those historical groups of little financial success, the Soft Machine
are maybe the ones who have benefited the most from the existence of
an audience with very good memory and from the introduction of those
noise-removing tools that make it possible to sell as good-sounding
CDs those old tapes that back in the old days would have had only a
very limited circulation inside the bootleg circuit. Sure, it's funny
to notice how nowadays the number of posthumous releases is at the very
least equal to the number of their official studio albums - we're obviously
talking about those albums "that count" (say, up to Fifth?),
which is a quite different proposition than those up to their official
split; and all are albums that, for one reason or another, it's quite
easy to suggest as required listening.
I'm not mistaken, the CD-era trend started with Live At The Proms 1970
(released in 1988), which was followed by the double album The Peel
Sessions, which offered rare episodes and a very good sound. While the
latter's graphic presentation was very good when it came to pictures,
the album was ultimately on the elusive side when it came to names -
who, when? - even if the attentive fan had no trouble spotting in the
tracks As If and Drop a drum style that was definitely not Wyatt's.
Records is now presenting those materials (which come from BBC radio
sessions) along with a lot of unreleased stuff. 1967 - 1971 is their
first double album, which covers the Wyatt era, while another album
- not surprisingly titled 1971 - 1973 - will present the rest of the
story and offer a truckload of unreleased tracks. Nice graphics and
sound, full credits, (brief) sleevenotes by Hugh Hopper and Kevin Ayers,
a few nice pictures, a project which had the blessing of those involved.
The album can quite well function as an introduction to the band for
those still unaware (just add the absolutely indispensable Vol. II).
But I'm sure the long-time fan is asking: what's inside?
have the recordings of the trio (Hugh Hopper, Mike Ratledge, Robert
Wyatt) with Brian Hopper on saxophone; those nice septet recordings
- the four winds line-up - from '69; the trio version of The Moon In
June; the material from Third as played by the quartet with Elton Dean
on saxophones from '70; and Virtually and Neo-Caliban Grides, both from
about unreleased tracks? Opening the first CD are five tracks by the
Kevin Ayers, Ratledge and Wyatt trio from December 1967 which up to
now had been only available on bootlegs: well remastered by Michael
King, these songs take us back to the bittersweet, "English"
climates of their first album - an album that was mostly listened to
retrospectively, and not so positively judged, in a period when the
music of the group had changed quite dramatically, but to which the
passing of time (and the evolution of music?) has conferred a pleasantly
naïve patina. Clarence In Wonderland ended up on Ayers's second
solo album (Shooting At The Moon), We Know What You Mean is a nice unreleased
song, Certain Kind, Hope For Happiness and Lullaby Letter were included
on the first album. Then, we have a very beautiful version - only piano
and vocals! - of Wyatt's Instant Pussy, which was to be featured in
a different version on Matching Mole's first. On the second CD we have
a very long version (twelve minutes) of Fletcher's Blemish by Dean which
is pretty different from those I've listened to (Ratledge is also on
piano, an instrument that he didn't play much, in the studio or live);
and then we have a medley of Eamonn Andrews/All White. Is it enough?
Beppe Colli 2003
| March 15, 2003