Tuesday, April 04, 2006

A Canterbury Tale

Soft Machine - Kings And Queens

So now we have to say goodbye to the excellent Elton Dean, who died on the 8th of February at the age of 60. Many years ago I found a copy of Soft Machine’s “Fourth" in an extremely dodgy second hand shop. Come to think of it, that’s where I picked up “Apollo” and “Another Green World” by Eno, “Disraeli Gears” by Cream, a 12” of John Cale’s “Hedda Gabler” with the wonderful "Chicken Shit" on the flipside and (oh dear me) Bo Hansson‘s musical interpretation of “The Lord of The Rings“. Hooray for dodgy second hand shops, by the way. Zones of the unexpected in a ridiculously nailed down world.

Anyway, back to Soft Machine. The sleeve impressed me. It was all dimply - I’m sure there’s a technical term for it, but dimply will have to do - and the record was ridiculously heavy. And the music was, well, pretty heavy, too: dense electric piano chords, free shapes aplenty and Wyatt pulsing around the kit. I loved it then and I love it now.
Now, Mr Robert was not singing by this point in the Softs career. They’d seen off Daevid Allen (not a good enough musician) and Kevin Ayers (touring knackered him and anyway he liked pop). “Third” contained “Moon In June”, Wyatt’s last song for the band. It’s a classic. Trouble is, you can tell it’s Robert’s thing and the others aren’t too keen. That might seem like a nutso judgement now, but I’m not so sure. They were trying to focus.

The first two albums are great, but they’re absolutely all over the show. This is what you would expect from a band that pretty much defined the whole UFO scene. But psychedelia couldn‘t last. Syd knew it. He chose a career in gardening (eventually). The Softs decided you could only be quirky for so long and “Moon In June“ was goodbye to all that. They rolled out the chops instead.

And by God, did they have the chops. “4” is a blazing example of British modern jazz, hardly surprising given Dean had played with Keith Tippett who, along with the likes of Marc Charig, turned up on King Crimson albums. Charig plays on “4”, too. This is great because there was a stupid amount of snobbery kicking around the jazz scene about associating with “rock” acts. Crimson? Softs? Rock?? Yeah, and Spring Heel Jack play old skool drum ‘n’ bass.

Of course, there was another trap waiting. What had been an escape from the novelty ridden 60’s was soon nailed as 70’s red brick university relaxing after writing my essay music, something else for the snot nosed punks to kick out at. But everything (including punk) is there to be reappraised, and as Matthew Shipp has proved with Spring Heel Jack, there’s life in the old Fender Rhodes yet.

Anyway, what does it matter? We have no choice but to use what is available to us in the time we pass through, whether it be influences or equipment. And Elton played the best instrument there is - the saxophone. He played it beautifully.

Rest in peace. I’m saying that a lot these days, what with Mr Dean, Derek Bailey, dear old Ivor Cutler, Nikki Sudden, on and on it goes - but what else can you say but rest in peace. Now will you all please stop dying?

Buy - Fourth/Fifth from Amazon
Buy - Fourth/Fifth from iTunes
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