Out of the ashes of the Daevid Allen Trio and The Wilde Flowers arose the mighty Soft Machine. Recorded in April '67, this collection of demos is interesting because we get to hear what they would've sounded like with guitar. It's played here by Daevid Allen, who left before their first album to form Gong. "The Soft Machine" (1968) contained no guitar, and the band went without it until 1975.
These early tracks differ from what fans came to know and love in two major ways. For one, the emphasis is tilted toward rock at this point in their development. It's incredible how much jazzier they became as a drum, bass, and keyboard trio without guitar. Then again, Soft Machine were always enamored of avant-jazzers like Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra - as opposed to the blues-inspired Cream (to name another trio).
The other thing is the lyrics. They are simpler, more heartfelt and direct than what they ended up using. Most are fairly conventional love songs. For example, "I Should've Known" later became "Why Am I So Short?/ So Boot If At All" on the debut. The demo version laments how he should've known his girlfriend would leave him. The debut version is a whole other theme, describing the life of a drummer in hilarious detail. Early Soft Machine could've had hit singles with their comparatively "normal" songs and commercial sound - something the funnier, jazzier Soft Machine never pulled off.
Another I like is "Jet-Propelled Photograph", which drummer Robert Wyatt and bass player Kevin Ayers sing together. Ayers later expanded this and re-titled it "Shooting At The Moon" - the title track of his second solo album. Wyatt sings everything else. A couple are holdovers from the '64 to '67 Wilde Flowers era ("Memories", "She's Gone") - but the guys play better than back then. Only "Save Yourself" and the previously discussed "I Should've Known" made it from these demo sessions onto the first album.
If you don't have "The Soft Machine", then you're missing one of the most important and best debuts of the 60's. A true psychedelic classic. They even toured the U.S. as the opening act for The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Chas Chandler (ex-bassist for The Animals) had produced Hendrix's first 2 albums, and co-produced Soft Machine's with jazz entrepreneur Tom Wilson. Wilson had produced a few of Dylan's "gone electric" albums, along with "The Velvet Underground and Nico" and Nico's "Chelsea Girl".
Soft Machine's "Volume Two" was almost as good as "Volume One" (by then they were an expanded unit), but "Third" went down a different path. No longer comprised of short eccentric songs woven into instrumental suites, it was instead long wordless jams (with the exception of Wyatt's amazing "Moon In June"). Even so, their virtuosity carried the day. Three great albums in 3 years, between '68 and '70. Psychedelic jazz/rock of the highest order. For me, that was the band's peak period.
Ayers had left after the first record, and Wyatt left after "Fourth". Both launched still-active, fascinating solo careers. "Fourth" was dull compared to what had come before. Keyboardist and founding member Mike Ratledge continued on with an ever-changing line-up as the group ventured further into serious jazz "fusion" territory. For a full account of band history and personnel, I recommend Graham Bennett's book "Soft Machine: Out-Bloody-Rageous" (2005).
If you'd like to collect their best, check out "Jet-Propelled Photographs", "The Soft Machine" (Volume One), "Volume Two", and "Third". They may not be as well remembered as some of their contemporaries (Pink Floyd, King Crimson), but they were every bit as good - and sometimes better.