This week the world lost one of it's most innovative composers and bassists; therefore, I feel compelled to honor his memory on this humble blog about British music. Hugh Hopper became a full-fledged member of the Soft Machine, having previously been their roadie (and the writer of one song on their debut LP), at the end of 1968. Kevin Ayers, the band's previous bassist and principal songwriter, had retreated to the hippie haven of Ibiza after a particularly difficult tour. Unable to contact Ayers, drummer and vocalist Robert Wyatt and keyboardist Mike Ratledge recruited Hopper to fill the vacant position. With the addition of Hopper, the Soft's sound evolved. His phenomenal fuzz-bass sound and composing skills enhanced their avant garde propensities, evident on their second album, Volume Two. Hopper passed away June 7th, a victim of leukemia.
The Soft Machine, named after the William S. Burroughs novel, was one of the most important bands of the British psychedelic movement of the 1960s. Along with Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd, the Softs performed at the now legendary 14 Hour Technicolor Dream and Christmas on Earth festivals. Unlike Floyd, however, the Softs moved in a more non-commercial direction as the years passed, progressing to an art rock/jazz fusion (with the additon of saxophonist Elton Dean) that was truly unique and wholly satisfying. The Soft Machine made "music for the mind (which) floats you gently downstream, through pleasurable twists and turns, ups and downs, rapids and calm waters" as the liner notes to Volume Two explain. Other wonderful elements of the Softs are Robert Wyatt's emotive vocals, always touching and evocative, and their Dadaist grasp of the absurd.
As an introduction to Soft Machine, I recommend the Big Beat label's CD issue of Volumes One and Two together on one CD, and once you've gotten into that, move on to Third. Robert Wyatt is not on the album 5, having moved on to Matching Mole (a pun on the French for "Soft Machine" - "Machine Molle"). The clip above is a 1971 performance of "Out-Bloody-Rageous" from Third, which I found on YouTube.
(Reference: David Wells' article in the Jan. 2000 issue of Record Collector)