“Third” by Soft Machine (1970)

In my formative years, I had the luck to have a friend whose siblings had substantial LP collections.

I’d go through the albums and make mental notes about stuff that seemed to be intriguing. Such was the case with a band called Soft Machine, which, according to my friend’s brother, was kind of like Pink Floyd.

Well, that kind of was true. I discovered that Pink Floyd and Soft Machine often shared bills at the UFO Club, the mecca of London’s psychedelic scene circa 1967. But the music produced by the two bands bore little resemblance, other than to appeal to patrons of the UFO and other such venues.

By 1970, when Soft Machine released its third album, the psychedelic approach had turned more toward a nascent form of jazz-rock. Still with the band from the original quartet were drummer-vocalist Robert Wyatt and keyboard player Mike Ratledge, but the basic concept had expanded to a horn section for the “Third” project, most notably the late Elton Dean on saxophone. (Yes, Reg Dwight took the first part of his stage name from Dean after both played together in a band called Bluesology.)

The most striking element of “Third” is its track listing: four sides on the original LP; four songs. Actually, they’re more like suites with single titles, but for listeners who love long jams, the album hits the nail on the head.

Side One is “Face Lift,” composed by the late Hugh Hopper, the band’s bass player. The track is taken from two live performances in January 1970. After a lengthy, droning start punctuated by short bursts from each of the instruments, the song proceeds into its theme, a heavy, stuttering riff benefiting particularly from the dual horns of Dean and Lyn Dobson, who was a proper band member during the recordings. “Face Life” eventually drifts into more introspective territory before wrapping up with backwards-tape effects.

Ratledge is the composer for Side Two, “Slightly All the Time,” and Side Four, “Out-Bloody-Rageous.” “Slightly” actually contains some compositions that have stood on their own for various other Soft Machine recordings, including “Noisette” and “Backwards,” and is augmented by Jimmy Hastings on clarinet.

Amid the jazzier elements is Side Three, Robert Wyatt’s “Moon in June,” which represents his final vocal contribution to the band. In fact, he recorded the first part of the composition on his own, except for a memorably melodic bass solo by Hopper. Apparently, the other Softs weren’t inclined to participate in Wyatt’s esoteric musings. So they sat out until the second half of “Moon in June,” which more closely resembles the stylistic approach of the rest of the album.

“Third” probably represents Soft Machine’s creative apogee. The followup, “Fourth,” contained to one record, further explores the jazz element, with Dean’s free-form blowing taking on a more prominent role. Wyatt, on the other hand, simply played drums and left the band after its release.

The story of Soft Machine, in fact, is one of constant personnel changes, as meticulously documented by Graham Bennett in his book about the band. Ratledge, the last remaining member of both the original band and “Third” lineup, departed in 1975, but Soft Machine kept going until the early ’80s.

In addition to the albums released during the band’s existence, a wide assortment of archival recordings are available, primarily issued by Cuneiform Records.

As for original vinyl copies, you might have to look a bit further than your friend’s brother’s record collection.

  1. Mike Bradwell says:

    The live sessions, such as rthose culled from BBC broadcasts really augment the Machine’s studio output. A recent favorite is the ’73 lineup playing a jazz workshop in Hamburg, Germany.

  2. harryLfunk says:

    That one is enjoyable! I also like the “Floating World Live” album from Germany in 1975, featuring Allan Holdsworth and Mike Ratledge nearing the end of his stint with the band.