Soft Machine were never a commercial enterprise and indeed still remain unknown even to many listeners who came of age during the late '60s and early '70s, when the group was at its peak. In their own way, however, they were one of the more influential bands of their era, and certainly one of the most influential underground ones. One of the original British psychedelic groups, they were also instrumental in the birth of both progressive rock and jazz-rock. They were also the central foundation of the family tree of the "Canterbury Scene" of British progressive rock acts, a movement that also included Caravan, Gong, Matching Mole, Hatfield and the North, and National Health, not to mention the distinguished pop music careers of founding members Robert Wyatt and Kevin Ayers and the jazz and jazz-rock explorations of saxophonist Elton Dean and bassist Hugh Hopper.
Considering their well-known experimental and avant-garde leanings, the roots of Soft Machine were in some respects surprisingly conventional. In the mid-'60s, Wyatt sang and drummed with the Wilde Flowers, a Canterbury group that played more or less conventional pop and soul covers of the day. Future Soft Machine members Ayers and Hopper would also pass through the Wilde Flowers, whose original material began to reflect an odd sensibility, cultivated by their highly educated backgrounds and a passion for improvised jazz. In 1966, Wyatt teamed up with bassist/singer Ayers, keyboardist Mike Ratledge, and Australian guitarist Daevid Allen to form the first lineup of Soft Machine.
This incarnation of the group, along with Pink Floyd and Tomorrow, were the very first underground psychedelic bands in Britain, and quickly became well loved in the burgeoning London psychedelic underground. Their first recordings (many of which only surfaced years later on compilations of 1967 demos) were by far their most pop-oriented, which doesn't mean they weren't exciting or devoid of experimental elements. Surreal wordplay and unusually (for rock) complex instrumental interplay gave an innovative edge to their ebullient early psychedelic outings. They only managed to cut one (very good) single, though, which flopped. Allen, the weirdest of a colorful group of characters, had to leave the band when he was refused reentry into the U.K. after a stint in France, due to the expiration of his visa.
The remaining trio recorded its first proper album, Soft Machine [Volume One], for ABC/Probe in 1968. The considerable melodic elements and vocal harmonies of their 1967 recordings were now giving way to more challenging, artier postures that sought -- sometimes successfully, sometimes not -- to meld the energy of psychedelic rock with the improvisational pulse of jazz. The Softs were taken on by Jimi Hendrix's management, leading to grueling stints supporting the Jimi Hendrix Experience on their 1968 American tours. Because of this, the group at this point was probably more well-known in the U.S. than in its homeland. In fact, the debut LP was only issued, oddly, in the States. For a couple of months in 1968, strangely enough, Soft Machine became a quartet again with the addition of future Police guitarist Andy Summers, although that didn't work out, and they soon reverted to a trio. The punishing tours took their toll on the group, and Ayers had left by the end of 1968, to be replaced by Wyatt's old chum Hugh Hopper.
Their second ABC/Probe album, Volume Two (1969), further submerged the band's pop elements in favor of extended jazzy compositions, with an increasingly lesser reliance on lyrics and vocals. Ratledge's buzzy organ, Hopper’s fuzz bass, and Wyatt's pummeling, imaginative drumming and scat vocals paced the band on material that became increasingly whimsical and surrealistic, if increasingly inaccessible to the pop/rock audience. For the 1970 double-LP opus Third, their first album for Columbia, they went even further in these directions, expanding to a seven-piece by adding a horn section. This record virtually dispensed with vocals -- aside from Wyatt's side-long "Moon in June" -- and conventional rock songs entirely, and is considered a landmark by both progressive rock and jazz-rock aficionados (upon its release, the album was hailed as a popular music milestone by The Village Voice), though it was too oblique for some rock listeners. Notably, Third marked the first appearance on a Softs disc by saxophonist Elton Dean, whose contributions on alto and saxello would, along with Ratledge's fuzz organ and Hopper's fuzz bass, become key elements of the band's signature instrumental sound.
Soft Machine couldn't afford to continue to support a seven-member lineup, and scaled back to what was later deemed by some listeners to be "the classic quartet" -- Ratledge, Wyatt, Hopper, and Dean -- for 1971's Fourth (also on Columbia), although the group was augmented by a number of guest musicians, including bassist Roy Babbington, who would become a permanent bandmember later. Wyatt left by the end of 1971, briefly leading the similar Matching Mole, and then establishing a long-running solo career. In doing so he was following the path of Kevin Ayers, who already had several solo albums to his credit by the early '70s; Daevid Allen, for his part, had become a principal of Gong, one of the most prominent and enigmatic '70s progressive rock bands (which continued in various incarnations into the 21st century).
Meanwhile, as of 1972 saxophonist Dean was pulling the band in a free jazz, more fully improvised direction, which led to the brief appearance of Phil Howard as drummer on the first side of that year's Fifth (the third Soft Machine album on Columbia). However, Ratledge and Hopper prevailed in favor of John Marshall as a replacement for Howard, and Marshall appears as drummer on the second side of Fifth and all the Soft Machine albums to follow. Dean also left by 1973's Columbia double LP Six (one disc live, and one recorded in the studio), replaced by keyboardist/reedman/composer Karl Jenkins. Hopper would be next to leave, with Babbington taking his place on bass, and by then (the release of 1973's Seven, Soft Machine's final Columbia album before signing with Harvest) Ratledge was the last original member in the band. (In fact, since Marshall, Jenkins, and Babbington were all former members of Nucleus, the group had evolved into a curious mix of three-fourths Nucleus and one-fourth Soft Machine.)
By now, Ratledge himself was beginning to lose interest during the band's so-called fusion years, and as Jenkins began focusing more exclusively on keyboards and dropping his reeds during the mid-'70s, Ratledge's retreat became all the more inevitable. The soloing spotlight shifted to a new recruit, guitarist Allan Holdsworth, on the group's 1975 Harvest debut, Bundles, and then guitarist John Etheridge (who replaced Holdsworth in April 1975) on the following year's Harvest follow-up, Softs -- on which Ratledge was relegated to "guest" status after departing the group in early 1976 when that album's recording sessions were underway. The band now known as Soft Machine -- but with no original members whatsoever -- still managed a decent fusion-oriented album with the 1978 Harvest-issued Alive and Well: Recorded in Paris, but lackluster efforts like 1981’s Land of Cockayne (featuring Jack Bruce on bass!) and 1994's Rubber Riff (actually a '70s-era album of Jenkins library music rebranded as Soft Machine) were truly Soft Machine in name only.
The following decades would see Elton Dean and Hugh Hopper particularly willing to continue Soft Machine-related journeys in groups like Soft Heap, Soft Works, and Soft Machine Legacy, although their deaths in the 2000s -- Dean in 2006 and Hopper in 2009 -- seemed to put a final end to the group's jazz-rock thread. Nevertheless, as of 2010 drummer Marshall, guitarist Etheridge, and bassist Babbington (all of whom appeared on Softs in 1976) could be heard along with former Gong reedman Theo Travis on the Soft Machine Legacy album Live Adventures, released by the MoonJune label and featuring an abbreviated version of Hopper's "Facelift," the album-opening track from the Softs' heralded 1970 Columbia double LP Third. And thanks to labels such as Cuneiform and Voiceprint, many archival recordings of the various incarnations of Soft Machine continued to be released into the 21st century. Meanwhile, of the band's original members, Daevid Allen and Robert Wyatt remained involved with various music-making projects while Mike Ratledge had long since disappeared from the public eye. Kevin Ayers released a well-received solo album, The Unfairground, in 2007, but his later years were largely spent in seclusion in the south of France; he died at home in Montolieu, France in February 2013 at the age of 68. ~ Richie Unterberger & Dave Lynch, Rovi