When Soft Machine emerged in the late 60s, there was nothing remotely like them. There still isn’t.
When Soft Machine first formed in 1966 in Canterbury, England, they were at the leading edge of the British psychedelic scene, and by 1967 they were playing legendary underground London clubs like UFO alongside a young Pink Floyd, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, et al. They released a single in ’67 when their lineup still included guitarist Daevid Allen, who would go on to form Gong. But by the time they cut their self-titled 1968 debut album they were down to a trio of singer/drummer Robert Wyatt, bassist/occasional singer Kevin Ayers, and keyboardist Mike Ratledge.
The record was the first domino in what would come to be known as the Canterbury Scene, a loose aggregation of bands including the likes of Caravan, Hatfield & the North, and National Health, which would come to full fruition in the ’70s with a bland of jazzy prog, breezy attitude, and offbeat humor. By the early ’70s, Soft Machine would be a straight-up jazz fusion band barely recognizable from its origins. But on the Soft Machine album they were a different beast entirely, going where no band had gone before and none would go again (though a few hardy souls gave it the old college try).
Wyatt, Ratledge, and Ayers crafted a gloriously cockeyed sound that broke all the era’s rock ‘n’ roll rules. They had no guitarist, and at times both Ratledge’s organ and Ayers’ bass were so fuzzed out that they sounded like completely different instruments. The fuzz approach would become Ratledge’s signature sound and the single most identifiable element of both Soft Machine and the Canterbury scene as other bands picked up on it. The same would prove true of Ayers’ successor, Hugh Hopper, who carried his own fuzzy sound far beyond Soft Machine.
As a whole the band blended post-psychedelic moves — yes, they were so far ahead of the curve they were already post-psych by ’68 — with intimations of the jazz they’d grown up loving, the beat group sounds they’d come up surrounded by, and the Dadaist sensibilities Allen (several years the others’ elder) had imparted to them. These disparate qualities came together for a raw, exciting, unprecedented batch of tracks that made them underground heroes to the blossoming U.K. counterculture.
From the first track, “Hope for Happiness,” the band is merrily colliding trippy atmospheres with skewed shards of art pop as Ratledge’s giddily overdriven organ dances madly through the proceedings. “Joy of a Toy” is a wah-wah-laden psychedelic jam that goes from moody mantra to unhinged freakout. Incidentally, it is completely unrelated to “Joy of a Toy Continued,” which would open Ayer’s solo debut LP the following year, title notwithstanding.
The band’s sense of humor comes to the fore on “Why Am I So Short?” as Wyatt’s soulful, sandpapery tones deliver wry, autobiographical lyrics like “I hit the drums so hard I break all my heads.” As the song segues into the long, demented jam “So Boot If At All,” Wyatt bears that out, unleashing a long drum solo somewhere between Elvin Jones and Mitch Mitchell.
“A Certain Kind” and “Save Yourself” bear the most conventional song structures on the album, both songs dating back to the band’s formative period. The former is a soul-tinged ballad and the latter an urgent rocker, both sounding here somewhat like Zombies songs that took a drink out of the wrong punchbowl.
“Priscilla” and “Lullabye Letter” both feature more psych-jazz jamming, with Ratledge leaping to the fore once more. Towards the end of the album, Soft Machine’s Dada side is heavily underlined, first with “We Did It Again,” where the title phrase and accompanying riff are repeated over and over again for nearly four minutes. Legend has it that in their early live shows the band would keep this going for interminable periods, out of sheer perversity.
“Why Are We Sleeping” is a delivered by Ayers as a dreamlike, deadpan spoken-word narrative (“My head is a nightclub, with glasses and wine”) over a sweeping, seemingly mock-dramatic arrangement. It’s bookended by two avant-rock fragments — “Plus Belle Qu’une Poubelle” finds Ratledge wringing delirious, unnatural sounds out of his organ, while album-closer “Box 25/4 Lid” is a brief bit of minimalist repetition penned by the band’s next bassist, Hugh Hopper, who plays the fuzziest bass riffs of the entire album against a low register piano line in a sequence said to have been determined by throwing dice in a John Cage-style chance strategy.
By the time Soft Machine reconvened for Volume Two in 1969, Hopper had replaced Ayers, whose first solo album, Joy of a Toy, would appear later that same year. The band would undergo myriad changes in style and personnel in the ’70s, while the Canterbury scene their debut LP helped to kickstart grew to its full height, and both Wyatt and Ayers would eventually become at least as renowned for their solo careers as they were for their Soft Machinery. But whatever followed after it, Soft Machine remains one of the most singular innovations of the ’60s British underground.