.

During the concert I was in the Island mobile recording truck parked in the street behind the Rainbow, watching John Wood, the great engineer, work the faders, while keeping an eye on the black-and-white TV monitor, which gave us a feed from a single poorly focused camera. So I didn’t actually see the gig. But in the foyer beforehand there was no question that this was a real occasion, a hot ticket for the era’s scenemakers. We got the album into the shops within a month, which was a considerable feat for the time. I wanted it to be like a kind of newsletter. And whatever may be claimed in the otherwise excellent obituary of Kevin in this morning’s Times, they were never supposed to be a “supergroup”. (A couple of years ago Universal got in touch to discuss the idea of a deluxe edition with all the unreleased material, before somebody apparently thought better of it.)

One of the last times I saw Kevin was soon after the Rainbow show and its Manchester sequel, when he invited me to help him make a single and we spent a weekend in the Island studios in the converted laundry at the back of the St Peter’s Square offices. It wasn’t a happy experience. He didn’t know what he was doing, neither did I, and I’ve managed to erase the name of the unfortunate song in question. We both recognised the futility of the attempt, and tacitly decided not to fall out over it. If the experience had a lasting benefit, it was to put an end to any ambitions I might have had to become the next Phil Spector or Jerry Wexler. But anyway, Kevin, thanks for asking me, and sorry I didn’t do a better job.