Back to reviews index

Soft Machine

Sad scene say Softs

Melody Maker, July 6, 1974

Karl Dallas

SOFT Machine are probably unique in the way that they can be so many different things to so many different people, without changing their music one iota: a rock band to rock fans, jazzmen to Jazz people, and can even play in occasional classical concerts of avant garde music.

Mike Ratledge has always been a somewhat jazz-tinged rock musician, right from the early days when the influence of Cecil Taylor could be heard strongly in his playing, when jazz was really a dirty word. On the other hand, Karl Jenkins served his apprenticeship in jazz bands like Nucleus.

But new boy Allan Holdsworth is more of a rocker - even though some would detect strong jazz influences in Jon Hiseman's Tempest, with which Allan played before joining the Softs.

"I think it's a bit sad, the jazz scene, he [Allan?]said, "because there're so many incredible musicians here that don't get the opportunity to play in bands together because of the problem of work. Because most of the jazz musicians have to do other things to make a living, it cuts down the opportunities to form bands and play together regularly, which It's really all about.

"It's a bit almost hopeless just having a blow which is virtually what happens with most jazz players.

"I've never been much into jazz before, which is strange. I just got into it playing with jazz musicians since I came to London. But I've always liked jazz.

"There's a difference in attitude, because of the way they work. Rock musicians tend to work at a particular thing, like a band for example. Rock musicians tend to rehearse day in day out trying to get a band together. Like they throw a lot of thing; away to do certain other things.

"Whereas jazz musicians, generalising, they tend to do lots of other little things to get the money together. I think it's partly economic, but partly the musicians are to blame. Rock players are really keen and willing to stick out with one band and get that thing together whereas jazz musicians can't seem to point themselves in any one direction."

"There's far more loyalty in rock," said Jenkins.

But there's an economic situation," pointed out Ratledge. "If you've got a band that doesn't work or can't got work, then it's very hard to maintain any loyalty to it. It's just not economically viable, because it can't really exist until it is working a lot."

"Rock musicians will swallow some gigs for money," said Holdsworth, "in order to do things that are less profitable but more what they'd like to do. Jazz musicians wouldn't do that."

Of course, improvisation - which is something the most advanced rock groups have in common with jazz. and which even the tyro lead guitarist tries to get his fingers round - is not restricted to jazz and rock. And not all jazz is improvised - for instance, strict New Orleans jazz is fairly unimprovised.

I asked the three Softs; if they felt there was a different approach to improvisation between a rock group and a jazz band - as different, for instance, as classical improvisation is from a jazz solo.

"Some groups that were originally jazz groups are much closer to a rock format now, and some rock groups are getting closer to jazz,'' said Ratledge. "There's a wide variety of styles in both fields." The obvious example of the former is Miles Davis.

"I don't think Miles has changed that much, individually." said Jenkins. "I don't think his actual playing has changed radically, has it? Just the rhythm section's different."

How about Ratledge's playing? Has that changed over the years, as the Softs have become less of a St Trop cult band, closer to jazz, freed from the somewhat looney, surreal atmosphere that surrounded them in the days of Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt?

"I don't think my overall style of improvising has changed," he said. "I mean the general form of the way I play remains the same. But obviously, with changes in the band you try to relate to everybody who's in the band."

On the other hand, while Karl Jenkins didn't change that much when he moved from jazz to a sort of rock in the Softs, his enthusiasm for solos has certainly lessened.

"I've become less interested in soloing. I'm more interested in writing. Over the past two bands I've played with I've always had as much of my work performed as I've wanted. It's just that I've got more interested in it and I prefer doing it."

The addition of Allan Holdsworth's guitar and violin, with the intriguing possibility of the first vocals in the Softs' sound for many years, has broadened the band's outlook considerably.

"It's a lot more exciting now," said Jenkins, "that's just one bonus from Allan joining. Apart from the way he plays, which is very exciting, the actual sound of the music is fuller. The sound of the guitar adds a lot to our compositions when we do certain patterns and riffs, this kind of thing. It sounds more aggressive.

"He also plays violin and hopefully, acoustic guitar and he sings a little, We do one thing at the moment which is like a wordless tune, just using the voice as an instrument, just a written melody which he sings. We may do more things like that."

Mentioning other kinds of music to the Softs I was surprised to hear Karl Jenkins come out as a keen fan of Tamla pop.

"It's just good, that's all you can say about it, Marvin Gaye, people like that, just good quality music.

"There's no direct relationship between that and our music that I can think of apart from rhythmically where it's kind of similar. But I think we're more akin to that tradition than that English heavy rhythm."

Transcribed by Per Stornes
Updated: March 1, 2001
Scheduled update: None

Back to the top of the page