If Ratledge sometimes seems to be underappreciated in certain Soft Machine album reviews and biographical summaries written by the rock press, there are a few possible reasons. First, he wasn't a singer with the band, and at least in the pop/rock world even instrumental virtuosos receive scant attention unless they open their traps and belt out a song once in a while. Secondly, during the Softs' early heyday he was arguably the principal force pushing the band away from the type of music pop/rock audiences and critics relate to the most -- namely, "pop/rock." Soft Machine were never a particularly commercial enterprise but it's still a giant leap from the psychedelic poppiness of "Love Makes Sweet Music" b/w "Feelin' Reelin' Squeelin'," the group's debut single in 1967, to the trippy minimalist looping, odd time signatures, unheard-of sonic textures, extended legato soloing, modal jazz structures, and innovative use of counterpoint heard in Ratledge's "Out-Bloody-Rageous," which filled an entire side of the two-LP Third set in 1970. Soft Machine were a collective and Ratledge was not the band's "leader" per se, but no other bandmember was more responsible for the Softs' stunning three-year trajectory from purveyors of somewhat whimsical stream-of-consciousness psychedelic pop to the more "serious" groundbreaking contemporary music that to this day defies easy categorization.
And also, Ratledge committed the cardinal sin of sticking around just a bit too long. Creatively, the keyboardist/composer probably peaked circa 1970-1971, but stayed with the Softs for another five years, still delivering some fine music that now deserves a second look -- and is getting that look thanks to archival releases like British Tour '75. Writing in his authoritative band biography named after Ratledge's "Out-Bloody-Rageous" track from Third, author Graham Bennett describes Ratledge finally leaving the band as "a sadly anonymous departure." Or perhaps, departures can be deemed sadly anonymous when they don't make great copy.
Mike Ratledge made great, innovative, and influential music, but among the members of Soft Machine he didn't make particularly great copy for journalists. Born in 1943 in Maidstone, Kent, he attended Canterbury's Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys two grades ahead of future Softs members Robert Wyatt (then Robert Ellidge) and Hugh Hopper, and his childhood was marked by piano lessons, music theory, and classical music. As a teenager he became interested in avant-garde jazz, notably Cecil Taylor, but Bennett's book places him somewhat to the periphery of the circle of youthful adventurers and experimenters -- Wyatt, Hugh Hopper and his brother Brian, Kevin Ayers, Daevid Allen, et al. -- whose musical exploits became the first bricks laid in the foundation of Soft Machine. In fact, in the early '60s when future Softs members were abandoning conventionality and pursuing pleasures musical and otherwise in London, Paris, and Majorca, Ratledge was attending University College Oxford on a state scholarship.
Ratledge did sit in as a guest pianist on live gigs by the Daevid Allen Trio (Allen, Wyatt, and Hugh Hopper) in 1963, but he was still at Oxford and not a regular member of the group; nor was the keyboardist a member of the Wilde Flowers, the British beat and soul-influenced band considered by many to be the precursor to Soft Machine and linchpin of the entire Canterbury scene. However, it is noteworthy that, although Out-Bloody-Rageous depicts ongoing interest in all things free and avant-garde among future Softs members during the early to mid-'60s, not much in the way of truly extraordinary music survives from this period -- not that these talented and exuberant kids should be expected to burst forth fully formed as geniuses or that high-quality recordings of them would have been made in the first place. Nevertheless, things seem to have really taken off after Ratledge graduated from Oxford during 1964, moved to London during 1965 following a bit of time in New York City, and then joined Wyatt, Allen, Ayers, and guitarist Larry Nowlin in Soft Machine during 1966.
Almost immediately, Soft Machine began undergoing a series of abrupt personnel changes and stylistic experimentation, and a "family tree" of the band in Out-Bloody-Rageous shows 17 incarnations of the group featuring Ratledge, with the keyboardist/composer present at the band's formation in August 1966 and persevering for a full decade until finally packing up his fuzz pedal and heading out the door in March 1976. The aforementioned early years, however, are the most astounding -- it is hard to think of any group in pop music making such radical transformations from album to album, and yet somehow retaining enough elements of a characteristic sound to keep the band's core identity intact. For that, listeners can thank Mike Ratledge and his Lowrey organ and fuzz box, his compositional style, and his soloing chops.
Ratledge's first organ in Soft Machine was a Vox Continental, which he soon replaced with a Lowrey Holiday Deluxe, relatively inexpensive compared with the Hammond he would have preferred. The Lowrey had a number of features that Ratledge put to good use (e.g., note bending), but suffered from a "weedy" quality (Ratledge's word) that he remedied by using a fuzz box, giving his keys an extra kick when the Softs opened for the Jimi Hendrix Experience on a 1968 tour of the U.S. With this setup plugged into a Marshall stack, seriously deranged volume levels were possible, but feedback was hard to avoid in the silences between notes. In a real-world example of the cliché about necessity being the mother of invention (and perhaps an inevitable Zappa reference as well), Ratledge found he could prevent feedback by avoiding the between-note gaps and forging on with his solos in a legato style, relentlessly pushing forward like a circular-breathing saxophonist who never takes a gulp of air until his solo is completely finished. Brian Hopper is quoted in the Bennett book describing the Ratledge soloing approach as "uncompromising strings of notes, leaps of musical structure and texture, and complex time signatures that all characterize a style not heard before or since."
Bennett himself notes that, although they had famously been used with guitars in rock music, "it was Mike Ratledge who apparently first thought of using a fuzz box with an organ." And fuzz organ soon became a signature sound of Canterbury-related keyboardists like Caravan's Dave Sinclair and Dave Stewart of Hatfield and the North and National Health. It should also be noted that, after replacing Kevin Ayers in Soft Machine, former band roadie Hugh Hopper was prompted to plug his bass into his own fuzz box in order to match the powerful overdriven burning tone of Ratledge's Lowrey.
On the aforementioned -- and grueling -- tour of the U.S. opening for Jimi Hendrix in 1968, the first trio formation of Soft Machine (Ratledge, Wyatt, and Ayers) held its own with the legendary axeman, and those unable to catch the live dates would soon be able to hear the trio on the band's eponymously titled first LP recorded in New York City at the tour's conclusion. The Soft Machine is a classic of psychedelic pop/rock dominated by Wyatt's idiosyncratic and self-referential vocals, and while the second side of the disc featured a multi-track suite, discrete pop tune structures remain a dominant feature. Ratledge's fuzz organ style is there -- he cuts loose right out of the starting gate on "Hope for Happiness," and both "So Boot If at All" and "Lullabye Letter" are effective vehicles for fiery organ solos, for example -- but classic Ratledge would be heard most prominently on the next year's Volume Two, recorded after Hopper replaced Ayers.
Early in the proceedings, the first portion of "Hibou, Anemone and Bear" displays a more sophisticated, jazzy Ratledge soloing freely over modal shifts and a tricky time signature, punctuated for the first time in the band's history by harmony sax riffing (provided by an overdubbed Brian Hopper on tenor and soprano). Volume Two closes with the "Esther's Nose Job" suite, with most of its individual sections written by Ratledge and with a cohesive, jazzy flow carrying the listener along. "Hibou, Anemone and Bear" and "Esther's Nose Job" in particular would become staples of the band's live performances (and excellent showcases for Ratledge's now patented organ sound and soloing approach); both pieces can be heard on such recommended archival releases as Noisette and Backwards on Cuneiform and "Esther's Nose Job" is featured on the noteworthy BBC Radio 1967-1971.
Continuing further along the path set by "Hibou, Anemone and Bear" and "Esther's Nose Job," Ratledge would reach his peak as a composer after Soft Machine signed a multi-album deal with Columbia and recorded Third and Fourth with the "classic" lineup of Ratledge, Wyatt, Hopper, and saxophonist Elton Dean supplemented by other hornmen in the band's orbit. "Slightly All the Time" (with sections written by Hopper) and "Out-Bloody-Rageous" on Third and "Teeth" on Fourth were creative jazz-rock of the highest caliber, despite some shortcomings in recording quality. Complex and multi-sectioned, these are fully realized compositions that combine diverse jazz, classical, minimalist, and experimental influences (Coltrane, Miles, and Terry Riley to name three) into something entirely unique that straddles a number of musical contradictions -- muted in its textures yet burning in tone, intricately complex yet propulsive, passionate yet austere, attention-grabbing yet possessing a spacy ambience. This was extended-form music to get lost in for listeners who had moved past the "pop" in psychedelic pop and weren't satisfied with three-minute "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"-styled snippets about somebody else's psychedelic experiences. This music was the real thing, and Mike Ratledge was key to its creation.
Conventional wisdom holds that Soft Machine plummeted off a creative cliff after drummer/vocalist Wyatt left between the recording of Fourth and Fifth, and therefore Wyatt must have been the man most responsible for the band's unique character and importance as a musical force up to this point. And while Wyatt's central role as the band's one-of-a-kind singer and oddball lyricist, not to mention powerhouse drummer, cannot be overlooked, it is exactly this type of conventional wisdom that fails to acknowledge Ratledge -- and also Hopper -- as mainly responsible for the creative apex documented on Third and Fourth. Wyatt's side-long "Moon in June," after all, was a modified re-recording of a piece he had first set to tape in 1968 (as heard on Backwards and Cuneiform's 2013 archival Robert Wyatt album '68), and thus was far from the type of new work being penned by Ratledge (and Hopper) that propelled the group into uncharted territories during 1970-1971. With the increasing prominence of pieces like "Out-Bloody-Rageous," "Slightly All the Time," and "Teeth" in the Softs' repertoire, Wyatt was proving himself to be a remarkable jazz-rock drummer, but no longer central to the group's vision. Yes, Soft Machine did implode after Fourth, concurrent with Wyatt's departure, but his leaving was not responsible for the group's eminent decline any more than he could be viewed as the composer of "Teeth."
What did prevent the band from continuing its upward path was the collective nature of Soft Machine as an enterprise, the resultant inevitable "creative differences" and sometimes strained relationships arising among the remaining principals, and the revolving-door personnel changes that would ensue for the next five years of the band's history (which left Ratledge stuck in that turning door as other musicians entered and left the building). Saxophonist Elton Dean was pulling the band in a free jazz, more fully improvised direction, which led to the brief appearance of Phil Howard as drummer on one side of Fifth; after Ratledge and Hopper prevailed in favor of John Marshall as a replacement for Howard, Dean also left, to be replaced by keyboardist/reedman/composer Karl Jenkins. Hopper would be next to leave, with Roy Babbington (who had premiered with the band on Fourth) taking his place on bass, and by then (the release of Seven, Soft Machine's final Columbia album before signing with Harvest) Ratledge was the last original member in the band. In fact, since Marshall, Jenkins, and Babbington were all former members of Nucleus, the group had evolved into a curious mix of three-fourths Nucleus and one-fourth Soft Machine.
Ratledge was also losing interest during these so-called fusion years, and it was fortuitous that Jenkins' compositional style was compatible with the direction the band was taking when the former Nucleus member joined prior to the release of Six. Like Ratledge, Jenkins wrote compositions that featured spacy looping interludes, odd time signatures, ostinato basslines underpinning reed and organ solos, and memorable thematic material possessing both logic and unpredictability. Jenkins also began focusing more exclusively on keyboards and dropping the reeds during the mid-'70s, and Ratledge's retreat became all the more inevitable.
And yet, even after the passing of the torch to Jenkins was well underway, Ratledge remained an inspired player until the very end of his tenure with the band. The soloing spotlight shifted to new recruit guitarist Allan Holdsworth at the end of 1973 and then guitarist John Etheridge (who replaced Holdsworth in April 1975), but Ratledge was still capable of cranking up the old fuzz organ, matching some of the best electric piano of the entire fusion era, and also throwing some new curve balls at a live audience on EMS synthesizer as late as the end of 1975, as heard on the British Tour '75 CD recorded at Nottingham University in October of that year. He was still a compelling presence on keyboards, with a unique quality that retained elements of the classic Soft Machine instrumental sound a full decade after the band's formation and long after his original traveling companions had left to follow other pursuits.
Ratledge would be relegated to "guest" status on Softs, after departing the group in early 1976 when that album's recording sessions were underway. (Until archival releases began appearing after the band's breakup, the final Soft Machine album featuring Ratledge as a full-fledged member would be Bundles, the first of the group's Harvest-label albums, recorded in July 1974 and released in March of the following year.) And while the next several decades would see other former bandmembers continue their jazz, rock, and avant-garde musical careers -- with Hugh Hopper and Elton Dean particularly willing to continue Soft Machine-related journeys in Soft Heap, Soft Works, and Soft Machine Legacy -- Ratledge essentially ended his days as a recording artist. He composed and recorded -- on Moog, ARP, and VCS-AKS synthesizers -- the hypnotic minimalist soundtrack to the 1977 experimental feminist film Riddles of the Sphinx directed by Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen (and the soundtrack finally saw release on the Mordant Music label in 2013). Ratledge also participated in sessions led by David Bedford and by Karl Jenkins, following Jenkins (who would find post-Soft Machine success with the neo-classical/new age Adiemus project) into the world of writing and producing background music for commercials. Returning once more to the Out-Bloody-Rageous book: Graham Bennett relates that, as of the mid-2000s, Ratledge had left music completely to pursue such activities as work on a CD-ROM concerning Venetian art and research for a British TV series on the history of facial hair.
Mike Ratledge was ultimately one of many musicians who shaped the character of Soft Machine over the group's ten-year history. It is interesting to note, however, that Bennett chose to name his extensive and authoritative book about the Softs after a Ratledge composition. As a word, "Out-Bloody-Rageous" is certainly a perfect title, one that succinctly encapsulates both the band and its era regardless of which Soft Machine member wrote the composition itself. Then again, one might argue that "Out-Bloody-Rageous," the composition, represents an absolute peak in the artistry of Soft Machine, and is a worthy title for that reason as well. And the composer of that piece, a musical high point for one of the finest ensembles to emerge from the heady days of the late '60s and early '70s, was none other than Mike Ratledge. ~ Dave Lynch, Rovi
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