Friday, February 03, 2006

Out-Bloody Rageous by Graham Bennett

A Band Of Two Halves...

The short version is that Graham Bennett’s book is an indispensable guide to one of the most intriguing and largely underwritten experimental pop / rock / jazz / jazz-rock outfits ever to have trodden the boards.

The longer version goes like this.

Bennett makes no apologies that he approaches his subject from a rock perspective and this he does with considerable success. His detailed account of middle-class bohemian post-war life in England is first rate and authoritative. The cultural and social milieu is lovingly documented and the names of Wellington House, Tanglewood, Deya, UFO, Burroughs, West Dulwich, Wilde Flowers et al glitter brightly in the firmament of the Canterbury sound just as they should.

Similarly, the excitement of the period and the early recordings are explored, investigated and assessed in a clean style which clearly transmits the author’s enthusiasm for that era

It’s when the band part company with Robert Wyatt and Elton Dean that Bennett’s account begins to loses some of the heat he has been careful to generate. If the early Wyatt-era Soft Machine is portrayed in loving and heroic terms, the latter part of the story has an equivocal, pragmatic feel to it in places.

It barely alludes to the creative crisis which gripped the band between Fourth and Six, presenting it more as a series of relatively benign comings and goings rather than the artistic watershed that radically redefined who and what Soft Machine was. As a principal composer, Ratledge was by now largely a spent force yet had paradoxically rejected the moves towards a freer playing style which resulted in the sacking of drummer Phil Howard and in turn precipitated Elton Dean’s departure.

It is Ratledge’s decline as a writer that is the most important factor that led to the recruitment of Karl Jenkins rather than the need to bring in a new soloist.

There must have been a dozen soloists who could have filled Elton Dean’s shoes at the time. What was needed was someone to come up with the tunes to keep the Machine ticking over and it was, rather than Jenkins’ capacity as a soloist, that attracted Ratledge’s eye and ear. With Hopper sulking on the sidelines, the good ship Soft Machine had badly run aground. Jenkins wasn’t so much a new member of the crew but rather the lifeboat for those floundering out at sea.

Jenkins himself has always been clear about his limitations as a soloist but what he did have in spades though was a talent for riff-based composition. He came to dominate Soft Machine so quickly was because there was precious little else on the table from its original members.

Whether the absence of detailed commentary about Jenkins’ tracks is due to the lack of participation by their composer or indeed the preference of the author is unclear, but it does flaw the direction of the narrative at certain points.

For example, an important signature composition such as The Soft Weed Factor (from Six) is dealt with in a mere seven lines (and without reference to John Barth’s novel on which the title is a pun), which given its importance as the future template of the band’s sound seems scant compared to the degree of space spent referencing 70s TV comedy team, The Goodies whose input and influence is at best tenuous.

In the blurb on the jacket Bennett is cited as having “witnessed many of Soft Machine’s concerts in their peak years”, implying perhaps that by the time Jenkins joined, the band had seen better days. In reality it was a completely different beast compared to the avant-pop of 60s London and needs to be assessed on its own terms rather than as a terminal adjunct to rock group gone wrong.

Viewed another way this period was something of a renaissance for the jazz-rock version of Softs; they topped the polls, played to packed, enthusiastic halls of weekend Hippies right up to the end. I know because between 1974 and their demise I was hitching up and down to gigs when they weren’t appearing in Newcastle.

Bennett makes the point that Soft Machine’s commercial success ended after Third but emerging from the creative doldrums and personnel difficulties characterised in the Fourth and Six period was a music that was intelligent, visceral and on the concert platform packed a punch not quite conveyed by the albums of the day. Like its 60s precursor this has only recently begun to be fully appreciated with the release of many archive recordings not available to the listening community at the time.

None of these observations should detract from Bennett’s considerable achievement in having written this book nor imply that his assessments of the post-Wyatt period are necessarily flawed. He is right to point out the many shortcomings which occurred under Jenkins’ stewardship such as the pale disco filler of Soft Space and the entire Land of Cockayne debacle.

However, those later chapters do lack the analytical clout and weight of the earlier sections, where his clarity and command of 60s Softs adds significant and complimentary depth to Mike King’s Wyatt-centric account of the same period, Wrong Movements.


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