The sun shines here all summer, it’s nice ’cause you can get quite brown

THIRDGATEF(I feel another Robert Wyatt post coming on…)

A chance glimpse of a friend’s CD collection after a night’s Christmas drinking brought forth a Robert Wyatt collection that got me thinking about the wonderful and awkward sounds of the Soft Machine once more. We put it on and “Moon in June” gambolled out of the speakers, its ungainly sprawl as enjoyable as ever, and it’s been floating about my head ever since. As luck would have it, my friends at eMusic were able to supply a copy of “ ’68”, with a new (to me) version of “Moon in June” and now it’s all kicked off…

Soft Machine

As a teenager, I was a regular visitor to Gloucester Record Library (a fabulous institution that, amazingly in these days of vulturous austerity and the dubious “Big Society”, still exists, sort of…). In those pre-income days, I spent quite a lot of spare time there, exploring racks of disks, with grimy plastic covers, more often than not coming away with something that looked like it might be worth a listen. I remember the time I came away with Soft Machine’s “Third” record, its mock brown paper cover and sparse track listing, giving away precious little. To find out at home that it was a double album and that each of the four tracks (none of them shorter than 18 minutes) took up a full side was, in those post-punk days, unpromising to say the least. On top of this, there were no guitars… Lawks!

Pretty quickly, though, I was hooked on Mike Ratledge’s spindly organ sound and the slowly unfurling horns of Elton Dean and colleagues. Less immediately enticing was the acquired taste that is Robert Wyatt’s fragile, unskilled vocals, but gradually, gently I became a fan of this too.

I’ve listened to “Third” fairly regularly ever since, rarely feeling that I’ve completely “got it” (still don’t, for that matter…) and, my interest re-triggered by “ ’68”, I fetched it off the shelf again last week. Still feels like a woozy, challenging listen that forces you to be flexible, patient, forgiving, even. It’s an ambitious and strange record, for sure.

My favourite track was always Hugh Hopper’s “Facelift” with its barnstorming combination of furious organ and saxophones, which was apparently basically a live recording with some tampering afterwards. It drones at times, swoops at others and swings pretty generously the rest of the time, till by the end, as the opening riff repeats forward and backwards, you feel like you’ve been on quite a journey. You can hear a pretty good version of it as the first part of this live concert from Paris (if you can ignore the occasional intrusion of fake applause crudely dubbed over it). Wyatt’s drumming, here, is magnificent – wristy, loose but disciplined – and worth wading through the rest of the concert for alone…

I’ve always been pretty uncomfortable with the idea of jazz-rock, and there’s a fair bit of That Sort of Thing in the rest of “Third”. The further the Softs went down that road the less exciting they became. I think this period catches them dabbling heavily in jazz for sure (Just say no, kids…) but still on the cusp of the psychedelic wave, with all the weirdness that went with that. In fact, there’s all sorts of other clever buggery going on here, even (and this may be because David Stubbs’ book is still fresh in my memory), to the point that I reckon I can hear traces of the metallic sounds of Neu and the art-chaos of Faust and Amon Düül…

Increasingly, though, it’s the meandering loveliness of “Moon in June”, that cuts through the fuzz for me. There are, of course, loads of different versions of the song out – the Softs have the largest back catalogue of live and archive recordings I think I’ve ever seen – three or four times the size of their official output.  Although it’s tempting to think that the “Third” version of “Moon” is the definitive one, the fact that there are so many versions (and they’re all pretty different) reflects the way Wyatt liked to cut and paste the song and take it in different directions.

Here’s a great improvised version for a John Peel session:

I think I read “Moon in June” was Wyatt’s last major contribution to Soft Machine and apparently the last song the band ever recorded with vocals. It’s essentially Wyatt’s letter from America and was largely recorded by himself because the rest of the band were apparently not very interested in it. Hopper’s fuzz bass and Ratledge’s insane solo were added later. Wyatt left in 1972, as Ratledge led the band off into the realms of the polo sweater, and that’ unwittingly is pretty much where I got off too.

His new band was Matching Mole, which I’m not really familiar with but I did come across this on YouTube from French TV also. It’s another great clip and it demonstrates more trademark eccentricity from the man (for it is he, ‘neath the knitted gimp mask) – both vocally as well as sartorially. It’s pretty good, but mostly notable for a demonstration of what an absolutely belting drummer the man was. I’m no sort of an expert on drumming but it seems to me his technique whilst being tight and incredibly muscular is also light, varied and always fascinating. Hard to take your eyes off him.

Here, watch:

What a guy…

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