Soft Machine BBC Radio 1967-1971 Review

Live. Released 2003.  

BBC Review

Beginners may well be scared by the intricacies and oddly emotionless explorations...

Chris Jones 2002

For a band who, in their 'classic' guise, only released four (handily numbered) albums, the recent flurry of releases surrounding the Soft Machine may seem like an unwarranted bit of nostalgia. Especially as many of these have been some rather unpleasant bootleg-quality travesties. But this is most definitely not one of them. Hux Records have finally completed a job attempted by the label, Strange Fruit (The Peel Sessions) in the early 90s. At last those in the know can luxuriate in the lost aural treasures that have been mouldering in the BBC vaults. And for the rest of you, here's as good a place to start digging the Canterbury scene as any...

The aforementioned Peel Sessions album featured most of the same material, but, sadly, missed out on the really early gems from 1967 that still featured Kevin Ayers on bass. At this point the band were more psychedelic fledglings than soaring prog jazz birds of paradise. Yet it's interesting to see how, even at this early stage, the bands' shorter songs seemed oddly bereft when shorn of their live extemporised (and chemically enhanced) surroundings. Work such as ''A Certain Kind'' or ''Hope For Happiness'' operate far better in the context of their first album, blended into continuous, more jazzy, pieces. In fact,when the Softs returned to the BBC with new bassist Hugh Hopper they were performing nothing under 12 minutes. That aside, Ayers' quirkiness is light relief compared to the growling, humourless beast that the band had become just prior to drummer Robert Wyatt's departure.

After Kevin only Wyatt's Mockney ramblings kept the eccentric flag flying. Just compare his classic post modern re-writing of ''Moon In June'' ('We're free to play almost as long and as loud as a jazz group, or an orchestra on Radio 3. There are dancehalls and theatres with acoustics worse than here, not forgetting the extra facilities such as the tea machine, just along the corridor') with the admittedly marvellous, yet po-faced dissonance of ''Neo-Caliban Grides'' or ''Eamonn Andrews/All White'' on disc two.

It's obvious that it was only Hopper who was bridging the gap between Wyatt's wayward approach and Mike Ratledge's virtuoso noodling. One can only imagine Mike's chagrin at performing Robert's early, full vocal version of the erotic song, "Instant Pussy".

However, this is music of a wholly original hue. As an overview of a band rapidly expanding its horizons (and line-up, as we get the full seven-piece with brass section stuff as well) it's well-nigh unbeatable. Beginners may well be scared by the intricacies and oddly emotionless explorations contained herein. But perseverance is recommended. You won't be sorry...

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