Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Soft Machine "legacy"

I saw a Soft Machine line-up of sorts play last Friday night at the Phoenix Arts Centre. This is a grouping which has been touring as "Soft Machine Legacy" (for legal reasons?) but who FSOE put on as part of the Vibraphonic Festival as simply "Soft Machine". Hugh Hopper is the only member from the early Soft Machine period of which I'm most fond, but his bass playing alone was worth going along to check out – the rest of the ensemble consisted of later-period Soft Machinists John Etheridge (guitar), John Marshall (drums) and Theo Travis (flute and saxes) who was filling in at the last minute for Elton Dean who sadly died about a month ago.

I'd spent most of the previous 24 hours listening to some astonishing 1968 (Kevin Ayers period) bootlegs - from Amsterdam and Iowa, of all places, also an Oslo 1970 tape featuring Wyatt, Hopper and Ratledge, and the first three Soft Machine albums, so in a way I was setting myself up for disappointment – how could it be remotely satisfying without Ratledge's insanely brilliant organ playing?

Wyatt, Hopper, Ratledge - probably 1969
The Soft Machine: Wyatt, Hopper, Ratledge - probably 1969

But I wasn't at all disappointed. They were excellent, for what they were - a talented, inventive jazz-rock ensemble, striking the right balance between looseness and precision. They ended set with something familiar off the mighty Third album (I can never keep track of the names of those pieces) – everything else from the later jazz-rock repertoire with which I'm only vaguely familiar. The encore was a piece of free improvisation ("We've played all the tunes we know," Etheridge explained), quite impressive too. Theo Travis did a fine job, standing in at the last minute like that, and I discovered what an astonishing drummer John Marshall is. Hopper was joy to watch and listen to. All in all they did the Soft Machine name proud. The Canterbury vibe came through, despite the noticeable lack of kaftans, beards or freaky dancing in the predictably un-ecstatic audience.

Hugh Hopper more recently
Hugh Hopper more recently

At the same time I'd been listening to the wilder, early Soft Machine material I'd been reading Phil Lesh's account of the heyday of the San Francisco psychedelic ballroom scene, as well as an article from the most recent edition of The Wire about Quicksilver Messenger Service. This led me to (particularly during the singularly dull support band - a jazz fusion unit made up of excellent musicians, but entirely lacking vibe) spend a lot of the event wondering where the wildness has gone. The audience mostly just stood there in neat rows, politely clapping after individual solos. I can remember my friend Tim (in Whitstable, just a stonesthrow from Hopper's residence) playing me a bootleg of early Softs, from somewhere on the continent, where the youthful audience were so enlivened by the wildness of the sound that they started rioting! Similar scenes happened when Stravinsky's Rite of Spring was debuted, also Rock Around the Clock, the first major rock 'n' roll film, first hit the cinemas. This astonishing tape contained the incongruously posh voice of an outraged Mike Ratledge who stopped playing to chastise the audience rather like an old-school English headmaster!

So where has the wildness gone? Obviously the significantly increased average-age of the Soft Machine audience and relative lack of drug-intake has something to do with it, but I can't help thinking it's more a matter of the zeitgeist. What kind of music could provoke this kind of reaction in 2006? Is that kind of intensity-of-reaction even possible any more, I wonder?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

we note withj interest that the 'soft machine workshop' is for all the Family to enjoy

9:01 PM  

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