Stride Magazine -


SOFT MACHINE : Backwards

(Cuneiform. Rune 170)

Although the band, such as it was by then, officially disbanded in the late 1970s there has been a steady output of archive material featuring some of the best work they ever did. This latest slab of their idiosyncratic jazz rock is taken from three sources; a concert by the ‘classic’ quartet in My 1970, two tracks by the ‘big band’ in November 1969 and Robert Wyatt’s original demo of ‘Moon In June’ with a section by the trio spliced onto the end. It captures a band in the throes of changes, full of fire and energy.

There are no ‘new’ tracks but some their concert ‘standards’ are given fresh workouts. There are two versions of Hopper’s, aptly named, ‘Facelift’, one by each of the two line-ups. The first gives everyone space to explore and it’s good to hear Wyatt’s drums pitched against Elton Dean’s comparatively restrained but exploratory alto. Limpid electric piano washes in behind them and, for a moment, you have to remind yourself that this was 1970. The sound quality is excellent. A superb restoration job has been done with these old tapes.

The ‘big band’ version starts off with the brass laying down the labyrinthine theme in a pleasingly ragged fashion. Ratledge’s legendary fuzz organ sounds a little weedy at times. The horns  inject more life into the proceedings through their unison riffing. The emergence of the quartet line-up is evident on this track. Dean gets a solo spot but it would’ve been interesting to hear Nick Evans or Mark Charig too. I suppose that this was one of the problematic aspects of the band at this time; whether to play the charts and maintain a certain discipline or blow. The other ‘big band’ selection is the truncated ‘Hibou Anemone And Bear’ which gives Lyn Dobson a chance to air his tenor alongside Dean. On this piece the sound quality is a bit uneven in places but it adds to the raw live feel. I’m not complaining, though others might.

The quartet turn in a blistering performance of ‘Esther’s Nose Job’ on which Ratledge can be heard whipping out one of his trademark spiky solos. Hopper’s bass is characteristically fuzzy. Wyatt’s contributes a brief interlude of echoing scat before Dean visits and extemporises on what would later become ‘Pigling Bland’ on Soft Machine 5. Wyatt has the last word, explaining his treated vocals. He states that he’s said all he had to say in lyric form and is now exploring all the other things you can do with the mouth. Those elements of humour and irony would soon be lost from the Softs for good.

But in other ways his legacy is very much alive on this cd including part of the instrumental section of ‘Moon In June’ where he powers along underpinning Ratledge’s solo. He also sings some of ‘Pig’ from ‘Volume Two’ And, of course, there is the resurrected demo of the whole piece from 1968/9. The liner notes suggest that only a piece of technological necromancy could have made its existence possible. Well, it has survived the years pretty well, despite some missing grooves! Wyatt plays everything on the first section then invites Hopper and Ratledge to join him on the second. The section about him living in New York State and missing the English rain still sounds as poignant as it did back on ‘Third’. Maybe even more so. This version, for me, stands up there with the one they did for the Peel Sessions and adds another piece to the history of a truly exciting live band. May there be more to come.

Paul Donnelly 2002