Soft Machine Legacy


What becomes of "Progressive" groups when they stop "progressing"? They become quite boring and predictable, and they start losing their members along the way.

I don't really expect the above dictum to work well under any condition, but I'd say that as a first sketch of explanation it could do. The funny thing is that quite often it's the most creative stage of a group's career - the one that's usually defined as being "heroic and innovative" - that ex post facto also proves to be their most fertile from a financial perspective. Which can be seen either by comparing revenues in a group's career or by investigating the "exploitation" of a name (which in time has turned into a brand), which now possesses a high market value thanks to music that back in the day was regarded as being "daring and inaccessible".

Talking about Soft Machine's discography implies using one's point of view, a thing that for some is inescapably "subjective", and so - by definition - of a highly dubious nature. But I think it's impossible for anyone to doubt the innovative nature of Vol. II (1969), the album by the trio (organ, voice-drums, bass) of Mike Ratledge, Robert Wyatt and Hugh Hopper which became a model for a lot of music yet to come. I have no doubts whatsoever about Third (1970), where Elton Dean's saxophone became an integral part of group; or Fourth (1971), an album that shared the same stylistic coordinates - "English Jazz, etc." - which had been so amazingly featured on Third. I'm also equally sure of the high quality of Fifth (1972), an album that in my opinion has suffered from an undervaluation deriving from our knowledge of "what came later" - though I have no problem admitting that, even at the time, the group's decision to use John Marshall on drums (he's only featured on Side Two) didn't look to me as the best possible solution. The exaggerated variety in quality of Six (1973) makes it an album that's quite difficult to judge in just a few words, but the arrival of Karl Jenkins as a keyboard and wind player, also author, signals without a doubt the exact moment when the music of the group really becomes "boring and predictable".

By that time, some had already gone away: Wyatt had left the group after Fourth, Dean after Fifth; after Six it was Hopper's turn to leave. To me it's precisely his leaving the group that signals the moment when things become musically weak, since I've never believed that the fact of Wyatt and Dean leaving could be satisfactorily explained only by a "more/less quality" framework. Their being replaced by so many musicians from Nucleus - a group a lot less gifted, colourful, ambitious, and innovative than Soft Machine - turned Soft Machine into a kind of Soft Machine-lite. Add Marshall, then Jenkins, then Roy Babbington (who replaced Hopper), then a young Allan Holdsworth on guitar... Who cared about Soft Machine after Six?

A few years ago, while reading an article about Crosby, Stills & Nash, I learned that the fee for a concert by two members of the glorious trio (I mean, any two members) was $5,000. For the whole trio? $25,000, or: "The importance of the brand". (Who knows how much they get, when adding Neil Young!) So I'm not really surprised by the huge amount of CDs featuring unreleased vintage material, most of it live (modern techniques of de-noising being really something), by "niche" groups. (My personal point of view is that - just like those bonus tracks consisting of demos and false starts - the huge amount of old material released has the only effect of "diluting" the musical importance of a name, if not the financial value of its brand. But this is not a very important issue here.) And it's quite obvious that a summer tour under a "celebrity" umbrella banner gives musicians a much better breathing air than a tour done under names that are by no means legendary.

This provokes criticisms, usually aimed at musicians. But what about the audience? What motivations could possibly explain the fact of an old fan of the group, or a young person thirsty for legend, attending a concert of an asthmatic group who will inevitably ruin their most-loved pieces, which most likely will be performed using the equipment that's most easily available? (It's not often that one sees an old Mellotron like the one Justin Hayward had on stage, to be featured only on Nights In White Satin!) Many times I've been told (and this has not only happened to me) "What do you mean, that you won't go? You used to like them a lot!". Which is exactly the point.

Realistically, a CD like Steam is expected to perform two main functions: to introduce promoters to the group, so that they can offer them money to play; and to act as a kind of souvenir that those who attend the concerts can bring home. It could be easy to play with words, changing the name of the group to Soft Machine Travesty, so big is the gap between the music featured on this album and the old music that only makes it possible for such a group to have a market value that's so higher than its own merits. But let's put aside our moral judgments, and let's see what's inside the album.

"Skilled musicians performing music that, though by no means horrible, it's quite boring and predicable." This is more or less what was said about an album by Isotope titled Illusion, in the year 1974. Here the members are John Etheridge on guitar, Hugh Hopper on bass, John Marshall on drums and Theo Travis on saxophones - tenor and soprano - and flute. Etheridge's phrasing often shows traces of Holdsworth's legato, also some spiky angles la Phil Miller (it goes with no saying that in the background one can see John McLaughlin); sometimes we have some "cosmic" guitars la Steve Hillage, and some throaty, wha-wha, licks that reminded me of Frank Zappa. Travis reminded me a lot of Didier Malherbe with Gong.

The album (recorded in the studio by Jon Hiseman, whom I assume to be the same guy who played drums in Colosseum) sounds quite live: we have the bass on the right, drums in the back, with the hi-hat on the right, "audience perspective" (just like the tom fills), saxophones on the left, with the guitar placed for the most part in the centre. Lotsa echoes. What I found really boring was the sound, quite flat, always the same from beginning to end: by Hiseman and the group, it's monotonous, with not much colour (after a while I stopped counting the times I looked at my watch). Stranger still, the first few tracks all have a hole (where is the snare?), and on the first track (!) one can really hear the "splicing points" between the various sections. The music is a generic "English jazz-rock" we've already heard so many times before, also from late-period Soft Machine.

Footloose is not bad, but the jam - featuring the tenor - sounds like Gong without the synths. The Steamer has a be-bop theme, a sax solo and a guitar solo. Gong come back for The Big Man, with soprano and guitar. Surprise, the group performs the famous Chloe & The Pirates from Six: it's not bad. with a nice soprano solo and a mediocre guitar, but it has the unfortunate effect to make the rest sound worse. In The Back Room has a funky-lite theme, an ugly guitar solo and a "breezy" sax  solo. A "menacing" atmosphere is featured on The Last Day. Nice levity on the flute in Firefly - why feature a drum solo? So English is a space-jam in the general style of Gong featuring a flute with echo, a soprano sax and a guitar with effects. Dave Acto is better, but by this time the listener's attention is bound to suffer. Anything To Anywhere starts with overdubbed soprano saxes, then an odd-time figure that sounds so very Hopper, then a theme that reminded me of... Camel!

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2007 | Sept. 18, 2007