Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Soft Machine: Out-Bloody-RageousSoft Machine: Out-Bloody-Rageous by Graham Bennett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the third book about music that I have recently read: after the ground-breaking biography of Frank Zappa , and the collection of essays about Beethoven's string quartets , I have just finished reading Graham Bennett's book "Soft Machine: Out-Bloody-Rageous" about one of the most important bands that emerged from the rock revolution of the 1960s. To me, Soft Machine's music was absolutely the best in the crucial period between mid-1960s and mid-1970s.

It would be misleading to call Soft Machine a rock band. Their music always defied categorizations. They pioneered psychedelic pop (not rock). For a little while, during the late 1960s, one could count them as a progressive rock band, where the "progressive" qualifier meant "influenced by jazz, classical music, and avant-garde". Soft Machine then ventured into jazz-rock category and so-called "fusion", and from there they went deeper and deeper into jazz and avant-garde contemporary music, including misguided excursions into the horrid "ambient music".

Obviously, Soft Machine's creative trajectory that went from dadaist and psychedelic pop to pure jazz was related to extremely frequent changes in band's personnel. No other important music band had 24 different line-ups (performing units). The musician who belonged to the most line-ups (from #1 to #17, continually) was Mike Ratledge. The next most "permanent" member, Karl Jenkins, was in 12 line-ups, from #13 to #24. Interestingly, the best known member of the band, drummer and singer Robert Wyatt, was only in line-ups from #1 to #10. The author shows that the personnel-genre relationship worked both ways: not only did changes in personnel cause changes in music, but also the turns in musical focus of the band's compositions resulted in members quitting the band or being fired.

The Soft Machine story began in mid-1960s in the Simon Langston Grammar School for Boys in Canterbury, UK. Mike Ratledge, Robert Wyatt, and the Hopper brothers, Hugh and Brian, all attended the school and knew each other. Kevin Ayers of Wilde Flowers and Daevid Aellen, an Australian poet, guitarist and performance artist, joined Ratledge and Wyatt to form one of the first line-ups of Soft Machine in the fall of 1966. These four, plus the Hopper brothers, plus 19 other musicians belonged to the band at different times between 1966 and 1984.

The absolute majority of artists who at one point or another played for Soft Machine were influenced by jazz or were jazz musicians. Some, like Mike Ratledge, were classically trained. Mr. Bennett writes that "Daevid, Robert and Mike had all been profoundly inspired in their formative years by bebop - which emphasized rhythmic and harmonic complexity and chordal rather than melodic improvisation - and also free jazz, with its philosophy of impulsive musical experience." Most of them were not interested in playing rock music at all. (Funny how the same thing applied to one of the rock music icons, Frank Zappa.)

Soft Machine never played to the crowd, and were never really interested in stardom. Soft Machine and Pink Floyd had very similar beginnings, often played on the same bill, yet they went in very different directions. Mr. Bennett quotes Nick Mason, Pink Floyd's drummer: "Pink Floyd were far more geared to wanting to be a commercial band than Soft Machine, who had far more musical ability than we ever did. So inevitably we went different ways."

Mr. Bennett's meticulously researched book is well written and very readable. By all means it deserves the distinction of being considered the "definitive biography" of Soft Machine. A very solid and impressive work about one of the most important bands of the rock era, who never were a rock band.

Four and a half stars.

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