a space for spaced

by Mike King

this article first appeared in issue 16 in January 1997

The Story Behind Soft Machine's Archive Release

Without question the most significant historical addition to our understanding, appreciation and enjoyment for the music of Soft Machine has been the recent discovery, and release, of the long lost recording session for the 1969 London multi-media event, Spaced. Here is the most extreme music committed to tape from a band crowned and renowned for breaking idiomatic rock with those twin pillars of the avant garde: minimalism (played/tape looped) and improvisation (tonal/atonal). By now you've heard the CD, and read the notes by Hugh Hopper and engineer Bob Woodford regarding the relevant whys and hows. Forgive my presumption in feeling duty bound to share with fellow Facelift travellers my own part in this discovery, and detail the editing decisions that reduced the original 103 minute recording to the 67 minute CD 'Spaced'. That the music is so utterly strange, as so many have remarked, seems to me fitting in light of the strange sequence of accidents that ultimately led to its CD release.

The story (as briefly as possible) begins backstage after a performance of  transcendent soundscapes from AMM here in Toronto June 1992. Drummer Eddie Provost was very approachable and spoke fondly of a 1966/67 period when the work of early AMM and Soft Machine often colluded (ArtsLab, UFO), adding that one Bob Woolford would on occasion professionally record concerts by both groups. The name sounded familiar - wasn't he credited on 'Third' for concert        recordings?        By        the way, it was here also that guitarist Keith Rowe stood cross-armed in the corner adding quietly: "I know of a session Robert Wyatt did that no-one else knows about', leading in time to the inclusion of 'Nowt Doin' from Laurie Scott-Baker's General Strike on the CD 'Flotsam Jetsam'. That evening I left with Bob Woolford's current address in Rocky Hill, Connecticut, but without a phone number and was frustrated to learn that no phone listing existed for Woolford nor any spelling and vicinity variation. Letters went unanswered and periodic checks with long distance directory were futile - eventuallyI gave up trying.
Two full years after the AMM encounter, during an annual self-induced stupor, I mysteriously was seized by an irrational impulse to plea with a long distance operator again. 'Not in Rocky Hill', she replied, but I've a R Woolford in nearby North Canton'. We finally connected when a soft British voice answered the ringing phone, and I felt worthy of the Royal Canadian Mounties and their motto, 'we always get our man'! Bob was kind, apologetic, and regretted that a recent divorce prevented him responding. But now on his own he had a phone under his name. I soon learned the good news that not only did he record the Softs at Middle Earth (Sept 16, 1967) and in following years, but that he also saw fit to preserve all of his recordings (this in light of Mike Ratledge once urging him to burn all the Softs reels!)
Yes, those crappy cassettes marked 'Middle Earth', fall 67 making the tape swap sounds are a travesty of Bob's masters, and forget the impossible notion of a CD release - for one all vocals are horribly distorted thanks to bad vocal mikes and second ... but I digress. The bad news now was that all tape boxes and recorder remained with his ex-wife and had to be tactfully retrieved. It was too late to benefit 'Wrong Movements', which had then just been published, but this was something else altogether, and I was now prepared to wait.
A few months later, October 1994, while in London for the great Gong 25 celebration, and hanging with Hopper I let it slip that I'd contacted Bob Woolford. Without blinking Hugh replied, "Oh, he's got `Spaced"'. I became quickly confused upon being told that `Spaced' was at the Roundhouse, but it wasn't a gig, it was a week long event, but didn't receive public notice... etc until eventually sorting this perfect mystery (one that escaped everyone's memory during antagonistic probes for `Wrong Movements'). In the end learning about `Spaced' would prove one small step, for hearing it would take a giant leap.

Fast forward to May 1995 and        and a day off from visiting the Windo family in New York City to take a 3 hour bus trip to the neighbouring state of Connecticut. Bob and I rendezvoued at the bus terminal then wound our way through the mountain to his wilderness hideaway, all the while exchanging stories and laughter. He'd just reacquired his tape collection and reel to reel, and had bought a new cassette deck that day. Tea and tapes were served, in that order, and I'll never forget the sight upon entering a spare bedroom lined with countless waist high stacks of master reels. Of course I obliged an invitation to sort them through, and was gobsmacked (as you say there In England) upon discovering late 60s/early 70s concert recordings of Stockhausen, Amalgam, Portsmouth Sinfonia,        Comelius Cardew, Scratch Orchestra, AMM, MEV, Alex Harvey, Pentangle, Love... then a box labelled `Waves', which was just that! All In all a veritable goldmine of British experimental and avant garde music professionally recorded at 15 IPS with stage hung stereo microphones. It took awhile to finally say 'there you go Bob, this corner is jazz, this corner classical, this corner blank tapes (numerous), etc. Then we settled in together and listened to Soft Machine's `Spaced'.
'Spaced' was recorded by Bob at his home in mid 1969, with Hugh and Mike working with him on tape loops and mixing. His reel to reel machines were self designed and homemade - one of which folded neatly in a bicycle saddle bag for easy transportation to gigs! A more elaborate setup for Bob Woolford Sound was found in his adapted VW mini-bus. Three pancake reels (single sided spools) comprise `Spaced' and what follows in a succinct summary of the editing decisions that distinguish the CD selection from the original tapes. For the record it was unanimously agreed by band members, Steve, Bob and myself that thoughtful edits would benefit the listening sequence.

'One', bass and organ over half speed rhythm track, is complete. `Two' is the opening 7.36 of a 38 minute long tape composition by Ratledge, as so clearly inspired by the pioneering work of Terry Riley. 'Three' is an excerpt from the the middle point of the same piece, which ends with the legendary five fade that's referred to in Bob's notes. `Four' remained in its over-the-top, drugged out, demonic entity at 32.10. The buzzing sounds that open and close `Four' is a tape loop of bees as recorded by Brian Hopper and recalls the tape experiments of Brian and Mike from the very early 60s. Other tapes during this long mixing collage are played at half speed (ie, Robert's vocal) and at various points a concert recording of the Softs by Bob in `69 makes an entrance (ie, check the 13.54 mark). `Five', 'Six' and 'Seven' are taken from a continuous 22 minute piece that comprised the 3rd pancake reel of 'Spaced', with `Five' and `Seven' being the opening and closing sections respectively. What follows 'Five' on the reel is an 8-minute hi-hat solo from Robert, inventive but still rlcky-ticky. When a great drum pattern finally breaks out further atonal swellings from Hugh and Mike begin to rise. The recording is soon subjected to randomly abrupt and crude sounding mixing effects. Switching would be a more accurate, description as one channel drops out, reappears, then the other, then both, then sound blips. I remember suggesting to Bob that his speaker wire or interconnect cable was malfunctioning, but, no, that was in the music he insisted. In the end this primitivism was off-putting and easily edited out. Besides which Steve at Cuneiform Records thought that including this section may provoke a flurry of faulty CD returns! Out of this section another concert recording (with Brian) is introduced and this is where the fantastic 'Six' begins. Edited out between `Six' and `Seven' is `Box 25/4 Lid' as lifted from the record album. Blame copyright restrictions.

So there you have it - `Spaced' as it was recorded, and as is now available. Don't worry - you're not missing that much. Here`s some trivia for trainspotters. The photo inside the red circle on the CD cover is a still that Bob took of his projector screen while playing the silent 8mm film footage he shot during a by-chance holidav encounter with the Softs at their St Tropez beach building. There wasn't enough light to film any performance, but just enough to capture the back of Mike's organ. That red square is a stage pass sticker for the 14 Hour Technicolour Dream. To these ears 'Spaced' has become a great CD, just as Bob and myself felt so strongly it would be upon fikrst hearing it ft. The effort was ours, now the pleasure is yours.