Summer 2008 A4 40 pages
SOFT MACHINE (Canterbury Scene, part 1)
out of print / sold out!
Example article extract
THE SOFT MACHINE
Whoever it was that coined the term "The Canterbury Scene" was a lazy journalist, but it's a term that's been banded around so much that it's gained a meaning all of its own. At least to fans of progressive rock and jazz-fusion that is. In Canterbury, there is no definitive scene as such. Most people that live there would never have heard of it. Yet Canterbury was the hub where much of this scene came together. The "scene" largely stemmed from a band called The Wilde Flowers, and involved the bands Soft Machine, Caravan and Egg, and all the various offshoots and related projects that came out of these, amounting an enormous fertile world of music bridging many different genres.
My introduction to The Canterbury Scene all happened by accident, and it's hard to recall exactly what came first. I know that I saw the Danish band Secret Oyster on The Old Grey Whistle Test on TV, and was immediately hooked by them. Scarcely a week or so later (so I recall) I chanced upon a concert at the Montreux Jazz Festival that sounded like Secret Oyster to me but obviously wasn't. It turned out to be Soft Machine, circa album number 8: BUNDLES. So, looking for a live album by them I bought Soft Machine SIX first, which surprised me I can tell you! That was the start of a rocky trail of discovery, covering an extremely wide range of musical styles, dozens of classics, some perplexingly bizarre challenges, and alas some pitiful disappointments. But that's all part of musical exploration!
Wilde Flower years
So, way back in 1959 it all started in Canterbury with an unnamed quartet initiated by the brothers: Brian and Hugh Hopper. By late 1962 these had become The Wilde Flowers comprising: Brian Hopper (guitar, vocals, alto saxophone), Hugh Hopper (bass), Robert Wyatt (drums, guitar, vocals) and Mike Ratledge (piano) originally, with Richard Sinclair and Richard Coughlan (both later of Caravan) also featuring, as well as Kevin Ayers and one Graham Flight. In parallel to that, Australian Daevid Allen had a Canterbury based trio/quartet featuring the likes of Hugh Hopper, Mike Ratledge and Robert Wyatt. Recordings from some of these line-ups much later gained release on a few archive CD releases, and reveal their jazz roots.
Birth of the Soft Machine
I guess it was a surprise to all that knew of their early musical exploits, as when Soft Machine was formed in 1966 they'd moved away from jazz altogether to a "prog" psych-beat sound. Incidentally, they got their name from a William Burroughs novel, the "soft machine" being a euphemism for the human body. The original band was fronted by two songwriters: Kevin Ayers (bass, vocals) and Daevid Allen (guitar, vocals), with Robert Wyatt (drums) and Mike Ratledge (keyboards), and they soon relocated to London, becoming one of the hottest live bands around.
The original Soft Machine sound was borderline pop really, and they debuted with their one and only non-album single: Loves Make Sweet Music / Feelin', Reelin', Squeelin' (recorded in January 1967) a really dated record nowadays, if you ask me. It did however capture the spirit of the time. Gaining the attention of producer Giorgio Gomelsky they next recorded a number of demos at DeLane Lea Studios in London. The hoped for record deal never happened though, and the tapes remained in the Gomelsky vault for some time. These recordings later surfaced on two compilations on the French Byg records (later compiled as the album AT THE BEGINNING, which has since been issued with various other titles), but it's best to talk about them here. These recordings saw the distinctive Soft Machine sound taking form, but in small morsels, largely song-based, but with some early versions of what were later to become classics. Still a touch borderline pop to my ears, but also with some excellent moments, I deem it of curiosity interest only.
The Soft Machine were now getting quite a reputation on the London "underground scene" with regular gigs the UFO Club and The Roundhouse, and they also played at the celebrated "14 Hour Technicolor Dream" featuring their friends The Pink Floyd.
Now things take a weird turn. With a commission to provide the music for an avant-garde theatre project in St. Tropez (on the French Riviera) during the summer of '67, they stay a while in France. In September, on the way back to London, disaster - due to some irregularities with Daevid Allen's Visa, he was refused re-entry to England. So Soft Machine had no option but to return to England without him. Daevid thus remained in France, forming Bananamoon in Paris, and later the band that was to become his most famous project: Gong. But that's another story!
Back in London, Ayers, Ratledge and Wyatt decide to carry on as a trio. A wise move really, as there were really too many songwriters in the band with Daevid around, and with Robert Wyatt also flexing his vocal chords more, it could have become a bit much. Even without an album, their reputation was such that in February 1968, they went on a three month USA tour, as a regular support to the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Obviously a huge success, they soon secured a US record deal, recording their debut LP in New York in just four days in April.
Article by Alan Freeman
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