Soft Machine Biography

Founded in 1966, the original line-up was Robert Wyatt (Robert Wyatt-Ellidge, 28 January 1945, Bristol, England; drums/vocals), Kevin Ayers (b. 16 August 1944, Herne Bay, Kent, England; vocals), Daevid Allen (b. 13 January 1938, Melbourne, Australia), Mike Ratledge and, very briefly, guitarist Larry Nolan. By autumn 1967 the classic line-up of the Soft Machine’s art-rock period (Ayers, Wyatt and Ratledge) had settled in. They toured with Jimi Hendrix, who, along with his producer, ex-Animals member Chas Chandler, encouraged them and facilitated the recording of their first album. (There had been earlier demos for Giorgio Gomelsky’s Marmalade label, but these were not issued until later, and then kept reappearing in different configurations under various titles.) From the end of 1968, when Ayers left, until February 1970, the personnel was in a state of flux (Lyn Dobson, Marc Charig and Nick Evans were members for a while), and the music was evolving into a distinctive brand jazz rock.

The band’s second and third long-playing releases, Volume Two andThird, contain their most intriguing and exciting performances. Highlighted by Wyatt’s very English spoken/sung vocals, the group had still managed to inject some humour into their work. The finest example is Wyatt’s mercurial ‘The Moon In June’. By mid-1970 the second definitive line-up, comprising Ratledge, Wyatt, bass player Hugh Hopper and saxophonist Elton Dean (b. 28 October 1945, Nottingham, England, d. 8 February 2006, London, England), was finally in place. It was this band that Tim Souster showcased when he was allowed a free hand to organize a late-night Promenade Concert in August 1970. In autumn 1971, Wyatt left to form Matching Mole (a clever pun on the French translation of Soft Machine; Machine Molle), and Phil Howard came in on drums until John Marshall became the permanent drummer. For the next few years, through a number of personnel changes (farewell Dean and Hopper, welcome Karl Jenkins, Roy Babbington) the Soft Machine were, for many listeners, the standard against which all jazz rock fusions, including most of the big American names, had to be measured. However, with Ratledge’s departure in January 1976 the group began to sound like a legion of other guitar-led fusion bands, competent and craftsmanlike, but, despite the virtuosity of guitarists Allan Holdsworth (b. 6 August 1946, Bradford, West Riding of Yorkshire, England) and John Etheridge (b. 12 January 1948, London, England), without the edge of earlier incarnations, and certainly without the Dadaist elements of Wyatt’s time.

In 1984, Jenkins and Marshall brought together a new edition of the band (featuring Dave Macrae, Ray Warleigh and a number of new Jenkins compositions) for a season at Ronnie Scott’s club. Various line-ups carried on playing as the Soft Machine into the following decade, albeit with little success and even less panache. Jenkins subsequently embarked on a highly successful career composing advertising jingles, including work for Renault, Levi’s and Jaguar cars. His composition for Delta Airlines, ‘Adiemus’, was released as a single and became a hit in Germany. Soft Machine’s first three albums contain the best of their work, clearly showing they were one of the most adventurous and important progressive bands of the late 60s, one that gently led their followers to understand and appreciate jazz.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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