Friday, June 30, 2006

No one is a nobody

So we've just helped ourselves to a couple of chocolates from a left-over box of Miniature Heroes when our son walks in. He's eating an apple, but his attention is caught by the chocolates and he begins at once to plead and beg in a frankly rather undignified manner. Wife points out that he's got an apple. No, I say, he's holding out for a Hero. How we laughed. (Well, I did.)

(Left over from Christmas, since you ask. That's a lot of leaving-over, and I'm personally convinced that the salmonella risk is far from negligible. My wife, on the other hand, is personally convinced that I've taken hypochondria to previously unscaled heights of self-absorbed irrationality. It's a point of view.)

About heroes, anyway. That is, about managerialism, and about dedication and skill at work. (The following was formulated for a workplace IT survey, but I thought I'd give it a wider airing.)

There's a common misconception that informal technical support ("I just ring Bob and he comes over and sorts me out") doesn't work, and that tech support needs to be formally managed and controlled. This can lead on to a greater misconception, that formally-managed tech support can be delivered by people with less outstanding levels of knowledge and dedication than poor old Bob - "if you get the system right you don't need heroes".

Actually informal tech support works tremendously well, from the user's point of view. (Yes, there will be a backlog of unresolved problems and dissatisfied users - but there will be a backlog whatever you do.) That said, the first misconception has an element of truth, inasmuch as informal tech support is a nightmare to manage - but the managers aren't the ones whose problems need solving.

The second misconception, however, is flat wrong, and dangerous with it. Heroes are precisely what you need: people who know everything, can prioritise six half-finished tasks in their heads and (very important) like talking to users. Tech support is hard - you've absolutely got to have the right people doing it. And management doesn't help. Imposing formal management systems on those people may make their managers' lives easier, but it won't get the job done any better - it's more likely to get in the way.

In technical support, management isn't a substitute for heroic levels of skill and dedication. Management (from the point of view of the techie being managed) is a necessary evil - and you still need the heroes.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Ain't that close to love?

When my son was born the midwife commented on his oily skin - "he'll be a spotty teenager". My own skin is noted for its sebaceous quality, so my reaction wasn't surprise so much as anticipatory fellow-feeling - tempered by the utter inability to imagine this eight-pound armful as a teenager, spotty or otherwise.

He's nearly eleven now and he's just got his first spot. I guess it all starts now. I wish him luck.

But I've got solid proof that he's not a teenager yet. We were watching The Breakfast Club last night (online DVD rental, it's a great system) when he walked in. He asked what it was about, and we told him the setup - five kids are thrown together in a Saturday detention class and we see what happens. He was baffled - he literally could not comprehend why anyone would want to watch a film with no plot, as he put it.

You have to have been a teenager, I think, or else still be one. My son had walked in on the effective, understated scene where the teacher cracks and challenges Bender to a fight. Bender, whose own father regularly beats him up, shrinks into a corner looking scared, bewildered and above all stuck. It's as if he's realising that his whole repertoire of bullying and violence depends on adults not replying with greater force - but that adults ultimately, inevitably, will. I can't imagine even explaining that one scene to my son for another year or two. (Mind you, all of that goes for nothing in the crawl-space blonde-joke scene that immediately follows, where Bender's back to playing a cross between Tony from West Side Story and Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. But it's that kind of film - the point's been made, so it moves on.)

I didn't see The Breakfast Club when it came out; it's a bit odd seeing it now, when I'm the age of the older-generation characters (the kids' parents, the sadistic teacher, the philosophical janitor). Some things which I expected to grate were surprisingly bearable - chief among them the ghastly scene where Molly Ringwald's character gives the Ally Sheedy 'basketcase' character a makeover, turning her from a nervy urban gipsy into a kind of sleepwalking Pre-Raphaelite mannequin, and hence enabling her to get the guy (in the shape of Emilio Estevez, 'the athlete'). I'd love to think this was ironic, but I don't think John Hughes really does irony, or not at anything above a Readers' Digest level ("His parents wanted him to be a success, but it was the pressure they put on him that made him fail!") If I'd seen that scene back in the 80s I would probably have walked out there and then. Now... meh. It doesn't offend me, because it's so clearly not about me. It could even be the kind of thing kids do.

On the other hand, I was irritated by some things which would probably have rung true to me back then. So Bender ('the criminal') has problems with his parents, notably that they get drunk and beat him up. It comes out over the course of the day that 'the athlete' has problems too - specifically, he has problems with his parents and their expectations of him. Ally Sheedy's character has problems with her parents (they ignore her); the Molly Ringwald 'princess' character has problems with hers, too (they're divorcing and use her to get at each other). The nerdy Anthony Michael Hall character doesn't appear to have any problems, until it turns out that he's contemplating suicide because he's not getting high enough marks... to satisfy his parents. I mean, come on, kids! Isn't even one of you losing sleep over your prospective choice of career or your gender identity or a lack of friends or illegal drinking or illegal drugs or illness or your penfriend not answering your letters or your cat dying, or anything apart from your parents? Always with the parents! They haven't got it easy, you know, and I'm sure they're all trying to bring you up properly (with the possible exception of the Bender household). We didn't ask for you to be born, you know. Well, OK, I suppose we did in a sense, but we didn't ask for you to be teenagers.

Still, they were nice kids. The dancing scene was another one which would have had me groaning and tutting twenty years ago - what's this doing here, it's just an excuse for a cut-price pop video.... Last night, I have to say, I found it really charming. I've retrospectively hated my teenage years for a long time (my twenties weren't that great either), but that scene in particular made being a teenager look like a lot of fun; more to the point, it stirred a few vague memories suggesting that it might occasionally have been like that. As I head towards being the father of a teenager - a role I'm sure I'll screw up horribly, just like everyone else - it'll be good to have those memories to hand.

And I wish him luck.

When you're a kid they tell you it's all grow up, get a job, get married, get a house, have kids and that's it. The truth is, the world is so much stranger than that, so much darker and so much madder - and so much better.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

There's safety in numbers

Some time in the mid- to late 1970s I saw a fairly right-on play, set in Hulme in a dystopian near-future. (I had never been to Manchester and thought I was hugely enlightened for already knowing not only that there was such a place as Hulme but how to pronounce it - the L was silent, like the second K in Kirkby. The Guardian has a lot to answer for.)

Anyway, the idea of this particular dystopian near-future seemed to be that the out-of-touch benefit-cutting so-called-Labour government had washed its hands of the unemployed, the North or both, and what then? what then, eh? And no, we had no idea Thatcher was round the corner, but that's not what I wanted to talk about (although it may turn out to be relevant).

There were three characters in this play, a well-meaning politicised couple and a scruffy Manc on his own; they were sharing a squat in Hulme, the couple on grounds of principle and the second guy because he couldn't find anywhere else to live. As well as being well-meaning and political, the couple are both educated or Southerners, or possibly both. The scruffy Manc is none of the above. He's the one who complains, at one stage, about the (offstage) West Indians in the squat next door and their incessant loud reggae music.

Well-meaning woman: "Why don't you go and ask them to turn it down?"
Scruffy Manc: "Because I don't speak Swahili!"

Of course she came back immediately with some stuff about how they would certainly speak English, and in any case they were as British as he was. What sticks in my mind is that his line got a big laugh. That was the seventies; racism wasn't Till death and Love thy neighbour - what we tend to forget now is that those programmes were at the liberal end of the spectrum. Racism was a mundane, ubiquitous, unquestioned reality - even among the Guardian-reading types who would have been in the audience for that play. (I could make the same point quicker by referring to the Kinks' "Apeman" (1970) or John Gotting's "The educated monkey" (1979), both of which feature white guys affecting West Indian accents and singing about being an ape. I mean, really, what were they thinking? Or rather, what were we...)

So where did it go? Because there's no denying that the racism I grew up with has gone, or at least changed out of all recognition. When I was a kid 'Eenie-meenie-minie-mo' included the word 'nigger'; forty years on, my children have learned a version that doesn't involve catching anyone or anything by its toe, and the N-word is rather less acceptable in polite conversation than the F-word. This is certainly a gain in terms of civility, but I'm starting to wonder if it's anything more than that. Certainly the recent localised electoral victories for the fash suggest that the language of race still has some power to mobilise.

What's going on? I can see three main possibilities.

1. Genuine Progress (with pockets of ignorance)
The school where my children go is terrifically right-on, which can sometimes be rather wearing. (If they ever use the word 'culture' you know what you're in for, and it's not Beethoven.) Still, I know my children are far closer to being 'colour-blind' than I'll ever be. The other day my son got picked on in the swimming pool; we asked him to describe the kids who did it, and when we asked him whether they had brown skin he said "yes, but why do you ask?" That told us.

Maybe he's just less racist than we are in the same way that we were less racist than our parents, let alone our grandparents (ask me about my grandmother some time). Maybe in ten or fifteen years' time "why do you ask?" will be the default answer. Maybe this is what Progress looks like, and it's just progressing a bit slower down Dagenham.

That's the optimistic version. Then there's

2. "Face don't fit": prejudice by quota
The pessimistic assumption underlying this model is that people, en masse, have a tendency to hate, and they've got to hate somebody. We tend to hate people, en masse, on fairly irrational grounds, and probably always will - at least until the glorious day when people are spat at in the street for carrying the Daily Mail. (All right, not glorious as such, but you can't deny it'd be an improvement.) And, if one form of out-group identification is repressed, another will take its place. On this model, if we no longer talk about niggers and queers - that is, if nobody talks about niggers and queers - this isn't because tolerance and harmony have permeated white straight society. It's the other way round: if we don't routinely use offensive terms, after a generation or so the out-group production mechanisms which they stand for won't work any more.

But if, for whatever reason, people need an out-group to hate; and if, for very good reasons, the out-groups I grew up with have been ruled unavailable; then where does the hatred go? Ask a Traveller; ask a pikey. As much as I hate even appearing to agree with Julie Burchill, I think the hatred and contempt heaped on 'chavs' is a sign of something seriously wrong in our culture. (To be clear about this, I'm pretty sure that all actually-existing cultures have at least one thing seriously wrong with them. Which doesn't mean it's not worth concentrating on what's wrong with this one round about now - any more than saying that most gardens are full of big stones makes it less useful to dig ours over.)

The key point about 'chav' is that it derives from Traveller slang, and ultimately from the Romani for 'boy' or 'lad'; 'pikey', similarly, derives from (or rather is) a straightforward outgroup label for people who travel the turnpikes. Hatred of Travellers is the only form of racism which is still respectable. When a new outgroup was needed the 'gipsy' stereotype was readymade: 'chavs' are idle spongers, aren't they, and they're dirty and dishonest and flashy and aggressive... If the racism we knew has virtually disappeared, in other words, this may only mean that it's been replaced by new bigotries that we don't yet recognise as such.

Alternatively, maybe we should be thinking in terms of

3. The bitch who bore him
Think racism's gone away, or at worst gone to Dagenham? Think a brown skin is less of a bigot-magnet than a Burberry check or a tight ponytail? Well, actually, so did I, but I'm not sure now. It was a Manchester Evening News roadside hoarding that got me thinking. The headline read:


VIOLENT MIGRANTS - there's a certain evil genius to that phrase. Back in the 1970s people moaned about reggae and the smell of curry, or at worst about 'them' coming over here and taking our jobs and our houses. You'd have to be at a National Front rally before you'd hear anyone talking about big black men who would kill you if you weren't careful. But here we are in 2006 and there it is on the front of the Evening News: VIOLENT MIGRANTS STILL AT LARGE. In other words, KILLER WOGS - BE AFRAID.

And this language has real effects. Here's that nice Dave Cameron's shadow Home Secretary; he's talking up recent prison breaks by arguing that earlier prison breaks, while there might have been more of them, weren't so bad because of the kind of prisoner involved:
The shadow home secretary, David Davis, said: "The Home Office's claim that the level of absconds from open prisons is the lowest for 10 years misses the point entirely.

"Ten years ago the people absconding from open prisons were not dangerous criminals or deportees. Since the government's decision in 2002 to put such people in open prisons, every abscondee represents an unnecessary potential risk to the public."
Dangerous criminals or deportees - classy. Here's what it's like if this unnecessary potential risk to the public has your name on it:
Since April 25, when the foreign prisoner story broke, at least 200 - perhaps many more - foreign inmates have been moved, without warning, from open prisons to closed ones. It seems unlikely, to say the least, that all of them had "offended against prison discipline" - the usual reason for such transfers. Last Friday [May 26], 300 prison officers in riot gear rounded up 135 foreign nationals at Ford open prison, Sussex, to be taken to closed jails. The previous week, according to a prison source, 30 foreign inmates were transferred from Latchmere House, a highly regarded resettlement prison in west London, to closed jails in the London area. Similar exercises have been carried out across the country, although yesterday [May 30] a home office spokesman said only that "around 70" prisoners had been removed from open prisons in this "temporary measure".

Lawyers and organisations such as the Prisoners' Advice Service have heard from scores of prisoners who have been suddenly moved in this way. Many are EU citizens; a few, though born overseas, even have British passports. Meanwhile, prisoners who were expecting to move from closed to open conditions have been told that the transfers are cancelled. At least some were not expecting to be deported at their end of their sentences. Elsewhere, prisoners who had been released under licence have suddenly been hauled back to jail. Some of these also had no reason to expect to be deported.
Perhaps even the qualified progress of the second model is an illusion. Perhaps the old forms of hatred are just as available, if you break through the crust of conventional anathema, as the new forms. And perhaps all it takes to bring racism back into the mainstream is a new spin, and (most important) a reason why a powerful group would want to try and pump it up - and groups don't come much more powerful than the Home Office.

Next: the lurking menace of the paedophile asylum-seeker. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Cold if you want it

I interviewed Mark Thomas once - you can probably find the interview on the Red Pepper Web site if you look hard enough. Originally it was in three or four sections, each one prefaced with a quote from "White man in Hammersmith Palais"; a bit of a pretentious device, which unsurprisingly got lost in subbing. It seemed important to get punk in, though; Mark Thomas is a bit younger than me, and like me had his head turned round by what happened to music in 1976-7.

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, and so forth. But I'm not sure you can really remember '77 unless your memory goes back a bit further than that. The letters pages of the NME and Sounds at the time were full of what were essentially conversion narratives - Until last week I was a hippie - I had long hair, wore flared jeans and went to one concert a year... It wasn't quite that abrupt for me (or Mark Thomas) but there was definitely a before as well as an after.
Mark Thomas: I was into Yes, ELP... the first album I bought was Tarkus...
Phil: Top album!
MT: No! Sorry, no - it is not a top album. Step away from Emerson, Lake and Palmer...
Actually I've never heard Tarkus - I was basing my opinion on the track "Aquatarkus" on the live triple album Welcome back my friends to the show that goes on and on for bloody ages. I wasn't even into ELP. No, I was strictly Gentle Giant and Soft Machine.

I'll say more about Giant another time - I still think of their stuff with some fondness, as well as a lot of embarrassment. This post is about the Softs.

I got into Soft Machine rather late; around the time of their seventh album, to be precise. They were featured on a TV programme which I now can't identify (don't suppose anyone reading this has a copy of Graham Bennett's Out-Bloody-Rageous to hand?) on which they played, among other things, the track "Nettle bed". It consists mostly of a synthesiser solo, played over an endlessly-repeated synthesised bass riff, which itself is played over the kind of 4:4 drumming that gets called 'driving'. It's atypical of Seven, which itself was pretty unlike most of what Soft Machine had done before, but I didn't know that at the time. The music - combined with the sight of Mike Ratledge, all long hair and dark glasses, jabbing studiously at a bank of keyboards - made the same kind of impression on me as Eno-period Roxy Music had done a couple of years earlier: I thought I'd seen the future. For several days afterwards I held forth to anyone who would listen - my best friend, mainly - about my discovery of a whole new genre of music, which I called "soft rock". (Eventually my friend unsportingly pointed out that a) other people were already using the phrase "soft rock" to mean something different, and in any case b) I couldn't actually describe what I meant by the term without referring back to the track "Nettle bed" by Soft Machine.)

Still, I was sold - and the subsequent purchase of Soft Machine Seven only confirmed my conviction that this was the stuff. Over the next year I got hold of almost everything that was available by the band - which would involve a serious investment in time and money now, but at that time meant that I bought three albums. I remember that CBS had marked down both Third and Six, the band's two double albums, to £2.83; since my friendly local record shop took 10% off the price of everything, I got them both for £2.55. (Or rather, I got Six and my parents got me Third, an album which consists of four twenty-minute slabs of experimental jazz/rock. What a Christmas that was.) I also got Fifth, with its black-on-black sleeve design - but not Fourth, as by the time I got to it the stark embossed tan sleeve had been replaced by a two-tone brown-on-tan design, which wasn't nearly as impressive. (For anyone who’s counting, the first two albums were either deleted or had never been available in the UK.) Still, with that lot in hand I had a good two and a half hours of music to keep me going while I waited for Soft Machine Eight.

Which never arrived. Soft Machine were a band who had gone through some serious changes, and one of the most serious happened around that time. To simplify an extremely complicated band family tree, Soft Machine from the second to the fourth album consisted of founder members Ratledge and Robert Wyatt (drums), together with bassist Hugh Hopper (who replaced original bassist Kevin Ayers). Hugh's brother Brian played a bit of sax on the second album; he was replaced on a more permanent basis by Elton Dean (as of the third album), after a brief but productive experiment with a seven-piece lineup including trombone, cornet and flute. On the first couple of albums the Softs combined psychedelic pop songs with experimental jazz; Elton Dean's arrival tipped the balance definitively towards jazz, and began what's generally regarded as the Softs' great period. They were a band stretched taut between Dean's soloing and Ratledge's disciplined compositions, driven on by the power of the brass section and underpinned by a bassist and a drummer who could switch between 7/8 and 5/4 without drawing breath ("A few fives to take away the taste of all those sevens..."). A typical Soft Machine number would set up a melodic theme - often over an odd chord sequence and almost invariably over an odd time signature - then let a soloist loose on it (often Dean but sometimes Ratledge - an extraordinary soloist in his own right - and occasionally Hopper). But nothing went on too long: Soft Machine worked in suites. On Third, the LP-side-long track "Slightly all the time" actually consists of three separate pieces, built on themes with accompanying solos (in 11/4, 11/8, 9/8, 6/4 and 9/8 again). The power, the range and the sheer confidence of the band were extraordinary. They really were quite good.

But, on a personal level - as Bennett's book makes clear - it was all a bit of a mess. Wyatt liked to drink and socialise; he also liked singing, and tried for a long time to keep a vocal element in Soft Machine's music - in songs and then, as the big-band sound took hold, as scat improvisation. Neither Hopper nor Ratledge was big on the party scene, and neither of them had any interest in music with vocals. Third is a magnificent album, but the vocal/instrumental patchwork of the previous album is conspicuous by its absence: Wyatt's vocals are confined to the song "Moon in June", most of which was played and recorded by Wyatt alone and unaided. (One of my many anorakish niggles with Bennett’s book is that he doesn’t say enough about what was going on on that track - did Wyatt play the acoustic guitar solo? Is that Marc Charig’s cornet parping forlornly at the end, Nick Evans’ trombone or something else entirely, such as Wyatt making mouth noises? And am I the only person to spot the quotes from Kevin Ayers’ “Hat Song” (what about me...?)? Bah.)

Ultimately, Wyatt was going to have to go; ultimately he went, but not of his own volition. Perhaps due to the nature of the leading personalities in the band, being in Soft Machine was never a particularly convivial experience, but the sacking of Wyatt seems to have started a process which chilled the atmosphere in the band permanently. Dean got hold of a replacement drummer, the extravagantly energetic Phil Howard; Howard's style of drumming, heard on the first half of Fifth, isn't so much time-keeping as a permanent drum solo, with accents chosen for their expressive value as much as for the beat. Unfortunately, Howard got on much better with Dean than either Hopper or Ratledge, who felt the band was drifting into free jazz territory. So Howard in turn had to go, and Dean had to be the one who told him to go - an experience which soured Dean on the band. When he left, ironically, his replacement was nominated by Howard's replacement, John Marshall - Howard's antithesis, a timekeeper of metronomic precision (even in 11/4). The reeds gig went to Karl Jenkins, a personal friend of Marshall with whom he had played in Ian Carr's Nucleus. Jenkins was one of Britain's few jazz oboists and a fluent composer, if not a great one; Bennett quotes Hugh Hopper describing Jenkins' musical ideas as "third-hand and third-rate". (Incidentally, Bennett didn't manage to speak to either Jenkins or Ratledge, but includes quotes from both of them; like several of the book's quotes from Wyatt, Kevin Ayers, Daevid Allen and other ex-Softs, these are taken from published sources and printed without attribution. This is seriously shoddy practice, which really diminishes the value of the book - although I can't say that I wasn't interested in what they said, whenever it was they said it.)

With Jenkins' arrival, at the time of the band's sixth album, the nature of Soft Machine's music changed. Listening to Six after Fifth, much of the improvisation is more pedestrian than before; the rock-influenced approach of improvisation over a riff is more prominent, as distinct from the jazz structure of theme and elaboration. Another thing that stands out when you listen to the Softs' albums chronologically is the quality of Jenkins' own solos, on oboe and sax; compared to Dean's endless melodic invention they're pretty thin stuff. Thin, and scratchy with it. With Hopper's fuzz bass and Ratledge's fuzz organ, there always was something abrasive about Soft Machine's sound; it was never easy listening, in any sense of the phrase. Jenkins' oboe solos take this to a new level, not only because of the harsh, whining tonality of the instrument but because of the narrowness of his range as an improviser: there's lots of high-then-low squawking and parping in octaves and fifths, lots of trills, lots of nagging repeats of a single note. Close-mike the instrument, as he did on Seven, and the sound's not so much abrasive as downright inhuman. To be fair, Jenkins always was a composer first and foremost. Some of Jenkins’ contributions to the sixth album are fully-scored, with no improvisation at all; in others the improvisatory element is confined to conservative electric-piano doodling. The composing's pretty conservative, too. Spotting the time signature had always been an incidental pleasure of listening to Soft Machine; on Third, Ratledge's superb "Out-bloody-rageous" (another track which doesn't really get its due from Bennett, ironically enough) is in the unheard-of time signature of 15:8, variously divided for rhythmic purposes into a 6 and a 9, a 7 and an 8, and three 5s. (Hence the title, presumably.) Nothing says more about Jenkins' approach than the fact that "The Soft Weed Factor", his contribution to the studio-based half of the album, is in 4:4. Where's the fun in that? (The other three-quarters of the studio LP are much better; Ratledge's "Chloe and the Pirates", in particular, which is built around two contrasting oboe themes, both equally striking but entirely different in mood. I'd been playing it for weeks before I realised that the second one was the first one played backwards.)

Seven came after Six - and after Hopper had left the band - so listening to it now, thirty-odd years on, should have been a massive disappointment. And, to a large extent, it was: the riffing is dogged and narrow (very rock); the solos (Ratledge's apart) sound elbowy, simultaneously unimaginative and ostentatious; the short tinkly piano pieces sound more than ever like a waste of space. I still enjoyed it, though: it's got the best production of any Soft Machine album, combining some emphatically synthetic tonality with a real sense of space and texture. (Kieran Hebden would like it.) And, if the solos and the compositions now sound like a poor copy of Third, I know that when I first heard the album I was comparing it with the likes of the Neutrons, Camel and Genesis - and, considered as jazz-rock, it's really not so shabby.

From then on that was about as good as it got, though. In June 1974, eight months after the release of Seven, Soft Machine did a session for Jazz in Britain. I never listened to JiB, so I don't know how I found out about it - idle reading of the Radio Times, probably. They did two tunes, "Plain Bob" and "The man who waved at trains". I taped the latter, an eight-minute composition. It began with a discordant cymbal-and-gong improvisation, which gave way to a beautiful, meandering oboe and guitar theme. (From "Slightly all the time" through "Pigling Bland" (Fifth) to "Chloe and the Pirates", Ratledge always did write good themes.) The statement of the theme was followed by a change of pace and a hurried, urgent oboe solo, before the track ended with a restatement of the theme. Unfortunately my supply of cassettes was limited at this point; after playing "TMWWAT" to death for a couple of weeks I taped over it, reasoning that it would be bound to appear on the band's next album.

Before that was released, though, there was one more major event in my career as a Soft Machine fan: I saw them live, for the first (and only) time. Since I was 14 and the gig was up in London - at the Rainbow, no less - my older sister accompanied me, with her boyfriend; as you can imagine, I didn't get much conversation out of them. The gig was a bit of an anti-climax. I remember very little about it now, possibly because Larry Coryell, the support act, overran wildly; by the time the band actually came on it was past my bedtime and looking ominously close to the tube-drivers' bedtime. (Bizarrely, I had a very similar experience at the Rainbow four years later, when the Slits were supported by Don Cherry. Must be something about the venue.) I remember the gig began with some complex but bland two-electric-piano noodling, which began, then went on without developing very much, then went on some more. I remember John Marshall pausing midway through his percussion solo to sprinkle some kind of powder on his skins; I remember that people started a slow handclap at this point, and that Marshall replied by holding up his sticks in a V sign. And that's about all I remember about the music. I do remember making what I hoped was a wittily blasé comment about looking forward to one of Ratledge's ghastly fuzz organ solos, directed at no one in particular (I'd given up on my sister by this stage); I remember making this remark at least twice, to no reaction from anyone. I don't remember any organ solos, certainly not with fuzz. Then again, I don't remember a guitarist, and I'm pretty sure Alan Holdsworth would have been there. I do remember the writeup in the next day's paper: "Musicians' musicians to a man, Soft Machine played themselves into a corner last night". Spot on, although of course I refused to admit it at the time.

There were flexis [Translator's Note: the flexi-disc or flexi was a seven-inch single, manufactured using thin plastic rather than standard vinyl and generally produced for promotional purposes] on the seats at the Rainbow, featuring extracts from the Softs' forthcoming album Bundles. For the first time ever, a Soft Machine album had a title, and a singularly unenlightening one it was too (it didn't even match the album cover). When the album came out, a few months later, I was pleased to see "The man who waved at trains" present and correct in the track listing but mystified to find (on getting the record out of the sleeve on East Croydon station) that the vinyl it occupied only looked a couple of minutes long; if that was eight minutes, I reasoned obtusely, how long was the whole album?. Of course, the band hadn't mastered some bizarre groove-cramming technique. "TMWWAT" really was only a couple of minutes long, and consisted of a theme, a bit of desultory oboe noodling and a restatement of the theme; the other parts of the composition had been scissored into separate tracks. "Plain Bob" was there, too, covering most of side 1 under the ridiculously pretentious name of "Hazard Profile parts 1-5"; as it turned out part 4 was just a riff, part 2 was a brief piano composition, and part 3 was an even briefer bridge between the two, with ascending organ chords and Allan Holdsworth's guitar in plangent, Camel-ish form. With part 5 a rather unexciting Ratledge synth solo, the main action was in part 1, where Allan Holdsworth sounded less like Andy Latimer and more like John McLaughlin.

Holdsworth's Soft Machine solos are extraordinary stuff, it has to be said, but his sudden prominence in the band was a bad sign. The Softs needed a soloist with the range, speed and melodic invention of Dean or Ratledge in his heyday, and Holdsworth certainly fitted the bill. But, unlike Third-period Ratledge, Holdsworth wasn't a writer as well as a soloist - and, unlike Dean, he wasn't working in creative dialogue with a writer. (Dean's blowing and Ratledge's chamber composition had a strange but productive relationship, summed up by Dean's one composing credit on Fifth: the final track, Bone, consists of the improvisation by Dean which opens the first track, Ratledge's All White, played note-for-note by Ratledge on fuzz organ.) Essentially, the problem with Holdsworth was that Ratledge wasn't doing any serious writing by this stage - and Jenkins, who had ostensibly replaced him as the driving force of the band, didn't have anything like his chops as a composer, let alone as an improviser. Jenkins' Soft Machine was a band which went from tasteful piano noodling to heavy-booted riffing and back again. They were in a rut, and plugging in a soloist - even one as driven and driving as Holdsworth - wasn't going to lift them out.

I didn't formulate all that at the time, but I did take Ratledge's overdue departure from the band - midway through sessions for the ninth album, the ironically-titled Softs - as a cue to lose all interest in them. (Plus by this stage punk was starting to kick off.) After Holdsworth, as I understand, John Etheridge joined on guitar; after Etheridge, Alan Wakeman joined on sax and Ric Sanders on electric violin. After that - not long after that - they wound up, although Jenkins later made a 'Soft Machine' album with Marshall and various other people; it's called The land of Cockayne, it's fully-scored and it's bland in the extreme. Jenkins later worked for several years with Ratledge (of all people) on music for commercials (of all things); Ratledge even had a small part in the early days of Jenkins' hugely successful 'Adiemus' project.

I remember vaguely believing - certainly at the time all this was going on, and for some time afterwards - that being in a band was rather like being in a gang, only more so, what with being grown up: if you didn't actually live in the same house, you would certainly spend lots of time hanging around together and know one another really, really well. And what did it mean when a band split up, other than that friends had fallen out? I couldn't imagine that you could be in a band and not spend time with the other members of the band, outside the times when you were actually making music together. Ironically, this was precisely true of Soft Machine, the band I followed more than any other. Bennett spoke to several ex-members of the band, and most of them tell the same story: from Fourth onwards - which is to say, from the time of Wyatt's departure - to join Soft Machine was to join a band whose members didn't socialise, didn't go to the bar together before a gig or the pub afterwards, didn't even chat or exchange the odd smile during rehearsals. You played the charts, you did your solo, you went home.

What I take from all this is that music is hard - or rather, working in groups is hard. For most of the time between Volume Two and Fifth, Soft Machine was a difficult band to be in - but throughout that time they produced music which (even with thirty years' hindsight) ranges from good to startlingly brilliant. Ten or fifteen years ago, I was in a political group called (hopefully) the Socialist Movement; we spent a lot of time and effort shaking off Trotskyist groups who wanted to latch onto us. Shortly after we'd got rid of the last of them - a tiny grouplet which held the British franchise of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International - the whole thing folded, either because we didn't have the numbers to run it any more or just because agreeing with each other was no fun. I think something similar happened in Soft Machine: the years when the group was biting chunks out of itself were also the most productive years. By the time of Seven (and "Nettle bed") the group had settled down in reasonable harmony around the core of Jenkins, Marshall and bassist Roy Babbington - all old Nucleus hands, effectively replacing the old Volume Two trio of Ratledge, Wyatt and Hopper. But by then Ratledge (still just about in the band) had long lost his fire, and the music had lost its edge. This just left Jenkins, neither opposed nor assisted by any other band member, to turn it out by the yard - as he has done ever since.

Groups shake themselves apart; if they're not doing that, they're stagnating. Perhaps.