Soft Machine

Hugh Hopper, ex bass player with the Soft Machine, died of leukaemia on June 7th 2009 in Whitstable. He was 64 years old.

The irony here is that I was a Soft Machine fan, but I didn’t even know he lived in Whitstable until I heard that he had died.

This is very sad. It makes me think that we might have been friends, if only I’d have known.

I wonder how many times I might have passed him on the street or seen him in the shops and not recognised him?

I went to see Soft Machine at Mother’s Club in Birmingham when I was 17 years old and bought all of their records. I used to like that swirling fuzz-box organ sound of theirs and the way songs would seem to open out into waves of infinity.

They were the first rock band ever to play the Proms. I remember watching them on the TV with my Mum and Dad. I don’t think my Mum and Dad ever quite understood what it was all about.

Intellectual

The Soft Machine were one of the pioneers of what you might call “intellectual rock”: prog rock. Their very name was taken from a William Burroughs novel, and their music veered more towards Ornette Coleman style free jazz improvisation than the three minute pop song my Mum and Dad were used to. They were not a band you would ever expect to see on Top of the Pops.

At the same time, in their early years they were very playful. For example, on their second album there was a song called The Concise British Alphabet whose lyrics consisted of precisely that: all the letters of the alphabet, one by one, in order. The Concise British Alphabet Part II consisted of the same set of lyrics sung backwards.

You got the feeling they were making it up as they went along.

In later years they began to take themselves more seriously and I lost track of them.

The Soft Machine were part of a nest of bands, including Caravan, Gong and Hatfield and the North, which have since become internationally recognised under the collective name of The Canterbury Scene. No one, as far as I know, has yet written a proper history.

Hugh Hopper’s passing makes it all the more urgent that someone takes on this task.

 

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