Soft Machine

Soft Machine were an English rock band from Canterbury, named after the book The Soft Machine by William S. Burroughs.

They were one of the central bands in the Canterbury scene and helped pioneer the progressive rock genre.

This first Soft Machine line-up became involved in the early UK underground, featuring prominently at the UFO Club, and subsequently other London clubs like the Speakeasy Club and Middle Earth.

Their first single ‘Love Makes Sweet Music’ (recorded 5 February 1967, produced by Chas Chandler), backed with ‘Feelin’ Reelin’ Squeelin’ (January 1967, produced by Kim Fowley—rumored to have Jimi Hendrix playing rhythm guitar, who was recording “Hey Joe” in the same studio).

In April 1967 they recorded seven demo songs with producer Giorgio Gomelsky in De Lane Lea Studios that remained unreleased until 1971 in a dispute over studio costs. They also played in the Netherlands, Germany and on the French Riviera.

During July and August 1967, Gomelsky booked shows all along the Côte d’Azur with the band’s most famous early gig taking place in the village square of Saint-Tropez.

In January 1969, in order to fulfill contractual obligations, Soft Machine reformed with former road manager and composer Hugh Hopper on bass added to Wyatt and Ratledge and set about recording their second album, Volume Two, which launched a transition towards a purely instrumental sound resembling what would be later called jazz fusion.

In May 1969, this lineup acted as the uncredited backup band on two tracks of Syd Barrett’s solo debut album, The Madcap Laughs.

The base trio was late in 1969 expanded to a septet with the addition of four horn players, though only saxophonist Elton Dean remained beyond a few months, the resulting Soft Machine quartet (Wyatt, Hopper, Ratledge and Dean) running through Third (1970) and Fourth (1971), with various guests, mostly jazz players (Lyn Dobson, Nick Evans, Mark Charig, Jimmy Hastings, Roy Babbington, Rab Spall).

Generally, though, the album is more renowned for the opening ‘Hope For Happiness’ – a freaky joy which announces the Softs’ arrival on the recording scene with a bang… literally – there’s a drum bang and then they go ‘aaaaaaaaaaahhh-aaah-aah-aah-aah’ in the typical British avant-garde tradition.

Dissonant, slow, lethargic and only breaking through with the repetitive chorus (‘hope for happiness-hope for happiness-hope for happiness-happiness-happiness…’), it’s somehow so drenched with the British feel of life that it can easily qualify as the avantgarde equivalent of just about anything the Kinks were recording at the time.

Same goes for the complaintive ‘Why Am I So Short?’, the funniest track on here, with Ayers impersonating a British dandy throwing a fit of self-guilt – at least, that’s what I make out of it.

Meanwhile, Wyatt throws in the pretty rockin’ ‘Save Yourself’, a song obviously heavily influenced by Hendrix, even if it features no guitar.

On July 4, 1974, Soft Machine were invited to perform at the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, sharing the spotlight with such headliners as Billy Cobham’s Spectrum, Larry Coryell’s Eleventh House and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

This alone was evidence of the band being a dominant presence on the now widely popular jazz-rock scene, which had evolved out of the unique and edgy sound that the band had pioneered a few years before.

Switzerland 1974 is this performance, captured just a couple of weeks before the studio sessions for Bundles.

The hour-long set is the only available visual document of the Ratledge-Marshall-Jenkins-Babbington-Holdsworth line-up, and it includes live versions of the entire album, most notably the classic “Hazard Profile” suite, augmented with individual showcases for each member as well as a collective improvisation and brief snippets from Six and Seven.