Soft Machine: Turns On

Formative rackets from Ayers, Wyatt and co.

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Subtitled An Early Collection, this release gathers up two-and-a-half hours of demos and live recordings which first emerged on two separate albums in 2001. It’s an insight into the sketchy workings of the Canterbury eccentrics in the run-up to their 1968 debut album.

Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers and Mike Ratledge are augmented by Daevid Allen’s vocals and guitar on four tracks from 1967 (before he got distracted by the Gong show). The sound quality is mostly atrocious. Any merits lie in its status as an historical document and its revelations as to how the increasingly abstract band later went about colouring in these drafts.

Live music venues in London (Middle Earth, The Speakeasy), Amsterdam and Iowa were evidently open-minded to alternative hippie types fathoming what psychedelic jazz rock and proto-prog were as they went along. Lullaby Letter, for example, falls somewhere between keyboard soundcheck and rumble of thunder. Yet a plaintive croon or yelp from Ayers or Wyatt occasionally pierces the murk, and by the time we reach Joy Of A Toy or Esther’s Nose Job there are hints of method in their radical madness.

Much of this echoes Beefheart banging bin lids in an abattoir. Thus: one for aficionados only.

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.