1977. Punk was making a big impact and like many other teenagers at the time I listened to John Peel for the latest records by the likes of the Sex Pistols, Damned and Stranglers. However, I was saving my pocket money for a handsome-looking 3 disc compilation that had garnered glowing reviews in the music press: Soft Machine Triple Echo, a compilation of the first 10 years of the group. It came in a striking box with a twelve-inch booklet with lots of photos and one of Pete Frame's excellent family trees. I knew next to nothing about them, but I recognised the names of some of the former members, especially the seminal first incarnation 'dream' group of Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayres, Daevid Allen and Mike Ratledge - along with Pink Floyd probably the most interesting and creative of the British psychedelic bands. Fortunately I still have Triple Echo.
The first two lps are brimful with avant garde ideas and the beginning of Wyatt's post-modern playfulness with lyrics and deconstruction of songs ('thanks for this coda Mike, you've done us proud'). This was also a characteristic of later groups such as Hatfield & the North - all part of the Canterbury Scene, together with others such as Caravan, Egg, Khan, Steve Hillage etc. who in many cases were more jazz-influenced than most prog groups of the time. My favourite track on Triple Echo was The Moon in June, Wyatt's contribution to the double album Third - however this was a specially-recorded Top Gear version radically different from that on the lp (I only heard the original a couple of years ago) with alternative lyrics and a stunning Lowrey organ solo from Ratledge. Another live version here.
The received wisdom has been that after Third the group became less interesting in its quest to become yet another fusion band. Many members were drawn from Nucleus - a fascinating group that really needs a reassessment - the first three or four lps are definitely worth checking out. In the later records there's interesting use of synths and sequencers and after years of operating without a guitarist the group had two (at different times) of the most proficient from the 70s: Allan Holdsworth and John Etheridge.
A couple of weeks back I made my way to the Borderline off Charing Cross Road to see Soft Machine Legacy. Confounding my expectations, the joint was absolutely rammed (to an almost unsafe degree by the entrance) - luckily there was an interval and I managed to find a less congested spot further back. It's basically some of the Softs lineup: Etheridge on guitar, Roy Babbington on bass, the ubiquitous Theo Travis on sax, flute and keyboards - John Marshall was unwell and Nic France from Travis's Doubletalk was on drums. A really good show with old songs interspersed with the new (they are not a self-tribute act) - a few of the later classics, Facelift, Kings and Queens, and two of my favourites: Hazard Profile 1 and Tale of Taliesin. Needless to say, they didn't play Why Are We Sleeping or We Did It Again (sadly).
Also recently saw Three Trapped Tigers at the rather shabby Heaven near Charing Cross. Much younger crowd and a genuinely exciting live band: volcanic guitar (doing some interesting stuff with harmonics), heavy keyboards and a drummer on steroids and Duracell batteries. They are usually classified as a jazz band, but if they ever appeared at the Hastings Jazz Club (I wish) most of the punters would head for the doors after the first guitar thrash. Highly recommended. Some music here (played on the night and reminding me of Todd Rundgren's Utopia c.1975) and here.
Having said that, Jazz Hastings is a very worthwhile venture and is apparently in some financial difficulties. There is a benefit performance to help remedy this situation on Tuesday 10th January featuring such eminent players as Jason Yarde and James MacMillan. See you there.
Author of Subterranean City, Beneath the Streets of London, London's Coffee Houses, Decadent London, The Folklore of London, Subterranean City (Revised and Expanded Edition), Netherwood, Last Resort of Aleister Crowley, Lord of Strange Deaths, the Fiendish World of Sax Rohmer; Secret Tunnels in England, Folklore and Fact