The “Listen Again” series was popular enough that your favorite record reviewer decided to follow the lead of some Los Angeles TV executives and do a spin-off. In this series we examine previously-released albums BUT the platters we’ll peruse in this particular series will be (Rolling Stone magazine) FIVE-STAR albums. This edition of the series focuses on Soft Machine’s Third.
Soft Machine was a Brit band from Canterbury. It was one of the most musically accomplished and prestigious bands to come out of the UK in the 1960s. They melded classical, jazz and rock music styles into a largely noncommercial, prefusion music.
The band was founded in 1966 by Robert Wyatt (drums and vocals), Kevin Ayers (bass, guitar and vocals), Daevid Allen (guitar), Mike Ratledge (organ) and for a very brief time American Larry Nowlin (guitar). They took their name from the title of the novel The Soft Machine by William S. Burroughs. This group was one of the well-known, central bands in the Canterbury scene.
They were also one of the groups who are credited with pioneering the prog rock genre. Although their commercial success was very limited, today they are considered to be one of the most influential groups of their time as well as one of the most influential underground bands. While Rolling Stone only gave the third record a five-star ranking, they also acknowledged that the group’s first three LPs are landmarks in experimental music.
In April of 1970 the band headed into the studio to record what would become their most critically-acclaimed album, Third. The line-up at the time included Ratledge (Hohner Pianet, Lowrey organ and piano), Hugh Hopper (bass), Wyatt (drums, vocals, uncredited Hammond Organ, Hohner Pianet and piano) and the newest member Elton Dean (alto saxophone and saxello).
Third, their follow-up to Volume Two, would be a double album with a running time of over 75 minutes. Each side would consist of but one long composition. The work opens with a Hopper composition titled “Facelift”.
“Facelift” features the work of former band member Lyn Dobson. Dobson plays soprano saxophone and flute and was actually recorded while he was still a full member of the group which was then a quintet. The bulk of this one is a live recording with other segments edited in various ways and added in later. At one point, the listener can hear two different versions of the same riff—one live and one studio—simultaneously and backwards.
The second side contains Ratledge’s “Slightly All the Time”. It’s highlighted by Jimmy Hastings on flute and bass clarinet. The piece contains subsections that are sometimes recognized and other times not depending on the specific playlist and/or version of the work.
The subsections include: Hopper’s “Noisette”, “Backwards” by Ratledge, “Noisette Reprise” also by Hopper and Ratledge’s “Slightly All the Time (reprise)”. Some versions also list Hopper’s “Mousetrap” and “Mousetrap (reprise). (This would, over the years following its release and re-issue some confusion. In fact, “Mousetrap” originally appeared in a radio broadcast in 1969 the year before the release of the album and would also be issued later on a compilation several years later.) “Slightly All the Time”, however, remains one of the two most straightforward tracks on the album musically-speaking and was once used as the background for the “Realities” news radio show in the 1970s.
The second record opens with Wyatt’s masterpiece “Moon in June”. This is the last tune they ever recorded that wasn’t an instrumental. It was also their final pre-jazz, prog rock work.
Dean sat this one out and additionally Wyatt played bass on this track. The composition has three parts. The first is comprised of vocal themes from previous material and demos Wyatt recorded in 1968.
The second is an instrumental that is typical of the band’s collective jazz-rock experimentation. Interestingly, the band wasn’t too interested in this track and most of the instrumental parts were overdubbed which is one reason why Hopper’s bass is largely absent. The third part contains some noteworthy contributions from free-jazz violinist Rab Spall. Wyatt’s scat vocals actually include partial covers of a couple of songs by Kevin Ayers: Singing a Song in the Morning” and “Clarence In Wonderland”.
The closing cut is “Out-Bloody-Rageous” by Ratledge. It features Nick Evans on trombone. Evans had been a member of the group during its very short period as a septet. It is one of the only straightforward tracks on the entire album. (The new jazz sound here helped set the tone for the next couple of albums.)
The editing and production technique used on this project is raw and unpolished especially on the first side. It includes tape hiss and low fidelity monophonic sound. Some tracks include edits that are out of tune with each other. While recording industry standards were not as they are today, this effect may very well have been due to the band’s combining collages and home recordings with studio recordings done at IBC Studios, a favorite of the Bee Gees and The Who.
The album was completed that spring and released that summer (1970) on the CBS label in the UK and the Columbia label in the US. (The later re-issue would be released on the Sony BMG label.) Third was their most major shift in musical genre moving them from psychedelic music in the beginning to the then-emerging jazz fusion along the lines of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew which had come out only a few months before they began to work on the album.
The album would not be forgotten in the new millennium. In fact, in 2005 publications such as Q & Mojo Classic Special Edition Pink Floyd & The Story of Prog Rock it would be ranked at number 20 in a list of “40 Cosmic Rock Albums”. A couple years later (2007) the platter would be re-mastered and re-issued on CD along with a second disc of live material.
The re-issue would include the following live cuts: “Out-Bloody-Rageous” and “Facelift”. It also included a five-part performance off of the band’ second album, Volume Two, titled “Esther’s Nose Job”. The first four parts are Ratledge compositions: “Pig”, “Orange Skin Food”, “A Door Opens and Closes” and “Pigling Bland”. The final section was co-written with Hopper and Wyatt and titled “10:30 Returns to the Bedroom”.
The albumfomented an instrumental interlace that was previously unheard in a rock context. In fact, at one point, four different horn lines seem to race each other while a twisted rhythm section moves it along like some curious, crazy clockwork. Indeed, Soft Machine’s Third/Col.CG-30339, under Wyatt’s conceptual reins, rises far above the less inspired noodling numbers that later gave this type of music a bad name.
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.