Soft Machine - The Soft Machine - Classic Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Soft Machine - The Soft Machine

by Bill Golembeski Rating:10 Release Date:1968-12-07
The Soft Machine
The Soft Machine

In 1972, when I started to buy record albums in a serious way, my Midwestern world view was invaded by quirky British song titles like Egg’s “While Growing My Hair” and “The Song of McGillicudie the Pusillanimous (or Don’t Worry James, Your Socks Are Hanging in The Coal Cellar with Thomas).” Caravan gave “Dance of the Seven Paper Hankies” and “Hold Grandad by the Nose.” Hatfield and the North provided “Lobster in Cleavage Probe” and the catchy “(Big) John Wayne Socks Psychology on the Jaw.”

Of course, Soft Machine on their second album titled the B side “Esther’s Nose Job.” That’s a favorite. But way back in 1968, the Softs’ first classic album was the Big Bang start of all this Canterbury scene eclectic whimsy.

Speaking of Big Bangs, Fred Adams in his book Origins of Existence explains that “quantum gravity…is ultimately responsible for launching universes into existence.” Apparently, there are all sorts of universes “inflating” all the time. Now, it’s a bit of a tragedy that the average universe only lasts for 10-43 but it’s always nice to know they are out there.  Our own cosmic crib has been around for about 13 billion years, (which is just slightly younger than The Rolling Stones). So, we’re pretty lucky.

And I think classic albums are like all of this. They each create a universe of their own that welcomes the eager mind. The truly great ones even compose new laws of physics that vibrate with strange elements in their groves.

Soft Machine begins with Robert Wyatt’s distinctly non-rock ‘n’ roll voice. His drumming rattles in the background until Mike Ratledge’s organ takes the lead, and then the song’s title “Hope for Happiness” is repeated in a fairly memorable chorus. But this isn’t pop music. It doesn’t even want to be commercial. And that’s a big paradigm shift.  Rock was suddenly enrolled in college. The instrumental “Joy of a Toy” is then followed by the reprise of the initial tune. That reprisal is, I suppose, sort of classical in nature, so the art ante is upped a bit. The Beatles did it in Sgt. Pepper when their music became more than just “Love, love me do” and the various words that they managed to rhyme.

By the way, the song “Joy of a Toy” would be resurrected on Soft Machine’s guitarist Kevin Ayres’ first (and equally classic) first solo album.

Then the record veers into Canterbury space music with the improv of “Why Am I So Short” (which questions its own brevity and is a Dadaist list of Wyatt’s daily activities). The improv is extended with “So Boot If at All” as its seven-minute plus length ventures into Canterbury jazz with a bass line that recalls The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.” Wyatt takes a clever drum solo before he enters into a duet with Ratledge’s rather free-form piano. All of this leads into a beautiful (but still quite odd) organ, voice, and drum ballad called “A Certain Kind.” It’s Canterbury Cathedral soul.

Again, this isn’t even trying to be AM radio fodder.

Ah, but “Save Yourself” almost qualifies as late 60’s psych single material with its chorus, but then Wyatt’s drumming and scat singing wanders into the next song “Priscilla, which, again, is serious (but brief) improv stuff that lurches into “Lullabye Letter.” This is rock music with a good ziff and all sorts of weird noises.

It should be noted that these guys were never rebels without a cause. In fact, the liner notes were certain to mention Mike Ratledge “won a prize in Philosophy at Oxford” and Robert Wyatt “was tutored by George Neidori” and he “astonished The Village Voice’s Michael Zwerin…by singing note-for-note, Charlie Parker’s bop solo on Donna Lee.” By the way, George Neidori also tutored young Robert in the art of stone carving. Kevin Ayres, who was soon to leave the group, never went to Oxford and never carved any stone, but “migrated to Majorca” and was “an amateur illustrator.” These things were important to serious record nerds back then, as was the absolutely wonderful American released Probe album with its die-cut revolving cover which pre-dated Zeppelin III by several years.

“We Did It Again” re-introduces The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” bass line, but in all fairness, sort of pounds its way-too-not-so-clever title so many times that even the kid who always fell asleep in the back of class would catch its silly intent.

“Plus Belle Qu’une Poubelle” is a short bit of noise that ushers in the total Kevin Ayres massed chorus sound of “Why Are You Sleeping” which is also the template for much of fellow Wilde Flowers alumni Caravan’s truly great album If I Could Do It All Over Again, I’d Do It All Over You, which, by the way, is also deserving (along with their In the Land of Grey and Pink) of classic rock status. And it also introduces the baritone and highly seductive voice of young Kevin, who would go on to record eclectic and wonderful solo records like the before-mentioned Joy of a Toy, the incredible Shooting at the Moon, and Whatevershebrinswesing on the Harvest label.

This all ends with 45 seconds of “Box 45/4 Lid.” It’s just and ending bit of short chaos.

And yes, The Soft Machine would morph into all sorts of configurations. Their second album is even more Out-Bloody-Rageous, as is the monumental Third. Bryan Radue (aka Jazz Guy) says the same thing about their album Bundles because it includes the guitar work of Alan Holdsworth.

Sure. But this classic record is the Big Bang that interfered with my perfectly normal Midwestern American life. It taught me to laugh. It taught me to be serious about music. It told me to read novels. It moved me to travel and see the world. It made me want to buy more records, which only inspired me to read more novels and travel to more places in the world. Yeah, this is that sort of record. It’s a universe that simply beckons the pilgrim to Canterbury, or to anywhere, for that matter, where the sounds are sweet like forbidden fruit, and clever musical notes spin like planets in a universe filled with new physics and undiscovered elements that carve new runes into the soft tissue of everything we hear, everything we see, and everything we feel, during every day of our music loving lives.

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Really good review for which, thanks. Dr CWT

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