Larry Nowlin (4) on Soft Machine in 1966

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Soft Machine in 1967 : Kevin Ayers, Robert Wyatt, Mike Ratledge and Daevid Allen

Larry’s perspective on Soft Machine‘s music in this early period, although he was only in the band for about three months – then left and never looked back – is very interesting. First we discussed his general perspective on the UK scene, coming from a very different musical environment in his native California…

At the time, we kind of vaguely knew the Beatles were English. We weren’t too sure what ‘English’ was – “some place over there” ! So they were there, but that was pop music, and we were kind of in a different tradition. There was a little more folk, but also a little jazz, a different American tradition than the rock’n’roll tradition out there.

softhoepla67How would Larry define his role in the band as instrumentalist, and the general musical approach ?

I was the lead guitarist – I think ! We varied a little bit, but I think that was my role. I also sang, a little bit, mostly back-up. I wrote one or two songs – we tried doing one, but it never went anywhere. It was really Kevin and Robert. Daevid would also throw in some. Each had his own personality stamped on it. Kevin was more pop, Robert was more rock’n’roll and jazz-tinged.

Then when Mike Ratledge joined, it went a little more in the fusion direction. Mike was a trained musician, you know, like most keyboardists are. And he could read music and play music and he had this kind of intellectual jazz thing. He’d do a lot of back-up, chordal stuff and give you that wall of sound on that little organ thing that he had. He would also play solos – they’d give him so many bars to solo on.

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Mike Ratledge

I asked Larry to elaborate on Mike Ratledge‘s personality and contribution to Soft Machine at this early stage, long before he’d become the band’s musical leader :

Mike was that class of English guy, a bit stiff-upper-lipped and all that kind of thing, but at the same time with a little touch of ‘hip’. And he was tall, dark-haired… reserved, I suppose, wry sense of humour, not loud or exhibitionist in how he manifested himself. But what I liked was, he gave us some good, solid, musical kind of background which I don’t think we had before he joined. Everybody else was pretty much self-taught, “pickers and grinners” as we used to call them, as opposed to being trained musicians. So I think his presence definitely helped with the musicianship a lot, and helped us give some form to the music.

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Producer Mickie Most

What was unique about the band even then ?

I think the early Soft Machine was working hard to be competent, presentable band. Remember we are talking about teenage angst pop music, more about hormones than about music. Most the popular bands were pretty basic – Stones, Beatles, etc. The Yardbirds did have guitar players. Me ? Well, I was a wannabe. I think I played OK for the level of music we played, though I remember Mickie Most liked a solo I did during a practice session. Soft Machine was a kind of early “fusion” band, trying to blend elements of its various members. I think of them primarily as a pop band, with jazz, rock, pop, folk and bohemian elements.

gibsonl5We then turned to Larry’s equipment – what guitar(s) did he use ?

When I went over to Europe I had a Gibson L5, which is a really nice jazz guitar. I sold it, foolishly, in London. What happened was, somebody sat on it after one of our gigs, in the back of our van, and it got a crack in the back. I can’t remember if it buzzed a little bit or something, but anyway I went into some store in London and I traded it for two guitars, which they were more than happy to do ! So I took out a Fender Jaguar, and a Gibson-something that had double horns on it and a solid body.

Larry only played a handful of gigs with Mister Head, and then Soft Machine, but he stayed long enough to be part of the band’s first forays outside London…

Transportation was difficult for us. It was pretty much shoestring when I was with them. We didn’t have much money, we were scrounging along. It was pretty restricted to trying to get something going. We had a big Welsh guy who was our roadie – can’t remember his name. He was really hard to understand ! A West End, working class London guy. He was a guy that we knew, he started with us in Canterbury… Robert would remember him. A big guy, big nice guy, who humped the material around, loaded the van and set it up, and tried to keep all the mean drunks away from us, especially when we were out there with our flower pants on ! We tried to stay out of fights – that was always a problem, playing those little places. I remember almost getting into fights every time we played in these drunken, smokey clubs !

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Hamburg’s Star Club, where Soft Machine played their first concert outside the UK on 11th September 1966

What about the music as experienced from the stage ?

My recollection, especially when we were playing around Kent, is that we would go from one song to another, playing short sets and ignoring the audience pretty much. Then by the time we played in Hamburg, we were doing a bunch of jamming, and long – what can I call them ? – blues, psychedelic passages. But Hamburg was a complete disaster. We couldn’t hear each other on stage, we didn’t have monitors pointing back at us. So we lasted about half a gig and had to make our way back. But it was basically a set-up problem – we didn’t know how to set up right, or they didn’t know how to, so… we figured that out !

Larry couldn’t remember much as far as what songs were played at that point, though he identified “Hope For Happiness” as a “foundation piece” of the set (but wrongly attributed it to Robert Wyatt rather than Brian Hopper), and titles like “I Should’ve Known” or “A Certain Kind” were familiar to him, but not “We Did It Again” or “Why Are We Sleeping ?”

We used to write the song list down on a little piece of paper, with the keys for each song also so we knew what key we were playing in – on those rare occasions when we were all in the same key at the same time ! And we’d tape the pieces of paper to the top of the guitars, so we could remember what the hell we were playing ! That was a traditional thing we did in the States, like if I had to capo up – we didn’t capo a lot in those days but occasionally you had to.

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