BEYOND THE SOFT MACHINE
Album review of:
‘LIVE AT THE PROMS: 1970’
by SOFT MACHINE
(August 1988, Reckless Records RECK 5)
With the Sixties slopping messily over into the Seventies, the serious music buzz-words are ‘improvisation’ and ‘progression’. But if any one group can provide justification for those pretentions it’s the Softs. Starting out as sub-Floydian psycho-Poppers with a sales-friendly single “Love Makes Sweet Music”, and two in-house Syd Barrett-wacko clones in the figures of Kevin Ayers and Daevid Allen – within the three years it takes them to reach this Albert Hall ‘Henry Wood’s Proms’ one-off they’ve mutated out of all recognition. Even now, with this concert finally side-stepping onto vinyl after eighteen years of Radio Three legend and cult memory it still comes at you as unexpectedly as the soundtrack to a surrealist movie. By then composed and deconstructed into Hugh Hopper (bass), Mike Ratledge (keyboards), Elton Dean (sax), and Robert Wyatt – on his penultimate album as Softs drummer, they run through scripts from their albums ‘Third’ (1970) with Hopper’s “Facelift” and Ratledge’s “Out-Bloody-Rageous”, and ‘Volume Two’ (1969) – with just a taster for what was to come on the ‘Triple Echo’ (1977) compilation and ‘Fifth’ (1972) drawn into the five segments making up side two’s long “Esther’s Nosejob” which moves from 7/8 time into outer space through an asteroid-storm of electronics and Wyatt’s eerily resonant scat interjections.
Yet from the opening dissonant moans of Ratledge ‘kick-starting’ his organ this is very much a human music produced by people making it up as they go along. Compact exploratory solos are housed in angular time-signatures, complex interplays lurk inside partially structured structures that defy classification. There’s a scampering of Hot Rats here, a judicious stirring of the Bitch’s Brew there, all orbiting a Nucleus of Elastic Rock, but the Softs were – and would stay, so well into their own continuum that comparisons become a nonsense. This release formed Soft Machine’s first-ever CD, and it’s made up of music spontaneously assembled, free music played before such concepts were digitalised out of existence.
Recorded live by the BBC at the Royal Albert Hall (13 August 1970), this album was later reissued as a ‘bonus disc’ within the 2007 CD expanded edition of ‘Third’.
1. ‘Out-Bloody-Rageous’ (Ratledge) 11:54
2. ‘Facelift’ (Hopper) 11:22
3. ‘Esther’s Nose Job’ 15:39 made up of:
(a) ‘Pig’ (Ratledge)
(b) ‘Orange Skin Food’ (Ratledge)
(c) ‘A Door Opens And Closes’ (Ratledge)
(d) ‘Pigling Bland’ (Ratledge)
(e) ’10:30 Returns To The Bedroom’ (Ratledge)
Album review of:
by ROBERT WYATT
(1991, Rough Trade R274)
At the time of this album’s original release there was a joke going around, ‘what’s the difference between Russia and Britain?’ – in Britain you can still belong to the Communist Party! As indeed did Robert Wyatt at the time. In the political credibility ‘are you or have you ever been’ stakes, Wyatt is a shoo-in. Physically he cuts an impressive figure; as shock-bearded as a pre-revolutionary anarchist bomber, as grizzled as some Tolstoyan guru jammed to the not-inconsiderable seams with opinions, righteous rage and esoteric wisdoms. But Wyatt – the ex-Soft Machine drummer, is an artist whose ideologically Left right-on-isms you respect, rather than whose music you enjoy. His finest post-Softs moment thus far was Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding”, a song about the Malvinas Argy-Bargy, incidents now as irrelevant and as time-lost as Suez.
And ‘Dondestan’ – following six years of vinyl silence, is just as odd as his history would lead you to expect. Largely co-written from his wife-partner Alfreda Benge’s lyrics, recorded and multi-tracked as a solo musical project – apart from fellow Soft Machine Hugh Hopper’s contribution to “Lisp Service”, it’s a dense and uneasy work that goes by turns from monotone repetition to unexpectedly striking within the space of a single track. The five sets of lyrics crafted by ‘Alfie’ – originally penned as poems during an off-season Spanish sojourn, have a reflective depth of imagery that decisively rejects agit-prop in favour of a more ambiguous sensitivity. They read with the narrative detail and subtlety of poems, they humanise the album invaluably, Wyatt’s melancholic and frequently tuneless elaborations delivered over haunting washes of layered synths, investing them with an attractively hard cutting edge.
“Catholic Architecture” is about a ‘hand-painted Saint’ in the grounds of a white house, glimpsed over a high perimeter wall which is spiked with broken glass to deter the uninvited; the Saint daring outsiders ‘to intrude, and receive his loving blessing,/ in lovingly lacerated, hands,’ Lines laid with the sparse precision of haiku. “Worship” paints another intensely visual Spanish vignette of ‘two Nuns, on the sea shore,’ so real you could touch them, propriety permitting.
The sleeve painting – also by Alfreda, shows the Wyatt’s at home. Robert in green armchair, with headphones. A carpet crawled with cats. A folded newspaper that betrays the hammer-&-sickle symbol masthead. In Britain – post coup, you can still belong to the C.P., but shared sympathies aside, an immaculately liberal conscience alone fine music doth not make. Title-track “Dondestan” itself is a Wyatt solo composition designed to be chanted jingle-style, taking in the refugees of Palestinian, Kurdish and origins beyond; while his “Left On Man” – ‘what we call freedom in the north,/ means our freedom to, use you,’ also tends to the well-intended but over-simplistic statement of the obvious.
‘Out-Bloody-Rageous’ though the inequalities are – political, artistic AND personal, Wyatt remains an artist whose ideological left-on-isms earn him respect, rather than whose music spreads enjoyment. On that score he’s highly rated by just about everyone in the industry, except possibly by his accountant.
1. ‘Costa’ (Robert Wyatt with Alfreda Benge) 4:39
2. ‘The Sight Of The Wind’ (Robert Wyatt with Alfreda Benge) 4:58
3. ‘Catholic Architecture’ (Robert Wyatt with Alfreda Benge) 5:10
4. ‘Worship’ (Robert Wyatt with Alfreda Benge) 4:50
5. ‘Shrinkrap’ (Robert Wyatt with Alfreda Benge) 3:52
6. ‘CP Jeebies’ (Robert Wyatt) 4:04
7. ‘Left On Man’ (Robert Wyatt) 3:31
8. ‘Lisp Service’ (Robert Wyatt with Hugh Hopper) 2:10
9. ‘N.I.O (New Information Order)’ (Robert Wyatt) 6:35
10. ‘Dondestan’ (Robert Wyatt) 4:49
Album review of:
by ROBERT WYATT
(October 2003, Hannibal Ryko HNCD1468)
To recap. Soft Machine, after misfiring with the sweetly psychedelic-Pop “Love Makes Sweet Music”, became just about the most invigorating jazz-fusion band of that strange lost time-coded period. Not through supernaturally flawless un-human Weather Report virtuosity. But by adding a more robust raw-edge to their angular spontaneity and technical incandescence. Then drummer Wyatt falls out of a window at a party, and loses his mobility. And his voice, on subsequent recordings is a stranger more uneasy instrument. Some say haunting, dreamy, others languorous, meandering.
All this preamble is relevant, because – with ‘Cuckooland’, his first album in six years, Wyatt sets his pained vocals into a free-music context led by Annie Whitehead’s sinuous trombone and Yaron Stavi’s resonant walking double-bass, Karen Mantler’s subtly looped vocal samples and her three compositions, plus drop-in visits from a tastefully restrained Paul Weller, Dave Gilmour, Phil Manzanera, and Brian Eno. Sixteen new tracks neatly divided, vinyl twelve-inch style by a thirty-second ‘suitable place for those with tired ears to pause and resume listening later’. A useful consideration. To recap. “Shipbuilding” was a fine Falklands-relevant equation, with Elvis Costello’s perceptive lyric balancing the evil of foreign war with the benefits it brings to a more regional working class. Some see it as Wyatt’s finest moment, even though his monotone whine fails to rise to Elvis’ own interpretive power.
Yet here Wyatt is never less than hand-wringingly unreconstructed retro ‘Old Labour’, with a ‘Guardian’ slant on the Iraq invasion (“Lullaby For Hamza”), on Roma asylum-seekers (“Forest”), no-nukes (“Foreign Accents”), and right-on nods to World Music (“La Ahada Yalam” from an Arabic original by Amal Murkus). But there’s more. The melancholy samba of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Insensatez”, beatnik-cool references to Juliette Greco falling in love with Miles Davis in Paris – with a bonus Jean-Paul Sartre name-check for additional cultural weight (“Old World”), plus a voiceless piano-take on Buddy Holly’s “Raining In My Heart”. An unwieldy mix to intellectualise on paper, but oddly involving coming at you through upwardly spiralling soprano sax, straining ghost horns and a descending mist of voices. Those smooth electro-slipstreams and carefully-structured cool-jazz cadences envelop and make a nonsense of such apparent contradictions. The End of an Ear? Far from it. Love – even at its most defiantly abstract, left-field and left-wing, still makes sweet music.
Part One: Neither Here…
1. ‘Just A Bit’ (Robert Wyatt) dedicated to Richard Dawkins 5:09
2. ‘Old Europe’ (Robert Wyatt with Alfreda Benge) 4:15
3. ‘Tom Hay’s Fox’ (Robert Wyatt) 3:33
4. ‘Forest’ (Robert Wyatt with Alfreda Benge) features David Gilmour guitar 7:55
5. ‘Beware’ (Karen Mantler) 5:09
6. ‘Cuckoo Madame’ (Robert Wyatt with Alfreda Benge) 5:20
7. ‘Raining In My Heart’ (Felice & Boudleaux Bryant) 2:42
8. ‘Lullaby For Hamza/ Silence’ (Robert Wyatt with Alfreda Benge) 5:00
Part Two: …Nor There
9. ‘Trickle Down’ (Robert Wyatt) double bass by Yaron Stavi 6:47
10. ‘Insensatez’ (Vinicius de Moraes with Antônio Carlos Jobim) 4:24
11. ‘Mister E’ (Karen Mantler) 4:20
12. ‘Lullaloop’ (Alfreda Benge) features Paul Weller guitar 2:59
13. ‘Life Is Sheep’ (Karen Mantler) 4:14
14. ‘Foreign Accents’ (Robert Wyatt) 3:48
15. ‘Brian The Fox’ (Robert Wyatt) 5:31
16. ‘La Ahada Yalam (No-One Knows)’ (Nizar Zreik) instrumental 4:16
‘SONGBOOK no.1’ (October 2003 – UK)
‘MONOMYTH no.12’ (February 2004 – UK)