Soft Machine: We Did it Again [purchase]
Yes: Beyond and Before [purchase]
As we wind down the In Memoriam theme and move on to (I hope) happier discussions, I decided to wedge in another pair of tributes, this time to musicians who played on early albums by prog bands, and then left. In both cases, the bands reached significant popularity after their departure, while the musicians went on to long careers, mostly under the mainstream radar.
Let’s start with Kevin Ayers. Born in England, he was raised in Malaysia, and seemed to have taken a more stereotypical tropical approach to life. An early member of what later became known as the “Canterbury Scene,” he joined the Wilde Flowers, sort of the “mothership” of the scene. The Wilde Flowers split, essentially forming two bands: Caravan and Soft Machine, in which Ayers played bass and guitar, sang and wrote songs. Initially Soft Machine also included Robert Wyatt on drums and vocals, Daevid Allen on guitar and Mike Ratledge on organ. Unfortunately, after some gigs in France, Allen was refused entry back to England, so he stayed in France and formed Gong (which turned out pretty well for him).
As a trio, Soft Machine toured the United States, opening for Jimi Hendrix, a pretty good gig, I’d have to think, and recorded their first album, The Soft Machine in New York. The album, which is as much an odd psychedelic album as it was a proto-prog rock collection, is one of those albums that is considered very influential but is probably rarely played, and that’s too bad. The track featured above, "We Did it Again," was written by Ayers, and he sings lead. You can hear the diverse influences, including blues, psychedelic rock and prog, in the song. Imagine, if you can, hearing it go on for 45 minutes, in 1968, at a concert, especially if you were under the influence. Apparently, it was an almost religious experience.
Later, in 1968, Soft Machine recruited a guitarist named Andy Summers to replace Allen, and he toured with the band on some more American dates, including opening for Hendrix again, before Ayers had Summers fired. Summers, of course, did fine for himself, joining a little trio in 1997 called The Police. (There must not have been hard feelings between Ayers and Summers, who later played with him).
Ayers, however, decided the touring grind was too much, sold his bass to Noel Redding of Hendrix’s band, and went off to Ibiza to hang out with Daevid Allen. I have to believe that the gentlemen enjoyed themselves pharmacologically, as befit the times, and Ayers wrote a bunch of songs that are featured on his first solo album. Through the next decades, Ayers recorded and toured with a wide variety of musicians, releasing uncategorizable albums that delighted and confounded the music world. Interestingly, one of Ayers longest musical collaborations was with guitarist Ollie Halsall, the mostly uncredited guitarist for the Beatles parody band The Rutles.
Ayers rarely seemed interested in commercial success, and he never had much, due to his musical tastes, laid back personality and, unfortunately, substance abuse issues. In the late 1990s, Ayers reappeared, but it wasn’t until 2007 that he released The Unfairground to critical acclaim and, of course, few sales. He died on February 18, 2013 in France.
Soft Machine, in Ayers’ absence, with a regularly changing cast of members, moved gradually away from psychedelia and prog toward fusion (but generally the interesting kind, especially the fascinating Third album). Allmusic considers them to be one of the more influential bands of their era.
Peter Banks was the first guitarist in Yes, and appeared on their first two albums. Was he a good guitarist? A couple of influential DJs from the BBC refer to him as the “Architect of Progressive Rock.” Gibson Guitar named him as one of the "10 Great Prog Rock Guitarists." So yeah, he was. The song above, "Beyond and Before," is the first song on the first Yes album, and Banks plays the first note, and follows that with some fine playing. So, what happened?
Artistic differences, of course. Yes was formed in mid-1968, and the initial lineup was Banks, Jon Anderson on vocals, Chris Squire on bass, Tony Kaye on keyboards, and my favorite drummer, Bill Bruford. Of course, they needed a name, and after considering Anderson’s suggestion, Life, and Squire’s suggestion, World, they agreed on Yes! (suggested by Banks, and including the exclamation point). They began to perform live, Bruford decided to quit the band and return to university, but luckily was lured back. In 1969, the band recorded and released a self-titled debut album (without the !), consisting of original songs, and two covers. Although the album failed to chart, it received generally positive reviews.
The band began to work on its followup, Time and A Word, but Anderson and Squire wanted to use an orchestra, which was still kind of a radical idea. Banks wasn’t pleased by this in theory, and when he found out that the arrangements were going to pretty much replace him (and Kaye), he became really miffed. The album was released, it did O.K., although there were some negative reviews of the use of the orchestra, the band did a tour, and the disgruntled Banks was given the boot. He was replaced by Steve Howe. (Kaye lasted one more album (The Yes Album, the band’s commercial breakthrough) and tour before being replaced by Rick Wakeman).
After a while supporting others, Banks and Kaye reunited to form Flash, which not surprisingly sounded like Yes and had minimal success in its short life, after which Banks worked as a sideman, appeared on tribute albums and released solo material (check out this one featuring Jan Akkerman of Focus, Phil Collins, John Wetton and Steve Hackett). He wasn’t even part of a Flash reunion in the early 2000s. but toured and released an album in 2006 as part of a band called Harmony in Diversity. He passed away on March 7, 2013.
Of course, Yes went on to enormous fame, with an oft-changing revolving door lineup (that, however, never again included Banks). Their most recent album featured only Squire from the original lineup, and they still tour regularly.