The Class of 1970: Soft Machine ‘Third’
The Soft Machine began as a fabulous art rock band in 1966 with Robert Wyatt (drums, vocals), Kevin Ayers (bass, guitar, vocals), Daevid Allen (guitar) and Mike Ratledge (organ). The British band produced two excellent albums, The Soft Machine, Volume 1, and Volume 2 in 1968 and 1969 and toured the U.S. in 1968 with Jimi Hendrix. Hugh Hopper joined the band for the second album, and the group provided the backing for Syd Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs. Ayers would go on the the brilliant solo career with a slew of albums, as would Allen, who formed the band Gong, another jazz/rock fusion innovator.
By 1970, the band shed the definite article “the” and went through a stunning transformation as on of the first and most important jazz/rock fusion bands. The group released Third June 6. It was recorded April-May and issued June 6, 1970, on Columbia Records (the first two albums were on the ABC Probe label). “Facelift” was recorded live at Fairfield Hall, Croydon (01.04.70) and at Mother’s Club, Birmingham (01.11.70).
The band on Third were: Mike Ratledge, organ, piano; Hugh Hopper, bass guitar; Robert Wyatt, drums, vocals; and Elton Dean, alto sax, saxello; with Rob Spall, violin; Lyn Dobson, flute, soprano sax; Nick Evans, trombone; and Jimmy Hastings, flute, bass clarinet. The album was engineered by Andy Knight at I.B.C. Recording Studios; with Bob Woolford in charge of concert recordings. It was published as Columbia CGK 30339.
The double-album contained only four songs, one per side, clocking in at almost 76 minutes. It belongs in the pantheon with music from Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, and other fusion innovators. Composer credits are in [brackets]. The four sides take the listener through jazz, rock, fusion, prog rock, art rock, electronica, and some spacey psychedelic passages.
“Facelift” (18:46) [Hopper] opens with some spacey electronic keyboard sounds from Ratledge. Almost five minutes in, Dean enters on saxello (a Bb soprano saxophone with a distinct tone). Hopper and Wyatt come in shortly thereafter, working on the tone set by Ratledge. Suddenly, the track blows up at 7:00 with a huge rock-type groove. There is so much here that reminds of Zappa’s work 1968-69 with Ian Underwood on electronically altered alto saxophone.
The sound gets very soft at 10:30 as Lyn Dobson lightens the sound with his flute; he had been a member of the band prior to the issue of this album. At the end, there is obvious tape manipulation with speeded up and backward sections of the them. Soft Machine were certainly psychedelic but no longer a psychedelic art band.
“Slightly All the Time” (18:12) is credited as Ratledge, but Wikipedia notes it is a medley of Ratledge’s “Backwards” and Hopper’s “Noisette.” This would sound like a traditional jazz tune except for the tone of the saxello. The instrument has a magical sound, heard most prominently on Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s albums. Ratledge sounds great coming on electric piano as Dean and Hastings (bass clarinet) take the lead. The tempo shifts slightly as Hastings takes lead on flute (6:00). Dean adds alto sax soon thereafter. Hooper and Wyatt make a brilliant jazz rhythm section regardless of the direction the music takes.
There is a tempo change as Dean changes to saxello, working with Retledge on electric piano before he switches to organ, then douple-tracks both keyboards. The mode becomes much softer at 12:00. The wah-wah effect Ratledge gets on organ is mesmerizing as Dean blows a beautiful passage. They shift to double-time at 16:00, Hopper and Wyatt in the lead.
“Moon in June” (19:07) [Wyatt] is the one track one the album which bridges the band’s previous sound on their first two albums with their new sound. The first portion features Wyatt singing what sounds like a stream-of-consciousness rap about being in New York but wanting to go home over Ratledge’s organ. Hopper and Wyatt again star. At 9:00, Hopper gets hopped up with that deep, fuzzed-out bass tone. A minute later, Ratledge takes off on organ. For comparison, check out Caravan’s “Nine Feet Underground” from In the Land of Grey and Pink (1971). In the midst of that, Wyatt adds vocalese. There are tremendous organ effects and more fuzzed-out bass, and then it gets weirder as Rob Spall’s tripped-out violin enters the fray.
“Out-Bloody-Rageous” (19:14) [Ratledge] features Ratledge for five minutes on manipulated keyboards, really, really spacey. Then it is a band effort at 5:00 with a tremendous groove, Hopper and Wyatt driving and Dean on saxello. Ratledge is double-tracked on electric piano and organ for a long outing, and Dean re-enters briefly. A completely new song emerges at 10:26 with Ratledge on acoustic piano and Nick Evans adding on trombone briefly. Dean plays alto as Ratledge also plays organ. Dean double-tracks on alto and saxello. Yet another tempo change kicks the groove into high gear. The song shifts again toward electronica with Ratledge at the helm, which would emerge further on 4 and 5.