An Exceptional Evolution
SOFT MACHINE : BBC Radio : 1967 - 1971 (Hux Records. HUX 037)

If any band's evolution was exceptional it was Soft Machine's. From would be pop band to free jazz explorers in the space of a few years is about as unconventional as is possible. I wonder if Robert Wyatt realised as he sang 'We're free to play almost as long and as loud as the jazz groups' that they were about to become just that. Possibly not.

Back in 1967 when the first of these tracks were recorded the Softs were a pop trio, albeit a quirky one. Wyatt and Kevin Ayers' equally distinctive voices gave us lyrics like, 'Let's go to my chateau where we can have a good time, drinking lots of sky wine'. Mike Ratledge's keyboard hadn't yet evolved that spiky tone that came to characterise much of their later work. Their approach sounds whimsical and fresh, experimenting a little with song forms and time signatures.

Hugh and Brian Hopper were also contributing songs at this stage. The former contributing ´Certain Kind' which is as close to a conventional love song as they ever got. These tunes portray them as an idiosyncratically English pop band, something which lasted for the duration of their first album before Ayers went off to develop his own approach to songwriting.

Songs continued to have a place for a while, well for as long as Wyatt could squeeze them in. His Top Gear version of ´Moon In June' still sounds good, extolling the virtues of appearing on Peel's programme, 'despite its extraordinary name'. But already the compositions were getting longer and contributions from Hugh Hopper's snarling bass and Ratledge's fuzz organ more extended. Nevertheless, Wyatt also contributed ´Instant Pussy', which still sounds remarkable despite the intervening years, and an echo-laden version of Hopper's ´Dedicated To You But You Weren't Listening'. Tellingly, both are solo outings.

However, the majority of this material consists of versions of Soft Machine favourites such as ´Facelift', ´Slightly All The Time' and ´Out-Bloody-Rageous'. These are mostly superior to the, mainly, studio recordings which appeared on ´Third' and show a band growing more and more confident with a mixture of composition and improvisation. The voice of Kevin Ayers would have had no place here and of course Wyatt's was used less and less, just a bit of scat here and there. His drumming however was still increasingly inventive and powerful. He drives Hopper's ´Virtually', pushing Elton Dean to perform some of the most ferocious soloing he ever produced with the band. Freely ecstatic and melodic at the same time.

What really exposes the distance between 1967 and 1971 are Dean's ´compositions', especially ´Fletcher's Blemish'. It appeared as a tentative stab at group improvisation on their fourth album but here it exhibits a force that portrays them testing its limits. It stands out as possibly the most extreme example of this quartet in action before leading into Dean's other trademark piece of the period, ´Neo-Caliban Grides'. He and Ratledge were enjoying a particularly fruitful partnership at this time and part of the track finds them exploring together while the others sit out. Eventually they all re-unite and produce a less raucous communion than on the previous track. These titles are among the most exciting free jazz - meets -rock recordings the group laid down.

However, it's the sequence of tunes recorded around a year earlier that showcases my favourite incarnation of the band. The ´big band' was fairly short-lived but injected new textures and energy into staples of their set. So the second cd ends with a 21 minute tour de force tearing through ´Mousetrap/Noisette/Backwards/Reprise/Esther's Nose Job'. They collectively infuse this little suite with passion and superbly controlled soloing. Listening to Nick Evans' melodic inventions on ´Backwards' is still breath-taking no matter how many times I hear it.

Chronologically these two cds end at the point where I think they had reached their pinnacle. Wyatt left and Dean was soon to follow, though for different reasons. They began a descent into comparative mediocrity or in Hopper's words a period when there were 'Not enough quirks or weirdness'. There is a further cd planned which will document the last of their BBC/Peel sessions up to 1973. Some of it, like the material here, has been available before. Hopefully, it will showcase the last of the fire they were able to generate before they became, again in Hopper's words, 'a rather ordinary British jazz-rock outfit'.

© 2003Paul Donnelly