Even six sessions for the Top Gear programme in three and a half years is not enough to demonstrate the speed of the musical developments of this band, who seem by contrast to have been falling into a black hole in subsequent years. Already, by the time of their first session in December 1967 they had changed labels and lost two guitarists (Larry Nolan and Daevid Allen) and become the classic line up of Kevin Ayers, Mike Ratledge and Robert Wyatt. That first session, produced by Bernie Andrews, caught them at a magic time when they were still song-based and psychedelic, and captured A Certain Kind, Hope For Happiness and Lullaby Letter in very different versions from the officially released counterparts on the LP The Soft Machine, plus two songs unrecorded by the band but later revived by Kevin Ayers and the Whole World: Clarence In Wonderland and We Know What You Mean (aka Soon Soon Soon). Sadly the group recorded no session during the life of The Soft Machine Vol. 2 and by the time they did return to record for John Walters in November 1969, Kevin Ayers had left, and long, dazzling and intense instrumentals had become the order of the day, interspersed with Robert Wyatt's self-deprecating but pithy vocal interjections. The line-up expanded to include a brass section borrowed from Keith Tippett's band and the result was a jazz-rock fusion unlike any other. Pieces like Mousetrap (here in two versions) and Esther's Nose Job still invigorate, but shortly after the last session here, from June 1971, Robert Wyatt left, and when Mike Ratledge too left in 1976 there was no original member left. All the more reason to have these alternative readings of some of their best loved works
It is important to realise that together with the complimentary double CD - also from Hux Records - "BBC 1971 to 1974", the listener is provided with an excellent retrospective of the Machine's evolution and changes, during the period they were the pre-eminent European jazz rock group. It is fortunate for us that the BBC, (both Radio 1 and Radio 3), have retained good quality "live" recordings of this important band. Apparently, the 4 CDs in these two sets exhaust what the BBC have had hidden in their archives for over 30 years. Note: if you have the 'Triple Echo' set (3LP set issued by Harvest records in the mid 70's) or the 'Strange Fruit' double CD set, then you will recognise some of the recordings here. The only complaint is that due to extensive touring of the USA as part of Hendrix's Experience package, means that no representative recordings come from the 'Volume 2' period, and who knows for what reason there is nothing from John Etheridge and co. This is one of the few historical recorded documents that shows a band evolving musically. The opening tracks of '1967-71', finds the psychedelic variant in glorious action and even in mono, the sound quality is superior to the first studio album, 'Soft Machine" - 'Hope For Happiness' is a power house of organ that outshines Keith Emerson's prog work of the time. Without the representation from the "Volume 2" period, there is a bit of a lurch to the "Third" period, (although "Volume 2" tunes are to be found here) played by young British jazz lions including Lynn Dobson. You'll find the legendary version of "Moon In June" with Wyatt's lyrics rewritten to celebrate the fact that Radio One have allowed jazz tunes of some length to go out on air - dare them to do that nowadays! "BBC 1967 to 1971" includes reworks/rearrangements of the first 4 or 5 Soft Machine studio albums, and also covers Robert Wyatt's period with the band. The first part of "BBC 1971-1974" reflects the fast turn round of personnel and experiments Machine adopted in 71/72. Here is a rare recording of the short lived, free improv Machine, which you have to surmiss was too risky for Columbia to record. Changes of personnel then brought some safety in the jazz played. Hopper makes a only brief appearance in the second set before Roy Babbington takes over the bass-playing for the rest of Machine's life. Ratledge adds other former Nucleus players in John Marshall and Karl Jenkins. With the large number of Nucleus reissues on CD at this time, it is difficult not to make comparisons. It becames increasingly clear that Soft Machine starts to sound rather like Nucleus (composer Jenkins being the common denominator), and this is time, 1973 - 4, when fans are lost. Apparently because of Karl Jenkins increasing reluctance to play solos, Allan Holdsworth the first guitarist since 1968 is brought in. There were concerns amongst the established musicians about bringing in a jazz guitarist but rapidly dispelled. (In passing, Ed Macan in his thesis on progressive rock "Rocking The Classics", states Holdsworth was a "typical Canterbury guitarist". Perhaps Macan might like to revise this statement in light of these two albums?). With Holdsworth's presence there was a temporary revitallisation. A number of Machine and Holdsworth fans have recently expressed delight with the inclusion of the "Bundles" sessions taken from Radio 3, said to be superior to the 1975 Harvest LP of the same name. Across these 4 CDs you will find an excellent, if not exhaustive, set of Machine recordings, caught when the band were at their height and experimenting with a new form of music: jazz rock.
This double CD considerably improves on the old Strange Fruit "Peel Sessions" set by dispensing with a couple of slightly later tracks that didn't feature Robert Wyatt, and replacing them with many more that do. In particular the previously unissued December 1967 session is a definitive record of the Wyatt/Ayers/Ratledge line-up quite soon after the loss of Daevid Allen, with superb performances of a strong selection of songs. All the rest of the set features the nucleus of Wyatt, Ratledge and Hugh Hopper, with varying numbers of horn players. There are many highlights, but probably the standout is the great version of Moon In June with its alternative lyric about recording at the BBC. The set also contains the best jazz-rock the Softs ever recorded, including the only studio recordings of the short-lived 7-piece line-up.
This set represents an excellent alternative history of the band from just before their first album to the point when Robert Wyatt quit shortly after their fourth (by which time they were well on the way to the boring aridity of nearly all their later recordings) and is as essential as their first 3 albums.
This is the best complement I have found to the Soft machine studio albums as the sessions were well recorded at the Beeb (in mono but don't let that put you off). There's a nice spread of material up to the horn section era. It's excellent value for money especially considering how many lousy bootlegs there are around.