Cold if you want it

I interviewed Mark Thomas once – you can probably find the interview on the Red Pepper Web site if you look hard enough. Originally it was in three or four sections, each one prefaced with a quote from “White man in Hammersmith Palais”; a bit of a pretentious device, which unsurprisingly got lost in subbing. It seemed important to get punk in, though; Mark Thomas is a bit younger than me, and like me had his head turned round by what happened to music in 1976-7.

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, and so forth. But I’m not sure you can really remember ’77 unless your memory goes back a bit further than that. The letters pages of the NME and Sounds at the time were full of what were essentially conversion narratives – Until last week I was a hippie – I had long hair, wore flared jeans and went to one concert a year… It wasn’t quite that abrupt for me (or Mark Thomas) but there was definitely a before as well as an after.

Mark Thomas: I was into Yes, ELP… the first album I bought was Tarkus
Phil: Top album!
MT: No! Sorry, no – it is not a top album. Step away from Emerson, Lake and Palmer…

Actually I’ve never heard Tarkus – I was basing my opinion on the track “Aquatarkus” on the live triple album Welcome back my friends to the show that goes on and on for bloody ages. I wasn’t even into ELP. No, I was strictly Gentle Giant and Soft Machine.

I’ll say more about Giant another time – I still think of their stuff with some fondness, as well as a lot of embarrassment. This post is about the Softs.

I got into Soft Machine rather late; around the time of their seventh album, to be precise. They were featured on a TV programme which I now can’t identify (don’t suppose anyone reading this has a copy of Graham Bennett’s Out-Bloody-Rageous to hand?) on which they played, among other things, the track “Nettle bed”. It consists mostly of a synthesiser solo, played over an endlessly-repeated synthesised bass riff, which itself is played over the kind of 4:4 drumming that gets called ‘driving’. It’s atypical of Seven, which itself was pretty unlike most of what Soft Machine had done before, but I didn’t know that at the time. The music – combined with the sight of Mike Ratledge, all long hair and dark glasses, jabbing studiously at a bank of keyboards – made the same kind of impression on me as Eno-period Roxy Music had done a couple of years earlier: I thought I’d seen the future. For several days afterwards I held forth to anyone who would listen – my best friend, mainly – about my discovery of a whole new genre of music, which I called “soft rock”. (Eventually my friend unsportingly pointed out that a) other people were already using the phrase “soft rock” to mean something different, and in any case b) I couldn’t actually describe what I meant by the term without referring back to the track “Nettle bed” by Soft Machine.)

Still, I was sold – and the subsequent purchase of Soft Machine Seven only confirmed my conviction that this was the stuff. Over the next year I got hold of almost everything that was available by the band – which would involve a serious investment in time and money now, but at that time meant that I bought three albums. I remember that CBS had marked down both Third and Six, the band’s two double albums, to £2.83; since my friendly local record shop took 10% off the price of everything, I got them both for £2.55. (Or rather, I got Six and my parents got me Third, an album which consists of four twenty-minute slabs of experimental jazz/rock. What a Christmas that was.) I also got Fifth, with its black-on-black sleeve design – but not Fourth, as by the time I got to it the stark embossed tan sleeve had been replaced by a two-tone brown-on-tan design, which wasn’t nearly as impressive. (For anyone who’s counting, the first two albums were either deleted or had never been available in the UK.) Still, with that lot in hand I had a good two and a half hours of music to keep me going while I waited for Soft Machine Eight.

Which never arrived. Soft Machine were a band who had gone through some serious changes, and one of the most serious happened around that time. To simplify an extremely complicated band family tree, Soft Machine from the second to the fourth album consisted of founder members Ratledge and Robert Wyatt (drums), together with bassist Hugh Hopper (who replaced original bassist Kevin Ayers). Hugh’s brother Brian played a bit of sax on the second album; he was replaced on a more permanent basis by Elton Dean (as of the third album), after a brief but productive experiment with a seven-piece lineup including trombone, cornet and flute. On the first couple of albums the Softs combined psychedelic pop songs with experimental jazz; Elton Dean’s arrival tipped the balance definitively towards jazz, and began what’s generally regarded as the Softs’ great period. They were a band stretched taut between Dean’s soloing and Ratledge’s disciplined compositions, driven on by the power of the brass section and underpinned by a bassist and a drummer who could switch between 7/8 and 5/4 without drawing breath (“A few fives to take away the taste of all those sevens…”). A typical Soft Machine number would set up a melodic theme – often over an odd chord sequence and almost invariably over an odd time signature – then let a soloist loose on it (often Dean but sometimes Ratledge – an extraordinary soloist in his own right – and occasionally Hopper). But nothing went on too long: Soft Machine worked in suites. On Third, the LP-side-long track “Slightly all the time” actually consists of three separate pieces, built on themes with accompanying solos (in 11/4, 11/8, 9/8, 6/4 and 9/8 again). The power, the range and the sheer confidence of the band were extraordinary. They really were quite good.

But, on a personal level – as Bennett’s book makes clear – it was all a bit of a mess. Wyatt liked to drink and socialise; he also liked singing, and tried for a long time to keep a vocal element in Soft Machine’s music – in songs and then, as the big-band sound took hold, as scat improvisation. Neither Hopper nor Ratledge was big on the party scene, and neither of them had any interest in music with vocals. Third is a magnificent album, but the vocal/instrumental patchwork of the previous album is conspicuous by its absence: Wyatt’s vocals are confined to the song “Moon in June”, most of which was played and recorded by Wyatt alone and unaided. (One of my many anorakish niggles with Bennett’s book is that he doesn’t say enough about what was going on on that track – did Wyatt play the acoustic guitar solo? Is that Marc Charig’s cornet parping forlornly at the end, Nick Evans’ trombone or something else entirely, such as Wyatt making mouth noises? And am I the only person to spot the quotes from Kevin Ayers’ “Hat Song” (what about me…?)? Bah.)

Ultimately, Wyatt was going to have to go; ultimately he went, but not of his own volition. Perhaps due to the nature of the leading personalities in the band, being in Soft Machine was never a particularly convivial experience, but the sacking of Wyatt seems to have started a process which chilled the atmosphere in the band permanently. Dean got hold of a replacement drummer, the extravagantly energetic Phil Howard; Howard’s style of drumming, heard on the first half of Fifth, isn’t so much time-keeping as a permanent drum solo, with accents chosen for their expressive value as much as for the beat. Unfortunately, Howard got on much better with Dean than either Hopper or Ratledge, who felt the band was drifting into free jazz territory. So Howard in turn had to go, and Dean had to be the one who told him to go – an experience which soured Dean on the band. When he left, ironically, his replacement was nominated by Howard’s replacement, John Marshall – Howard’s antithesis, a timekeeper of metronomic precision (even in 11/4). The reeds gig went to Karl Jenkins, a personal friend of Marshall with whom he had played in Ian Carr’s Nucleus. Jenkins was one of Britain’s few jazz oboists and a fluent composer, if not a great one; Bennett quotes Hugh Hopper describing Jenkins’ musical ideas as “third-hand and third-rate”. (Incidentally, Bennett didn’t manage to speak to either Jenkins or Ratledge, but includes quotes from both of them; like several of the book’s quotes from Wyatt, Kevin Ayers, Daevid Allen and other ex-Softs, these are taken from published sources and printed without attribution. This is seriously shoddy practice, which really diminishes the value of the book – although I can’t say that I wasn’t interested in what they said, whenever it was they said it.)

With Jenkins’ arrival, at the time of the band’s sixth album, the nature of Soft Machine’s music changed. Listening to Six after Fifth, much of the improvisation is more pedestrian than before; the rock-influenced approach of improvisation over a riff is more prominent, as distinct from the jazz structure of theme and elaboration. Another thing that stands out when you listen to the Softs’ albums chronologically is the quality of Jenkins’ own solos, on oboe and sax; compared to Dean’s endless melodic invention they’re pretty thin stuff. Thin, and scratchy with it. With Hopper’s fuzz bass and Ratledge’s fuzz organ, there always was something abrasive about Soft Machine’s sound; it was never easy listening, in any sense of the phrase. Jenkins’ oboe solos take this to a new level, not only because of the harsh, whining tonality of the instrument but because of the narrowness of his range as an improviser: there’s lots of high-then-low squawking and parping in octaves and fifths, lots of trills, lots of nagging repeats of a single note. Close-mike the instrument, as he did on Seven, and the sound’s not so much abrasive as downright inhuman. To be fair, Jenkins always was a composer first and foremost. Some of Jenkins’ contributions to the sixth album are fully-scored, with no improvisation at all; in others the improvisatory element is confined to conservative electric-piano doodling. The composing’s pretty conservative, too. Spotting the time signature had always been an incidental pleasure of listening to Soft Machine; on Third, Ratledge’s superb “Out-bloody-rageous” (another track which doesn’t really get its due from Bennett, ironically enough) is in the unheard-of time signature of 15:8, variously divided for rhythmic purposes into a 6 and a 9, a 7 and an 8, and three 5s. (Hence the title, presumably.) Nothing says more about Jenkins’ approach than the fact that “The Soft Weed Factor”, his contribution to the studio-based half of the album, is in 4:4. Where’s the fun in that? (The other three-quarters of the studio LP are much better; Ratledge’s “Chloe and the Pirates”, in particular, which is built around two contrasting oboe themes, both equally striking but entirely different in mood. I’d been playing it for weeks before I realised that the second one was the first one played backwards.)

Seven came after Six – and after Hopper had left the band – so listening to it now, thirty-odd years on, should have been a massive disappointment. And, to a large extent, it was: the riffing is dogged and narrow (very rock); the solos (Ratledge’s apart) sound elbowy, simultaneously unimaginative and ostentatious; the short tinkly piano pieces sound more than ever like a waste of space. I still enjoyed it, though: it’s got the best production of any Soft Machine album, combining some emphatically synthetic tonality with a real sense of space and texture. (Kieran Hebden would like it.) And, if the solos and the compositions now sound like a poor copy of Third, I know that when I first heard the album I was comparing it with the likes of the Neutrons, Camel and Genesis – and, considered as jazz-rock, it’s really not so shabby.

From then on that was about as good as it got, though. In June 1974, eight months after the release of Seven, Soft Machine did a session for Jazz in Britain. I never listened to JiB, so I don’t know how I found out about it – idle reading of the Radio Times, probably. They did two tunes, “Plain Bob” and “The man who waved at trains”. I taped the latter, an eight-minute composition. It began with a discordant cymbal-and-gong improvisation, which gave way to a beautiful, meandering oboe and guitar theme. (From “Slightly all the time” through “Pigling Bland” (Fifth) to “Chloe and the Pirates”, Ratledge always did write good themes.) The statement of the theme was followed by a change of pace and a hurried, urgent oboe solo, before the track ended with a restatement of the theme. Unfortunately my supply of cassettes was limited at this point; after playing “TMWWAT” to death for a couple of weeks I taped over it, reasoning that it would be bound to appear on the band’s next album.

Before that was released, though, there was one more major event in my career as a Soft Machine fan: I saw them live, for the first (and only) time. Since I was 14 and the gig was up in London – at the Rainbow, no less – my older sister accompanied me, with her boyfriend; as you can imagine, I didn’t get much conversation out of them. The gig was a bit of an anti-climax. I remember very little about it now, possibly because Larry Coryell, the support act, overran wildly; by the time the band actually came on it was past my bedtime and looking ominously close to the tube-drivers’ bedtime. (Bizarrely, I had a very similar experience at the Rainbow four years later, when the Slits were supported by Don Cherry. Must be something about the venue.) I remember the gig began with some complex but bland two-electric-piano noodling, which began, then went on without developing very much, then went on some more. I remember John Marshall pausing midway through his percussion solo to sprinkle some kind of powder on his skins; I remember that people started a slow handclap at this point, and that Marshall replied by holding up his sticks in a V sign. And that’s about all I remember about the music. I do remember making what I hoped was a wittily blasé comment about looking forward to one of Ratledge’s ghastly fuzz organ solos, directed at no one in particular (I’d given up on my sister by this stage); I remember making this remark at least twice, to no reaction from anyone. I don’t remember any organ solos, certainly not with fuzz. Then again, I don’t remember a guitarist, and I’m pretty sure Alan Holdsworth would have been there. I do remember the writeup in the next day’s paper: “Musicians’ musicians to a man, Soft Machine played themselves into a corner last night”. Spot on, although of course I refused to admit it at the time.

There were flexis [Translator’s Note: the flexi-disc or flexi was a seven-inch single, manufactured using thin plastic rather than standard vinyl and generally produced for promotional purposes] on the seats at the Rainbow, featuring extracts from the Softs’ forthcoming album Bundles. For the first time ever, a Soft Machine album had a title, and a singularly unenlightening one it was too (it didn’t even match the album cover). When the album came out, a few months later, I was pleased to see “The man who waved at trains” present and correct in the track listing but mystified to find (on getting the record out of the sleeve on East Croydon station) that the vinyl it occupied only looked a couple of minutes long; if that was eight minutes, I reasoned obtusely, how long was the whole album?. Of course, the band hadn’t mastered some bizarre groove-cramming technique. “TMWWAT” really was only a couple of minutes long, and consisted of a theme, a bit of desultory oboe noodling and a restatement of the theme; the other parts of the composition had been scissored into separate tracks. “Plain Bob” was there, too, covering most of side 1 under the ridiculously pretentious name of “Hazard Profile parts 1-5”; as it turned out part 4 was just a riff, part 2 was a brief piano composition, and part 3 was an even briefer bridge between the two, with ascending organ chords and Allan Holdsworth’s guitar in plangent, Camel-ish form. With part 5 a rather unexciting Ratledge synth solo, the main action was in part 1, where Allan Holdsworth sounded less like Andy Latimer and more like John McLaughlin.

Holdsworth’s Soft Machine solos are extraordinary stuff, it has to be said, but his sudden prominence in the band was a bad sign. The Softs needed a soloist with the range, speed and melodic invention of Dean or Ratledge in his heyday, and Holdsworth certainly fitted the bill. But, unlike Third-period Ratledge, Holdsworth wasn’t a writer as well as a soloist – and, unlike Dean, he wasn’t working in creative dialogue with a writer. (Dean’s blowing and Ratledge’s chamber composition had a strange but productive relationship, summed up by Dean’s one composing credit on Fifth: the final track, Bone, consists of the improvisation by Dean which opens the first track, Ratledge’s All White, played note-for-note by Ratledge on fuzz organ.) Essentially, the problem with Holdsworth was that Ratledge wasn’t doing any serious writing by this stage – and Jenkins, who had ostensibly replaced him as the driving force of the band, didn’t have anything like his chops as a composer, let alone as an improviser. Jenkins’ Soft Machine was a band which went from tasteful piano noodling to heavy-booted riffing and back again. They were in a rut, and plugging in a soloist – even one as driven and driving as Holdsworth – wasn’t going to lift them out.

I didn’t formulate all that at the time, but I did take Ratledge’s overdue departure from the band – midway through sessions for the ninth album, the ironically-titled Softs – as a cue to lose all interest in them. (Plus by this stage punk was starting to kick off.) After Holdsworth, as I understand, John Etheridge joined on guitar; after Etheridge, Alan Wakeman joined on sax and Ric Sanders on electric violin. After that – not long after that – they wound up, although Jenkins later made a ‘Soft Machine’ album with Marshall and various other people; it’s called The land of Cockayne, it’s fully-scored and it’s bland in the extreme. Jenkins later worked for several years with Ratledge (of all people) on music for commercials (of all things); Ratledge even had a small part in the early days of Jenkins’ hugely successful ‘Adiemus’ project.

I remember vaguely believing – certainly at the time all this was going on, and for some time afterwards – that being in a band was rather like being in a gang, only more so, what with being grown up: if you didn’t actually live in the same house, you would certainly spend lots of time hanging around together and know one another really, really well. And what did it mean when a band split up, other than that friends had fallen out? I couldn’t imagine that you could be in a band and not spend time with the other members of the band, outside the times when you were actually making music together. Ironically, this was precisely true of Soft Machine, the band I followed more than any other. Bennett spoke to several ex-members of the band, and most of them tell the same story: from Fourth onwards – which is to say, from the time of Wyatt’s departure – to join Soft Machine was to join a band whose members didn’t socialise, didn’t go to the bar together before a gig or the pub afterwards, didn’t even chat or exchange the odd smile during rehearsals. You played the charts, you did your solo, you went home.

What I take from all this is that music is hard – or rather, working in groups is hard. For most of the time between Volume Two and Fifth, Soft Machine was a difficult band to be in – but throughout that time they produced music which (even with thirty years’ hindsight) ranges from good to startlingly brilliant. Ten or fifteen years ago, I was in a political group called (hopefully) the Socialist Movement; we spent a lot of time and effort shaking off Trotskyist groups who wanted to latch onto us. Shortly after we’d got rid of the last of them – a tiny grouplet which held the British franchise of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International – the whole thing folded, either because we didn’t have the numbers to run it any more or just because agreeing with each other was no fun. I think something similar happened in Soft Machine: the years when the group was biting chunks out of itself were also the most productive years. By the time of Seven (and “Nettle bed”) the group had settled down in reasonable harmony around the core of Jenkins, Marshall and bassist Roy Babbington – all old Nucleus hands, effectively replacing the old Volume Two trio of Ratledge, Wyatt and Hopper. But by then Ratledge (still just about in the band) had long lost his fire, and the music had lost its edge. This just left Jenkins, neither opposed nor assisted by any other band member, to turn it out by the yard – as he has done ever since.

Groups shake themselves apart; if they’re not doing that, they’re stagnating. Perhaps.

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3 Comments

  1. Sid Smith
    Posted 5 September 2006 at 23:03 | Permalink | Reply

    Great post Phil. It chimes in with my memories of the band – particularly taping Jazz In Britain! Softs 7 always gets a kicking but its one of my favourites. Have you heard Floating World Live? Great set which has a bit more fire to it than the Bundles album.

  2. Phil
    Posted 6 September 2006 at 08:57 | Permalink | Reply

    Some time after that Nucleus were on Jazz in Britain, and I taped every second of the programme – I still remember Charles James Fox’s introduction (“By the late 1960s, the spreading tide of the rock movement…”) It didn’t really compensate for losing the Softs session. For me a lot of the HUX 1971-4 set is of historical interest only, but hearing the original “TMWWAT” again was a joy. (I don’t remember “North Point” being announced as a separate track, though. I guess we’ll never know.)

    Thanks for the live album tip – I’ll look out for it.

  3. Sid Smith
    Posted 6 September 2006 at 14:15 | Permalink | Reply

    You’re right – North Point wasn’t announced as a seperate track. What’s happened is that it’s been given a seperate title in order to pick up on publishing and royalties.

    It might (or might not) be of interest to you I wrote up a review of the Bennett book and here’s an outline of the Floating World Live album

One Trackback

  1. By Plus … tubular bells | Wis[s]e Words on 12 October 2013 at 20:00

    […] there’s Mike Ratledge (keyboards), a founding member of quintessential Canterbury band Soft Machine, who left in 1976 dissatisfied with the direction the band had taken, as it moved from prog rock to […]

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