"I remember around this time, there were mutterings in the press about this line-up not being genuine 'Soft Machine,'" guitarist John Etheridge writes in the liners to British Tour '75, adding, "I personally had no problems with this as I was committed to these four musicians and the great sound of the band." If this accurately summarizes Etheridge's feelings he must have had a positive disposition indeed, because to play with such inspiration -- stepping into the shoes of the heralded Allan Holdsworth after that fleet-fingered axeman had departed the Softs in search of a pair of Million Dollar Legs -- while confronting hoots of inauthenticity from the peanut gallery could have tried the patience of a more self-important sort. Putting off the question of whether this "qualifies" as Soft Machine, one might first ask whether it is good music. If you're a fan of the group's early psychedelic pop and despise anything that smacks of "fusion," then British Tour '75 is probably not for you. If, however, you are open to the idea that the latter-period Softs might have brought something unique and idiosyncratically Soft Machine-ish to the fusion table, then you might just find a high level of enjoyment here. For although, as band historian Graham Bennett writes in his definitive Soft Machine biography, Out-Bloody-Rageous, Etheridge joined a group of musicians who were stand-offish and, particularly in the case of founding keyboardist Mike Ratledge, tiring of the grind, there is little evidence of that here. In fact, British Tour '75 catches the band at a uniquely exciting moment before the creative light finally dimmed and went out forever.
They were in the middle of a ten-date fall tour of Britain, performing mainly at university venues (this CD was recorded at Nottingham University), and their set featured numbers from both the Holdsworth showcase Bundles and the yet to be released Softs. Bundles' multi-part "Hazard Profile," based on a piece composer/keyboardist Karl Jenkins had brought from Nucleus, is positioned as a highlight toward the close of the set (following drummer John Marshall's ten-plus-minute solo showcase, "Sideburn"), and here Etheridge is a strong match for Holdsworth's blinding speed, but with his own sense of expressive phrasing and vibrato. Marshall and bassist Roy Babbington had by now evolved into an extraordinary jazz-rock rhythm team, limber, powerful, and quite adept at both nailing a groove ("Ban-Ban Caliban") and handling the changeups and time signature quirks ("Bundles") that composer Jenkins had penned. Jenkins had largely retired his reeds to concentrate on electric piano, and continued to grow in importance as the group's principal composer; one marvels at how his multi-layered compositional style had taken over the Soft Machine sound, gradually and seamlessly, over the passage of time since Six. The band's next studio effort, Softs, would find Jenkins in his most prominent role yet as both composer and architect of the album's tending-toward-new-age feeling, and several key compositions yet to be heard on Softs are featured on British Tour '75. But here the warts'n'all live sound has dated better than Softs' comparative polish, and founder Ratledge is far from the "guest" he would become on the upcoming studio date. Although he was apparently playing an EMS Synthi A, most notably on the synthesizer break "JVH" (which wouldn't be out of place on Tangerine Dream's Ricochet, recorded live the same year), Ratledge cuts loose on his trademark fuzz organ during "The Man Who Waved at Trains" and "Ban-Ban Caliban," the latter of which would soon appear on Softs in a slicker-sounding version. As Ratledge rips away in the pure Canterbury keyboard style he invented (and had abandoned by now in the studio), one gets the distinct impression that this is not only good music, but that it is also "Soft Machine," the genuine article. ~ Dave Lynch