by Vernon Fitch
One of the many bands to come out of the London underground scene in the late 1960s were the Soft Machine. Formed by former members of the Wilde Flowers, the Soft Machine first made their appearance in August 1966, and played at many of the London underground scenes like the UFO Club and the Roundhouse. It was only natural that they made the acquaintance of their contemporaries, the Pink Floyd, who were also a part of the London underground.
Robert Wyatt, the first drummer of the Soft Machine, gave some insight into those early days of the underground in an interview for the BBC show "The Sounds of a City." He recalled, "I remember the first gig at the Roundhouse, which was, I think, primarily a Floyd gig. But we were all on as well. We tended to find ourselves playing the same places, because neither of us played the kind of music that fit in anywhere else. So we would be, sort of, launched into these things. And the Roundhouse, then, was a wonderful place. It was before the Arts Council had discovered it and tartered it up. It was just a great, sort of, warehouse. You could project anything you liked onto it. And people did. And Mark Boyle took ideas from there for his light shows. He did most of the light shows in the UFO Club afterwards." This, then, was the scene that both the Pink Floyd and the Soft Machine were playing in. Both were experimenting with new ideas and stretching the boundaries of the, then, rock establishment. It's no wonder that they became friends and took to helping each other out at various critical periods of each others existence.
In the early years, the Soft Machine was comprised of Robert Wyatt on drums, Mike Ratledge on keyboards, Kevin Ayers on bass, and Daevid Allen on guitar. This version of the Soft Machine flourished during the time of the Syd Barrett Pink Floyd and, like the Barrett Floyd, had one principal songwriter, who was Kevin Ayers. Kevin's songs comprised most of the first Soft Machine album, which was released in December 1968. The tunes on the album were twisted pop ditties about the Joy of a Toy or how you should Hope for Happiness. This album was the only one released by the Kevin Ayers Soft Machine since Kevin left shortly afterwards to pursue a solo career. He was replaced by Hugh Hopper. (Note: There has been another album released of the Kevin Ayer's Soft Machine, but it was made from early demo tapes of the band when Daevid Allen was with them. The band never intended these tapes for release and many of the songs are very rough and unfinished. However, I would still recommend it for an insight into those early years with Daevid Allen, as Daevid did not appear on the first official Soft Machine album).
After Kevin Ayers left, the band changed directions, moving away from the short pop tunes and into longer improvised pieces, just as the Pink Floyd were doing. However, the difference between the direction of the Pink Floyd and the Soft Machine at this point was that the Soft Machine pursued more of a jazz direction, using very unusual and complicated time signatures, while the Floyd expressed themselves using a basic 4/4 time signature. These different directions can be traced back to the roots of both bands, the Floyd being rhythm and blues oriented and the Soft Machine basing their ideas around jazz rhythms. Robert Wyatt explained some of this in his recent BBC interview. He said, "The businessmen didn't know what to make of us at all. And they would think `you cant make an LP until you've had a hit single.' And we didn't know about it, because all the jazz records we had, they made LPs straight away... The kind of music we listened to never appeared in any hit parade." He went on further to explain how he thought the Pink Floyd's influences served them better in the beginning: "I think the Floyd just got it absolutely right at that time (the late sixties) because I think they were closer to rock when they started. They played sort of rhythm and blues and, as far as I know, their name is based on King Floyd. Syd Barrett was actually much more at home in rhythm and blues related music. So they had a sense of pop music greater than ours anyway. `See Emily Play' and `Arnold Layne' were great pop records, even by the standards of people at that time who were only making great pop records and couldn't do anything else. Their formula could be reduced to a single much more easily. Ours just couldn't, really."
However, although both bands pursued different directions, it's not to say that they ignored other styles. One only has to listen to Pink Floyd's "A Saucerful of Secrets" to hear avant garde jazz at its best. And let's not forget that Pink Floyd's hit single "Money" was written in the jazz time signature of 7/4.
As both bands changed in the seventies, they grew into businesses and occupied their own worlds. This was especially true of the Pink Floyd, who played entire concerts by themselves without the need of back up bands. As a result, they grew apart from other bands in the business. However, their ties with the early members of the Soft Machine remained. When Robert Wyatt had a near-fatal accident in 1973, the Pink Floyd made a special appearance to play a benefit concert for Robert on November 4, 1973. They played two sets, and for these shows they had a back up band: The Soft Machine. The shows raised over 10,000 pounds for Robert's hospitalization. The accident left him paralyzed from the waist down, ending his career as a drummer. However, Robert made a comeback as a keyboardist in 1974. And the drummer that he chose to use as his own replacement at his reappearance concert was Nick Mason. Nick also produced Robert's single "I'm a Believer" and his album "Rock Bottom." Later, Nick also produced the single "Yesterday Man" for Robert, and helped on his next record "Ruth is Stranger Than Richard."
In 1976, Nick and Robert again teamed up on the album "The Hapless Child." They both did vocals for the record and Nick helped produce it. Although this was not a Robert Wyatt album as such (it was written by Michael Mantler and Edward Gorey), I'm sure Nick and Robert enjoyed working together on the project.
When Nick Mason put out his own solo album in 1981, it was to be expected that Robert Wyatt would be on it. Nick's album "Fictitious Sports" is as much a Robert Wyatt album as it is a Nick Mason album, with Robert singing lead vocals and performing songs influenced more by the Soft Machine's style than by the Pink Floyd. It was a fantastic collaboration in the jazz-rock vein, and one can only hope for more records like this one. In this writers opinion, "Fictitious Sports" is the best solo effort by any member of the Pink Floyd, other than the early Syd Barrett solos.
Speaking of Syd Barrett's solo albums, let's not forget that Robert Wyatt and the Soft Machine had a part in the making of "The Madcap Laughs." When the record company set a deadline for finishing the Madcap LP, the Pink Floyd decided to call on their friends, the Soft Machine, to help Syd finish the record on time. Although Robert Wyatt's vocals aren't to be heard on the record. his drumming is obvious on some of the songs. And one song in particular, namely "No Good Trying," has Syd backed by the Soft Machine. This song is a unique blend of the styles of the early Pink Floyd and the early Soft Machine. I just wish there were more collaborative efforts available.
It is interesting to note that Kevin Ayers did not play during the Madcap sessions. But Kevin was as much an admirer of Syd as any of the other members of the Soft Machine. In fact, Syd Barrett played lead guitar on Kevin's "Singing a Song in the Morning" single (although this particular version has yet to be released). And Kevin later wrote a song about Syd, namely "Oh! Wot a Dream" for his Bananamour" LP. Kevin was known to be one of Syd's dedicated fans and he even wrote letters to the Syd Barrett Appreciation Society. One of Kevin's letters was published in Terrapin magazine (#6) and offered people who wrote in to Blackhill Enterprises an insert for his Bananamour LP that included a rare photo of Syd. I have also heard the rumor that you can hear Syd's voice at the beginning of the song "Oleh Oleh Bandu Bandong" on Kevin's first solo LP, "Joy of a Toy."
Kevin Ayers isn't the only member of the Soft Machine to show his appreciation of Syd and the Floyd in song. One only has to listen to the Soft Machine's version of "The Moon in June" done for the BBC on June 10, 1969 (this version appears on the Soft Machine-Triple Echo set). One of the verses sung by Robert Wyatt goes "To all our mates like Kevin, Caravan and the old Pink Floyd, allow me to recommend Top Gear in spite of its' extraordinary name."
And more praise for the Pink Floyd is given by Daevid Allen on the cover of his "Magick Brother" album. On it is written "Whispering in the Ears of a silent Gong were Terry O'Really, Thelomius Sphere, The Oft So Machine, T. Lipp Brahmananda, Le Pink Floy, Bacho ..." There is no doubt of their influence on him. Daevid even mentioned Syd during his "Death of Rock" song during his Clockwork Band tour of 1980. Mourning the death of rock music, he said "Goodnight Syd Barrett, his mad cap put out his light." I was fortunate to meet Daevid during this tour and I asked him where he learned to play the fantastic glissando guitar technique he used in many of his songs. His reply was that Syd Barrett taught it to him! Even over a decade after knowing Syd, Daevid still acknowledges his influence.
I hope that this article will help you understand the relationship between the Pink Floyd and the Soft Machine, as well as their admiration and respect for each other. They both acknowledge each others music. So if you haven't checked out the Soft Machine yet, what are you waiting for? Save yourself.
Footnote: Ivor Truemen added that Daevid Allen once had a picture of Syd stuck on his amplifier during a tour of France "for inspiration."