Though you never see their name on any “as seen on TV” best of the ‘60s compilations, the legacy of The Soft Machine finds themselves remembered as one of the most talented and influential collectives ever to flourish out of the English countryside. Their story began in Canterbury when drummer Robert Wyatt, bassist Kevin Ayers, guitarist Daevid Allen, and idea man Mike Ratledge on keyboards formed the original line-up in 1966. It was this quartet that recorded the first Soft Machine single, while earning themselves a lot of buzz in the UK underground, coming out of the same scene that produced Gong (of which Allen was also a member) and Caravan, among others. They were frequent guests at the UFO Club and even toured Holland, Germany, and the French Riviera. However, upon returning from France, Australian stowaway Allen ran into a little visa trouble, and the group was forced by default to go on as a trio. Andy Summers, who would later become the guitarist for The Police, joined the band for a brief period, but it was as a trio that Soft Machine toured America opening for Jimi Hendrix, and recorded their debut album in New York in 1968.
Without a lead guitar, their eponymous first outing (fondly remembered as Volume 1) sought to meld psychedelia and jazz-rock through Wyatt’s imaginative, liberally panned drumming, Ayers’ jazz & pop bass grooves, and Ratledge’s horror movie Doors organ. With those pieces in motion, they achieved a wondrous time capsule of experimental pop under the constant surreal lyricism of Wyatt and Ayers. Like Syd Barrett was to Pink Floyd, Ayers brought an infatuation with unhinged, uncouth pop to the group aesthetic, which would make Vol. 1 the most conventional SM album in terms of structure. Ayers wasn’t long for this band, though. He left on good terms after the US tour in order to focus on his solo career, which would find modest success over a few decades and a dozen odd releases, many of which returned to the themes first explored on Vol. 1. There’s no rest for the wicked, as they say and the bass-hole was quickly filled by one Hugh Hopper just in time to record their second album in 1969. Hopper had previously played with Wyatt in the Daevid Allen Trio, so it was an easy fit that reflected in the work they produced together.
Without Ayers in the picture, the properly titled Volume 2 would see Wyatt helm the ship deeper into the jazz-fusion they’d toyed with before but hadn’t fully embraced, as well as Dadaism in general. Lyrics left the rational and became more freeform (often, if not always, refusing to rhyme), absurdist humor (the British alphabet in 12 seconds?), and self-reflexive (which included an ode to Hendrix for introducing them to their audience on that first US tour) while the song structure went all avant-punk. Here, a minute of sunshine pop chords bunts a non sequitur into twenty seconds of an organ being tortured without pause (except to flip sides, natch) as if that was always the thing to do, with the average track length running around an anti-radio two minutes. Hopper’s bass morphs from fuzz bomb to mellow scat at the drop of a hat, while Wyatt’s drumming only improved in intensity. This album would mark a rough thematic template that SM would take to its extremes in the years to come.
Both of these first two albums are equally superb in execution, though their aims differed. There are no bonus tracks on either of these Runt reissues, so my views are untainted by extraneous material, but the packaging, for all intents and purposes, is presented as accurately to the original pressings as possible in a jewel case, so it’s an admirable theme. All you get here are two bottles of fine wine. In later years, Soft Machine would go through many changes and release some nine albums in ten years, while Robert Wyatt is still releasing very well received material under his own name to this day. Daevid Allen has had an amazing, collaborative career that’s survived the test of time (reforming Gong as late as 2003 with members of Acid Mothers Temple), while Hugh Hopper has kept busy with all kinds of solo and group projects. You can’t point to any one person and say “that’s Soft Machine” and have much of a case to back it up. The magnitude of raw talent that blessed this William Burroughs named collaboration is written all over history, the fluid motion that propels the windmills of your mind. Open wide and let the sunshine in.