Soft Machine
BBC Radio/1967-1971

(HUX Records)

Among those historical groups of little financial success, the Soft Machine are maybe the ones who have benefited the most from the existence of an audience with very good memory and from the introduction of those noise-removing tools that make it possible to sell as good-sounding CDs those old tapes that back in the old days would have had only a very limited circulation inside the bootleg circuit. Sure, it's funny to notice how nowadays the number of posthumous releases is at the very least equal to the number of their official studio albums - we're obviously talking about those albums "that count" (say, up to Fifth?), which is a quite different proposition than those up to their official split; and all are albums that, for one reason or another, it's quite easy to suggest as required listening.

If I'm not mistaken, the CD-era trend started with Live At The Proms 1970 (released in 1988), which was followed by the double album The Peel Sessions, which offered rare episodes and a very good sound. While the latter's graphic presentation was very good when it came to pictures, the album was ultimately on the elusive side when it came to names - who, when? - even if the attentive fan had no trouble spotting in the tracks As If and Drop a drum style that was definitely not Wyatt's.

Hux Records is now presenting those materials (which come from BBC radio sessions) along with a lot of unreleased stuff. 1967 - 1971 is their first double album, which covers the Wyatt era, while another album - not surprisingly titled 1971 - 1973 - will present the rest of the story and offer a truckload of unreleased tracks. Nice graphics and sound, full credits, (brief) sleevenotes by Hugh Hopper and Kevin Ayers, a few nice pictures, a project which had the blessing of those involved. The album can quite well function as an introduction to the band for those still unaware (just add the absolutely indispensable Vol. II). But I'm sure the long-time fan is asking: what's inside?

We have the recordings of the trio (Hugh Hopper, Mike Ratledge, Robert Wyatt) with Brian Hopper on saxophone; those nice septet recordings - the four winds line-up - from '69; the trio version of The Moon In June; the material from Third as played by the quartet with Elton Dean on saxophones from '70; and Virtually and Neo-Caliban Grides, both from '71.

What about unreleased tracks? Opening the first CD are five tracks by the Kevin Ayers, Ratledge and Wyatt trio from December 1967 which up to now had been only available on bootlegs: well remastered by Michael King, these songs take us back to the bittersweet, "English" climates of their first album - an album that was mostly listened to retrospectively, and not so positively judged, in a period when the music of the group had changed quite dramatically, but to which the passing of time (and the evolution of music?) has conferred a pleasantly naïve patina. Clarence In Wonderland ended up on Ayers's second solo album (Shooting At The Moon), We Know What You Mean is a nice unreleased song, Certain Kind, Hope For Happiness and Lullaby Letter were included on the first album. Then, we have a very beautiful version - only piano and vocals! - of Wyatt's Instant Pussy, which was to be featured in a different version on Matching Mole's first. On the second CD we have a very long version (twelve minutes) of Fletcher's Blemish by Dean which is pretty different from those I've listened to (Ratledge is also on piano, an instrument that he didn't play much, in the studio or live); and then we have a medley of Eamonn Andrews/All White. Is it enough? Your choice.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2003 | March 15, 2003