NORMIE MONDAY ep. 24 - Flying Teapot
Hello music lovers. Thanks for stopping by for this week’s installment of Normie Monday, my weekly blog posting that focuses on reviewing music, movies, television, books, or whatever may be capturing my attention at the time. For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been spotlighting albums by Kevin Ayers, Soft Machine and Robert Wyatt, key releases of the Canterbury scene. This week, I’m going to take a look at Gong, the uber-trippy band formed by ex-Soft Machine member Daevid Allen, and the first installment of their “Radio Gnome Invisible” trilogy, 1973’s Flying Teapot.
Gong’s founder and leader, Daevid Allen, is a true original. Originally from Australia, he moved to Paris in the early 60’s where he absorbed the beat poetry, art, free jazz and avant-garde music of the Parisian bohemian culture. He later traveled to England where he started free jazz group the Daevid Allen Trio, which featured his landlord’s son on drums, a young Robert Wyatt.
By 1966, the two of them had teamed up with Kevin Ayers and Mike Ratledge of the then-recently defunct band The Wilde Flowers to form a new band, Soft Machine. This original four-man lineup of Soft Machine only released one single, 1967’s “Love Makes Sweet Music,” and embarked on one brief European tour. After the tour, Daevid Allen was denied re-entry into the U.K. because his visa had expired. He returned to Paris with his partner, poet Gilli Smyth, where they both took part in the 1968 student-led Paris protests.
After fleeing to Deia, Mallorca (a small coastal village near Spain), the two formed Gong with saxophonist/flautist Didier Malherbe, whom Allen claimed to have found living in a cave. The three recorded Gong’s debut album, 1970’s Magick Brother, with the help of several friends and session players. A more fleshed out band was assembled for 1971’s Camembert Electrique and 1972’s Continental Circus (a soundtrack album to the film of the same name). All three of these albums were released by French label BYG, and none of them had been released outside of France. But they had garnered the band enough attention to warrant them signing with the newly formed Virgin record label, which provided them worldwide distribution and greater financial resources.
By 1973, the lineup had come to include keyboardist and electronics expert Tim Blake, guitarists Steve Hillage and Christian Tritsch, bassist Francis Moze, drummer Laurie Allen and percussionist Rachid Houari, though all of the band members are given strange fake names in the album credits (for example; Allen became “Dingo Virgin,” Smyth became “The Good Witch Yoni” and Malherbe became “The Good Count Bloomdido Bad De Grass). The band set about recording Flying Teapot in the Virgin-owned Manor Studios in Oxfordshire.
With this album, Daevid Allen set about cementing the so-called “Gong mythology,” which had only previously been hinted at on previous albums. The mythology consists of a set of characters, themes and ideas (many of which are firmly rooted in Buddhist beliefs) that form an overarching narrative that is surreal and dreamy. Allen has said that philosopher Bertrand Russell’s celestial teapot theory (an analogy for God and religion) was a major influence on the concept and the lyrics. The core of the mythology is contained in Flying Teapot and its two followups, 1973’s Angel’s Egg and 1974’s You, all three of which make up the “Radio Gnome Invisible” trilogy. As the lyrics of the songs are not very descriptive (they are more abstract and symbolic), most of the narrative is not derived from the lyrics themselves but from Allen’s later explanations.
The album (and the trilogy in general) begins with the song “Radio Gnome Invisible.” It begins with some strange sound effects and odd vocal sounds. A delicate guitar soon emerges and the rhythm section comes in doing a sluggish polka-esque beat while the saxophone plays a gypsy melody. Many themes in this song have Eastern-European and Middle-Eastern influenced melodies. The music of this song alternates between delicate and driving at the drop of a hat. The lyrics tell of receiving telepathic messages from aliens and seeing teapots flying around in the sky. It is very surreal for sure, but the meaning is based on Russell’s teapot theory, which states that if he was to claim that a teapot was orbiting the sun, you’d have to take it as true because you can’t disprove it (an analogy to God).
The next song is the title track, “Flying Teapot,” one of the central songs of the album, and also the longest. It begins with a slow fade up of eerie synths, moaning saxophones and distant shrieking voices. It reminds me quite a bit of the middle section from Pink Floyd’s “Echoes.” A funky bass line emerges from the haze, joined promptly by drums. The funky feel is further explored as Allen softly sings about a guru that can teach you about love, read your mind and cure you with his laughter. Allen repeats the line, “Give him a bit of your love, you get it back later.” After this, the beat opens up a bit as Malherbe takes a ferocious sax solo. Hillage turns in some funky wah-guitar during this section as well. The sax solo ends as the keyboards and guitar swell up and the rhythm section crescendos.
The music dies down for a section only to reemerge with Allen repeatedly singing “Have a cup of tea, have another one.” The funky beat continues with swirling keyboards getting added along the way to create a psychedelic atmosphere. The sax whizzes around as a chorus of voices sing “Flying saucer, flying teacup, from outer space, flying teacup.” Shortly after the nine minute mark, a big unison riff is played, anchored by the piano, after which odd voices, dissonant synth washes and abstract percussion make up the last two minutes of the song. A quick return to the big unison riff and a big burst of climactic energy finish off the song.
The next song, “The Pot-Head Pixies,” introduces us to the pot-head pixies, the little creatures that fly the flying teapots. The music is of an energetic and bouncy nature with a lyrical refrain of “I am – you are – we are – crazy.” The driving rock is interrupted, however, by a short country music bridge with narration from a pot-head pixie describing his home on the green planet Gong. The driving rock song returns, and goes till the end of this relatively short (three minutes) song.
Up next is a brief (two minutes) instrumental keyboard interlude, composed by Tim Blake, entitled “The Octave Doctors And The Crystal Machine.” It is made up of atmospheric synths that swirl back and forth from right ear to left ear. A delay effect adds to the spacey qualities. It is really more of a lead-off to the next track.
Another central song of the album, “Zero The Hero And The Witch’s Spell,” fades up from the previous song with an Oriental sounding theme played by flute and bass. Big accents from the band then greet the listener as Allen describes Zero the Hero (one of the key characters in Gong mythology) and his religious adoration for one particular pixie. The music has a sluggish, anthemic quality during this section, which is soon supplanted by a faster jazzy afro-beat, featuring prominent congas. Malherbe takes an epic jazzy saxophone solo here. He is at turns screechingly dissonant and beautifully melodic. After this, Allen sings as the character Zero the Hero who says that he thought he saw the pot-head pixie in the sky, but now he’s wondering if it really was what he thought it was.
The music then dies down as atmospheric guitars, keyboards and vocals create a droning effect. Eventually, a droning bass line reenforces this mood. The final three minutes of the song are dedicated to a slow, stomping rock riff. Malherbe takes another soaring sax solo as the rhythm section crescendos and Hillage turns in a searing guitar solo. The music comes back down only to build back up once more anchored by a strange melody. The melody gets increasingly faster until the next song emerges suddenly.
The last song on the album is the Gilli Smyth feature “Witch’s Song/I Am Your Pussy,” during which she sings as a witch that has transformed herself into a cat. The music begins very eerie and macabre as Smyth sings of seducing Zero the Hero with her feline ways. The music eventually picks up to a jazzy rock song. Zero the Hero professes his love for the witch and says that he will feed her fish and chips. The album ends rather abruptly with a descending riff that gets slower as it goes along.
The later two “Radio Gnome Invisible” albums would find the band getting more sophisticated musically. Many fans find the third (1974’s You) to be the best of the three, but I like the more quirky nature of Flying Teapot, the first of the three. After You, Allen, Smyth and Blake all quit the band. Gong would follow in the footsteps of fellow Canterbury band Soft Machine and become more of a strict jazz fusion band, eschewing the psychedelic imagery and surreal lyrics of the Allen/Smyth led Gong. I find this to be a shame, as I feel that the imagery and mythology is a big part of what made Gong so unique. Fortunately, Allen and Smyth reformed Gong in the early 90’s and continue to sing about pot-head pixies, flying teapots, octave doctors and cat witches to this day.
You can listen to the entire album here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qMrLrLI8oh8
NORMIE MONDAY ep. 23 - Rock Bottom
Welcome back music lovers. Thanks for stopping by for this week’s installment of Normie Monday, my weekly blog posting that focuses on reviewing music, movies, television, books, or whatever may be capturing my attention at the time. Last week, I reviewed an album by the Canterbury, England jazz fusion band Soft Machine. For this week, I’m going to continue with the Canterbury theme by reviewing an album by Soft Machine’s drummer Robert Wyatt, recorded and released after he quit the band, 1974’s Rock Bottom.
By 1973, Robert Wyatt had already released one solo album (1970’s The End Of An Ear), quit Soft Machine (with whom he had recorded four albums), and formed a new band: Matching Mole (a pun on the French translation of “Soft Machine,” “machine molle”), which had released two albums before also breaking up. Wyatt spent the first months of 1973 living in Venice with his partner (and future wife) Alfreda Benge, who was working as an assistant editor on a movie. It was here that Wyatt began composing the material that primarily made up Rock Bottom. Originally, Wyatt planned on reforming Matching Mole to record the material, but on June 1st a tragic accident would prevent Wyatt from being able to continue as a drummer, at least in the traditional sense.
While at a wild 40th birthday party for Gong member Gilli Smyth at artist Lady June Campbell Cramer’s infamous Maida Vale flat, Wyatt drunkenly fell from a third floor bathroom window. He broke his back and was paralyzed from the waist down. The long recuperation period in the hospital caused Wyatt to reevaluate his life and artistic direction. He also used this time to fine-tune the material that he had written in Venice, which he decided to release as a solo album.
On November 4th, two benefit concerts were held at the famed Rainbow Theater in London featuring Wyatt’s former band Soft Machine and long-time friends Pink Floyd (who had recently become one of the biggest bands in the world with the release of their The Dark Side Of The Moon album). The concerts raised 10,000 pounds to help Wyatt’s medical expenses. Pink Floyd’s drummer, Nick Mason, further helped out by agreeing to produce Wyatt’s album, recording of which commenced in February of 1974.
For the recording of the album, Wyatt assembled a group of his friends and colleagues from the Canterbury scene and beyond. Wyatt himself focuses more on keyboards and vocals on this album, only playing some minimalistic hand percussion at times. The more complex drum parts were handled by friend and former Gong drummer Laurie Allen. Former Soft Machine band mate Hugh Hopper adds bass guitar to half the songs, while Caravan bassist Richard Sinclair (whose brother Dave had played keyboards in Matching Mole with Wyatt) plays on the other half. Former Matching Mole band mate Gary Windo is featured on bass clarinet and saxophone on two songs, and friend Mike Oldfield (who had played on two albums by Wyatt’s former band mate Kevin Ayers and had recently struck gold with the massive success of his first solo album, Tubular Bells) adds guitar to one song. Fred Frith and Mongezi Feza, members of the band Henry Cow, contribute viola and trumpet (respectively) to one track each. However, the most startling additions to the album come from eccentric Scottish poet and musician Ivor Cutler who provides strange spoken word sections and harmonium to a couple songs.
The material on Rock Bottom shows tremendous maturation from Wyatt’s first solo album and his compositional efforts in previous bands. The songs are more focused melodically and structurally and the arrangements are less driven by ego. The music is a combination of (relatively) straight forward songs and more abstract pieces of jazz-influenced expressionism. The poetry is at once bizarrely surreal and revealingly personal. Surely, Wyatt’s life-changing injury played a big part in this artistic growth. The result is a harrowing journey of love, loss and self-reflection. Much of the lyrics were inspired by Wyatt’s partner Alfreda Benge, whom Wyatt would marry on July 26th 1974, the day that Rock Bottom was released.
The album opens with the beautifully melancholic “Sea Song,” during which Wyatt compares his lover to some sort of weird sea creature, possibly a mermaid. The lyrics tend to hint at some sort of rapid mood shifts in her with lyrics like “I like you mostly late at night (…) but I can’t understand the different you in the morning,” and “You’re a seasonal beast.” But in the end, Wyatt concludes that “Your lunacy fits neatly with my own.”
Some sort of odd sounding organ provides the main chordal movement with a piano adding additional arpeggios and flourishes, including a chillingly dissonant solo halfway through the song. A synthesizer provides a simple melody at the beginning of the song and pops up occasionally throughout to provide additional melodic movement. Some minimalistic bass is added by Richard Sinclair (the only instrument on this song not played by Wyatt himself), and a simple metronomic beat is provided by bongos. Taken all together, this provides a moody backdrop for Wyatt’s aching poetry. At the end of the song, Wyatt does some wordless scat-styled singing, one of his trademark vocal stylings.
Up next is “Last Straw,” which features Hugh Hopper on bass and Laurie Allen on drum kit. The lyrics seem to continue the oceanic theme of the previous song, but they are much more obtuse and unrevealingly symbolic this time. I really have no idea what they’re about, probably more abstract verbal sketches than anything. The music is slightly more tense than the last song with light, jazzy drumming underpinning Wyatt’s textural piano. Wyatt also performs a glistening slide guitar solo towards the end of this song (not something he often plays). The song ends with the piano and the slide guitar climbing up and up as the rhythm section dies down.
The last song on side one is the avant-garde “Little Red Riding Hood Hits The Road,” which features Richard Sinclair on bass and Mongezi Feza on trumpet. Wyatt provides a noodley piano and a dense, almost tribal rhythm section of various hand percussion, some of which are reversed to create an interesting effect. Feza recorded several different free-form trumpet parts that intertwine and weave around the listener’s head. For the first three minutes of the song, the only vocals are some disconcerting grunts and moans from Wyatt. After this, he moves to some lyrics of regret that seem to be an apology for hurting a loved one, such as “I didn’t mean to hurt you, but I’ll keep trying, and I’m sure you will too.” Poet Ivor Cutler makes his first appearance on the album adding some strange poetry at the end of the song, something about lying in the middle of the highway with a hedgehog that pops the cars’ tires (what?). At the end of the song, everything climaxes until only the twiddly trumpets are left, which create an atmospheric texture as reverb is added and they fade out.
Side two opens with the dreamy and pastoral “Alifib,” a love song to his soon-to-be wife, Alfreda. The song begins with a rhythm track made up solely of quick inhales and exhales. Soon, some atmospheric organ is added. Hugh Hopper treats us to a flashy, yet melodic bass solo, which I believe is pitch-shifted to sound higher than it actually is. The lyrics don’t enter until halfway through the song, which consist mostly of nonsensical gibberish, almost like baby-talk. Wyatt also refers to Alfreda as his larder, a British term for a pantry. The meaning, I suppose is that she provides him with everything he needs and keeps him well taken care of.
The next song, “Alife,” is really just a continuation of the last song. It has a similar chordal structure, but the feeling is more tense and dramatic. Edgy piano chords are added, Wyatt slaps out a beatnik rhythm on some bongos and the lead bass is replaced by a squealing saxophone. Wyatt repeats the lyrics of the last song, but whereas the previous song’s vocals had been serene and melodic, on this song he incants them in a disjointed, off-kilter and unmelodious fashion. At the end of the song, Alfreda Benge takes a verse herself, discounting the idea that she is Wyatt’s larder. She says, “I’m not your larder, I’m your dear little dolly.” She wants to be seen by him as something to cherish, not look up to. However, she concedes to do her best to help take care of him and be his guarder. I find these two songs to be incredibly poignant, especially given the fragility Wyatt must have been feeling at the time due to the loss of the use of legs.
The album closes with “Little Red Robin Hood Hits The Road,” a continuation of sorts of track three, though they don’t really share any musical similarities. This song features Laurie Allen on drums (featuring some very militaristic snare work) and Richard Sinclair on bass, as well as some soaring guitar work from Mike Oldfield who creates a veritable symphony of guitars during the first half of this song. Wyatt sings a verse about dead moles lying underneath the gardens of England. Then he repeats the line “Can’t you see them?” ad nauseum while the rhythm section, guitars and Wyatt’s organ crescendo. This section fades out, and a second more tranquil section fades up as poet Ivor Cutler returns with a monotonous delivery of some strange poetry involving smashing a telephone and television, fighting for a crust of bread and (once again) popping car tires with a hedgehog. As the backdrop for this strange poetry, Cutler squeezes out some minimalistic chords on a harmonium and Fred Frith adds some slightly harsh viola. The song (and album) ends with a quick laugh as the music ends abruptly.
Rock Bottom sold surprisingly well for a work of such abstract qualities, possibly due to recent superstar Nick Mason’s involvement, and it was almost universally praised by music critics. It firmly established Wyatt as a viable solo artist apart from Soft Machine. Shortly after the album’s release, Wyatt released a cover of The Monkee’s “I’m A Believer” as a single (also produced by Mason) that managed to reach the British top 30. When he appeared on Top Of The Pops to sing that song, he refused to appear without his wheelchair, which the show’s producers thought was “Unsuitable for family viewing.” Wyatt won, and was allowed to appear in his wheelchair, the result being a very dark and ironic take on the happy and upbeat song.
Robert Wyatt has gone on to an incredibly artistic career, still releasing records as recently as 2010’s For The Ghosts Within, a collaboration with jazz saxophonist Gilad Atzmon and violinist Ros Stevens. He even appeared on one track of Bjork’s excellent 2004 album Medúlla. Ironically enough, he has outlived three of his band mates from Soft Machine (Elton Dean, Hugh Hopper and Kevin Ayers) despite being a paraplegic for forty years. Some of his more recent releases have been exceptionally great, but Rock Bottom, his first recordings after his traumatizing accident, still stands as his best work. The sheer emotional depth of this work is staggering and the musicianship is brilliant. Give it a listen, see what you think.
If you have Spotify, you can listen to the entire album here: http://open.spotify.com/album/7B7tKLuFwBlwnF71x9K9Gm
Also, if you’re interested, you can watch Robert’s Top Of The Pops performance (obviously lip-synched) of I’m A Believer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L-FmG4JTIfk
happy cinco de mayo!
“Dead Heroes” for KAOS Radio before our set at Old Settler’s Fest in Texas last month.
Happy 94th birthday to Pete Seeger, one of our greatest inspirations! Every day we hear your voice in our heads when we’re singing our songs and using our teaspoons. What a blessing you are to peacemakers and lovers of justice everywhere!
Pete’s banjo: This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.
NORMIE MONDAY ep. 22 - Third
Hello again music lovers. Welcome back to Normie Monday, my weekly blog posting that focuses on reviewing music, movies, television, books, or whatever may be capturing my attention at the time. Last week, I reviewed Kevin Ayers’ solo debut album Joy Of A Toy in recognition of his recent passing. This week, I’m going to spotlight an album that his former band Soft Machine made after his departure, their progressive jazz fusion masterpiece, Third.
Soft Machine formed in 1966 out of the remnants of two Canterbury, England bands, the Daevid Allen Trio and The Wilde Flowers. The original lineup consisted of Kevin Ayers on bass and vocals, Robert Wyatt on drums and vocals, Mike Ratledge on keyboards and Daevid Allen on guitar. This formation of the band became a fixture of the London underground psychedelic scene, often sharing the bill with the likes of Pink Floyd. However, they were only able to release one single, a song entitled “Love Makes Sweet Music,” and embark on a short European tour before Allen (originally from Australia) was unable to re-enter the UK due to visa problems. He retreated to France (where Soft Machine had managed to generate some moderate attention) and would form another psychedelic prog-rock band called Gong. Soft Machine would continue on as a trio, with Ayers picking up additional duties as guitarist, for the recording of their debut self-titled LP.
In the fall of 1968, following the release of the album and a US tour in support of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Kevin Ayers also left the band. Soft Machine essentially ceased to be for the final few months of 1968 with Wyatt and Ratledge both pursuing solo projects. However, the band’s record contract demanded a second LP, so the band reformed in early 1969 with Hugh Hopper (a friend and former band mate from the Canterbury days) replacing Ayers on bass. This lineup recorded Soft Machine’s second album entitled (appropriately enough) Volume Two. This album saw the band start to move away from the quirky psychedelia of their debut towards jazzier territories, a direction that would be further explored with subsequent albums.
Following the release of Volume Two, the band briefly added a four-piece horn section for a few live dates. Within a few months it was down to two horn players, and shortly after that, only saxophonist Elton Dean remained, and he became a permanent member of the band. Interesting side note: Elton Dean had previously been in a band called Bluesology with a young piano player named Reginald Dwight. This young man later borrowed Dean’s first name when constructing a new stage name, becoming Elton John.
It was this four man lineup of Wyatt, Ratledge, Hopper and Dean that would record their groundbreaking third album, appropriately entitled Third, primarily in the spring of 1970. Third proved to be a major success for the band both critically and commercially. It would set the template for all of their subsequent albums, though none of them ever sounded as fresh and bursting with creativity as Third. The album was originally a double album consisting of one long track on each side of vinyl. The compositions are often constructed almost as sonic architecture, sometimes splicing sections of different performances (sometimes even live performances) together with bits of studio experimentation and other manipulated audio.
The first side of vinyl consists of the song “Facelift,” composed by Hugh Hopper. The version of the song found on the finished album was primarily recorded live in January 1970 during the brief period in which the band was a quintet. Therefore, Lyn Dobson is prominently featured on flute and soprano saxophone, though by the time of the album’s release, he was out of the band resulting in him only receiving “additional personnel” status. Two live performances make up the bulk of the track, being spliced together as seen fit, with additional material coming from demo recordings and other lo-fi home recordings. This causes some sections of the track to have a decidedly unpolished quality to them.
At the very beginning of the song, you can hear some faint audience chatter over which a low rumble of organ begins to build. A series of cacophonous free-form organ excursions come next, slowly building in intensity from mellow atmospheric swells until Ratledge kicks on the distortion, and the organ screams in searing pain. Once the organ subsides a bit, a pair of saxophones are added to the mix, squealing and moaning away. The bass guitar comes soon after, plucking out minimalistic lines underneath the chaos. Once the drums enter, a sense of order is restored, and a main thematic melody emerges, played in unison by a saxophone and organ. Over this melody, another saxophone moans out like a gust of wind ripping across the moors.
At about the seven minute mark, another theme is introduced. This one is more forceful and energetic. The drums pick up momentum, and Ratledge takes a ripping organ solo over which a saxophone honks out mercilessly. The organ continues to be the main feature with saxophone interjections coming and going. After a few minutes of this, the solo returns to the forceful theme from earlier, which slowly fades out as a strange clanging industrial drum beat fades up. The juxtaposition of moods here is staggering. This new part is obviously from a different recording, probably just an improvisational studio jam.
Following this, Lyn Dobson treats us to an extended flute solo with only a minimalistic organ chord being held underneath. I swear I can hear the main theme from “Aqualung” at one point, interesting since this album came out about a year before Jethro Tull’s. At about the 13 minute mark, a groovy section is introduced. The flute continues to be featured, with the sax adding occasional swells and the rhythm section getting funky. Ratledge switches to electric piano here. Eventually, the saxophone is reaffirmed as the featured instrument. Presently, the band brings it down a bit until the first major theme heard on the album is revisited. The last minute of the song consists of two different recordings of that theme (one live, one from a studio recording) being played backwards at different speeds creating a dizzying effect. This slowly fades out, and side one is finished.
The next track, “Slightly All The Time,” is probably the most straightforward jazz-rock song on the album. Composed by Mike Ratledge, with some help from Hugh Hopper, the track doesn’t rely as much on studio experimentation as the other three songs. It begins with a mellow bass line from Hopper over which he overdubs some delicate bass guitar harmonics. Soon, the drums enter and Ratledge comps some jazzy chords on the electric piano. Dean turns in a double-tracked saxophone solo that is melodic and expertly composed. The mood shifts between a mellow, vibey feel and a quick, tenser section that pops up occasionally for a bit. This section continues with additional solo improvisations from Dean for about the first 1/3 of the song.
At about the six minute mark, one of the quick tenser sections mentioned earlier is extended to become the basis for the next major section of the song. Guest musician Jimmy Hastings (whose brother Pye was the guitarist in fellow Canterbury band Caravan) turns in some spiraling flute solos during this part. This continues until the saxophone comes back in restating an earlier theme. At about the eight minute mark, a new section is introduced, with Ratledge pounding out some chords on the electric piano in 9/4. Dean takes more improvisational sax solos here, which is replaced after about two minutes by a screeching distorted organ solo from Ratledge. Some nifty bass clarinet from Jimmy Hastings can be heard during this section as well.
At about the 12 minute mark, things shift radically, via tape splice, to an even mellower section. Ratledge turns in some wah-treated electric piano and the sax and bass play a unison melody. The mellow vibe continues as Dean gives us a soaringly melodic sax solo. At about 16 minutes, the pace is quickened, revisiting the tense section from earlier. It builds momentum as Ratledge adds anthemic organ chords. The song ends with a quick unison melody between the organ, sax and bass.
The next side of vinyl consists of my least favorite of the four songs, Robert Wyatt’s “Moon In June.” It is the only song on the album with lyrics, sung by Wyatt in his extremely British-sounding and frequently out-of-tune singing voice. It would be the last song to ever feature lyrics on a Soft Machine album. The song consists of three main sections, the first of which is essentially just a collection of short song vignettes rolled together. It’s very through-composed, without many refrains or repeating themes. Most of these pieces were written by Wyatt in late 1968 during Soft Machine’s inactive period while Wyatt was vacationing in New York City. This is even related in one of the pieces, where Wyatt talks of staying in New York City and wishing that he was home again. This first section features only Wyatt playing all of the instruments; drums, organ, piano and bass guitar, except for a short bass solo from Hopper a few minutes into the song. Supposedly, the rest of the band did not enjoy or want to take part in this composition.
The first section ends around the nine minute mark, and the second section begins, which is much more in keeping with the rest of the album. It is instrumental and very fusion jazzy. Ratledge and Hopper do make significant contributions to this section, with Hopper turning in some ferocious bass riffing and Ratledge giving us another of his trademark distorted organ solos. Wyatt adds some wordless vocals to certain parts of this section as well. Elton Dean is not featured on this track at all. The end of this section features some killer rhythmic syncopation between the bass and drums. At about the 14 minute mark, a theme from the first section is revisited, heralding the start of the third section.
The third section is really just a long (over four minutes) section of droning organ chords and atmospheric feedback. Free-jazz violinist Rab Spall makes some noticeable contributions to this part, with his violin parts being sped up and slowed down to create a slightly disconcerting feeling. Over this mellow din of noise, Wyatt does some scat singing (including brief snippets of former band mate Kevin Ayers’ songs “Singing A Song In The Morning” and “Hat Song”) before the drone fades out and the song ends.
The last track on the album is my favorite of the four. “Out-Bloody-Rageous” was composed by Mike Ratledge, and it prominently features his keyboard work. It begins with the sound of (at least what it sounds like to me) several recordings of electric piano arpeggios being played backwards, some at faster or slower speeds. This section has an unearthly beautiful quality to it. It almost reminds me of a more atmospheric version of the intro to “Baba O’ Riley.” The backwards keyboard arpeggios swell, soar and peak in climactic ways for about the first five minutes of the song, before the rest of the band enters.
Once the band enters, a frantic melody is introduced by twin saxophones. Ratledge plays some acoustic piano during this section, an instrument he’s not known for frequenting. After about a minute of sax riffing, Ratledge takes the lead with a sizzling distorted organ solo, which is the dominant feature for more than three minutes. Eventually, the saxes come back adding stabs over the organ solo until the sax is briefly reinstated as the lead instrument. After this, everything drops out, and the atmospheric backwards arpeggios from the beginning are brought back for a bit.
Following this, at about the ten-and-a-half minute mark, Ratledge takes a mournful piano solo. He’s all by himself for a while until saxophone and trombone (played by guest musician Nick Evans, who was part of the band during it’s seven-man lineup) add some minimalistic melodies. This gives way to a mellow section with low percolating bass and spacey organ. The sax takes a delicately trilling solo here. The sax continues as the feature for a while, building intensity until a final soaring melody played by harmonized saxophones signals the end of this section.
At about the fifteen minute mark, the frantic section from earlier is reprised, superimposed over the soaring saxophone melody. One last burst of energy signals a final reinstatement of the opening atmospheric backwards arpeggios, though this time they are less atmospheric and more present. Also, it sounds like this time it might be acoustic pianos, not electric pianos. These twiddly backwards piano arpeggios continue for the last three minutes of the song. It builds in intensity until the final fade out, ending the album on a stately note. I find these backwards arpeggios to be far ahead of its time musically, sounding very much like digital keyboard programming from the 1980’s, though done through entirely analog means.
Soft Machine would release one more album (1971’s Fourth) with this same four-man lineup before Robert Wyatt quit for a solo career. He would release a couple jazz-oriented albums before tragedy struck on June 1st 1973 when Wyatt drunkenly fell out of a fourth floor window at a party and was paralyzed from the waist down. Amazingly enough, he managed to refashion his solo career into a more song-oriented format and continues to record to this day.
Soft Machine would see frequent lineup changes throughout the 70’s, including at times guitarist Allen Holdsworth, drummer John Marshall, keyboardist Karl Jenkins, bassist Percy Jones and saxophonist Alan Wakeman (cousin of famed prog keyboardist Rick Wakeman). In my opinion, they would never match the instrumental power, compositional originality or critical acclaim of their Third album. I recommend it to anyone that digs jazz fusion, prog rock or avant garde music. Give it a listen, see what you think.
If you have Spotify, you can listen to the entire album here: http://open.spotify.com/album/7HGZa3Mocd6QW3aJD4pvuw
Check out these photos by Scott Preston of our recent show in Newport, KY