[Review] The Soft Machine (1968)

Experimental, psychedelic “art” rock that gave the intellectuals in the audience something to chew on until prog arrived.

Kronomyth 1.0: Situationists vagrant.

The Soft Machine were an important group in the transition between the artistic Beats and the hedonistic Hippies. Their debut album could be heard as an early example of art-rock, prog or even punk. In one sense, their music was less sophisticated than the established psychedelic rock stars of the day: Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane. Yet the band was pushing boundaries in all directions, upending traditional rock structures with their unusual instrumentation of drums, bass and organ, incorporating elements of avant-garde jazz and beat poetry into sprawling performances that could range from charming melodies to the sound of creation come crashing down. You didn’t know what was coming next in a Soft Machine set, but you knew it was going to be interesting.

Soft Machine has always been an organic entity, with players coming and going. Their first album was recorded as a trio of the classically schooled Mike Ratledge on organ, Robert Wyatt on drums and lead vocals and Kevin Ayers on bass guitar. Their music mixed psychedelic rock, surrealism and improvisation in ways that listeners hadn’t heard before. Their songs ranged from dadaist (“We Did It Again”) to deeply profound (“Hope For Happiness,” “Why Are We Sleeping?”); as soon as you think you can dismiss their artistry as freakish happenstance, they place a calculated piece of art in your path to question whether the whole thing hasn’t been a highly orchestrated experiment.

In the beginning, The Soft Machine was the sum of its personalities: Wyatt’s whirlwind drum performance and eccentric if otherwise unremarkable voice, Ratledge’s alternately explosive and erudite keyboards and Kevin Ayers’ boulder-sized bass guitar teetering on the edge of sanity. The whole thing felt like a surrealist play in which the characters spoke through words and sound, one as equally viable as the other for communication. Of course, the group attracted artists, and artists tend to see (and hear) everything as art, so maybe The Soft Machine were the beneficiaries of an educated, liberated fanbase. Being in the right place at the right time, the group was put forward as the poster child for the intellectual counterculture movement, a mantle they would soon hand back as the group splintered into different factions.

None of the preceding text, unfortunately, tells you what the first Soft Machine album sounds like. It is the sound of existential crises, self criticism, sputtering self-gratification, dadaism, minimalism and exhibitionism rolled out for a forty-minute feast. It sounds like the music of Frank Zappa made for the bored European bourgeosie of the post-beat generation. It is the sound of the Id unboxed and re-wrapped in psychedelic and classical trappings. In truth, it sounds like little before it and more than a little like what came after (e.g., Hawkwind, Roxy Music). Given the attention they received, and the sheer invention of the music on their first album, The Soft Machine set into motion some of the greatest music of the 70s.

In researching this, I fell down a delightful rabbit hole called notbored.org which is worth burroughing into if you have the time.

Original elpee version

A1. Hope For Happiness (Brian Hopper/Kevin Ayers/Mike Ratledge) (4:20)
A2. Joy of a Toy (Kevin Ayers/Mike Ratledge) (2:49)
A3. Hope For Happiness (Reprise) (Brian Hopper/Kevin Ayers/Mike Ratledge) (1:37)
A4. Why Am I So Short (Hugh Hopper/Kevin Ayers/Mike Ratledge) (1:38)
A5. So Boot If At All (Kevin Ayers/Mike Ratledge/Robert Wyatt) (7:22)
A6. A Certain Kind (Hugh Hopper) (4:10)
B1. Save Yourself (Robert Wyatt) (2:25)
B2. Priscilla (Mike Ratledge/Kevin Ayers/Robert Wyatt) (1:05)
B3. Lullabye Letter (Kevin Ayers) (4:37)
B4. We Did It Again (Kevin Ayers) (3:46)
B5. Plus Belle Qu’Une Poubelle (Kevin Ayers) (1:01)
B6. Why Are We Sleeping? (Kevin Ayers/Mike Ratledge/Robert Wyatt) (5:31)
B7. Box 25/4 Lid (Mike Ratledge/Hugh Hopper) (0:47)

CD reissue bonus tracks
14. Love Makes Sweet Music
15. Feelin’, Reelin’, Squealin’

The Players

Kevin Ayers (bass guitar, vocals), Michael Ratledge (organ), Robert Wyatt (drums, lead vocals). Produced by Chas Chandler and Tom Wilson.

The Pictures

Cover design by Byron Goto, Eli Aliman and Henry Epstein.

The Plastic

Released on elpee in December 1968 in France (Barclay, 0920082) and in 1969 in the US (Probe, CPLP-4500) with diecut cover; reached #160 on the US charts.

  1. Re-issued on elpee in the US (Command/ABC Probe, CPLP-4500X) with censored cover.
  2. Re-packaged on 2LP in 1973 in the US (Command, RSSD-964).
  3. Re-packaged with Volume Two on 2-for-1 2LP in 1973 in the UK (Probe, GTT 2041/2) with gatefold cover.
  4. Re-packaged with Volume Two as Architects of Space and Time on 2LP in 1975 in France (Atlantic, 60113) and Germany (Atco, 60113) with gatefold cover.
  5. Re-issued on elpee in Germany (Big Beat, WIKA-57) with gatefold cover.
  6. Re-packaged with Volume Two on 2-for-1 compact disc in 1989 in the UK and Germany (Big Beat, CDWIKD-920).
  7. Re-issued on compact disc in 1993 in the US (One Way/MCA Special Products, MCAD 22064).
  8. Re-released on remastered compact disc in 2006 in Japan (Universal, UICY-9687).
  9. Re-released on 180g vinyl elpee in 2007 in the UK (Tapestry, TPT-226) limited to 500 copies.
  10. Re-released on 200g vinyl elpee in 2007 in Japan (Universal, UIJY-9012) with diecut gatefold cover.
  11. Re-released on super high material compact disc in 2008 in Japan (Universal, UICY-90780).
  12. Re-released on expanded, remastered compact disc on July 28, 2009 in the UK (Polydor, 5320 505) with 2 bonus tracks.
  13. Re-issued on gold vinyl elpee in the US (Sundazed, LP 5341).

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