One of several bands who have taken inspiration from William S Burroughs. Whether that puts you off, or turns you on is a matter of taste, but for lovers of psychedelia, jazz-rock or early progressive rock, Soft Machine’s first album, the ambitiously titled Volume One, offers a smorgasbord of each, effortlessly sandwiched together in a free-flowing fusion of what is undoubtedly a classic of the era.
Taking their queue from jazz ensemble free improvisation rather than the structured sounds of late 60s pop, this is a wonderfully inventive casserole of psychedelic jazz-rock. This may in part be due to an unusual line up of drums (courtesy of the incredibly talented Robert Wyatt), driving bass by Kevin Ayers and Mike Ratledge on twiddly fuzzy organ. Released in 1968, their debut was co-produced by Chas Chandler, who was also managing them, at the same time as The Jimi Hendrix Experience, for whom they supported regularly on tour. But it didn’t even feature their original line-up. Daevid Allen, who went on to form Gong, had left by then, and they had been reduced to a trio.
Soft Machine are a band whose influence runs like a vein of quartz through British alternative music. They’ve had multiple line-ups over the years (which during the 70s seem to change every few months) with members including Andy Summers, later of The Police, John Etheridge and even Sir Karl Jenkins, most well-known now as a composer of ‘light’ classical works such as Adiemus and The Armed Man. Whilst at school, growing up in the Gower, South Wales, he briefly went out with my ex-girlfriend’s mother. They are a band for whom Pete Frame’s famous Rock Family Trees were made for, and it’s worth checking out this modern version.
Robert Wyatt leads on all vocals on the album, with the exception of We Did it Again and Why Are We Sleeping? The latter is a fantastic slice of hippie psychedelia. A true hangover from the summer of love, featuring the lyrics: “It begins with a blessing, it ends with a curse /Making life easy by making it worse.” Elsewhere we have the characteristic Canterbury-scene whimsical musings on Why Am I So Short? where Wyatt hilariously bemoans his ‘challenging’ rock and roll lifestyle. It’s not dissimilar to the jazz-rock surrealism Frank Zappa was exploring on the other side of the Atlantic. Yet it has a peculiarly English quality to it.
The original album ends with the obscure instrumental Box 25 / 4 Lid which seems a more fitting end for this musically experimental force of nature. My copy of the record is a CD re-release from 2009 which includes two bonus tracks. As is often the way with this sort of additions, it tends to detract from the original. However, for a Soft Machine virgin like myself its interesting to hear the releases that preceded their debut and to see how far they’d travelled in 18 months: Love Makes Sweet Music is a fairly standard late 60s psych-rock affair whilst Feelin’ Reelin’ Squeelin’ is more in tune with the jazz-rock whimsy of Volume One. These tracks are the A and B side of their first single, released in early 1967 and one of the first recordings of British psychedelia.
Best Bits: Why Are We Sleeping?
Genre: Psychedelic Jazz-Rock Fusion
Like This, Try This: The fab short BBC4 documentary on the Canterbury Scene