For my money Soft Machine were at their best around 1975/6. It was a time when founding member Mike Ratledge was fading out¹ and Karl Jenkins was taking over the reins as band leader and main composer. They released two studio albums in this period, Bundles and Softs. These were the first Soft Machine albums to feature guitars, provided by Alan Holdsworth on Bundles and John Etheridge on Softs. Mike Ratledge contributed his jazz fusion keyboards, Karl Jenkins added saxophone, oboe and further keyboards, Roy Babbington was on electric bass and John Marshall wielded the drum sticks.
They were all brilliant musicians then and, as far as I know, they are all still making music. Certainly, Etheridge, Babbington and Marshall are still performing. Along with Theo Travis on saxophone, flute and keyboards they are the current line-up of Soft Machine and that band has a short tour in the UK this autumn. Crotchety Man has booked for their gig in Derby on 25th November and I’m making Bundles my Album of the Month for September 2016.
One of the distinctive features of Soft Machine‘s recordings in the Ratledge era was the fusion of separate themes into longer pieces somewhat akin to movements in classical symphonies. Bundles holds to that tradition with a 5-part, 19 minute opening salvo called Hazard Profile. In a live show each section would run into the next, the transition marked only by a change of tempo, a change of key or the introduction of a new melody. On the album each section is a separate track but there are no gaps between them.
So, is Hazard Profile one piece or five? Well, Part 1 is a romping rock track, Part 2 (Toccatina) is a piece for romantic piano and classical guitar, Part 3 is a 30 second electric guitar bridge to the slow, genre-defying bass and guitar riff of Part 4, and Part 5 features the frantic, pulsing guitar and synthesised horns of mainstream jazz/rock fusion. The parts could hardly be more different. And yet each has been seamlessly sewn onto the next and at the end of Part 5 we come full circle to reprise the theme of Part 1. Let’s call it a suite. And sweet it is to my ears.
Side one of the album ends with Gone Sailing, a short guitar étude reminiscent of Steve Howe of Yes or Steve Hackett from Genesis. Just under one minute of delightful picking and ringing harmonics.
The title track kicks off side two with jazz/rock Bruford style. Alan Holdsworth’s guitar frolics over undulating bass, the percussion skips over solid organ chords and the various parts are neatly tied together to form a pretty little bundle. But a plaything only holds a child’s interest for a short time and, soon, Bundles morphs into Land of the Bag Snake, another jazz/rock fusion track, this time one with an easy groove.
Next comes a pair of Mike Ratledge compositions, The Man Who Waved At Trains and Peff. These both have a vintage Soft Machine feel. Lots of piano/organ and Karl Jenkins’ oboe filling the slot formerly occupied by Elton Dean’s saxophones, while the bass riffs and rumbles and the drums clatter away busily. Peff, in particular, has some quacking oboe. (Sorry about that, but it really does sound like a duck in a karaoke booth at times.)
The album then gives us Four Gongs Two Drums, which delivers exactly what it says on the tin. It’s fairly short as album tracks go, 2 minutes 31 seconds, but in the wrong hands that could easily be too long for a drum solo. John Marshall, though, is one of only a handful of percussionists who can pull it off. He uses tunable drums to vary the pitch almost like a wah-wah pedal and never settles into a predictable beat. This track raises the role of the drum kit way beyond that of a metronome. As percussion pieces go this is the pinnacle.
The last track on Bundles is the ethereal The Floating World. It ambles along contentedly as if we are following a great airship that hovers just above our heads, guided gently downwind by brightly coloured birds tugging on flimsy guy ropes. There is the sound of flutes and recorders on the breeze as the ship, its feathered crew and our party of charmed children are led off into the land of the elves and the fairies.
Soft Machine is one of the very few well-known bands that Crotchety Man has seen live more than once. (The others are King Crimson, twice, and Pink Floyd one-and-a-bit times².) They are also the only band in Crotchety Man’s unreservedly recommended list to be playing essentially the same material now as they were when I first saw them 45 years ago. (Gulp! That’s a frighteningly long time ago.) Perhaps it’s true what they say: good musicians never die, they just decompose.
- That’s no reflection on Mike Ratledge he was and is a very fine keyboards player.
- It was the end of an open-air concert, we were cold, wet and miserable, and not even the headline act had the power to keep us there a while longer. Of course, I wish we had stayed now.