I was musing in the early days of lockdown about the prospect of not seeing live music for a while and working out who I’d miss seeing most. Based on attendance on gigs alone in the last few years, that would have to be Soft Machine, the four piece of John Marshall, Roy Babbington, John Etheridge and Theo Travis, who, since reclaiming the band’s name in its entirety a few years back have undertaken seemingly endless gigging as well as recording a very fine album ‘Hidden Details’.
‘Live at the Baked Potato’ which captures a 2019 US performance, and is available both as an LP and CD, to these ears is a superbly captured document of considerable sonic precision. In fact, at times, it’s only the free-fettered whoops from a charged up audience that remind you that this is a one-off take. But it is fairly indicative what you’re likely to get at a Soft Machine gig these days, blending a number of excellent tracks from ‘Hidden Details’ (and it by no means exhausts that particular album’s fine offerings) with some of the re-interpretations of Soft Machine classics which the band (initially under its Legacy moniker) have honed over the last couple of decades in various incarnations.
I suspect that the live order which we are becoming familiar has been somewhat turned on its head for this release. The album starts with Theo Travis’s startlingly accurate recreation of Mike Ratledge’s keyboard loops for ‘Out-bloody-rageous’ followed by the main theme with guitar and sax romping through the Dobson/Dean dual lines with some gusto before Travis’s free-flowing solo eventually winds things back down. John Marshall’s nightly drum solo is truncated to the ‘Sideburn’ aired here, before moving on to ‘Hazard Profile’, usually saved for an encore. I’m not sure anything for me will now top John Etheridge’s jaw-dropping outpouring last time around at Band on the Wall, but this is still pretty mesmerising stuff, underpinned by Roy Babbigntons growling fuzz bass, and then by Travis’s keyboards underneath Etheridge’s majestic split-tone solo.
Things are immediately brought back down to earth with a lesser-recognised classic. Whilst the tradition of the Legacy band was always to incorporate an interpretation of a Mike Ratledge classic into each new phase of the band (and there’s plenty of evidence of that in this performance), it’s nice to see that Hugh Hopper’s beautiful ‘Kings and Queens’ is still a band staple. Those of you familiar with the ‘Romantic Warriors III’ extras DVD will probably, like myself have had Theo Travis’s haunting flute ringing around their ears as it loops continuously on the main menu. As then, this rendition is beautiful, with the building of layer upon layer of flute a personal highlight of the entire album. ‘Tale of Taliesin’, the iconic track from ‘Softs’ is notable for the way in which breaks out from the beautiful melody to arguably the freeest blow of the album with Etheridge’s somewhat manic solo, backed initially only by Marshall’s rocky backbeat – it provides an unusually stark moment.
It’s then back to the more tranquil waters, with the outstanding duo of ‘new’ ballads: “Heart off Guard” starts off with a quote from the closing bars from ‘Taliesin’ and is a lovely mellow guitar and soprano sax excursion, an interpretation unique to this performance; before leading on to the beautiful lament of ‘Broken Hill’. ‘The Man Who Waved At Trains’, re-interpreted on ‘Hidden Details’ later continues the more gentle vein.
‘Fourteen Hour Dream’ is for me a most un-Soft Machine like track, but none the worse for that, a pleasant dreamy flute-led akin to that of Patrick Forgas band, with a brief keyboard intervention that reminds me of Quiet Sun’s ‘Sol Caliente’.
What really works for this album, aside from the fact that performances are crystal clear, is that there are no dud choices in the repertoire, it’s an excellent representation of the band’s outstanding blending of old and new, with even ‘Life On Bridges’ not deviating into too fractious a freeblow away from its memorable theme. The album is topped off in style with ‘Hidden Details’, this band’s tour de force, the angular, abrasive title track from the first new Soft Machine album in almost 40 years, which has become this band’s calling card. I’ve found that posts on this Soft Machine don’t always seem to get the attention that they merit, or give the band the recognition that their blend of superbly performed old and new material deserves. Personally, I think it’s high time that people woke up to them.
This is the second book based on progressive rock (the first was the Strawberry Bricks reference guide from Charles Snider) that we’ve reviewed in the space of a few months, and is such a colossus that I was reminded of the Forth Bridge painting analogy. Determined to snatch at least half an hour a day to dip into it, nevertheless by the time I’d got to the final page, it felt like it was high time to start reading from the beginning again.
With no less than 586 pages (even before we get to indeces and bibliographies), separate chapters on over 30 bands and a number of entertaining ‘divertimento’, this is an extraordinary project documenting an often maligned and misinterpreted genre of music.
With separate chapters on Egg, Soft Machine, Hatfield and the North/National Health, Kevin Ayers, Robert Wyatt and Caravan this book should be considered a major Canterbury-related work in its own right. That’s even before you start to delve into the later section on Gong and Steve Hillage, chapters on both Mike Oldfield and Camel, and an examination of Henry Cow. But there are lots of crossovers elsewhere too: the chapter for example on Roxy/Eno/Quiet Sun/801 is peppered with quotes not only from Bill MacCormick but also Geoffrey Richardson whose time at Winchester Art school followed that of Brian Eno. There’s also a few pages devoted to Centipede, who wouldn’t immediately be on the tips of your lips as progressive rock, but as apparently Keith Tippett argued, were “the most progressive group of the era” and that feels particularly insightful at the moment. You’ll also, obviously, find major writings on the ‘big six’ (ELP, Tull, Floyd, Yes, Genesis and Crimson) – with the latter’s Hyde Park performance in 69 the book’s real starting point; alongside other familiar suspects: Gentle Giant, Moody Blues, Renaissance, Barclay James Harvest and Curved Air.
The strengths of this book are many: Mike Barnes’ easy conversational style makes this a very readable book. His knowledge base is solid, underpinned by many years as a music journalist, but the real coup is the considerable amount of primary source material with a selection of original, personal and often illuminating interviews with many of his subject matter.
One post in the Canterbury scene Facebook group implied rather churlishly that this book added nothing new to the Canterbury lexicon. That was not only unkind, it’s also patently untrue. If you’re an ‘expert’ in any of the particular bands you won’t necessarily be surprised at anything that pops up in Barnes’ succinct summaries of artists’ timelines, but the direct quotes may well provide new insights – as the recollections which have been elicited and used are often delivered in the same relaxed, personal informality as the narrative. What I found personally was that it was nice to step away a little from the context of this blog and be somewhat consumed by chapters of the book for other real heroes of mine (such as Yes, Van der Graaf Generator, Arthur Brown) who I have less of an extensive knowledge base for. It also got me actively searching out new avenues such as the impact of Graham Bond on the whole scene, or the flutatious noodlings of Quintessence.
It’s hard to approach progressive rock without immediately being consumed by a prevailing image of pomp and overblown virtuosity and but another of the assets of this book is that it does much to put it into its proper context: an extension of the psychedelia which had been reined back in after 67, the merging of disparate musical styles, the flirtations with orchestration, and the parallels as well as the contrasts to what ultimately swamped it: punk.
Barnes breaks up the book with a series of diversions: mini-essays on facets of the genre which don’t relate to any particular bands, and therefore give more of a wider cultural context: fashion, drugs, sex, festivals, politics, and journalism – relying on personal anecdotes of himself and others, with varying degrees of successful integration into the narrative. Away from this, an interview with Sonja Kristina is incorporated directly and reads very well. There’s a really excellent section on the emergence of punk and its crossovers with prog – a prevailing theme throughout the book is the thoughts of contemporary journalists, including Nick Kent, who as someone who stepped over the threshold into the punk genre both as a musician and reviewer, often provides a telling counter-insight. There’s also an interesting identification of 1974 as the genre’s ‘tipping point’ (Snider conversely identified 1981 as the point of no return), although the subsequent analysis of Yes’ ‘Relayer’ and VdGG’s ‘Godbluff’ perhaps give the lie to that.
Favourite anecdote of the book has to be a teenage Jakko’s tale of being picked up by Henry Cow as he was hitchhiking from one of their gigs, and driven back to his parents for a cup of tea; whilst Steve Hillage and Bill MacCormick’s tales are equally as entertaining. And there’s probably at least another page of things I need to tell you about. But now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to start painting again…
I’d been looking forward to seeing Magic Bus again at this year’s Kozfest. Their last appearance in 2017 there introduced me to their very Caravanesque vibe and the subsequent album ‘Phillip The Egg’ was something of a latterday classic of its genre. Since then flautist and vocalist Viv Goodwin-Darke has jumped ship and joined fellow Devonian psychedelic flag-bearers Invisible Opera Company of Tibet, leaving the band as a five piece.
‘The Earth Years’ is the band’s fourth album and compositionally seems to rein things in a little, with its eight songs all clocking in at between 3 and 7 minutes. Centre stage is very much vocalist/guitarist Paul Evans’ dipped out tunes – think Gong’s ‘And You Tried So Hard’ as a starting point. There’s still some of the precise, stop start time changes within pieces, witness the opener ‘Easy Om’, but much less of the lengthier compositions from previous albums which showed off the stellar keyboard riffs of Jay Darlington and the occasional biting interventions of lead guitar.
Most of the time ‘The Earth Years’ is a pleasant ramble through late Sixties flowery songwriting, with understated Hammond and other organ sounds alongside Evans’ Pye Hastings-like strumming. If overall the impact of this album doesn’t quite match its predecessor, it will still leave you with its songs ringing around your head indelibly. The drumming in particular is subtle, precise and a real highpoint throughout.
Occasionally a section makes you sit up – the contrast between the watery vocalising and the sharp strummed riffs on ‘The Road to La Mezquita’, for example. ‘Barleycorn’, once it steps up a gear, has some lovely vocal lines and sharp rhythms punctuating the sitar and organ backdrop with just a hint that the Bus might be returning to the more obtuse Van der Graaf gallumphing that works so well – there’s even a hint of the Om Riff thrown in to boot.
Probably best of the lot comes from some lovely dreamy interplay between organ, guitars, and drums on ‘Squirrel’ over an undulating bass line – this type of extended instrumental workout, with its very Caravan-like conclusion leaves rather a nice taste in the mouth towards the end of the album. And as we adjust to the prospect of a season with little outdoors frivolity, the final track of this album, ‘We Are One’ at least points onwards towards a summer of happy vibes between your ears….
The Earth Years is released on 19th June. Order it in a variety of formats at:
I’ve told this story before but in the early days of Facelift, probably late 1989 or early 1990 I was in regular correspondence with Hugh Hopper who did his utmost to try and support the fanzine in its infancy. This started initially with a pseudo-grumpy postcard asking why he hadn’t had a copy (the fanzine after all bore the name of one of his more celebrated compositions). One of the earliest letters I received from him included a typed list of around 30 odd addresses of ‘people I should contact’, a fairly heady mix of musicians (Richard Sinclair, Elton Dean, Phil Miller, Robert Wyatt, Pip Pyle); people whose names I knew the context of (Steve Lake, champion of Hugh’s work in the 70s in Melody Maker and Manfred Bress, editor of Canterbury Nachrichten, Facelift’s German sister); and a few names that I didn’t. One of the latter was Dave Radford, with the only clue being in the address: Canterbury Indoor Market etc etc.
I am ashamed to say that I didn’t follow a lot of these leads up, but eventually ended up in contact with most of them anyway. With Dave Radford it eventually, I think was because he stocked a few Facelift in his long-standing record shop. I certainly corresponded with him about his band Gizmo and plugged their 1992 album ‘They’re Peeling Onions In the Cellar’. Unknown to me at the time Hugh also ended up recording with Dave, gigging with him, and even helping out in his shop! All of this, plus the fact that Dave, as a teenager, had been part of a collective putting on gigs in Canterbury including many names familiar and beloved to readers of this blog, meant that speaking to Dave, a good friend of Hugh, was an absolute delight at the start of my research for the Hugh Hopper biography.
We started off by talking about a series of gigs Dave and associates put on in 1971 and ‘72 in a variety of venues in Canterbury “It was just a fluke thing”, Dave tells me modestly. “There were 6 of us started it up and called it Haxmady because we were talking in a shop and it was around Christmas. Somebody muddled up the words, Xmas etc and all the words that were there, and (we) got Haxmady out of it. It was my wife Chris, Geoff Brewster, Rose Cook and Dave Brettingham, and (the late) Phil Martin who was a local guy who later became a roving hurdy gurdy man!”
Dave is currently posting pictures on Facebook on a daily basis of posters of the Haxmady concerts, which included appearances from Egg, Delivery, Kevin Ayers, Matching Mole and Soft Machine as well as many others from early Seventies alternative music culture, usually with backing from local Canterbury bands.
Most gigs were at St Thomas’ Hall on Burgate, a working Catholic church hall “in the end, the caretaker was just fed up with finding bucket fulls of roaches! Which was fair enough, I suppose!” but even in full swing it was not without its limitations “there was a hell of a staircase to the back of the stage which was awful, which all the gear had to come up”. Attendances varied but rarely exceeded 250.
Some of the impetus for the series of gigs appeared to have come from The Great Medicine Ball, a local festival the previous year. “It went from America over to Europe all being filmed by Warner Brothers and ended up at Bishopbourne. It was a free festival and was very hippy but I don’t think the film ever came out. We went there, there were 200 people and it was Rod Stewart and the Faces, I think Daddy Longlegs, Pink Floyd, I think Mott The Hoople played, and there were other people. I think Richard Chamberlain was definitely there, sitting right in front of us! And it was brilliant! All free but hardly anyone went.“
Stoneground had also appeared at the Medicine Ball and were another later Haxmady promotion, this time up at the University. “We did a couple up at the uni, because I knew the social secretary there, John, from Beckenham”. One memorable near miss was David Bowie “Phil got a job in an agency and got a lot of private numbers, including McCartney and Bowie. And he phoned Bowie to have him at St Thomas’. At first he was a bit offish, and then once he had sorted himself out and realised that Phil was harmless he couldn’t get him off the phone! And we got him for £200 but he needed a grand piano! And we couldn’t get a grand piano up those stairs. So I approached John at the university and he was well into it, because he came from London anyway and he knew all about how well he was doing. And he put it to the Students’ Union and none of them wanted him to play there. Because he was a ‘has been!’ It coincided with Ziggy Stardust! It’s madness! But there was no way we could have done it at St Thomas’. So we just gave up on it!”
Other venues were the Marlowe Theatre and also the Westgate Hall. “We also did Stackridge, they did a Christmas type pantomime thing that sold out right throughout the country and we did it at Herne Bay with a very small audience but it was sold out everywhere else”. Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come on the other hand played three times, “It was fantastic, and (he was) one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. He’s just lovely. Kingdom Come – we took them on at St Thomas’ Hall twice and once at Drill Hall, which was falling down, and the police tried stopping it because of the volume” (rather than as a fire hazard, as I suggested to Dave). “I don’t know if you know the Kingdom Come stuff. You know the bit “This is the gig to end all gigs, this is the night of the pigs!” – they put that in just as the police came in, which was brilliant! And I tell you who were playing with them as support – the Supersister band. They were very good.
Gigs even decamped briefly further afield. “We tried doing a few in Edinburgh Cathedral. The first one we did was John Martyn and Al Stewart. John Martyn – what a guy – so nice. He came up from Hastings on a train with an AC30, his guitar and Al Stewart flew in from Amsterdam, went to his hotel and got a taxi! So different, the two of them. I remember that gig, John Martyn being fantastic. And then we put another one on, we put Third Ear Band on, but it fell through, one of them was ill, I believe, and we put Quicksand on instead which was a bit Floydy, and I did a folky support with it, which was a bit nervewracking. I mean the first time we went to Edinburgh, we went in Dave Brettingham’s car, the second time we caught the bus up or vice versa.
“We didn’t even have a PA, we just went into the nearest music shop to see if they had one. Mad! The other reason (was that) it was like a try out – I got near enough to putting on Quintessence in Canterbury cathedral. Alan Wicks was the cathedral organist and music person at the time and I used to meet up with him. It was all fine and they were getting quite into it. Quintessence did one smaller cathedral somewhere and the writeups in the Melody Maker or whatever said about the smell of incense in the air and overnight they just didn’t want to know! “
Eventually the operation ground to a halt because of funds “it sort of fell apart because it’s very hard to get an audience. Soft Machine did quite well, that was when I first met Hugh. I’ve got the figures written down somewhere – you wouldn’t believe how few people went! I think everyone lost in the end. Dave Brettingham, he worked in a factory and I think he ended up paying quite a few of them because he was the only one earning reasonable money.”
Having been a teenager in Canterbury Dave was lucky enough to have caught Caravan in their very early days “I literally saw the first Caravan gigs, there was one at Westgate Hall for the art college and I would have been really young, and it must have been one of the first gigs they did. It was with Coloured Raisins, who were a soul band, which shows you how long ago it was, because there were a lot of soul bands around at the end of the Sixties. I also, I don’t know if that was the same gig but I had a giant poster which I gave to some friends who went to America, there were only 4 or 5 of them in the whole of Canterbury. designed by Kitch who I believe was Dave Arbus’s brother from East of Eden. It was a like a big black and white like Audrey Beardsley type of poster. I gave it away – idiot! “
Dave was also, even back then, a musician, later most associated with Gizmo, a band who recorded 5 albums between the late Seventies and 2015. But its genesis was much earlier “We were around even then. Things spark off other things. Martin Judd, the bass player (of Gizmo) was in Porcelain Frogg but I had a band with Dave Smith the drummer, Martin Judd, and Nigel Blow – which was Warlock. Now ‘Warlock’ (the track) was on ’If I Could Do It All Over Again’. And ‘Nigel Blows a Tune’ is on ‘In The Land And Grey and Pink’, and Nigel was the keyboard player with us! Someone (recently posted) on the Canterbury scene Facebook group about Nigel Blow, Dave Sinclair’s cousin who wrote the riff on that tune, and I was thinking about this tape that I’ve got of us doing that riff on and on it goes, which would be me, Martin Judd, Nigel Blow and Dave Smith on drums!”. On the 1992 album ‘They’re Peeling Onions in the Cellar’, the album started with a funky, guitar-heavy version of Caravan’s ‘Policeman’. “Richard (Sinclair) liked that a lot. He said he’d come up on stage and do it with me, but it never happened.”
Dave’s relationship with Hugh Hopper continued at the end of the Seventies when Hugh gave up music for a few years and amongst other things became a taxi driver in Canterbury. He became a frequent visitor to Dave’s record shop in the Indoor Market, as did other Canterbury luminaries. “Richard (Sinclair) used to come in a heck of a lot – he would be in every day! Do you know he’s a really good carpenter? I know a couple of people who he fitted kitchens for. The shop was a few doors away from Richard Coughlan’s pub, which was the Cricketers. Pye I knew very well, in fact going back completely years because I used to live up the hill near the university, and Pye used to live up there. And I knew Geoff of course”.
Dave told me a bit more about the shop – he ran it for three decades from 1982 until he was given three weeks notice to up sticks. “With the record store I used to sell things as cheap as possible, and fast… For thirty years. The stuff I had through my hands you wouldn’t believe!
It wasn’t middle of the road – it was all rock or punk. I mean I like The Cure and stuff like that. I like Nick Drake, John Martyn, Beatles. If you hear something new which is very unlikely. I just like what I like.” Dave told me about a number of artefacts he’d kept including original reel to reels of Hugh’s ‘1984’, a 7” promo of ‘Place of My Own”, a copy of the original recordings for the Richard Sinclair/Hugh Hopper project which ended up being released in the Nineties as ‘Somewhere in France’ and a scrapbook containing all of the posters and photos of both the Haxmady gigs and a later set of gigs in the Nineties when he put on Gong and Tim Blake.
But back to Hugh:
“I remember him telling me about Whitney Houston doing ‘Memories’. And he was really upset she didn’t put it on the album because it would have seen him all right moneywise! And do you know within a few weeks I got hold of the French version of the 12” single which I gave him. But isn’t that weird, I wouldn’t have even known…”
Hugh also gigged with the band briefly. There will be more in the book about Hugh’s later involvement with Gizmo (he appeared on a Van Der Graaf Generator tribute CD called Eyewitness performing Gizmo’s cover of ‘House with No Door’ which also later appeared as a bonus track on the CD release of the ‘Gizmo’ album and still available at http://www.gizmo.uk.com/buy-online.html, Our conversation didn’t talk about Gizmo as much but interested readers should check out the extensive Gimzo archive at http://www.gizmo.uk.com/history.html, which includes a biography and full details of how to get copies of the 4 available albums.
Instead Dave left us a nice story about Hugh helping out in his shop in the Noughties:
“Somebody on the Canterbury scene Facebook group said that he went into the shop to buy a Hugh Hopper CD and Hugh was behind the counter! And he said, “I was so embarrassed I couldn’t buy it!”. I wonder if he bought something else instead or just walked out. But another thing I remember very well. He’d been to Europe and then he went to Japan afterwards and I thought he was back from Japan. Two boys and a man came into the shop, I think the wife might have been outside and they were huge Soft Machine and Floyd freaks, the father and son in particular. I think the other boy was a friend and he was on holiday from Belgium with them. And I used to have quite a lot of Canterbury CDs and they were pulling out the Hugh stuff and they were saying, ‘oh we saw him in Belgium blah blah blah’. And they said, ‘we’d like to buy these’. And I thought, I wonder if he’s back from Japan? And he was actually half way between Tankerton and Chartham, where the studio was. And I said, ‘There’s a few people here, is there any chance of signing a few CDs they’re buying?’ And, he said, ‘yes I’ll come via Canterbury’, and he parked his bike outside and he came in and got the father and the son and the son’s friend, and they were almost speechless. He signed their stuff and had a chat with him and went over to the studio. The son came back in the evening, he must have spent the day in Canterbury, and he said, ‘thank you for that, that has absolutely made my father’s holiday’. And they went on to try and find Syd Barrett, or his haunts.”