"I should like to know on what premises I an expected to take seriously a small group of musicians whose range of tone does not exist and whose scale of dynamics is no more than an unvarying FFF"
This is how a journalist for the Music Review, a yearly book given over mainly to classical music, described Soft Machine's intrusion into the often musically conservative world of the Promenade Concerts in 1970. Soft Machine were apparently the first 'rock' band to be asked to play the Proms. although by this time they were perpetrating a style of music that was unclassifiable: elements of rock there were, jazz also, but Promenaders as well as die-hard Softs fans were lucky to catch a band at a unique stage of development. Last autumn saw this unlikely event finally re-surface from the depths of the BBC archives with the release of a new addition to the Soft Machine catalogue: SOFT MACHINE LIVE AT THE PROMS 1970.
The same journalist also gave the thumbs down to performances by Tim Souster and Terry Riley, whose tape-loop method of sound production was employed by the Soft Machine to introduce their set (along with several "innovators" since, including Fripp and Eno). He grouped them all under the banner of 'pretentiousness' and clearly felt that this was not the time nor the place for such musical experiment. Yet the set that the Soft Machine produced does have a definite concert feel to it, rather than the sort of repertoire they might have aired at some sweaty night-club in London. Apparently the Softs were completely unrestricted as to their choice of music for the night, and what they did select, or at least what has made it to vinyl, was taken mainly from the second and third albums. It's always been apparent that Robert Wyatt had an aver decreasing role to play in this line-up: the real star here is the most recent recruit, Elton Dean who is also the most prominent soloist. Robert Wyatt's vocals are kept to a very bare minimum.
The main problems within the band, as ever, were the differences in musical direction: when the band had been a three piece of Mike Ratledge, Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt, the music had been essentially rock-oriented: most of Ayers and Wyatt's leanings have always been in that direction. There was plenty of scope too for vocals, particularly from Wyatt. It seems strange now that such a unique vocal talent as Wyatt's should have been squeezed out by fellow band members, but by mid-1970 the last bad been seen of Wyatt's composing for the band, and similarly the last of his vocals also. After Kevin Ayers had left, the band eventually settled around a core of Wyatt, Ratledge, Hugh Hopper and Elton Dean. It's astonishing to think that Kevin Ayers not left the Soft Machine for the sun and a very strange solo career, Hugh Hopper might have remained the Softs' roadie and not given them his considerable talents as a bass player. By 1970, Hopper was composing his own pieces for the band (one side of Fourth was given over to his composition Virtually), Ratledge was writing as prolifically as ever and Elton Dean was getting in on the act too. By the time the Proms concert was played, the Softs were already auditioning other drummers and Wyatt was putting his energies into a solo album of his own work (to be called "The End Of An Ear"`, which, strangely enough contains many of the elements of free jazz which Wyatt as a Softs' member seemed to want to leave behind.
Rut what of the Proms concert?' By and large, the set itself was very well-received (You've only got to listen to the record itself to hear what the audience thought of I)!. Our friend from the Music Review aside, the reviews I've seen were largely complimentary: 'an exciting, juxtapositioning of some of the more recent developments in both pop and classical fields" said Martin King from the American publication Jazz Journal. Keith Spence from the Musical Quarterly commented with some satisfaction how "with this concert the Proms have now returned to their good old Victorian beginnings of something for everybody, and have admitted that pop music is worthy of recognition".
Robert Wyatt wasn't quite so sure. He saw the Proms concert in retrospect as more of a good PR exercise than a particularly outstanding performance. "In terms of the occasion, I'd say that all music grows up in a certain environment, and ours is loads of people lying around getting stoned, and we spend the first half hour sorting out the sound balance so that the evening gradually opens out" he said in one Melody Maker interview.He seems to have found the occasion e little too restrictive for much self-expression (Wyatt was one member of the hand who believed in spontenaiety within a performance to the exclusion of too many rehearsals!), although most critics seem to agree that Elton Dean in particular relished the opportunity to play in front of what was the Soft Machine's largest ever British audience.
The album itself starts with Out-Bloody-Rageous from the last side Third. The keyboard tape-loop which began the performance was set in motion before the band came on stage (a stranger concept then than it would be today) before applause greets the four machinists. Martin King describes it thus: "This preamble gradually evolved into the performance proper, as the tape lops took on the role of backing riff. It was thus impossible to define the point at which the music began."
All we hear for a while is the tape loop and various interjections from sax, drums and Mike Ratledge (we're told on the album cover that the rather strange noises coming from the keyboard section is Mike Ratledge "kick-startinq his organ". Then suddently we're into the performance proper; heavy drumming with the single sax melody giving a sound more akin to the version on Triple Echo than that on Third. The rather poor quality of the bass sound production makes it appear as if Huqh Hopper is playing a string bass: mavbe this was intended. The bass is exposed for a while is Hopper is allowed to solo, before Ratledge's distinctive keyboard style takes over. The keyboard used here is presumably the Lowrey organ of Mike Ratledge, a keyboard he only purchased originally because he couldn't afford a Hammond. By 1970 he'd become sufficiently attached to it to use it extensively. It is the use of this keyboard that gave the Softs a really distinctive sound around this time (for many years I wasn't totally convinced that this wasn't a sax put through a few weird boxes).
There's some very fast and intricate use of snare here by Robert Wyatt, who at the same time uses the cymbals in a more conventional jazz manner. Interplay between Elton Dean and Ratledge leads us on to the superb sax solo over some gong (with a small g)-like cymbal work by Wyatt, sustained organ from Ratledge and distinctively warm bass from Hopper. The piece slowly builds to a crescendo, as Dean meanders all over some furious drumming. Elton Dean saved some of his most heart-breaking solos for the Third album and this version is in much the same vein. More interplay involved electric piano and sax rounds the piece off, with several bars of bass rhythm which could have been taken straight off the 'Seven' album.
The link from Out-Bloody-Rageous appears at one point to be turning into the very delightfully "Eammon Andrews" but soon settles into the wailing intro to Facelift. Facelift was the first Soft Machine track I'd ever heard - I'd decided to give Third a listen on the strength of the Daevid Allen / Soft Machine connection and was immediately subjected to Mike Ratledge's extraordinary display of musical brutality at the start of Facelift. I was instantly captivated: I was at that time first and foremost a Van der Graaf Generator fan, and their particular sound had some similarities to that of this Soft Machine line-up. Most bands around this time were predominantly guitar-based, and even if they were not, few instead employed a front line of both sax and keyboard. The original Facelift was recorded live also, I think, and the two versions have a lot in common (give or take a good ten minutes difference in length). With this version, however, the drums are very much to the fore after the initial burst of keyboard, giving this section a real beat the original never bad. This is followed by a real heavy bass riff, one which has always reminded me of Black Sabbath for some reason, with Ratledge soloing on his Lowrey. The drumming throughout this piece is outstanding, although some of the improvising by Hugh Hopper doesn't always seem to come off. Again It Is Elton Dean whom the centre of the piece revolves around. This section has the static feel of "Virtually" but alas not its haunting harmonies, until eventually Wyatt picks up the tract by the scruff of its neck and Dean responds. The sounds from Elton Dean's saxophone are almost nasal at times as it alternatively settles on one melody and then rushes off at some new tangent. Finally the piece ends as it began with bass, sax and keyboards following the same melody, but this performance lacks the effects overdubbed on Third.
The stuttering drums that faded out with side one begin the second side and "Esther's Nose Job", a very different version from that on Volume Two. A very full and rounded sound leads into "Pig", again with 3 string bass-type sound from Hugh Hopper, but with the rather risque lyrics of the original replaced with an up-tempo sax solo - a shame this, since Wyatt's vocal was the highlight of the studio version. Ratledge continues over the same bass riff, before Elton Dean again steals the show. Brief drumming leads into Orange Skin Food, with staccato organ and sax work, before at last we hear the voice of Robert Wyatt, very distant in this instance, but still demonstrating the vast range his vocal chords are capable of. A bass and keyboard riff appears from nowhere, and we're into Pigling Bland. This is a track that didn't see the light of day until Fifth: it my be that my ears are conditioned to hearing this track in a different context, but it does seen a little out of place: an interlude of more conventional material amongst the distinctive bustle of the tracks from Volume II. For this particular performance, Pigling Bland consists of little more than a very reedy sax with not a lot else underneath, until finally bass and drums race away again. This is probably Hugh Hopper's finest moment, he briefly throws in another snippet from Pig before yet another of the band's many influences, this time psychedelia, manifests itself for the first time during this gig. This particular diversion, consisting mainly of some vintage Wyatt warbling, a few special effects and some very strange bass sounds from Hugh Hopper, may well have bemused the Promenaders amongst the audience: the emphasis is on noise experimentation rather than harmony. Hugh Hopper gives us a hint that he's dying to play Slightly All The Time, Robert Wyatt adds an echo box to his kit and finally we can make out the bass riff from 10.30 Returns to Bedroom, complete with manic drumming end discordant keyboard, leading to the false ending which precedes Elton Dean's screaming finale.
I put off buying this album for some time, partly in the hope that someone else would buy it and lend it me first (a forlorn hope!), but mainly because I've often found live albums disappointing (after all, the buzz of a live performance is actually being there!), but what immediately impressed me was the high quality of reproduction. This is probably not surprising: the BBC recorded it specifically for screening themselves, but some reviews I'd read did imply that the production on the album was something of a let down. The bass perhaps doesn't come through with particular clarity, which is a shame since Hugh Hopper is a bassist deserving of a good deal of exposure. On the other hand, this is a good chance to judge for yourself what a fine drummer Robert Wyatt was. Deprived of his vocal talents on this record we my be, but, left to concentrate an drumming, it's clear that he had few peers in this field either.
It's interesting to consider what directions the various members of this line-up took from this point onwards. It's apparent that there was a good deal of diversity in the approaches each took within the band: many would disagree, I know, but this line-up is for me the one that really scaled unparalleled heights, particularly when Wyatt threw in a few vocals (as on Moon In June from Third). At one extreme we now have Wyatt, who occasionally gives his own peculiar brand of pop: heavily political and usually drawing only on sparse keyboard to accompany his voice. At the other extreme is Elton Dean, leader of numerous projects, many of them at the freer end of jazz. Hugh Hopper in between his work with Elton Dean, has been involved with a number of fusion outfits: Isotope, Stomu Yamashta's East Wind, Gilgamesh. More recently, both have played in a band on the Hatfields/National Health axis: In Cahoots. Nothing has been heard of Mike Ratledge since he guested on the "Softs" album after leaving Soft Machine in 1975.
This particular gem from the musical archives was in fact screened by the BBC: from what I can gather, 30 minutes of it was shown on Omnibus (BBC1) on the 23rd August 1970, 10 days after the concert. Who knows, we might even get a repeat showing if there's enough lobbying of the Beeb. It's worth a try....