Soft Machine: Live 1970 (1998)
Between Cuneiform Records and the Voiceprint/Blueprint label, Soft Machine fans have been exposed to a diversity of archival live material. Some of it may be of a decidedly lo-fi quality, but the performances and contexts far outweigh any sonic deficiencies. These live performances demonstrate how rapidly Soft Machine, through a plethora of personnel changes, evolved from a psychedelic pop band in '68 to an outstanding jazz rock ensemble in '70, a more free jazz outfit in '71/'72, and finally a more fusion-oriented group in the mid-'70s. Every period has its attractions, and what Cuneiform and Voiceprint/Blueprint have done is to release documentation of versions of a band which changed so rapidly that many of its incarnations were not captured on its studio recordings.
Which brings us to Live 1970 , a mixed bag from Blueprint that captures portions of two shows. The first, and most poorly-recorded, of the two segments finds the trio of keyboardist Mike Ratledge, bassist Hugh Hopper and drummer/vocalist Robert Wyatt augmented by saxophonist Lyn Dobson. Dobson played in the extended seven-piece band that would record Third and also in a short-lived five-piece along with saxophonist Elton Dean, but for these two tracks, for reasons unknown, Dean is absent, leaving the group in a rare quartet format. The two tracks, excerpts from Hopper's "Facelift" and Wyatt's "Moon in June," find Dobson to be at once a more conventional player than Dean, while at the same time more outrageous in his own way.
But the meat of this disc is the better-recorded segment from another European date that features the classic Soft Machine lineup of Ratledge, Hopper, Wyatt and Dean. While no date is provided, this appears to be early material. Full-length versions of Ratledge's jazz-rock epic "Out-Bloody-Rageous" and Hopper's more abstruse "Facelift," albeit shorter than the versions that would ultimately surface on Third , demonstrate the stylistic push-and-pull from the various corners of the band that would make them at once so compelling and inherently short-lived. But at this early point in their existence this give-and-take creates an incredible sense of musical tension that makes them as much of a ground-breaking group as any of their American counterparts, including Miles Davis. It is no surprise that Third is considered in the same breath as Bitches Brew , and these performances of "Out-Bloody-Rageous" and "Facelift" demonstrate just why that is so.
But what distinguishes this recording from some of the other archival Soft Machine live shows is the opportunity to hear the quartet perform Ratledge's medley of "Pig," "Orange Skin Food," "A Door Opens and Closes," and "10.30 Returns to the Bedroom," from Volume Two. With Dean in tow these pieces take on a freer complexion, highlighting that this version of Soft Machine, even in its early stages, was a group like no other. It blended a certain European Dada-ist sensibility with rock and jazz complexions, creating a sound that would continue to be influential over thirty years later.
Track Listing: Facelift (excerpt); Moon in June (excerpt); Out-Bloody-Rageous; Facelift; Pig; Orange Skin Food; A Door Opens and Closes; 10.30 Returns to the Bedroom
Personnel: Mike Ratledge (keyboards), Hugh Hopper (bass), Robert Wyatt (drums, voice), Lyn Dobson (saxes on "Facelift excerpt," "Moon in June excerpt"), Elton Dean (saxes on all else)