Group Members: Jack Bruce, Andy Summers, Robert Wyatt, Allan Holdsworth, Marc Charig, Elton Dean, Alan Skidmore, Daevid Allen, Kevin Ayers, Lyn Dobson, Roy Babbington, John Etheridge, Nick Evans, Jimmy Hastings, Hugh Hopper, Brian Hopper, Phil Howard, Karl Jenkins, John Marshall, Mike Ratledge, Alan Wakeman, Ray Warleigh
Styles: Canterbury Scene, British Psychedelia, Jazz-Rock, Experimental, Psychedelic, Prog-Rock/Art Rock
The Soft Machine was never a commercial enterprise, and indeed still remains unknown even to many listeners that came of age during the late '60s, when the group was at their peak. In their own way, however, they were one of the more influential bands of their era, and certainly one of the most influential underground ones. One of the original British psychedelic groups, they were also instrumental in the birth of both progressive rock and jazz-rock. They were also the central foundation of the family tree of the "Canterbury school" of British progressive rock acts, a movement that also included Caravan, Gong, Matching Mole, and National Health, not to mention the distinguished solo careers of founding members Robert Wyatt and Kevin Ayers.
Considering their well-known experimental and avant-garde leanings, the roots of the Soft Machine were in some respects surprisingly conventional. In the mid-'60s, Wyatt sang and drummed with the Wilde Flowers, a Canterbury group that played more or less conventional pop and soul covers of the day. Future Soft Machine members Ayers and Hugh Hopper would also pass through the Wilde Flowers, whose original material began to reflect an odd sensibility, cultivated by their highly educated backgrounds and a passion for improvised jazz. In 1966, Wyatt teamed up with bassist/singer Ayers, keyboardist Mike Ratledge, and Australian guitarist Daevid Allen to form the first lineup of the Soft Machine.
This incarnation of the group, along with Pink Floyd and Tomorrow, were the very first underground psychedelic bands in Britain, and quickly became well-loved in the burgeoning London psychedelic underground. Their first recordings (many of which only surfaced years later on compilations of 1967 demos) were by far their most pop-oriented, which doesn't mean they weren't exciting, or devoid of experimental elements. Surreal wordplay and unusually (for rock) complex instrumental interplay gave an innovative edge to their ebullient early psychedelic outings. They only managed to cut one (very good) single, though, which flopped. Allen, the weirdest of a colorful group of characters, had to leave the band when he was refused re-entry into the U.K. after a stint in France, due to the expiration of his visa.
The remaining trio recorded their first proper album in 1968. The considerable melodic elements and vocal harmonies of their 1967 recordings were now giving way to more challenging, artier postures that sought - sometimes successfully, sometimes not - to meld the energy of psychedelic rock with the improvisational pulse of jazz. The Softs were taken on by Jimi Hendrix's management, leading to grueling stints supporting the Jimi Hendrix Experience on their 1968 American tours. Because of this, the group at this point was probably more well-known in the U.S. than their homeland. In fact, their debut LP was only issued, oddly, in the States. For a couple of months in 1968, strangely enough, the Soft Machine became a quartet again with the addition of future Police guitarist Andy Summers, although that didn't work out, and they soon reverted to a trio. The punishing tours took their toll on the group, and Ayers had left by the end of 1968, to be replaced by Wyatt's old chum Hugh Hopper.
Their second album, Vol. 2 (1969), further submerged the band's pop elements in favor of extended jazzy compositions, with an increasingly lesser reliance on lyrics and vocals. Ratledge's fuzzy, buzzy organ, and Wyatt's pummeling, imaginative drumming and scat vocals, paced the band on material that became increasingly whimsical and surrealistic, if increasingly inaccessible to the pop/rock audience. For their third album, they went even further in these directions, expanding to a seven-piece by adding a horn section. This record virtually dispensed with vocals and conventional rock songs entirely, and is considered a landmark by both progressive rock and jazz-rock aficionados, though it was too oblique for many rock listeners.
The Soft Machine couldn't afford to continue to support a seven-member lineup, and scaled back to a quartet for their fourth album, retaining Elton Dean on sax. Wyatt had left by the end of 1971, briefly leading the similar Matching Mole, and then establishing a long-running solo career. In doing so he was following the path of Kevin Ayers, who already had several solo albums to his credit by the early '70s; Daevid Allen, for his part, had become a principal of Gong, one of the most prominent and enigmatic '70s progressive rock bands.
For most intents and purposes, Wyatt's departure spelled the end of the Soft Machine's reign as an important band. Although the Soft Machine was always a collaborative effort, Wyatt's humor, humanism, and soulful raspy vocals could not be replaced. Ratledge and Hopper kept the group going with other musicians, though by now they were an instrumental fusion group with little vestiges of their former playfulness. Hopper left in 1973, and Ratledge, the last original member, was gone by 1976. Other lineups continued to play under the Soft Machine name, amazingly, until the 1990s, but these were the Soft Machine in name only.
- Richie Unterberger (All Music Guide)