Soft Machine are an English rock and jazz band from Canterbury formed in mid-1966, named after the novel The Soft Machine by William S. Burroughs.
Australian poet, guitarist, singer, composer and performance artist Daevid Allen moved to Paris in 1960. Inspired by the emerging 'Beat Generation' of writer's works he'd discovered whilst working in a Melbourne bookshop he moved into a room in Paris's 'Beat Hotel' and spent time around the city's Latin Quarter. There, he rubbed shoulders with Terry Riley and William S. Burroughs, gaining free access to the area's jazz clubs. Influenced by the music philosophies of Sun Ra he formed the Daevid Allen Trio, a free-jazz outfit which performed in Burroughs' theatre pieces based on that writer's novel 'The Ticket That Exploded'.
In 1961 Allen travelled to Canterbury, England, where he met 16 year-old Robert Wyatt (who was the son of his landlord). Their mutual interest in jazz resulted in a few gigs, in London in 1963, as the Daevid Allen Trio (with Hugh Hopper on bass and Mike Ratledge occasionally guesting on piano). Around the same time, Wyatt formed the Wilde Flowers with the Hopper brothers, Hugh and Brian Hopper, with Kevin Ayers on vocals.
The impetus behind the formation of Soft Machine occurred in a meeting of Daevid Allen and Kevin Ayers with Texan millionaire Wes Brunson in Deya, Majorca, on Easter Sunday 1966. Brunson agreed to put up the money for a new band, which allowed the group to buy equipment and rent a rehearsal room near Canterbury. The original line-up consisted of Robert Wyatt on drums and vocals, Mike Ratledge on keyboards, Daevid Allen on guitar and Kevin Ayers on bass and vocals. From May 1966 they gigged as Mister Head (aka Mr Head) and became Soft Machine in August 1966.
The name was taken from a William S. Burroughs novel 'The Soft Machine' (part of The Nova Trilogy), with agreement from the author. The title The Soft Machine encapsulates the Human Body, and the main theme of the book - as explicitly written in an appendix - concerns how control mechanisms invade the body. One poem, entitled Mens (Man, as in 'human'), by Dutch-American hematologist and poet Leo Vroman starts with the line: "Man is a soft machine..."
Mike Ratledge says of this : "... Soft machine was a generic term for the whole of humanity, and we were all soft machines... I guess our basic assumption was that what we liked, everybody else was going to like as well, that we all had things in common, and therefore we all are soft machines, and we were all going to like Soft Machine music. It might have been a false assumption, but I hope it's true".
In January 1967, the band's first single release, Soft Machine - Love Makes Sweet Music / Feelin' Reelin' Squeelin', was recorded.. Celebrating its release on February 22nd 1967 the band gave a press conference at The Speakeasy, performing that evening at The Roundhouse as the opening act for the Jimi Hendrix Experience - where Hendrix jammed with them on bass.
Allen recalls their introduction to The Speakeasy by Giorgio Gomelsky, the promoter, producer, founder of the Crawdaddy Club and original manager of both The Yardbirds and The Rolling Stones; “He would take us there and ply us with whiskeys on the expense account. We’d meet all the big stars at the time. It was like being at court, only a rock ‘n’ roll court. ‘Cause The Beatles were there, the Rolling Stones were there – everybody, all the big names, would gather at the Speakeasy at this particular time.” [From the book 'Soft Machine: Out-Bloody-Rageous' by Graham Bennett].
Three months later, a collection of demos was recorded at DeLane Lea Studios with producer Giorgio Gomelsky, but not officially released until 1971 as two compilations on the French BYG Records label. At that time, Soft Machine had already become something of a 'cult' band on the London psychedelic scene, gigging at places like the Zebra Club, The Marquee, The Roundhouse, UFO (Underground Freak Out club) and Middle Earth. Light shows were also developed with Mark Boyle's Sensual Laboratory. On April 29th, 1967, they took part in the '14 Hour Technicolor Dream', an event set up by the underground paper 'International Times', which also featured Pink Floyd, The Move, Alexis Korner, Crazy World Of Arthur Brown, Tomorrow (2), Mothers Of Invention, Velvet Underground and artists such as Alan Ginsberg and Yoko Ono.
During the summer of 1967 the band toured France, performing at psychedelic events along the Cote d’Azur such as Jean-Jacques Lebel’s “Sunlove Happening” and Eddie Barclay’s “La Nuit Pschedelique”. For three weeks they provided daily musical “transmissions hallucinatoires” for wildly popular performances of “Le Désir Attrapé par la Queue”, a Pablo Picasso play produced by Lebel at the Festival de la Libre Expression outside Saint-Tropez. A legendary performance of “Do It Again” helped Soft Machine to make an enormous impression in France and, by the end of the Summer of Love, they became the favorite band of the French avant-garde.
On the way back Daevid Allen was refused re-entry to England and stayed in France, moving on to various projects before forming Gong two years later, while Robert Wyatt, Mike Ratledge and Kevin Ayers decided to carry on Soft Machine as a trio.
In February 1968, Soft Machine embarked on a three month US tour (opening for the Jimi Hendrix Experience), recording their first album during their touring schedule in New York in four days in April 1968, with production handled by Tom Wilson and former Animals bassist and Hendrix producer Chas Chandler. Although quickly made and not particularly well-recorded, the band's eponymous album The Soft Machine (1968) is now considered a classic of the extraordinarily creative post-psychedelic and pre-progressive period of the late 1960's.
The band split up in December 1968, re-formed in February 1969 and carried on until the late 1970's through many line-up changes and leaving no original member onboard. It re-formed briefly in 1980 and 1984. Robert Wyatt formed Matching Mole in October 1971. "Matching Mole" is a clever mis-pronounciation of "La Machine Molle", the French title of William Burroughs' novel "The Soft Machine".
1978–1983 (offshot band Soft Head), followed by Soft Heap
1999–2002 (pre-reformation band Soft Ware)
2002–2004 (pre-reformation band Soft Works)
2004–2015 (as Soft Machine Legacy)
Other offshot bands featuring core members Hugh Hopper and Elton Dean were briefly created during the 2000s : Soft Bounds, Soft Mountain...
● John Etheridge – guitar (1975–1978, 2015–present)
● Theo Travis – saxophone, flute, piano (2015–present)
● Fred T. Baker - bass (2022–present)
● Asaf Sirkis - drums (2023-present)
● Nic France – drums, percussion (at least for one show: on 26 March 2016 in Sheffield Green, East Sussex, UK; substitute for John Marshall)
● Fred Thelonious Baker - bass (substituted for Roy Babbington for 2022 dates, prior to becoming a full member)
● Mike Ratledge – keyboards, flute (1966–1968, 1969–1976)
● Robert Wyatt – drums, vocals, keyboards, bass (1966–1968, 1969–1971)
● Kevin Ayers – bass, vocals, guitar, keyboards (1966–1968; died 2013)
● Daevid Allen – guitar, vocals, bass (1966–1967; died 2015)
● Larry Nowlin – guitar (1966)
● Andy Summers – guitar (1968)
● Hugh Hopper – bass, saxophone, guitar (1968–1973; died 2009)
● John Marshall – drums, percussion (1971–1984, 2015–2022)
● Elton Dean – saxophone, keyboards (1969–1972; died 2006)
● Lyn Dobson – flute, saxophone (1969–1970)
● Marc Charig – cornet (1969)
● Nick Evans – trombone (1969)
● Phil Howard – drums (1971)
● Karl Jenkins – oboe, saxophone, keyboards, synthesisers (1972–1984)
● Allan Holdsworth – guitar (1973–1975; died 2017)
● Roy Babbington – bass (1973–1976, 2015–2022)
● Alan Wakeman – saxophone (1976)
● Ray Warleigh – saxophone (1976; died 2015)
● Ric Sanders – violin (1976–1978)
● Percy Jones – bass (1976–1977)
● Steve Cook (2) – bass (1977–1978)