Soft Machine: Live In 1970

Five-disc vinyl reissue: classic-era Softs, less-than-classic sound.

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It’s a good time to be a Soft Machine fan.

Despite their gradual dissolution in the late 70s, the group’s stock has never been higher thanks to a steady stream of archive recordings that keep surfacing. Some releases, such as the newly unearthed Switzerland 1974 (Cuneiform) shed much-needed light on a line-up that was perhaps scantily documented at the time. This stunning gig, featuring Allan Holdsworth, will be explored in greater detail in the next issue of Prog. Other historical releases, such as the two bootleg gigs presented on Live In 1970, have been around for several years. Well known to Soft Machine collectors, they’ve now been repackaged into a quintuple LP set, hitching a ride with the burgeoning vinyl bandwagon.

It says something about the open-minded musical times that when Softs played Ronnie Scott’s in April 1970, they shared the bill with Loudon Wainwright III and, at a different end of the spectrum, classical guitarist John Williams. As a unit, Mike Ratledge, Hugh Hopper, Robert Wyatt and Elton Dean were at the peak of their creative powers. Ten days prior to the bootlegged appearance that takes up discs one and two here, they’d started recording their double-album masterpiece, Third. The proximity of that benchmark alone renders this gig of interest.

Although the music comes at the listener through a narrow funnel of hiss and compression, once your ears acclimatise, the frenetic velocity at which the band hurtle through tracks like Slightly All The Time and Esther’s Nose Job makes this a raw but nevertheless thrilling experience that just about transcends the mangled, low-grade audio quality.

With numerous tracks steamrollered into one continuous performance, the Ronnie Scott’s set and an earlier show in the Netherlands (captured on LPs three to five) possess a fearless quality when it comes to writing and execution. Though broadly similar in content to the Ronnie Scott’s show, the Breda gig benefits from improved sound and sax/flautist Lyn Dobson guesting alongside Dean. His presence in the short-lived quintet edition adds strength and definition to the brutal architecture of Facelift, one of the group’s most challenging and uncompromising edifices.

The historical value of these recordings is undoubted. However, if you already own the Voiceprint-issued Somewhere In Soho and Breda Reactor CDs from 2004, beyond the novelty of playing the same sets spread across five LPs, this one is strictly for hardcore completists only.

Sid Smith

Sid's feature articles and reviews have appeared in numerous publications including Prog, Classic Rock, Record Collector, Q, Mojo and Uncut. A full-time freelance writer with hundreds of sleevenotes and essays for both indie and major record labels to his credit, his book, In The Court Of King Crimson, an acclaimed biography of King Crimson, was substantially revised and expanded in 2019 to coincide with the band’s 50th Anniversary. Alongside appearances on radio and TV, he has lectured on jazz and progressive music in the UK and Europe.  

A resident of Whitley Bay in north-east England, he spends far too much time posting photographs of LPs he's listening to on Twitter and Facebook.