University of Errors

Jet Propelled Photographs

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Pothead pixie Daevid Allen has been a major scene-maker since the late 1950s, when he landed in Paris from his native Australia and collaborated with minimalist Terry Riley and beat guru William S. Burroughs, and then journeyed to Canterbury, where he eventually recruited Robert Wyatt, Hugh Hopper, Kevin Ayers, and Mike Ratledge for a band that Allen christened the Soft Machine after one of Burroughs' controversial cut-up novels (with naming approval conferred by Burroughs himself). Denied reentry to Great Britain in 1967 at the height of Soft Machine's popularity because of a Visa violation, the tireless Allen then moved back to Paris and formed Gong, around which he developed an elaborate, spaced out, psychedelic mythology. The original Gong lineup disbanded in 1974, but Allen has been conducting a kind of shambolic musical/philosophical traveling circus ever since, with solo projects, various Gong offshoots (Mother Gong, Gongzilla, Planet Gong, etc.) and his most recent group, the University of Errors, which he impulsively formed in 1999 with a group of San Francisco musicians probably not half his age. On this, their fourth CD, Allen has decided go back to the source, reprising the very early history of the Soft Machine with nine songs originally recorded on a Soft Machine demo. (Allen had actually been separated from the group even before it recorded its first "proper" LP.) Also included are the "A" and "B " sides of the first Soft Machine 45" single release, and one song each from the first Soft Machine LP, and the first Kevin Ayers' solo CD, all of which were part of the Soft Machine's early set list. The Canterbury School in general, and Soft Machine in particular (as well as Allen's Gong) are often associated with long, spacey instrumental jams, but Wyatt, Ayers, Allen, and mutual friend Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd all had an interest in whimsical, psychedelic pop tunes that featured clever wordplay and slightly skewed arrangements. Ayers and Wyatt even flirted with commercial acceptance, and they both seemed vaguely surprised and annoyed, at first, that their music was not embraced by the record-buying masses. However, the objective truth is that the tricky rhythms, unexpected chord changes, and inscrutable lyrics were typically too eccentric to qualify as radio-friendly soundbytes. On his own recordings, and those with Gong, Allen himself has often been whimsical and eccentric to the point of self-indulgence, but on this CD, he handles the vintage Soft Machine repertoire with a perfect balance of respect and fresh energy. He even yields his lead guitar role to young bandmember Josh Pollock and concentrates on vocals, choosing (as he explains it) to let Pollock carry the day instrumentally with his superior guitar skills. Allen's reedy, cheerful voice is sometimes a dead ringer for Wyatt's, but this is no mere nostalgia trip. Allen's animated singing, together with Pollock's tart, wailing guitar, and the strong rhythm section of Michael Clare on bass and Warren Huegel on drums, reinvigorate early Soft Machine classics such as "I Should've Known" and the brilliant "Hope for Happiness," as well as many others. There's nothing musty and quaint about any of the music on this CD. It's still strangely compelling 40 years later, and for this, Allen certainly deserves some major credit.

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