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Soft Machine / 1989


The Soft Machine line-up which surgaced on Harvest with 1975's "Bundles" album was vastly different to that which had helped forge English Psychedelia some eight years previously. Mike Ratledge, their keyboard wunderkind, was the sole original member, a survivor of eleven distinctive versions as well as sundry minor changes.
Their beginnings lay in the Canterbury of the early 1960's and an ad hoc gang of friends and musicians intent on embracing the New Jazz of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, rather than The Beatles or Merseybeat followers welcomed by their contemporaries and who devoured the Beat literature of Kerouac and Ginsberg as opposed to James Bond. Several future confederates, the aforementioned Ratledge, the Hopper brothers, Hugh and Brian, Robert Wyatt and David Sinclair, were all pupils at the Simon Langston School, a loose-fitting circle which was then enhanced by two itinerant souls, Kevin Ayers and Daevid Allen who, especially Allen, would interact and influence their thinking.
Robert, the Hoppers and Ayers subsequently formed The Wilde Flowers, an R&B group whose make-up proved as unstable as its participants future projects. Kevin quit for the warmth of the Mediterranean soon after cutting the band's lone bequest, a four track demo, but by the time he returned in 1966 Wyatt had been tempted into a newer venture sparked off when Ratledge returned from university. Ayers joined them on bass, Daevid Allen reappeared on guitar, the mysterious Larry Nolan came and went, and while The Flowers continued the outsider path before subsequently evolving into Caravan, their fledgling counterpars now operated in London's nascent Underground.
Taking their name from the William Burrough's novel, The Soft Machine were, along with Pink Floyd, adopted as the freak-out houseband. Acceptance without that clique was more problematical; too radical for mass consumption they'd abandon Britian for a France more susceptible to the avant-garde. The move, however, resulted in the first real rupture when, en route to the 1967 Edinburgh Festival, Daevid Allen, an Australian, was denied re-entry by British customs. He returned to Paris from where he began to piece together a new career and group, Gong.
A series of demos apart, that first incarnation managed one sole single, 'Love Makes Sweet Music', and the trio were latterly pitched into a gruelling U.S. tour schedule before further releases could be accommodated. Briefly augmented by guitarist Andy Somers, the Softs grafted through most of 1968, hurriedly cutting their superb, eponymous debut album during a 4-day break. By the end of this punishing schedule they were all demoralised; Kevin quit for Lbiza and his subsequent solo ideosyncracies, Wyatt and Ratledge separated in opposite directions before the domestic success of "The Soft Machine", still only available on import, drew them back together.
Hugh Hopper was called up from the road crew to become the new bassist, a second collection, "Soft Machine 2", was recorded and released in April 1969, but as well as the fromer group's madness, a new, more studious direction was evolving. An experimental brass section, Nick Evans, Marc Charic, Lyn Dobson and Elton Dean, was then briefly augmented, the latter pair remained in place for "Thirds", the Softs' 1970 double set, with Dean staying on as a permanent member. By now internal struggles were rife, Wyatt quit to cut a solo album, "The End Of An Ear', returned for "Fourth", before leaving for good in September 1971. From there he formed Matching Mole, a name punningly based on the French translation of his erstwhile group, but the same inner problems would also surface here. Robert was in the process of forming a new Mole when tragically paralysed following a fall; his work since the accident has been both breathtaking and poignant.
Phil Howard became Wyatt's replacement, a friend of Dean, the two were members of Just Us, a part-time offshoot which also featured the rump of the short-lived horn section, Charic and Evans. The new drummer only lasted a mere four months, by January he was moved out in favour of John Marshall, a veteran of Britian's new Jazz, whose discipline brought a new perspective to the band. "Fifth", released in June 1972, effectively ended any lingering ties The Soft Machine enjoyed with their rascally past, the defection of Elton Dean to a now professional Just Us paved the way for the introduction of Marshall's cohort, Karl Jenkins, and when Hugh Hopper quit to follow his own direction and conscience following "Six", that inheritance was all but extinguished. Both refugees would record solo collections emphasising the various facets they'd brought into the group they'd departed, thus emphasising the difference between the old and new. It is, however, somewhat unfair to contrast them; they were different times and different musicians. Had the Softs abandoned their now ill-fitting handle, their more scholarly approach might have been more widely welcomed.
"Seven" was issued in October 1973 and while it introduced bassist Roy Babbington, it also marked the end of the Soft Machine's spell at CBS which had begun with "Third". An eighteen month gap then followed, the longest, so far, in their history, before the group emerged with a new guitarist, Allan Holdsworth, a new outlet, Harvest and the album herewith enclosed, "Bundles".
The label worked hard on its new aquisition, relaunching their career through some spirited and imaginative publicity. For those who'd missed the changes over the years, "Bundles" must have been surprising, for others the collection consolidated the direction of its immediate predecessors. Yet if the old Dada-esque, random factor was now lost to the surfeit of offshoots proclaiming its legacy; Gong, Kevin Ayers or even Hatfield & The North, the collective playing was undoubtedly crafted. Holdsworth's guitar provided the group with new textures and avenues; he could be economical or stupidly fast, Marshall's drumming is, as ever, imaginative, while Ratledge continued to show his adept keyboard touches. The compositional grip he'd once enjoyed was, however, eroding as the Softs increasingly became an avenue for Karl Jenkins' work. Although more immediately thought of as a saxophonist, Jenkins also doubled on piano and a track such as 'Hazard Profile' betray the kind of chording beloved by Jazz/Fusion exponents rather than the kick-start rasp listeners anticipated from the group's nominal leader. That said pieces such as 'Four Gongs To Drums' and 'The Man Who Waved At Trains' showed this line-up's individuality and those who'd ventured to the fringe of English rock, who'd embraced Colosseum or the Kind Crimson of "Red", or who'd watched parts of this Soft Machine line-up since their earlier work with Nucleus, will have welcomed "Bundles" as another part of that complex, challenging jigsaw.
Dinnes Cruickshank


1. Hazard Profile - Part 1 (Jenkins)
2. Part 2 (Toccatina) (Jenkins)
3. Part 3 (Jenkins)
4. Part 4 (Jenkins)
5. Part 5 (Jenkins)
6. Gone Sailing (Holdsworth)
7. Bundles (Jenkins)
8. Land Of The Bag Snake (Holdsworth)
9. The Man Who Waved At Trains (Ratledge)
10. Peff (Ratledge)
11. Four Gongs Two Drums (Marshall)
12. The Floating World (Jenkins)





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