Caught In Transition
SOFT MACHINE : Somewhere In Soho (Voiceprint. VP262CD)
Watching a programme on the life and times of Robert Wyatt this week I began to speculate fondly on the possibility of a Soft Machine re-union. Wyatt, Hopper, Dean and Ratledge in concert again, just one last time. I mean some of them still play together sporadically, so it shouldn’t be entirely out of the question. Of course in the real world no such thing is ever likely to happen so it is just as well that releases like this double cd keep appearing as compensation with satisfying regularity.

The ‘somewhere in Soho’ is actually Ronnie Scott’s club in Frith Street where the band had a six night residency opposite guitarist John Williams and, unlikely as it may sound, Loudon Wainwright. This was in April 1970 when they were in the throes of recording ‘Third’ so much of the material comes from that album as well as old favourites like ‘Esther’s Nose Job’ and ‘Hibou Anemone & Bear’ from their second album. And it sounds somewhat transitional as they work out and extend their repertoire, stretching and improvising around the themes and showing clearly the direction they would follow for the next couple of years.

Ratledge’s ‘Slightly All The Time’ and ‘Out-Bloody-Rageous’ segue neatly and feature edgy, full-blooded organ and some urgent and assertive sax from Dean who clearly relished the opportunity to pursue his penchant for improvisation. ‘Eamonn Andrews’ hadn’t appeared on record at this time but is given a lengthy outing featuring Ratledge’s gently cyclical electric piano and harsh organ while Hopper’s fuzz bass writhes and seethes demonically in the guts of the piece. Wyatt also gets a chance to come into the foreground bringing a tension to the group improvisation with his energetic drumming. It’s clear that the band, in this setting, were driven to extend somewhat limited material or as Wyatt put it “..try and play as though we were jazzmen”.

One of my all time favourites, ‘Backwards’ allows Dean to display his lyrical side as he takes the melody and explores it with controlled emotion. There are so many excellent takes on this particular Ratledge tune that it is difficult to chose one above others but this one does articulate both the drive and melodic shape of the piece. Soon after this Dean takes off on a more fiery, yet equally eloquent solo that adds further depth to ‘Hibou’ before Ratledge indulges in one of his customary spiky, but in this case, truncated contributions.

As part of their need to expand on the available material they offered some group improvisation, as on the opening to their extended treatment of ‘Facelift’. Again, there are pointers here toward the path that Dean, in particular, favoured though all players are equally involved in the process. As the composition unfolds, the four way interplay becomes more intense with Hopper nagging at the organist and Dean agitating in his own incendiary style. I wonder what fans of Williams and Wainwright made of it!

Further opportunities to explore existing compositions arise on ‘Esther’s Nose Job’ where Hopper’s monumental fuzz clashes with the keyboard and both men enjoy a few moments of intricate duetting. Wyatt’s voice makes a fleeting appearance before the whole band take off again and merge into ‘Pigling Bland’ a tune that wouldn’t appear on record until their fifth album.

By now of course, songs were rapidly disappearing from the band’s set so if anyone is expecting a vocal version of ‘Moon In June’ they will be disappointed since Wyatt only gets a few echo-laden moments in which to exercise the cords. He does manage a percussion solo, however, on ‘Cymbalism’.

A few words need to be said about the quality of the recording which is, in places, fairly lo-fi. It is better than the 1969 Paradiso set but not as polished as the Cuneiform or Hux/BBC archive material. Remember, these gigs were never meant for general release. However, they are probably the best way to hear the band going through the changes and growing into a formidable force. So, while there may not be any Soft Machine reformations on the horizon, as further evidence of what was probably their most creative period this is essential both for fans of the band and the genre they were so influential in shaping.

© 2004 Paul Donnelly