BBC Radio 1971-1974

Soft Machine

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BBC Radio 1971-1974 Review

by Richie Unterberger

Combined with Hux's previous Soft Machine BBC anthology, the two-CD BBC Radio 1967-1971, this set (also two CDs) finishes a complete retrospective of the group's BBC sessions. All but two of the tracks on BBC Radio 1971-1974 ("As If" and "Drop," from a November 1971 session) were previously unreleased, and all are in fidelity equal to that heard on the typical studio album. This compilation is considerably less exciting than BBC Radio 1967-1971, largely because it postdates the lineups including Robert Wyatt and/or Kevin Ayers, which produced the band's best work. Still, it does reflect the completion of their journey from a weird psychedelic pop group (as they were in 1967) to a wholly instrumental jazz-rock one, at times much heavier on the jazz than the rock, in one instance (the synthesizer-drum duet "North Point") going beyond jazz into purely avant-garde experimentalism. Four lineups are heard on these four sessions, keyboardist Mike Ratledge being the only constant, but the sound is actually fairly consistent cerebral fusion with a touch of progressive rock, particularly when Ratledge's idiosyncratically buzzing organ comes to the fore. At times the material actually goes outside of free jazz territory, especially on the 1971 session when Elton Dean was still part of the lineup. Otherwise, it's very much of a piece with the albums from which many of the songs hail (Fifth, Six, Seven, and Bundles), the instrumental proficiency and electric jazz-rock verve not wholly compensating for the loss of wit and humor in the post-Wyatt lineups.

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