1.Studio Albums

"Volume One" (1968)

Recorded in just a few days in New York while Soft Machine were touring America, this debut album is really a reflection of the band's live sets at the time : a collection of psych-flavoured pop songs linked together by instrumental, sometimes improvised, interludes. Although the arrangements don't have the sophistication of later ones, what strikes one when listening to this album is how unique a style Soft Machine had already come up with at the time. Granted, there is some naivety in both the lyrics and music sometimes (some of the songs date from the Wilde Flowers years), but also an impressive maturity as a group of players. The interplay between Ratledge's organ and Wyatt's drums is of an intensity rarely paralleled in Soft Machine's later, more jazz-oriented efforts. Kevin Ayers' contributions are concentrated on the second side, the highlights of which are the absurdly repetitive "We Did It Again" and the Gurdjieff-inspired "Why Are We Sleeping?", both of which have since remained favourites of Ayers' solo gigs.

"Volume Two" (1969)

Kevin Ayers' departure after the lenghty American tours of 1968 almost caused Soft Machine to break up. But when Wyatt and Ratledge were offered to play a few gigs to promote the newly released first album in February 1969, they brought in former roadie Hugh Hopper and reformed the band. This new start provided Ratledge with the impetus to really have a go at composing, and the result is his lengthy "Esther's Nosejob" suite, which totals 11 minutes and makes up most of side two of Volume Two. The arrangements are of an unprecedented sophistication, combining Ratledge's keyboards with the dual saxophones of the Hopper brothers (former Wilde Flowers leader Brian later augmented the trio on most of their 1969 gigs), and the music is largely experimental.
Side one is also made up of segued more song-based tracks, most of them Hopper-Wyatt collaborations, bearing the collective title "Rivmic Melodies". They are humorously introduced by a spoken statement by Wyatt presenting them as a collection of songs "from the official orchestra of the College of Pataphysics". Particularly funny is Wyatt's two-part "Concise British Alphabet". The album includes two other songs, "As Long As He Lies Perfectly Still", a tribute to former bandmate Kevin Ayers, alluding to his macrobiotic food addiction as well as directly quoting from "Why Are We Sleeping?" and "Lullabye Letter"; and "Dedicated To You, But You Weren't Listening", a exquisitely weird Hopper song that Wyatt singing suitably oblique lyrics to an unorthodox open-tuning acoustic guitar chord sequence.

"Third" (1970)

A double set, this is certainly the work Soft Machine is most remembered for. A groundbreaking musical statement, it is an artistic achievement on par with Miles Davis' Bitches Brew in terms of its capacity to mix rock and jazz elements into a coherent and exciting musical vision. Each of the four sides contains one lengthy composition; with the exception of one, they are entirely instrumental. Since the previous album, Soft Machine has been augmented with saxophone player Elton Dean; for a brief period (as documented on the Peel Sessions set), there was even a full brass section in the band, but sax/flute player Lyn Dobson and trombonist Nick Evans are only featured one track each.
The set opens with "Facelift", a Hugh Hopper composition which is actually a collage of two live performances (from the Fairfield Hall and Mothers in Birmingham, both in January 1970) plus some tape loops overlayed by Hopper later on. Most of the material is from the Fairfield concert, and the side opens with the extraordinary organ solo with which the second half began; Ratledge proves how resourceful and inventive an instrumentalist he was at the time, making most other practitioners sound academic with his sliding pitch-warps and visceral gobs of sound. The "bugged" soprano (Dobson) and alto (Dean) play a Zappa-like theme, which segues quickly into a very percussive 7/4 tune, with Wyatt asserting himself strongly behind the organ solo. Dobson solos well on flute and electric soprano, and it's back to the theme, which is played forwards before the tape is reversed to give a pyramid effect.
Mike Ratledge's "Slightly All The Time" starts with harmonics on the bass, and Dean's overdubbed alto and saxello play a theme which has a strong jazz flavour. Dean solos on alto over a ponderous bass progression, being interrupted occasionally by brief two-horn riffs which are introduced each time by a staccato organ phrase. A flute solo by Jimmy Hastings develops into a written flute loop, which repeats on top of the saxes' theme, and the saxello and organ solo over a 9/4 pattern. The track fades with a stately theme voiced by the reeds, fuzz organ, and fuzz bass; this is the classic "Backwards" theme, that would later be covered by Caravan as part of their "A-Hunting We Shall Go" suite.
Robert Wyatt's "Moon In June" features a great deal of the drummer's highly unorthodox singing, with that cool, pure tone which is most effective in the improvised passages, especially when doctored with echo. Wyatt plays most of the organ and electric piano on this track (including the bass lines), Ratledge and Hopper only coming in for a solo near the end of the vocal section (Dean is nowhere to be heard on this side), before the lengthy improvisation which features free jazz violinist Rab Spall and a quote by Wyatt from Kevin Ayers' "Clarence In Wonderland".
Finally, there's Ratledge's "Out-Bloody-Rageous", which opens in startling fashion with piano taps played backwards, all based on the progressions of the bass line which underpins the main theme. This theme is again played by Dean on overdubbed alto and saxello, and trombonist Nick Evans makes a couple of brief appearances. Dean has a beautiful alto solo before the track ends with another tape collage, this time of the electric piano overdubbed three or four times, playing phrases of differing lengths which gradually contract.

"4" (1971)

From the opening notes of Mike Ratledge's "Teeth", it is obvious that the now entirely instrumental Soft Machine has moved on to jazzier, freer territories. Augmenting the quartet of Ratledge, Elton Dean, Hugh Hopper and Robert Wyatt are several guest musicians, including former and future members (notably Roy Babbington on double bass). The album is dominated by Hopper's epic "Virtually" which fills up the entire second side and, like his other contribution "Kings And Queens", is loosely based on some of his typical repetitive bass riffs, with an alternation of tight ensemble sections and more abstract, largely improvised ones. Dean's saxello and alto sax are in the foreground most of the time, the influence of free jazz more apparent than ever before in his playing, not to mention his composition "Fletcher's Blemish". Ratledge rarely ventures out of his trademark Bitches Brew-style electric piano accompaniment, his fuzz organ solo on "Teeth" being the exception. The rhythm section of Hopper and Wyatt is a fascinating mixture of solidity and looseness, somehow an illustration of the ongoing conflicts within the band at the time.
"Teeth" is probably the most successful track on this collection, notably its second half which resembles the short-lived nonet version of Soft Machine in late 1969, when Dean is joined by Nick Evans on trombone, Alan Skidmore on tenor sax and Jimmy Hastings on bass clarinet to back Ratledge's solo, with a result strongly reminiscent of the version of "Esther's Nosejob" on the Peel Sessions album. On the whole, Fourth is quite an experimental album, half of which is truly exhilariting and excitingly innovative, with the other half somewhat failing to take off, as exemplified by the frustrating fade-out at the end of "Virtually". The unusual ubiquity of the guest participants also leads one to think what subsquent events would confirm : that this, the 'classic' incarnation of Soft Machine to many, never quite stabilised into an harmonious, self-sufficient unit.

"5" (1972)

The internal conflicts within the band were finally resolved when Robert Wyatt left Soft Machine in August 1971. His replacement, Phil Howard, an Australian exile, had been a member of Elton Dean's part-time jazz band Just Us for some time already (playing on Dean's then just-released eponymous solo album), and had even performed on a BBC 'In Concert' recording with Soft Machine the previous March (see below). A tour of France and Germany in the Autumn however failed to solidify the new quartet, and Howard left in December following recording sessions for a new studio album. Dissatisfied with the results, Hopper and Ratledge got hold of John Marshall and the resulting line-up re-recorded half of the tracks.
Musically, "5" sees Soft Machine heading for much more austere musical territory. Gone are the ultra-complex Ratledge epics à la "Teeth" and the meandering Hopper multi-theme suites à la "Facelift" or "Virtually". Instead, we are treated to skeletal themes and a lot of extra space, an approach that inevitably brings to mind the early Weather Report, a band that was becoming very popular during this period and exerted a profound influence on the Softs at the time. Pieces like "As If" (built around a bass line excerpt for the very beginning and end) or "M.C." (basically an atmosphere created around a scale) are as minimalist as the Softs ever got. "All White" and "Drop" have more substantial themes but they are stated in such a way that one doesn't necessarily realise they are written. The only exception to the prevailing mood is "Pigling Bland", but this is easy to explain - this was composed by Ratledge in 1969 as a coda for "Esther's Nosejob", the main part of which was ultimately dropped from the band's set early in 1971, the "Pigling Bland" bit ending up being glued to "Teeth" instead. The majesty of its melody comes as a relief after the bleak, if often fascinating, landscapes that make up Fifth.

"Six Album" (1973)

Soft Machine's sixth album may in retrospect be considered a transitional album. In the same way that Volume Two had introduced the jazz element that was to become an essential part of the band's sound in the early 70's, Six Album paved the way for the band's later fusion-oriented efforts. With that album, Soft Machine's music lost all remaining references to the free-form and anarchy of its early days.
Arguably, the influence of then new member Karl Jenkins in that move was particularly strong. With a background in both classical music and jazz, Jankins was an accomplished instrumentalist (on both reeds and keyboard instruments) and a prolific composer. A founding member of Ian Carr's Nucleus (alongside John Marshall), he had penned most of that band's first two albums, and would soon share an equal part of Soft Machine's compositional output with Mike Ratledge.
Six Album consists of two distinct albums : one is compiled from live recordings made during the Autumn 1972 British tour; the other gathers studio tracks recorded later that year. The live record is a fantastic testament to that line-up's excellence. Supported by the incredible rhythm section of Hopper and Marshall, Ratledge and Jenkins' dual keyboards weave complex, multi-layered harmonic motifs to quite an hypnotizing effect. There is already little left of the jazz influence still heard on Fifth, which Elton Dean probably took with him when he quit the band.
The studio LP is, in contrast, more experimental and less focussed. The odd track here is really Hugh Hopper's "1983", in the same 'abstract' vein as his debut solo album 1984, which had been recorded the previous Summer ("1983" was probably recorded during these very sessions) and was released in March 1973, only a few weeks before Hopper's departure from the band. The other tracks, in particular Jenkins' "The Soft Weed Factor", experiment with repetitive structures, and in a way mark the return, albeit in a more polished and academic form, to some of the directions explored on Third. The most successful composition is Ratledge's "Chloe And The Pirates", which is highlighted by Jenkins' extended oboe solo.

"Seven" (1973)

Having just acquired yet another Nucleus defector, bassist Roy Babbington, Soft Machine were pressured to go into the studio straight away in order to have a new album out for a projected US tour in the autumn of 1973. Apparently, much of the resulting album was composed over a very short period of time - only "Down The Road" had been routined onstage prior to the sessions. Actually there is even a disguised cover - Ratledge's "Day's Eye" is really just a re-vamp of a John McLaughlin piece off Extrapolation; and much of "Penny Hitch" sound like Jenkins' cover of his own "Soft Weed Factor". Even so, it's one of the best cuts on Seven. As with Six Album, Jenkins's contributions are hit-or-miss depending on whether they're just a complex rhythmic pattern over which to solo on either oboe or fuzz organ, or something more substantial. Ratledge contribues a couple of good themes, but his compositional output was quickly diminishing at this point. The real plus on the album is Babbington's immaculate bass playing; as a musician he's probably not as original and creative as Hugh Hopper, but he's just perfect for that kind of material, rock-solid and elegant. Otherwise, it's clear the Softs were getting a bit stagnant and needed a shot in the arm - which came in the shape of Allan Holdsworth.

"Bundles" (1975)

Probably conscious of the lack of substantial progression between Six Album and Seven, Soft Machine decided to expand its sound scope with the addition of a guitar player. With the arrival of Allan Holdsworth (yet another ex-member of Nucleus) in November 1973, the guitar made an unexpected return to the band's sound, six years after Daevid Allen's departure. Bundles, recorded the following Summer but released only in March 1975 (just days before Holdsworth left the group), on the band's new label Harvest, is certainly a dramatic change of musical direction. Soft Machine has now become a fusion band, playing music based on energetic rock rhythms, supporting virtuosic soloing.
The highlight of the album is the sidelong suite "Hazard Profile", an epic Jenkins composition based on the riff of a previous piece of his, Nucleus' "Song Of The Bearded Lady". This piece visits musical territories not dissimilar to the progressive rock of Yes, Genesis and the like, except all instrumental. The second side of the album resembles more the preceding albums, in particular Ratledge's compositions.

"Softs" (1976)

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"Alive And Well" (1978)

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"Land Of Cockayne" (1981)

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2.Posthumous Releases

"Jet-Propelled Photographs" (1967/??)

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"The Peel Sessions" (1969-71/90)

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"Rubber Riff" (1976/95)

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"Spaced" (1969/96)

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3.Live Albums

"Live At The Proms" (1970/89)

The first live performance by the classic Soft Machine quartet of Dean-Ratledge-Hopper-Wyatt to have been officially released, this was also televised at the time it was recorded (August 13th 1970), as part of the Promenade Concerts series held at the Royal Albert Hall. The sound quality is not exactly perfect, with Hugh Hopper's bass barely audible, but the band plays inspired renditions of such favourites as "Out-Bloody-Rageous", "Facelift" and the sidelong epic "Esther's Nosejob" from Volume Two, now exclusively instrumental (save Wyatt's brief wordless vocalese) and augmented with the beautifully melodic "Pigling Bland", which later turned up on its own on Fifth. Some say Soft Machine was at its best in a live context : this recording is a convincing evidence.

"Live At The Paradiso" (1969/96)

Another classic performance, and a much-bootlegged one. This concert in Amsterdam from March 1969 was in fact almost released at the time, but the band vetoed it. It became a best-selling bootleg in the 70's, and appeared on CD in the late 80's. It was finally issued officially on Voiceprint in 1996. It is an absolutely fantastic document of Soft Machine in concert circa Volume Two, an intense trio performance that actually consists of the whole album played in its entirety with no stops. Robert Wyatt obivously has difficulties handling both the drumming and the singing, and tends to concentrate on the former, leaving much of the music voice-free. Mike Ratledge and Hugh Hopper both make extensive use of the famed fuzz pedal. 45 minutes of pure magic, and the only available opportunity to hear early Soft Machine playing live.

"BBC Radio One Live In Concert" (1971/93)

This is a live session recorded for the BBC at London's Paris Theatre on March 11th 1971, pre-dating Virtually by only a few days. The setlist is largely similar, but this is a less typical performance by the classic Soft Machine line-up in that it features some additional guest musicians. John Peel introduced the concert as being by "Soft Machine and Heavy Friends". It actually begins with the Elton Dean Group (which a year later evolved into Just Us) - Dean, Mark Charig, Neville Whitehead and Phil Howard - augmented by Mike Ratledge on electric piano, performing "Blind Badger", a track that was to be recorded for Elton Dean's debut solo album two months later with a largely similar line-up, as would be the following track, "Neo Caliban Grides", where Dean, Ratledge and Howard are joined by Hugh Hopper and Robert Wyatt. The rest of the performance is a continuous 30-minute plus medley by the regular Dean-Ratledge-Hopper-Wyatt quartet, consisting of "Out-Bloody-Rageous", "Eamonn Andrews", "All White", "Kings And Queens", "Teeth" and "Pigling Bland". It is to be noted that both "All White" and "Pigling Bland" later turned up on Fifth, by which time Wyatt had left the band. For the last two numbers, Soft Machine is augmented by Ronnie Scott on tenor sax, Mark Charig on cornet, Paul Nieman and trombone and Roy Babbington on bass. All in all, a very strong performance that features some of the most jazz-oriented music Soft Machine ever produced.

"BBC Radio One Live In Concert" (1972/94)

This concert for the BBC was the fifth by the incarnation of Soft Machine that would record Six Album later that year, with Karl Jenkins joining Mike Ratledge, Hugh Hopper and John Marshall, adding his considerable skills on woodwinds and keyboards, not to mention his talents as composer. Less jazzy improvisation, more heavy riffing showcasing the extraordinary Hopper-Marshall rhythm section. "Slightly All The Time", the only leftover from the pre-Fifth days, is almost unrecognizable. The rest of the set is a mixture of compositions from Fifth ("All White", again bearing only minor resemblance to the original, "M.C.", "L.B.O." and "As If") and Six Album ("Fanfare", "Stumble" and "Riff"). Although only weeks into its existence, this line-up of Soft Machine was already a very solid unit, and this performance is arguably even better than the much-lauded live half of Six Album.

"Live In France" (1972/95)

This double CD offers one of Elton Dean's last live performances with Soft Machine - Paris' Olympia Theatre on May 2nd, 1972. The line-up here is that of the second side of Fifth, that is Dean, Mike Ratledge, Hugh Hopper and John Marshall. The latter, a heavier and straighter drummer than Phil Howard, really solidifies the unit. At that point, Dean was playing almost as much electric piano as saxophone, which makes the later recruitment of Karl Jenkins seem a logical step. A lot of room is left to improvisation, and the versions of "Facelift" and "Slightly All The Time" on this set are substantially different to the original versions. The only - minor - problem with Live In France is the sound quality - mono and somewhat lacking in dynamics - but this is nonetheless a superb performance. (A new version of this album is due for release on Cuneiform Records in May, 2004)

"Virtually" (1971/98)

The latest, and hopefully not last, in the series of live CD's from the classic era of Soft Machine. This contains the entirety (almost 80 minutes) of a two-set concert recorded and broadcast by Germany's Radio Bremen (it has since been aired again a few times), only days after the Soft Machine And Heavy Friends session (see above). And one of the very best in that it offers a unique opportunity to hear a complete performance by the band. This features most of the tracks (in shorter versions) from Third ("Facelift", "Slightly All The Time" - without the "Noisette"/"Backwards" part - and "Out-Bloody-Rageous") and all the ones from Fourth, plus Dean's "Neo-Caliban Grides", the transitional "Eamonn Andrews" (never included on any studio album) which features a vocal improvisation by Wyatt around the lyrics of "Hope For Happiness" and "Pigling Bland", the only leftover from the "Esther's Nosejob" suite.