Jimi’s birthday 23 November 2013

Thank you Noel and Mitch/ Thank you Jim for our exposure to the crowd/ And thank you for his coattails/ Mike, you did us proud, didn’t you? (‘Have you ever bean green?’ from Soft Machine Vol. II, 1968)


It was the end of the 1960s, and I came across a record review in a UK-based trade magazine called Beat Instrumental of a recording by a group called Soft Machine. I have no intention of cutting a long story short here but since it’s Jimi’s birthday, the quotation above is from that album and it’s about Soft Machine’s tour of the United States as support act to the Jimi Hendrix experience. Noel and Mitch are of course the British rhythm section of Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell (bass & drums) and Jim is none other than the voodoo chile himself.  I’m assuming that Mike is the band’s manager and not Mike Ratledge, the keyboardist in the band. The lyrics are quite acerbic, and I seem to recall that the tour ended badly, with Robert Wyatt ending up in Los Angeles finishing what would turn out to be his final contribution to Soft Machine, Moon in June, from the third album.

Posted on my wall at the time was a large photograph of Hendrix in a white suit playing a white Strat. Who knows, these may have been the very coattails Wyatt refers to in the lyrics. For a long time in my youth I wanted to be a guitarist and had one or two rehearsals with garage bands playing guitar and one memorable disaster of a concert at school, rescued only by Jethro Butow’s lending me his Les Paul to play on. I even sang at the gig. The less said about my illustrious career as a singer probably the better.

I absolutely loved Soft Machine Vol. II, Wyatt’s marvellous singing, Hugh Hopper’s bass chops, and Mike Ratledge’s anarcho-jazz keyboards, but the real kick (pun intended) is the drumming, replete with manic energy, swing, and inventiveness which is Wyatt at his best. The compositions to my mind are the most unique aspect; completely of their own kind, borne out by the band’s gradual decline after Wyatt left. I’m hardly an unbiased commentator as you probably have gathered by now, but they started to sound samey and tired after a while and I lost interest in the music.

I realise that I haven’t spoken a great deal about Jimi Hendrix up to now, but his sudden death in 1970 marked the end of an era for many of us.

Band of Gypsies was one of the highlights of the end of the decade for me. I learnt every one of Billy Cox’s bass lines off that album and used to jam along incessantly with it. And that, shameful or not, is how I learnt to play, strictly by ear, so that when I first got on stage as a ‘jazz musician’ I did not know the difference between Db major seventh and a hole in the ground. I played by intuition and watching the pianist’s left hand like the proverbial hawk. Later on in my career, I got ‘sivilised,’ as Huckleberry Finn puts it. But that’s a story for another day perhaps.

In any case, happy birthday Mr Hendrix and thanks for the music.

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