50 years ago, the legendary Jazz/Rock/Fusion ensemble defined the progress in progressive rock
Soft Machine’s initial album entry was a somewhat perplexing proposition, especially for its time.
Graduates of England’s avante garde Cambridge music scene, their sophisticated sensibilities found them steering towards a decidedly jazz-like motif, but their long-haired, hippie-like appearance turned off the purists who saw them as little more than rock and roll wannabes. On the other hand, given their angular melodies and eccentric intents, they were considered far beyond the realms of what was normally deemed rock by all but the most adventurous, with their lack of hummable melodies and consistent time changes only affirming that conclusion.
Never mind the fact that the band was tapped to open for the Jimi Hendrix Experience, another outfit that veered towards the fringes. Conveniently, the two bands shared the same management. Yet with organ providing the dominant tones, Soft Machine simply didn’t fit the typical progressive rock motif of the times, a mantle that would later be taken up by bands like King Crimson, Pink Floyd, the Nice, Caravan and all the other outfits determined to take rock to its furthest reaches.
Named for the novel by William S. Burroughs, The Soft Machine — later shortened to simply “Soft Machine” a couple years later — recorded their eponymous debut with singer/bassist Kevin Ayers, drummer Robert Wyatt and organist Mike Ratledge, with future bassist Hugh Hopper lending his efforts on a single track. Ratledge would stay with the band through several incarnations, but both Ayers and Wyatt would leave early on, Ayers for a solo career and occasional work with Mike Oldfield and others in a band called The Whole World. Wyatt formed a post Softs band, Matching Mole, but eventually went solo after a drunken fall through an upper story window led to paralysis and confined him to a wheelchair. Nevertheless, he’s still making music to this day, though on a far more limited basis.
Ultimately, that first Soft Machine album proved a precursor of things to come, not only in establishing the band as a unique entity that attempted entry into multiple musical worlds, but also as a foundation for fusion bands yet to come, among them the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, Weather Report, and the other assorted efforts by John McLaughlin, Larry Coryell, Pat Metheny and those artists that pitched their appeal to younger audiences through their more experimental overtures. So too, several tracks from that first album — “Joy of a Toy” (later recut for Ayers’ first solo album of the same name), “Priscilla,” “Hope for Happiness,” and “Why Are We Sleeping” became signature songs of the Softs’ early repertoire.
Fifty years on, The Soft Machine remains as much a curiosity as a groundbreaking effort, a quaint sounding attempt to push the parameters in loose and lighthearted ways. Having survived numerous personnel shifts and an ever-changing evolution, the band’s brand still stays active and an enduring symbol of modern music at its furthest reach.