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Soft Machine: Alive And Well In Paris

Alive And Well In Paris album artwork

John Marshall: Drums & Percussion
Karl Jenkins: Piano, Electric Keyboards & Synthesizer
John Etheridge: Acoustic and Electric Guitars
Rick Sanders: Violin
Steve Cook: Bass Guitar

Recorded by the Manor Mobile in Paris
Mixed by Paul Northfield at Advision
Studios, London
Produced by Mike Thorne

In the sixties, you had to vote for either for the Rolling Stones or the Beatles. Either you were crazy guys, or you were adopted mainstream. A less noted polarity was between Pink Floyd and Soft Machine, two groups emerging from London’s psychedelic jungle. Although the balance of power between them was even as their first two albums came out, Soft Machine went on to pursue adventures in contemporary jazz forms whereas the Floyd evolved their simple, monolithic and eventually hugely successful style. In the late seventies, both were on Harvest, an EMI label. For Soft Machine, this deal produced two studio albums, Softs and Bundles. The third and last album of the deal was a live recording made in a picturesque, almost clichéed little old theatre in Paris. I was asked to produce it after I had finished The Roxy, London WC2, the live punk album that would make the charts while I was away with the Softs. Someone had a sense of the ridiculous and the sublime.

I booked the mobile recording unit and the engineer, heard and discussed the basic material in rehearsal, and set off for France. This was real time. A live album is very different from a studio album in its life cycle. Once the material is rehearsed and ready to go, a very great amount of preparation propelling 40 minutes of new music, the only thing left is to be super sharp for the hour of stage presence, and review the recording the following day. Compared with slogging through ten-hour studio days, it eventually becomes a stimulating holiday. Like all holidays, several things went wrong.

Getting there was relatively painless, although I was up uncomfortably early only to hang around waiting at the manager’s apartment, even after the taxi taking me had run out of gas. The group van was authentically crowded and the channel crossing wasn’t kind. We arrived on location to find the stereotypically picturesque bistro owner threatening to slash the tires of the mobile recording truck that was blocking his customers’ view, and the fire department declaring that the theatre balcony could not be used for paying customers. The recording budget didn’t stretch to gratuities.

We didn’t find the booked recording engineer, who never showed up. The assistant’s star turn worked well, though, and the first night played and sounded well. We all piled into the van and cleared off to celebrate in Montmartre. While we were relaxing, picturesque Parisian thieves, surely wearing striped T-shirts, cleaned the van out. All the guitars and a few other portable items went. It was a cold night, waiting outside the police station (‘only two at a time, monsieur, security reasons’). The gendarme typed sympathetically with two fingers in triplicate. Four gigs remained.

A big local radio appeal produced sufficient preferred instruments for the next night. The sound was different, but the edge of the occasion must have helped, for the second and third nights yielded the bulk of the album. The acoustic of the theatre was worth the effort, giving an unusual openness and charm to the sound, contrasting nicely with the typical dry, claustrophobic studio sound of that time. We finished in good style with several good performances of all the pieces, the promoter treating us to a night at the ‘Crazy Horse’, boobs and boots putting surrealism back into the forefront. Then we all got up at a reasonable time for the drive home to London.

The manager had decided that two cases of cheap French wine would fit nicely in the van. The group disagreed, but weren’t churlish enough to leave him or them by the roadside. It could have got physical when we ran out of gas on the AutoRoute in the middle of a French Sunday lunchtime, but by that time it was so hopeless as to be funny. Two relaxing, picturesque hours were spent watching the traffic whizz by. We had, of course, missed the ferry. The holiday ended for me mid-evening when they dropped me off at my apartment in South London. ‘Are you in a group, mister?’ the kids playing in the street asked.

Later, Karl Jenkins’ elegant synthesizer composition, Soft Space, was added, with founder-member Mike Ratledge discreetly contributing programming expertise. Apart from the sequenced bass, all the synthesizers were played at half speed from Karl’s score. This was totally the opposite of the freely played live section, and John Marshall achieved a towering bad temper when Karl asked him to just sit and plonk kick drum and snare drum separately through the track. John has a powerful, passionate and quite spontaneous technique; this er wasn’t quite his bag. Without considering its age, the track still sounds fresh, and it hints at Karl’s later development into a very popular orchestral composer.

– Mike Thorne March 1999

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