Soft Machine were a British progressive rock band. Allan would record the album "Bundles" with them, and tour Europe and the U.S. Live recordings featuring Allan have been relased on the album "BBC sessions", "Floating World Live" and "Switzerland 1974". The concert in Switzerland was also released on DVD. Allan would later play as a session musician on the Soft Machine album "Land Of Cockayne" (in practice a Karl Jenkins solo album), and in 2004 would record the album "Abracadabra" with previous members of Soft Machine under the name Soft Works.
The lineup for "Bundles":
- Allan Holdsworth: guitar
- John Marhsall: drums
- Roy Babbington: bass
- Karl Jenkins: keyboards
- Mike Ratledge: keyboards
It’s well under a year since Allan Holdsworth joined the Soft Machine, and already his dazzling guitar work has contributed greatly to the international respect in which the band is held. I met him just after the Newcastle Jazz Festival, where, as well as playing a storming set, the Softs presented an instrumental clinic, a sort of rock seminar. I asked Allan how it went.
How did you come to join the Soft Machine?
I’d done a couple of those Musicians’ Union clinic things before, and when the Soft Machine were booked to do one they asked me to join them. They said they needed a guitar player for this one occasion: it was supposed to be a rock thing, so it would have been a bit silly without a guitarist. It went quite well so I was asked to do a few gigs with the band, to see how it went. The first gig I did officially with the Softs was in January.
Did you find it difficult to fit in with the Soft Machine? I think I managed to get in quite quickly, because all their repertoire at that time was new, so it was as new for everybody else as it was for me. The only thing that was strange was that I hadn’t played in odd time signatures much - but that’s nice, I’m beginning to enjoy that now.
Soft Machine are probably unique in the way that they can be so many different things to so many different people, without changing their music one iota: a rock band to rock fans, jazzmen to Jazz people, and can even play in occasional classical concerts of avant garde music.
But new boy Allan Holdsworth is more of a rocker - even though some would detect strong jazz influences in Jon Hiseman’s Tempest, with which Allan played before joining the Softs.
Soft Machine hadn’t had a lead guitarist since the early days before Daevid Allen had his work permit problems in the late Sixties, and so to most people the obvious change in their sound has been the addition of Allan Holdsworth’s guitar during the last 12 months.
In a sense, he has had an easier task than those new members who have replaced well-known Softs personnel, though of course he has had to carve out for himself a completely new niche in what was an established set-up, but he didn’t consider whether it was more easy or difficult that way.
"To be quite honest," he says, "I never thought about it. The band wanted to do something, they wanted to change all their material at the time, and everyone was playing new tunes and things, so it was sort of new for everybody, really.
"I think it would have been the same whichever way it had been, because if I’d been replacing somebody I think they’d have still been changing their material anyway."
"So many things have happened in jazz and rock," he points out. "Musicians who are growing up now, young guys who are coming in now, they’re influenced not by the separate things but by the combinations of things that people have been playing. So what Softs are doing is a new thing really, though what’s gone before affects us as well."
He met the Softs at an MU rock clinic and had a bit of a blow with them and it worked out quite well.
"They just wrote out a few simple code (sic, probably “chord”) things and really enjoyed it, it was nice, then did a few gigs as a guest, just feeling it out for both, to see whether they liked it or I liked it. Everybody seemed to enjoy it and then was asked to join, so I did.
"I think the band is really like a collection of people I know as people and I know in what ways they play and I’m pleasantly surprised at times."
In addition to his superbly fluid guitar line, a developing contribution by Allan to the sound of the Softs is his violin-playing which he has been working on for the past four years.
“What I would like to do is to write something for the band specifically for violin so I would have to play it but at the moment I don’t play it very much, which is my own fault because they ask me but I get nervous about it."
He has recorded with Soft Machine on "Bundles", playing two extraordinary long solos. The first of these is on Hazard Profile, Pt. II and it is a monster. Rhythmically, it utilises a three note pattern which recurs at frequent intervals, and which starts the solo off. The amazing Holdsworth speed is well displayed, and it’s so smooth; the notes glide out rather than tear out (as is the case with McLaughlin). And the lines themselves are substantive, irrespective of the velocity at which they’re expelled. Modes with chromatically altered notes, dissonances, even the occasional blues lick, all are fused into a surging motion, rising and falling. At two points in the solo, the accompaniment shifts from the droning tonic to a chorus of changes which Holdsworth follows effortlessly. Ingeniously at one point he changes two notes in a repeating line which perfectly address the changing harmony underneath. He is also featured on the title track which leads into Land Of The Bag Snake, in which a repeated sixteen measure chorus is divided into four changes. The dynamics of the guitar solo lie in the tension which immediately precedes each change, i.e. as anticipation of it leads to execution of it, it is again a fine solo.
I was lucky really because I hadn’t been down very long and somebody told Jon Hiseman about me and he called and asked me to play and that brought about Tempest. That was my first pro band. I left Tempest in about 1972 and a couple of months later, joined Soft Machine. That was an accident, it was through a Musicians’ Union clinic. They wanted Soft Machine to do a clinic but they also wanted a guitarist so they called me separately and told me we could rehearse a few things before the clinic. I just learnt a couple of their simpler numbers and we did them. Afterwards, they asked me to play a few gigs with them, as a guest. That’s how that started and I just gradually sort of... stayed.
"They get the musicians to play somewhere in the afternoon, and the audience are allowed to ask questions about all the different instruments. At the end of that they have a tea-break, and then the band plays a short set. They called me and asked me if I wanted to do this clinic with the Soft Machine. So I said yeah, and I went to do it, and enjoyed myself, and they asked me if I wanted to do some gigs as a guest. And then they asked me if I wanted to join the band." Not unnaturally, he did. It proved to be a freer environment than Tempest, although only two members were writing material at that time. The result: an album for Harvest.
Allan’s first experience outside of rock and roll was with the jazz-rock aggregate Soft Machine. "It was really interesting," he says. "because I’d never played in odd time signatures before." After recording one album with them called Bundles, he left Soft Machine and through a series of encounters met drummer Tony Williams.
Can you give me a career résumé so far?
ALAN: 1971 I was still in Bradford; 1972 I had an invite from Ray Warleigh to come to London and a place to stay. Later that year I played with, Jon Hiseman in Tempest but I left in ‘73. He thought I played too many notes, I don’t like being told what to do, I’d rather find out for myself. Anyway I was on the dole for six months and in ‘74 I made some guest appearances with Soft Machine. In ‘75 I did two albums with Tony Williams in New York City. I like that place.
And when it comes to all those bands I’ve been playing in, those were all just accidents. I never did that on purpose, I never began to play in a band with the idea to search for something else as soon as possible, I always thought I would stay in that band for ever. Soft Machine was the only band I left on my own accord, because I wanted to play with Tony Williams. Not that I didn’t love Soft Machine, for me it was an interesting band to play in. At that moment I got the chance to play with Tony and I thought that I would continue doing that for the time being. But the reason I left him was because the management was so bad. At a certain moment it was even that bad that during a tour pianist Alan Pasqua and myself were stranded in San Francisco and there was nobody, no hotel, no airline tickets, nothing! But I loved it to play in that band, it was fantastic.
Cymbiosis: Is that desire to go beyond the levels of prior musicianship what led you to the exploration of odd time signatures, like you did with the Soft Machine?
Holdsworth: Well, most of my music has odd bars here and there. The Soft Machine was my first example of playing constantly in one fixed odd time; it altered my thinking and phrasing. It was good for me. I enjoyed that band at the time as much as anything else I’ve ever done.
Cymbiosis: That’s good to hear, because when we’d talked before, you gave the impression that you didn’t like anything you’d ever done before.
Holdsworth: I didn’t say I liked it! I just said I enjoyed it at the time. There’s a difference. You have to hope that you still try to do your best at any point in history. It just sounds so old or so bad to me now. Not the rest of the guys, what I’m playing. It’s just when I listen to those old things, it’s like seeing yourself running around in diapers. I can’t listen to it, it sounds so...unknowledgeable. But, I enjoyed it at the time. It was a good experience.
His next big step was when drummer John Marshall got him his first major gig, with Soft Machine: "It was all down to playing; if I hadn’t just kept playing I wouldn’t have got half the gigs I did. Derek Wadsworth, the trombone player, told John Hiseman about me and that got me the gig with Tempest. Another time I had to sit in for Chuck Mangione at Ronnie Scott’s - Chuck was ill; it was after I’d come back from my first stint in America - and Alphonso Johnson was on bass. Alphonse new [sic] that Tony Williams was looking for a guitarist for his band Lifetime, and because of that stand-in session he put my name forward and Tony asked if I’d like to go back to the States and join his band." Allan moved to California in the early eighties and has remained a resident since.
MP: And in 1975 you got with Soft Machine – that was a band which used a lot of different time signatures – was it a learning process for you?
AH: Yeah, yeah, I really enjoyed working with that band, they’re all great musicians and like the drummer in the band at the time, John Marshall, I played with him in different people, I used to work with a piano player, an English piano player, a jazz piano player, he’s really a wonderful musician, his name is Pat Smythe, he died a few years ago but he used to have John play in his band, and so I met John through that, and John told the band Soft Machine and then they invited me out to do some guest shows with that band and then after we’d done those they asked me if I’d like to join the band, so I said, yeah, yeah, it was great. I really enjoyed working with them.
I liked that band. It was a good experience. I liked all of the musicians and I was free to do what I wanted to at that time within that framework. I enjoyed that band a great deal.
So to Soft Machine and Gong. Given Allan Holdsworth’s links with Nucleus, with the musicians in Sunship, and later with Bruford, I long ago came to the conclusion that here was a musician very much aware of the dynasty of bands and musicians which can be traced right back to the mid-Sixties with the Wilde Flowers. Surely it wasn’t a coincidence that Allan Holdsworth first played in the Soft Machine and then Gong. And yet: "In both cases I had no prior knowledge of the bands. In Gong I knew nothing about Daevid Allen or anything else that had gone before. I don’t mean that in a bad way - I’d never heard it. Same with Soft Machine - I hadn’t heard what had happened before, which may be a good thing, because then you’re not trying to keep something alive. But there was a guy who was also a huge help to me starting out called Brian Blain, who works for the Musicians Union. He was absolutely wonderful - he helped me a lot. I think he really liked me and tried to put me in different situations. I remember we did some clinics - that’s how I met John Marshall. I guess John told the rest of the band about me, and then Brian Blain hooked up a couple of clinics with the Soft Machine, but they added a guitar player because at that time they didn’t have a guitar player.
"So they said then OK, this is what this tune is and then I’d play on a couple of the things. Then they asked me to do a couple of gigs with them as a guest, so I did that. And then after that they asked me join the band. I really had a lot of fun with that band - they were good times. They were all great guys - Kari Jenkins, Mike Ratledge, Roy Babbington, John Marshall. It was really good fun".
Holdsworth’s playing seemed to give Soft Machine a much needed kick up the backside after the often listless rhythms of ‘Seven’. He was the band’s first guitar player since the brief appearance of Andy Summers with the band in 1968, and on "Hazard Profile”, the showcase track on "Bundles”, he dominates the band’s colossal re-working of the Nucleus track "Song For The Bearded Lady”. Holdsworth is once again at his peak as a soloist.
"I wish I could have stayed longer because the album was done right at the beginning and we worked together a lot after that. It would have been nice to have recorded another one but unfortunately that was at the time when I got that opportunity to work with Tony Williams. It was a real terrible thing in a way, because you never get offered anything when you’re not doing anything - you always have to make some rough decision. I was really happy playing with the Soft Machine. But the opportunity with Tony just seemed like something should do. So then I helped try to get Soft Machine hooked up with another guitar player and recommended a couple of guys - actually Ollie was one of them, and also John Etheridge who actually ended playing with them."
You have taken part in other artists’ records, which ones were you especially comfortable with?
It has changed with the time but, taking this into account, one of the best things that I did was playing with Tempest because it was my first experience of travelling with a band. Also with Soft Machine because it was very creative and I had total freedom to play whatever I wanted. I felt very comfortable. I remember I was told: "You play too many notes", and now it doesn’t look to me that there were so many notes. I also loved to play with Tony Williams. Perhaps the best experience and also the worst, because too many bad things happened in that group, but well..., I forget bad things.
Bill: I recently saw an old picture of you playing violin. What was that about?
Allan: When I was working in a Top 40 band in England, before I moved to London, I was out just walking around in the town in Sumberlin [Sunderland]and I happened to walk past this pawn shop. And I don’t even know why I did it but I went in and said to the proprietor, ‘Do you have any old violins?’ And he comes with one and says, ‘How about this one?’ It had no strings on it but it had a bow that looked like it was in reasonable shape. So I bought it for ten bucks. I took it to a violin repair shop and they put a new soundpost on it and the bridge and strung it up. I started playing around with it for a while... on and off for about a year.
Bill: Any gigs?
Allan: I think I did play it on a couple of gigs with Tempest. I think I might’ve also played it a couple of times with Soft Machine. But I always really liked violin. It felt natural to me. I often wish that I had been presented with a violin when I was young. It just seemed like it was comfortable for me to play right away, but I couldn’t play chords on it and by that time I was really getting into chords and stuff. And I started dedicating time to playing just one instrument, I didn’t have enough time to learn how to play two. All those guys who play multiple instruments amaze me. They must have split brains or something.
TCG: Also, there are two more, while you’re talking about live recordings hitting the street, from way, way, way back, I think Leonardo spoke with me about an old Soft Machine BBC show,
AH: Oh yeah, Live in Bremen something, Radio Bremen it was done in 1972 or something. (laughter)
TCG: Wow, oh my God! That is old, isn’t it.
AH; That’s so long ago, I don’t even care! I haven’t listened to that either,
TCG: (Laughter) Well, some people know you Al, and they know that you don’t have rear view mirrors.
AH: No rear view Mirrors, like that one! (laughter)
Holdsworth played and/or recorded with several other significant artists during the early’70s, most notably Ian Carr’s Nucleus, but his first real break came when he landed a gig with seminal jazz-rockers Soft Machine in late 1973. His concept now fully formulated, Holdsworth infused Bundles, and Soft Machine’s live sets, with his singular magic—word of which soon reached the legendary jazz drummer and composer, the late Tony Williams.
MoonJune recently released Floating World Live, a Soft Machine concert CD from 1975. What are your thoughts about the disc?
I never listened to it. I just can’t. I heard about five bars of it, turned it off, and said “Go ahead, put it out.” [laughs]
You allowed an album to be released without hearing it? That seems really unlike you.
It makes me cringe, but we played the gig, it was recorded, somebody has the recording, so why not put it out? I can’t stand listening to myself. I never listen to live recordings. If I did, I would just quit. I haven’t even seen the new Live at Yoshi’s DVD. I can’t watch it. I heard a few bars and said “Oh no. Stop.” I can’t do anything about these things. Personally, I would choose not to do any live stuff because everyone does it for you. I must have at least 200 bootleg CDs that were sent to me personally from the live gigs that someone else recorded. So, why would anyone need any more? There are hundreds of recordings out there.
Going back to Soft Machine, how do you look back at your experience with the band?
I really enjoyed playing with that group a lot. Before that, I was playing with Tempest, Jon Hiseman’s group. That was more rock and roll. I met John Marshall and Karl Jenkins through the Musicians’ Union. There was a guy at the union who was organizing some clinics for Soft Machine, but he wanted a guitarist in there as well. He asked Soft Machine if they would consider doing these clinics with an extra guy and they said “Sure.” So I rehearsed with the band and we did four or five clinics. After, they asked if I would join the band and I said “Yeah.” There was a lot of freedom in the group. Most of their pieces were quite simple harmonically, but they were in odd time signatures which was something going on at the time. I can’t count anyway, so everything is in one to me, but I really dug it. I love Karl, John, Roy Babbington, and Mike Ratledge. It was a lot of fun.
R.V.B. - You played with bands like Igginbottom, Sunship, and others in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Was there anything from that period that sticks with you today?
A.H. - The band that I enjoyed the most was Soft Machine. Allan holdsworth Soft Maching
R.V.B. - What types of establishments and gigs did you play with Soft Machine?
A.H. - With that band, we did a lot of festivals in Europe. That band had a pretty big following in Europe. They did a lot of concerts on their own. We also played a lot of small concert halls and clubs.