This CD marks the first release of a live performance by Soft Machine's Bundles line-up featuring Allan Holdsworth on guitar. This concert, recorded for Radio Bremen in January 1975, consists of most of the Bundles material, which hadn't yet come out although in the can since the previous summer, plus a couple of band improvs and solo showcases for Mike Ratledge, Roy Babbington and John Marshall. That era of the legendary UK pioneers of jazz-rock, Soft Machine, was unique in that, taking the band's long established tradition of continuous change to an extreme, when Holdsworth joined all the previous repertoire was abandoned, literally at once, in favour of brand new material written by Karl Jenkins and, to a lesser extent, Mike Ratledge. This made the new Soft Machine even more difficult to compare with its predecessors, and gave the band a well-deserved chance for critical reappraisal. At long last, reviewers stopped bemoaning the loss of the band's father figures to judge the new line-up on its own merits. As a consequence, positive reviews again began to pour in, and 1974-75 was to prove Soft Machine's second golden age in many respects.
The following is an account of this period provided by band members themselves, compiled by Aymeric Leroy from original interviews with Karl Jenkins, Roy Babbington and John Marshall, with extra Allan Holdsworth quotes borrowed from various archival interviews.
JOHN MARSHALL: When I was asked to join Soft Machine, although I'd heard them briefly at Ronnie Scott's, I had very little knowledge of their music. My attitude was, as in most situations, that 'the music begins here'. The group's tradition would reside in the existing players and the interaction between us should produce something new, but relating to what went before. Mike [Ratledge] later told me that they'd wanted to ask me to join when Robert left, but I was with Jack [Bruce]'s band. When I joined them, the atmosphere was pretty tense. There had been disagreements between Mike and Hugh [Hopper] on one side, and Elton [Dean] on the other, in essence with Elton wanting the music to be freer and Mike and Hugh favouring a more structured approach. Perhaps they saw my bilateral approach as capable of reconciling the situation...Or perhaps not ! Elton left not long after to pursue the freer approach with Just Us. Karl [Jenkins] was a candidate to replace him, firstly because he was interested in this area of music - like me starting from the jazz end of things - and secondly he was a keyboard as well as a horn player. Karl and I had of course played together a lot and were very good friends, so I thought he would make a good replacement.
KARL JENKINS : What happened, in practical terms, was that John was already in the band, and I'd known him from Nucleus and even before that. I'd also known Mike socially, as Nucleus had done a couple of festivals opposite Soft Machine. So when Elton Dean left they asked me to join. But initially I joined as a saxophone player, in a sense, because I was replacing a saxophone player, although I played keyboards as well, and oboe...I came from a different kind of background than most of the other people in Soft Machine, in that I was classically trained, which no one else was in that band. I was a classical musician first, then I got into jazz, and then after that Soft Machine occupied that space. It was like a period along my musical journey, if you like, at one stage in my life. But the Soft Machine thing was very important, in the use of jazz rhythms in a rock framework, using different time signatures, with an improvisational feel... It was very important, and if I hadn't done that, I probably wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now. So it was crucial to the development of what I'm doing. Soft Machine was always an ongoing and changing thing. It was also a slightly unusual band in that, although it was a well-known name, it was never a fashionable band and it never really had hits anywhere, which I suppose is the kind of things bands do play if they're doing a concert. When Clapton plays, he has to play "Layla". There was nothing comparable to that in Soft Machine. Of course there were popular things on Third , and all that, but they were long pieces, and the band's instrumentation had changed and no longer suited them. Also, the set always changed. Very often we'd decide the order in the dressing room before going on. There was no setlist that we'd stick to every night. We'd change it, and if some of it didn't work we'd change it round again. It was moveable in that sense, it was always changing and taking different forms.
JOHN MARSHALL: Karl usually turned up with a very good idea of what he wanted. Everybody got lead sheets where they had a special part to play. Obviously sometimes we'd make changes to how we did the solos, but in general Karl always had a pretty good idea of how the thing should develop.
KARL JENKINS: As a composer, I suppose I wrote within the instrumentation of the band, using what was there.
JOHN MARSHAL: The basic thing was, what they were looking for when Elton left was a horn player who could also play piano. Really that's all. As it happened - I wasn't aware of it at the time, but Karl's process was gradually to be less interested in playing and more in composition.
KARL JENKINS: I gradually began to play more and more keyboards, and soloed less. But that wasn't a political decision of the band, it was just my own feeling. I was becoming increasingly less interested in playing, in improvising, than in composing. It happened to correspond with Mike writing less and less. I don't know why - I never asked him, really. Maybe I wrote quicker than him, maybe I was more prolific because of the way I worked, and maybe he took longer. Maybe there was more of my music coming in that was being performed than his. But it wasn't a policy decision, it wasn't anything we discussed between us. It just evolved and happened.
JOHN MARSHALL: We were already playing riffs when I joined. We always did play riffs, but Karl had a particular type of riffs that were special to him - unique little riffs, very odd. And he'd been doing those for years - with Graham Collier and then Nucleus... So that started off as just some of it, and then it gradually became more and more.
ROY BABBINGTON: Karl was the most prolific writer by the time I joined, along with contributions from Mike. So it was Karl's concept that made it evolve out of the kind of rough-and-ready, 1971-73 band, into the 1974-75 band. It was always fresh and interesting. I think I'd ended up getting a bit of a bad reputation for being in all these bands at once ! But when Soft Machine came along, with most of the concert work being abroad, obviously it meant that something had to change, and I then became quite insulated from the London scene. Of course I was still connected to it, but by virtue of the fact that I spent a lot of time out of the country, I tended to lose connections.
JOHN MARSHALL: As I said, Karl was getting less interested in playing. He wasn't interested anyway in being the big soloist. That's another reason why we needed someone who would really enjoy playing solos. That's the real thing - you have to enjoy it, you have to want to do it. And Allan certainly did !
ROY BABBINGTON: When we were a quartet, Karl used to play oboe and baritone sax as well as keyboards. It gave the band a broader palette. But Karl didn't really want to keep playing oboe and sax. So we really needed another voice to contrast our music. Also, the band now had no vocal capacity. When Robert Wyatt was in Soft Machine, he was a great asset to the band, with his lovely demeanour and his way of delivering off-the-wall lyrics - I felt it was wonderful. But of course that element had gone, and we were into a totally different kind of music now, even though the band was still bearing the name Soft Machine. You've got to get out in front of an audience, and wow them - you've got to make it work ! And there was no way we were going to go on a stage and do what the band was doing three or four years ago. Hence you move on.
JOHN MARSHALL: As far as I can remember, after we'd done the Seven album, we found that playing live, it was like there was a big build-up of energy in the band, and it felt like it needed to go somewhere. And some of the stuff on that album was not as strong live as the previous stuff, which I suppose would be mostly from the Six album at that time. So it felt like it needed some extra thing to push it. Allan was around at that time. He'd not long been down in London, for eighteen months or a couple of years maybe. So I said, 'Oh, this guitar player around is really special, and maybe it'd be a nice move to have him'. And we tried him out, we did a workshop for the Musicians' Union. He seemed happy - we certainly were !
ALLAN HOLDSWORTH: I started playing guitar when I was about 16 or 17 after I left school, because I'd always been interested in music. My father was a pianist, so I was exposed to a lot of music at home. I was in a few semi-pro bands around Bradford, where I was born. It was all working men's clubs and that type of thing. After that, I got in one of those Mecca bands in Sunderland and Manchester and played with them for three years. I eventually met Ray Warleigh, the alto player, and he told me that he had a spare room in London because I wanted to move, so I stuck it out with the Mecca band for a while and then decided that I couldn't take it any more. I left to go down to London and moved in with Ray. I couldn't have done it without his help, really. It's pretty hard if you don't know anybody... I was lucky, really, because I hadn't been down very long and somebody told Jon Hiseman about me and he called and asked me to play, and that brought about Tempest. That was my first pro band. Then I left Tempest in the summer of 1973. The connection with Soft Machine happened by accident. There was a guy called Brian Blain, who worked for the Musicians' Union. He helped me a lot when I was starting out. He really liked me and tried to put me in different situations - I did some clinics for instance, and that's how I met John Marshall. Basically he wanted Soft Machine to do a clinic but he also wanted a guitarist so he called me separately and told me we could rehearse a few things before the clinic. I just learnt a couple of their simpler numbers and we did them. They obviously liked it as they asked me to play a few gigs with them, as a guest. That's how it started and I just gradually sort of... stayed. With me in Soft Machine the band changed enormously, the guitar became most important solo instrument. It was in Soft Machine that I began to really develop my own sound.
KARL JENKINS: It wasn't, you know, 'We'll find a guitar player'. That's never been the policy. Even later, when we had Alan Wakeman on sax or Ric Sanders on violin, it was always the player rather than the instrument. And both John and I knew Allan from the time he came down from Yorkshire with this band called 'Igginbottom, and later with Tempest.
ALLAN HOLDSWORTH: To be quite honest, I never thought about [Soft Machine's past]. I hadn't heard what had happened before, which may be a good thing, because then you're not trying to keep something alive. The band wanted to do something new, they wanted to change all their material at the time, and everyone was playing new tunes and things, so it was sort of new for everybody, really. I think it would have been the same whichever way it had been, because if I'd been replacing somebody, I think they'd still have changed the material anyway.
ROY BABBINGTON: Allan blew the pants off anybody. There was nobody to touch him. You had to be around at the time to suffer the shock of hearing him. You'd go, 'Jesus Christ, where's that coming from ?'. There was this geezer from Bradford, just pouring with music, absolutely amazing. I mean, everybody wanted to play with him !
JOHN MARSHALL: Allan doesn't read music, but he's got ears like you wouldn't believe ! So you had the rest of us reading it, and he picked it up very quickly, so in fact we'd get the music right pretty quickly.
ROY BABBINGTON: Allan coming in - that was a real departure from the original concept of Soft Machine. But then the band's membership had always been fluid, more so than with any other band I think. It was more a pool of contributors. Of course, at the time, with all the line-up changes, a lot of people thought it was a takeoverbid, or something like that. But I can't, quite frankly, read it like that. All I know is I was involved at the time... One day follows another... It was interesting to be involved !
KARL JENKINS: I think it was around the time John [Marshall] joined them that people started saying, 'This is not Soft Machine'. But all bands evolve. The crunch time was when Mike left. Someone said, 'Why don't you change your name ?'. In a way they were right. But it had evolved from what it had been. Also we were working musicians, and loved what we did. We were creative working musicians, so what's better ? Should we go on as Soft Machine and play to 3000 people ? Or call it, I don't know, X-Y-Z, and turn up and there's 20 people there ? What's the sense in that ? So there's two reasons. One was common sense, and the other was, we did feel as though we had been part of the band's past, although we didn't go back as far as Mike and Robert and the rest of them. I don't think it was a false claim in any way.
ROY BABBINGTON: It was felt by some, at one point or another, that the band were disenfranchising their audience. Because the people who heard the records had heard about the band touring the States with Hendrix, good feedback and all that. And of course your infamy precedes you. People would see the name on the posters, they'd go along and they'd expect to hear what the group was doing in the old days. But Soft Machine weren't quite like that. We went out to play the music we wanted to play.
KARL JENKINS: My writing in the band gradually changed, especially, of course, when our instrumentation suddenly altered. When Allan came in, it was the first proper guitar player that the band had had, and obviously the sound changed. Also, as I began playing mostly keyboards, Mike and I developed the dual-keyboard thing, which made for more opportunities in patterns and working things out between us.
JOHN MARSHALL: It was just a general progression. The sound of the band was different, and bigger, with Allan in. Also, Karl was getting more and more interested in composing, and because he was then concentrating more and more on just keyboards, there was no need for him to do much solo work. There was no pressure for him to do it. So he became more interested in expanding his palette, if you like, the sounds on the keyboards, as a sort of environment for people to play in. That was an extension of his composing in that sense. At that point we completely stopped playing all our old material. And the next tour, which was Italy, where we used to work a lot, everything was new. Maybe we did one or two old things, but that's all. Everything out ! Karl and Mike both came up with new stuff - what later became the Bundles album. I remember we were aware that we were taking a risk, because people come to concerts wanting to hear things they know. Especially with an instrumental band that played segue, it was nice to know a tune sometimes ! But I remember it worked ! We certainly felt, musically, that it did what we hoped it would do, which was open the band out. In a way it could have been any instrument, not necessarily a guitar, but somehow it was important that it was a guitar, because a guitar has a dual function : it's both a rhythm section instrument and a solo instrument. And it has - especially with Allan - a very wide range of sound. He was one of the very first people to get into synthesized sounds and things. So it fitted a lot of areas we were in, plus it took them out, because he was - and still is - an amazing soloist.
ROY BABBINGTON: When I came into the band, what we had to do was to produce an album that we would then go out and promote on a tour of the States, and that's what we eventually did. We did the East side of the States for about six weeks, then we would go back for two weeks and then go back to the West side. But that never happened, because CBS pulled the backing halfway through the tour. I don't know why, but they did. It was a terrible disappointment, because everything seemed to be going in the right direction, and all of a sudden it went straight through the hole. And back to England we come ! Of course, making it in America isn't easy. A lot of promoters over there didn't want to take the band on until they heard it. So really, what we should have done was to have gone over there, on a six-month basis for instance, and just toured around and picked up gigs as we went. That's the way most bands dealt in the States, I think. You couldn't expect to have a full itinerate before you left Heathrow : you had to get over there and work it. And get invited back, you know, make it snowball... So I think we did it slightly the wrong way around. But again, I can't speak for management. I was very young and naďve at the time, I was just following on.
JOHN MARSHALL: After the first leg of the tour we had a break, and we decided that, rather than stay on, we'd return to England and then come back. Meanwhile the roadies took the equipment on to the West coast. At that point CBS was going through some sort of crisis. I suppose sales generally were down, so they did what they usually do - go through the list, and chop bands out. 'Let's draw a line, anybody under that goes'. We were one of those bands. So they took the support away. We were left with a big decision : all our equipment was on the West coast, what did we want to do ? Did we want to go back to the West coast and try ? There were gigs there, but at this point we still weren't making any money. So - maybe it was a mistake, but we said, 'No, we won't do it'. It was going to cost us money to get the equipment back, but it might cost us even more to go there. As it turned out there were problems bringing the equipment back in : it got confiscated by the customs, and it ended up, financially, a disaster. And it was one of many at that time. The subtext of the band's career at that time was severe financial problems. Some dated back to before I joined the band - big debts I didn't know about, record advances that had been paid and used up before the records had been made, which meant that we were basically trying to make records out of gig income !
ROY BABBINGTON: Probably the funniest gig on that tour was St.Louis. I think we were supposed to be second on the bill to Wishbone Ash, but they pulled out two days before. And the audience changed overnight from a white audience to a black audience, in St.Louis.And the reason it changed that night was because instead of Wishbone Ash they'd put Earth Wind & Fire ! So we had to go and do our twenty minutes prior to Earth Wind & Fire. Now that was a bit rattling ! Because as I say you had a black audience in there, on their homeground, and you're five white boys going out there to sock it to them... But they liked it !
JOHN MARSHAL: It turned out surprisingly nicely. We'd heard what sort of stuff Earth Wind & Fire were playing during their soundcheck, so we looked out at the audience thinking, 'They're never going to like what we do' !... But we started playing and, after the first piece had died down, someone yelled out, 'Where are you guys from ?'. So we said, 'We're from London, England'. And the place just went 'Yeaaaah !'... And the rest of the set was great
KARL JENKINS : The records were fairly live, there weren't that many overdubs, not really. On Bundles , I guess Allan re-did a couple of solos. But because it was very much a live improvising band, not a studio-created band, we didn't layer things like they do now, using a click track and building things up from there. It was a live band, and it functioned better when there was quite a bit of internal reaction between the players. Of course that brought other problems, because when you play in a live situation you have no separation, everybody's instruments bleed on each other's mikes, so mistakes come with the good bits. This is why a lot of the records weren't perfect by any means. There's quite a few mistakes. But that didn't really matter : if the spirit is there, and the invention is there, I don't think that's so important.
JOHN MARSHALL: We did do some post-production work, like having the Cologne bell and stuff like that... But in fact, that take of "Hazard Profile", the very long one, and the long one of "Bundles", were just first takes. In fact we were very unhappy with the sound. But the performance was so good, especially from Allan, so we decided to use it anyway. There might be an edit here or there, but in fact they're live performances in the studio. We were disappointed at the time, because the sound wasn't what we wanted it to be, but in performance terms, that was the one. We'd always up to then got a kind of live-ish sound - there was always a certain amount of overdubbing, of course, but generally they're kind of live-ish albums - so this time we were trying to go for a better studio sound. In jazz terms I guess we took a long time - about a week ! In rock terms we were hardly in the studio ! Our whole approach to music was like that. Rehearsing new material only took a couple of days. Because our attitude was that the music developed on the gigs, so all we did in rehearsal was to get the stuff together enough to play it so it sounded kind of okay. And it's about several gigs later that it's beginning to really take its final shape. The difference between rehearsing and playing actual gigs is quite gigantic, unless you're in a sort of band that rehearses every single thing, which a lot of instrumental rock bands did, and still do : everything's taken care of, so when you go on stage it's the same. With us it was different. Things changed over time. Six months after recording a piece it was quite likely we'd be playing it... not massively different, but significantly different.
MICK STEVENS (roadie): I distinctly remember when they were mixing down the Bundles album at CBS studios, and I went along to check it out. I remember going into the men's room at CBS at one point. As I walked in, Allan was standing in front of the wall mirror over the wash basins, playing his guitar at blinding speed. My first reaction to myself was : 'What a wanker, he's posing in front of the mirror !'. Afterwards, when I went back into the studio to hear the mixdown, and I actually heard what Allan was playing on "Hazard Profile", my jaw dropped ! I then realized that he hadn't been posing in the bathroom, he was practicing scales and modes backwards in the mirror, to make the boredom of practicing more interesting!
JOHN MARSHALL: Anybody who's a player like that, they want to move on at some time. He did it just very suddenly. He said that he'd got the offer from Tony and he wanted to go, and we said, 'Fine, no problem. It's just that we've got a tour coming up, can you do the tour and then we'll looking for someone else ?'. But in the end, he left, actually, like five days before a tour. There was a note pushed under the door of the office, saying, 'I've gone to join Tony Williams'...
KARL JENKINS: Allan was that kind of bloke, you know. We were all very fond of him, and I still am, but... His departure certainly wasn't good planning !
ALLAN HOLDSWORTH: I wish I could have stayed longer, because the album, Bundles , was done right at the beginning and we worked together a lot after that. It would have been nice to have recorded another one, but unfortunately that was at the time when I got that opportunity to work with Tony Williams... I helped try to get Soft Machine hooked up with another guitar player and recommended a couple of guys, Ollie Halsall from Tempest and also John Etheridge who actually ended up playing with them. Having to make that decision was a real terrible thing, but of course you never get offered anything when you're not doing anything ! You always have to make some rough decision... I was really happy playing with the Soft Machine, but the opportunity with Tony just seemed like something I should do.