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Soft Machine Volume One Review

Album. Released 2009.  

BBC Review

Volume One stands as one of the pinnacles of English pre-progressive underground music.

Chris Jones 2009

The Soft Machine's status as house band at London clubs like the UFO and Middle Earth during 1967 saw them appear at some of the most pivotal happenings in the fringes of the art world. But while those other darlings of the nascent underground, the Pink Floyd, raced into Abbey Road studios to grasp at the fleeting strands of genius from Syd Barrett before his marbles went AWOL, the Softs' first recording steps were faltering. This was partly due to the loss of founding member, Australian beat poet/guitarist Daevid Allen who returning from France was denied access back into the UK due to an expired visa. Limping on as a trio, by the time the group were finally granted studio time with Columbia's house producer Tom Wilson in New York, they'd been touring the States and had some of their homegrown psychedelic sheen knocked off. Nevertheless Volume One stands as one of the pinnacles of English pre-progressive underground music.

The thing that the Softs had in far more abundance than their contemporaries was musical ability and a superior knowledge of modern jazz. Wyatt's drumming owes just as much to Art Blakey as it does to Ringo Starr, while Mike Ratledge's fuzz organ (the template upon which nearly all 'Canterbury' music was based) frequently breaks free in coruscating runs up and down the keyboard (though Wyatt now claims that this style of playing was necessitated by the organ's propensity to feed back if not played constantly).

For the requisite slice of English whimsy atop this schizophrenic melange the vibes were provided by bass player Kevin Ayers. His bass-as-lead approach gets an early look in on Joy Of A Toy, while his basso profundo voice gives menace to the classic (and possibly Gurdjeffian) Why Are We Sleeping?. Elsewhere there's a fabulous combination of spaciness, tricky time signatures (Hope For Happiness, Box 24/4 Lid) and the first flowerings of Wyatt's self-deprecating humour in lyrical form. On the hilariously Why Am I So Short? he tells of his swinging Bohemian ending with the couplet ''Every day I like an egg and some tea. But most of all I like to talk about me!''. By the time of its release the Summer of Love was long gone, but this debut still captures one of the key players in almost perfect form.

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