[Review] Soft Machine: Third (1970)

Their third, divided into four, equals pure joy as it explores jazz-rock fusion from the perspective of rock.

Kronomyth 3.0: From a nose job to a complete facelift.

While In A Silent Way is rightly regarded as a watershed moment in modern music for its merger of jazz and electric rock, Miles Davis wasn’t the only one trying to blend the two widely divergent forms. Soft Machine’s Third approaches the same goal from a different angle: as a rock group playing jazz. You could make the case that the Softies had already breached the idea on their earlier records (e.g., “Orange Skin Food”) or that Frank Zappa was attempting the same thing on his more ambitious works (cf. Hot Rats), but Third is the first time that the potentialities of jazz-rock were explored deeply over an entire work by an erstwhile rock band.

For their new experiment, Soft Machine expanded the group – now a quartet of Mike Ratledge, Robert Wyatt, Hugh Hopper and Elton Dean – with extra horn players Lyn Dobson, Nick Evans and Jimmy Hastings. The opening “Facelift,” which the band debuted in 1969 and recorded live here in 1970, is the first of four side-long songs that comprise this double-album opus. It mixes tortuous passages of jazz-rock with mesmerizing patterns from Ratledge and Hopper that create an alien yet oddly familiar landscape of sounds. As I said, Zappa had explored some of these ideas earlier, yet it’s here that the potentialities of jazz-rock are fully unpacked.

“Slightly All The Time” is the album’s ballad after a sort, languorous and lovely at first, then shifting into a faster tempo with Wyatt’s drums pushing the movement along. The group uses some very unconventional time signatures on Third, including 9/4 here, which gives the impression that the core quartet is sometimes playing a different song at the same time. Wyatt, whose natural inclinations one suspects lied outside the province of jazz, impresses by (literally) not missing a beat as the band moves to more complex arrangements.

The third side of Third, “Moon In June,” is the last appearance of the original, lyrical Soft Machine, a swan song to the band’s eccentric English origins featuring what feels like an extemporized observation on the vicissitudes of love in a loose, flowing and highly original form. Of Third’s four, it has the least to do with jazz; it’s also the funniest song on an album that (some might argue) desperately needed a sense of humor. While Frank Zappa probably could have written “Slightly All The Time,” no one but Soft Machine could make a song like “Moon In June.”

The last side, “Out-Bloody-Rageous,” opens with one of the earliest explorations of what would later become ambient music, then quickly shifts into jazz-rock mode for another daring exercise in odd time signatures. About midway through, Ratledge restarts the song with acoustic piano and horns for a more traditional jazz sound. Where jazz and classical composers often used variations on the original theme to keep things fresh, Soft Machine favors mutation. Ideas rise to the surface, live for a moment burning brightly and are extinguished as a new idea arises. There’s no reason to believe that the music of Third wasn’t tightly scripted (early videos show the horn players reading music), yet there’s a feeling of spontaneity in its sense of discovery as it moves from one idea to the next.

Third will not be everyone’s cup of tea. Surely, there will be prog purists who groan as the band sails into the shapeless void of jazz. The band’s political/social wit is all but extinguished here. And some people simply don’t like the sound of horns. It is, regardless of these things, a jazz-rock masterpiece. Robert Wyatt is not a better drummer than Tony Williams, Hugh Hopper is not a better bass guitarist than Dave Holland, et cetera. They are, importantly, different, approaching jazz with the sense of adventure that attracted Miles Davis to rock. Even 50 years later, one gets the sense listening to Third that important discoveries are being made, that musical boundaries are being pushed and tested afresh. Maybe it didn’t change the future of popular music as much as Soft Machine had hoped, but it certainly shaped the future of Soft Machine and set into motion a unique journey in the annals of rock.

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Original 2LP version

A1. Facelift (Hugh Hopper) (18:54)
B1. Slightly All The Time (Mike Ratledge) (18:14)
C1. Moon In June (Robert Wyatt) (19:18)
D1. Out-Bloody-Rageous (Mike Ratledge) (19:17)

Bonus CD track listing
B1. Out-Bloody-Rageous (live) (11:54)
B2. Facelift (live) (11:22)
B3. Esther’s Nose Job (live) (15:39)

The Players

Elton Dean (alto sax and saxello), Hugh Hopper (bass guitar), Mike Ratledge (organ and piano), Robert Wyatt (drums and vocal) with Lyn Dobson (flute and soprano sax), Nick Evans (trombone), Jimmy Hastings (flute and bass clarinet), Rab Spall (violin). Produced by Soft Machine; engineered by Andy Knight except Bob Woolford (A1).

The Pictures

Cover design by John Hays. Inside cover photo by Jurgen D. Ensthaler.

The Plastic

Released on 2LP in June 1970 in the UK (CBS, S 64079), the US (Columbia, G 30339/C 30340/1) and France (Barclay, 920224/5) with gatefold cover.

  1. Re-issued on 2LP in Germany (CBS, S 66246) with gatefold cover.
  2. Re-issued on 2LP in 1972 in Japan (CBS/Sony, SONP-50336/7) with unique gatefold cover.
  3. Re-issued on compact disc on July 9, 1991 in the US (Columbia, CGK-30339).
  4. Re-issued on compact disc on December 2, 1992 in Japan (Epic, ESCA 5535).
  5. Re-issued on compact disc in 1993 in the UK (Beat Goes On, BGOCD180).
  6. Re-issued on compact disc in the UK (Columbia, 471407 2).
  7. Re-issued on compact disc on October 6, 2004 in Japan (Columbia, MHCP 423).
  8. Re-released on expanded, remastered 2CD in 2007 in Europe (Sony/BMG, 687293) and Japan (Sony, MHCP-1292/3) with 3 bonus tracks.
  9. Re-packaged with Fourth, Five, Six and Seven on 5CD set in 2010 (Sony).
  10. Re-released on 180g vinyl and 180g clear vinyl elpee in 2001 in Europe (Music on Vinyl, MOVLP183).
  11. Re-released on expanded, remastered Blu-Ray 2CD on June 26, 2013 in Japan (Sony, SICP-30162) with 3 bonus tracks.

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