Soft Machine

Rubber Riff

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Back in the days before the Cuneiform and Voiceprint labels began issuing a host of archival Soft Machine music (including reasonably well-recorded live sets from the so-called "classic" period of the band), bootleg tapes -- often live audience recordings of poor quality -- circulated widely among Softs fans. One of those tapes was a mysterious "lost studio album" called Rubber Riff, and fans might be forgiven for enthusiastically seeking out a tape of this session, or at least displaying healthy curiosity about why Soft Machine would record an entire studio LP that would then sit on the shelf, hidden well away from public ears. Granted, the recording was made by a Soft Machine lineup from the group's mid-'70s "fusion" period, a band that practically no one viewed as "classic." Nevertheless, keyboardist/composer Karl Jenkins, drummer John Marshall, bassist Roy Babbington, and guitarist John Etheridge had proven themselves capable of kicking out a reasonably solid and occasionally even exciting jazz-rock/fusion effort, Softs, during the same early-1976 time frame that Rubber Riff was recorded, even if the last original Soft Machine member, keyboardist Mike Ratledge, had departed the band for good and was relegated to "guest" status on that LP. So no one was expecting Rubber Riff to be another Third or Fourth, but another Bundles or Softs might not be out of the question.

Well, sorry folks, but those who managed to acquire a bootleg tape of Rubber Riff soon learned that the album was quite a different animal than even Bundles or Softs. As author Graham Bennett points out in his Soft Machine biography Out-Bloody-Rageous, at the time of its recording Rubber Riff was not intended to be a Soft Machine release, despite featuring basically the same lineup as Softs (with overdubs from flutist Ray Warleigh added after the principal session had been completed). Rather, Rubber Riff is an album of "library music," 14 instrumental tracks averaging two to three minutes in length and intended to serve as a pleasant and unobtrusive background for various broadcast purposes. As drummer Marshall says in the book, Karl Jenkins was looking toward his own future as a composer, and the Rubber Riff session was a helpful step for Jenkins in "getting his jingle assignments." That's not to say that the music isn't sometimes energetic, catchy, atmospheric, and even memorable -- although memorable as in the type of tune you'd like to force out of your head to make room for something more substantial. At least you can say that, in releasing Rubber Riff as a Soft Machine album in 1994, the Voiceprint label brought to the market a high-quality studio recording rather than a tape of dubious origin sounding like a cassette recorder had been left running on the seat of a cab, motor running and windows shut, waiting outside a venue where Mike Ratledge, Robert Wyatt, and Kevin Ayers may or may not have been playing in 1968. Otherwise, Rubber Riff would be well suited as background music for the Weather Channel, conjuring up such deep thoughts as: "Sunny with a light breeze during the morning hours. Increasing cloudiness in the afternoon with the possibility of a brief shower. Total rain accumulation one-quarter inch. Afternoon high temperature 75 degrees. Clouds clearing by early evening. Overnight temperatures dropping to 60 degrees." Well now, that's rather pleasant indeed.

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