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The Soft Machine Revisited

March 14, 2012

First published July 2009

The Soft Machine (Polydor 532 050-5)

Soft Machine Volume 2 (Polydor 532 050-6)

According to the NME Prog is apparently fashionable again. However when it comes to multi-song suites, lengthy instrumentals, absurd lyrics and ever-changing time signatures there was only one band that ever mattered. Ladies and gentlemen I give you the Soft Machine 1968 – 1969, the period covered in this brace of releases. The Softs secret weapon was their sense of humour and an inability to take themselves too seriously which makes them free from the pretention that marred so many other Proggers (honorary exceptions: selected Van der Graaf Generator and the Fripp/Whetton/Bruford line-up of King Crimson)

The band who made The Soft Machine stand comparison with Syd’s Floyd as UK psychedelic pioneers. Bass player Kevin Ayers had a pop sensibility of sorts, heard here in the proto-trance ‘We Did It Again’ and ‘Lullabye Letter’. ‘Why Are We Sleeping?’ was based on the writings of then-fashionable sage Gurdjieff but thanks to Robert Wyatt’s irrepressible drumming it never sags .  Also featured is an Ayers underwater bass solo called ‘Joy Of A Toy’ which must be the least commercial single ever issued by Probe Records.

Volume 2 is a CD of two halves. Side One (as was) is ten melodic fragments collectively referred to as Rivmic Melodies, unified by Wyatt’s warm vocals. The alphabet is sung, forwards and backwards, the Jimi Hendrix Experience are thanked in song for recent touring escapades and even a few bars of ‘My Favourite Things’ surface in the musical minestrone. Side Two starts well with a tribute to the departed Ayers ( ‘As Long As He Lies Perfectly Still’) followed by ‘Dedicated To You But You Weren’t Listening’, written by his replacement Hugh Hopper’s. Unfortunately the remainder of this side ‘Esther’s Nose Job’ is dominated by Mike Ratledge’s organ, an indication of how the power-balance within the Softs was shifting.  Wyatt lasted until Soft Machine Third in 1971 (check his side-long ‘Moon In June’) then bailed out and with him went my interest in the Softs.

Towering over both records is the very first Soft Machine single ‘Love Makes Sweet Music’ / ‘Feelin’ Reelin’ Squeelin’ recorded by the earliest line up of Soft Machine, released by Polydor in 1967 and one of the all-time great psychedelic singles. Perhaps it was the presence of original guitarist Daevid Allen or legendary producer Kim Fowley – either way these tracks are rare as hen’s teeth so well done Polydor for adding them to the Softs debut.

Polydor are to be commended for producing two fine-sounding remastered CD’s. The booklets both contain a good selection of period Phil Smee pics and posters. Strangely Mark Powell’s sleeve notes for the two booklets are near- identical, which is a bit lazy. And proper credits for the musicians involved would have been only right and proper.

Buy these discs and astonish a longhaired teenager near you with your total now-ness.

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