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Reel Recordings II

Monday, July 04, 2011

Tim Owen with a second look at the Reel Recordings catalogue. This time he looks at valuable recorded documents featuring the music of both Soft Machine and Kevin Ayers.

When recently scanning the impressive Reel Recordings catalogue for titles to review for a recent label feature (which you can read here) I noted titles by Kevin Ayers and Soft Machine among them.  I’ve recently been taking a closer listen to those artists, filling in a few gaps in my Softs awareness and tracing the many comings and goings of its members, particularly the subsequent careers of formative members Robert Wyatt and Kevin Ayers. The song-based music of the late ‘60s Soft Machine (Ayers, Wyatt and Mike Ratledge), which recorded the first two albums, is quite different to that of the increasingly jazz- and later jazz fusion-oriented ensembles that succeeded them. And numerous incarnations came and went without releasing any official recordings, so the groups’ collective legacy has always seemed rather patchy. Thankfully a number of recent releases, mostly of unearthed live concert recordings and radio sessions, have filled in many gaps, and each one sheds new light on the existing catalogue. The Soft Machine tapes Reel have uncovered are among the most compelling. Kevin Ayers’ career post-Soft Machine is well documented on Studio albums, but he has always been a reluctant live performer. In 1970, still best known from his membership of Soft Machine, he acquiesced to pressure and took his first and last dedicated touring band on the road. The appearance of a live recording of that group adds something vital to the record.

Soft Machine
Live at Henie Onstad Art Centre 1971
Reel Recordings, 2 CD + CD-ROM

This impressive double album captures the 1971 quartet of Mike Ratledge, Hugh Hopper, Robert Wyatt, and Elton Dean - the relatively stable line-up that recorded the album ‘Fourth’ - in performance at the Henie Onstad Art Centre in Høvikodden, Norway, just six months before Robert Wyatt quit the band for a solo career. Wyatt’s persona as a singer/songwriter is now so well established that it’s easy to forget that he was once primarily renowned as a drummer. As captured on these recordings, his playing combines John Bonham’s loose masculinity with a healthy dose of Elvin Jones’ swing. Wyatt weathered Soft Machine’s internal politics much better than Kevin Ayers, but eventually he also militated against the ever greater focus on technical accomplishment, at the expense of any residual eclecticism or eccentricity. On his subsequent early solo albums, ‘End of an Ear’ and those with Matching Mole, Wyatt would focus primarily on experiments in musical eclecticism and characteristically idiosyncratic song writing. This album adds to the few that capture Wyatt the drummer at his formidable peak, driving a band that is arguably the high point of its musical evolution.

‘Live at Henie Onstad Art Centre’ presents two live sets on two CDs, and packages them with an information-packed CD-ROM. Each of the two sets are continuous, and they are presented unbroken, with no index points, hence sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint the exact transition point between one title and another. However, recognisable themes are detectable , and I was able to make an incomplete listing even before I unearthed the full list from the CD-ROM. For those without the technology, both sets alternate tracks from the ‘Third’ and ‘Fourth’ albums, the first being composed of “Facelift”, “Virtually”, “Slightly All the Time”, and “Fletcher’s Blemish”. The second set begins with Elton Dean’s “Neo-Caliban Grides” (from a self-titled solo album released the same year), “Out-Bloody-Rageous”, “Eamonn Andrews” (a link track so named after the talk show pioneer), “All White” (from ‘Fifth’),  “Kings and Queens”, “Teeth”, and “Pigling Bland” (also from ‘Fifth’). The group finally encore with the non-album track “Noisette”.

The sleeve notes assert that “all instruments, except saxes, (were) variously processed with electronic effect devices”, but the essay adds that ““the intimacy afforded by (the venue) enabled the group to play exclusively through their own stage amplification”. The electronic effects actually sound pleasingly analogue now, giving the bands’ instruments a vivid electric charge. The closeness and the exactitude of the recorded sound alone would be enough to make this release special, but the Soft Machine put in an astonishingly tightly-wound performance that has far too many highlights to summarise. The second set loses momentum around twenty minutes in, where “Out-Bloody-Rageous” segues into “Eamonn Andrews” and the group drop away beneath Wyatt’s echoplexed, wordless vocal, but that’s about as critical I can be. The extended climax that is the encore of “Noisette” should be enough to convince any sceptics.

As if the two hours of performance audio aren’t enough, the bonus CD-ROM, titled ‘The Soft Machine Sound: The Electronic Acoustic Experience Examined’, collates various resources including essays on “Analogue Recording Culture” and “Amplification and Environmental Vicissitudes”, a discussion of Soft Machine’s 1970 collaboration with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, an illustrated look at their live work with projection artists Mark Boyle and Joan Hills. All of these strands are pulled together by a final article, which discusses the performances at Henie Onstad Art Centre track by track, the text studded with audio excerpts.

While my personal ‘essential Soft Machine’ recommendation bar none remains the Hux set ‘BBC Radio 1967-1971’, for jazz fans or anyone with an interest in the more grounded aspects of jazz fusion, ‘Live at Henie Onstad Art Centre 1971’ is just as essential.

Kevin Ayers and The Whole World
Hyde Park Free Concert 1970
Reel Recordings

Four months before played the Henie Onstad shows, Robert Wyatt took the stage as a member of his old Soft Machine colleague Kevin Ayers’ touring band, The Whole World. Also in the band were Ayers’ orchestrator of choice David Bedford on electronic piano and organ, a young Mike Oldfield on bass guitar, and veteran jazz iconoclast Lol Coxhill on saxophone and sundry other instruments. Ayers was, at this time, only two albums into his solo career, and The Whole World had been convened for the latest of them, the then unreleased ‘Shooting at the Moon’. The band tear into Ayers carefully constructed compositions with abandon, making a virtue of the inevitable rough edges and imperfect sound of the Hyde Park PA system. In fact the sound is remarkably good, all things considered. The set list draws exclusively from ‘Shooting at the Moon’ and Ayers compositions from ‘Soft Machine Volume Two’.

The set is magnificent in its thrown-to-the-wind abandon. On the opening number, “Clarence in Wonderland”, Ayers takes a solo and plays his electric guitar as if he’s never picked one up before. It’s a reminder that he was never comfortable with the latter Softs-style muso aspiration. His quest for expression was more intimate and personal. His collaborators in The Whole World are similarly hamstrung by excess of individuality, all fine musicians in their own distinctive ways. In “Colores Para Dolores” the band fall in beautifully behind a wonderful Lol Coxhill solo and Wyatt gets a steady rhythm going. Ayers, meanwhile, is channelling the Skatalites’ ‘Jah Jerry’ Haynes, and somehow this works nicely. Genius! The group treat the song portions of the ‘Shooting at the Moon’ material quite gently, but really get stuck in to the extended extemporary sections that follow. They tear a strip off Ayer’s lovely album ballad “May I?”, and then positively rip through the comedic fragment that is “Hat Song”. Ayers barks out the lyrics accompanied by Coxhill on slide whistle, then elects to wrap the set up with two self-penned Soft Machine classics. A version of “Did it Again” forsakes the blunt repetitions of the Softs’ studio version for a snowballing locomotive tumble toward a pell-mell climax. Bedford’s injection of the theme barely manages to hold it all together. It’s exhilarating stuff. The heavy riffing “Why Are we Sleeping?” is begun loose and lazy and, despite its inherent muscularity, stays that way, taking the set down gently without dissipating too much of its rapidly generated tension.

‘Hyde Park Free Concert 1970’ seems pretty essential, a rare document of Ayer’s spontaneity within the context of his meticulously assembled studio recordings.

Kevin Ayers
What More Can I Say…
Reel Recordings

In vivid contrast to the Hyde Park set, ‘What More Can I Say…’ gives us an unexpectedly intimate insight into Kevin Ayers, heard working on demos of songs that would appear on various albums between 1970 and 1975. The tracks are taken from personal reel to reel recordings from Ayers’ personal archive. Reel are probably one of the very few labels who would see value in making such material available, and though it might be of mostly specialist interest they do us all a service by publishing it.

On three demos Ayers is loosely backed by close associates (David Bedford, Mike Oldfield and Robert Wyatt on “Crying”; Archie Leggett and Eddie Sparrow on “Crystal Clear), but the results are of little consequence, and will be of interest only to hardcore Ayers fanatics. Most will be more interested in Ayers’ solo demos, and Ayers’ running commentaries. These include an early version of one of his most beautiful songs, “Hymn”, from the ‘Bananamour’ album (here titled “This Song Isn’t Called Anything”), and “Diminished But Not Finished” from ‘Sweet Deceiver’ (simply titled “Unfinished). But the highlights are undoubtedly the final two titles, which provide a vivid insight into Ayers’ creative vision for his 1974 Island début, ‘The Confessions of Doctor Dream and Other Stories’.

“Dreaming Doctor” is a remarkable item, with Ayers recording on piano and organ. It would become the opening movement of the mini opus “The Confessions of Doctor Dream”. But by far the most interesting track is a fourteen minute slice of reel here titled “What More Can Anyone Say…”, in which Ayers talks an unidentified listener (perhaps David Bedford, perhaps someone at Island) through a sequence beginning with what he announces as “Blues”, which would eventually become “Everybody’s Sometime and Some People’s All the Time Blues”. At 4:49 Ayers returns to the title track, singing its lyrics with feeling and interjecting ideas for the dramatic and structural development of its four parts. He discusses what would become a stand-alone track, “It Begins With A Blessing/Once I Awakened/But It Ends With A Curse”, as a part of the “Doctor Dream” suite, and describes and sings an abandoned linking part for female choir. Ayers actually apologises for “the appalling quality of the singing”, but he’s too modest. He explains that he is “having almost to whisper this in a tiny room so as not to disturb anybody”, and it’s a real privilege to be allowed to listen in on such a private moment. The tape concludes with an extract from a piece to be called ““There Is No Trial”, but which would actually become “Two Goes into Four” the album’s brief coda. Of the ‘Doctor Dream’ project in general, Ayers says “I want to try to avoid it being a down feeling…I want it to be poignant and slightly sinister, but I don’t want it to be depressing. ...Most of the material by its nature is a bit sad…but it doesn’t need to be played like that or produced like that.” Anyone familiar with the finished product will know that Ayers was true to his vision. But in some ways I didn’t appreciate it until I heard these recordings, which cast it in a new illuminating light.

In addition to the titles discussed here, the Reel catalogue includes a 1978 concert recording (‘Al Dente’, RR008) by Soft Heap, a quartet led by the two mainstays of the later, fusion-era Softs, Hugh Hopper and Elton Dean. Also of interest, Reel’s latest offering is a two CD + DVD document of collaborations between one-time Whole Worlder Lol Coxhill and “electric guitar radical” G.F. Fitz-Gerald: a live gig on one disc, various tape works on the other, and, on the DVD, a 1981 film, The Poppy Seed Affair, with a soundtrack by Lol Coxhill in cahoots with Robert Wyatt and bassist Archie Leggett; a “comedic tour-de-farce”, as Reel say, which “juggles the insane, the inane with a twist of the profane”: limited to just 500 copies.

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