John Etheridge interview: “We never got paid for Soft Machine. God knows what happened to the money”

John Etheridge

AJ Dehany caught up with Soft Machine’s John Etheridge and spoke to him about his formative fretboard influences and approaches to guitar playing, as well as penetrating the complex chronology and politics of the ongoing Softs saga

“Around 1969 I lost interest in what you’d call rock music,” says guitarist John Etheridge. “I’d got bored with jazz, because it was all safe. I’d heard Clapton, Hendrix, Peter Green, Jeff Beck. When you’ve had that intensity it’s kind of hard to engage, but when John McLaughlin’s album Extrapolation came along, and then Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way, it was like, ‘Wow! This is jazz with bollocks!’”

The guitarist is about to set out on a 10-date UK tour with Soft Machine, the legendary jazz-rock group formed in Canterbury in 1966 with Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers, Daevid Allen and Mike Ratledge. The current line-up includes three 1970s-era members, with Etheridge on guitar, Roy Babbington on bass, and John Marshall on drums, with Theo Travis replacing the late Elton Dean on reeds. We meet by Hampstead Heath, where he’s just been swimming. At nearly 70, he’s vigorous, voluble and totally affable. Everyone we pass seems to know him. As he talks, it turns out he knows everyone too. In his career he’s worked with countless talents and some huge names, including John Williams and Stéphane Grappelli. He jammed with Hendrix and Clapton during the blues boom in the 1960s, but struck out in a jazz direction that led to him joining Soft Machine in 1975.

His story is rich in characters and passion from the start. What made him take up the guitar in 1961 at age 13 was Hank Marvin and the Shadows with their red Stratocasters. It was a “flashbulb moment”. Another was seeing Eric Clapton in Golders Green Refectory in 1965. “I couldn’t believe it!” he says. “That was the real thing, absolutely devastating. I was quite an experienced player by then, but nobody had made the guitar sing for me before that. The guitar sang for the first time, actually sang.” By way of contrast he adds: “For us, the state-of-the-art guitar solo in 1964 was Dave Davies’ on ‘You Really Got Me’. It’s like Chuck Berry on amphetamines.”

It fits with Etheridge’s wider conception of what the guitar can do emotionally, what it can make us feel. “This is what Clapton did. He made the guitar sing, and people loved his playing. Every season there’s a Clapton imitation. At the moment it’s Joe Bonamassa doing his take on Eric circa 1966.” I tell Etheridge that my friends and I call Bonamassa ‘the Blues Dentist’. “He is! He’s a property tycoon! Can you imagine Eric doing that? I come from an era when I can still recall how absolutely authentic these people were to their core. That’s why they suffered. If you give it all like they did it’s bad for you. It’s great for the public, it’s bad for you. So Hendrix died, they all died, and Clapton essentially did – he lived on, but the real Clapton died in 1969, and that’s the truth. Full marks to him for carrying on and having a good career.”

The point is this: “We were all so young. All we wanted to do was play. We didn't care about money. I didn't take any interest in money until the late 1970s, when I had a family. We never got paid for Soft Machine. God knows what happened to the money. All I was thinking about was playing. Do you think Eric Clapton gave a shit about money when he was 20? These people were totally into what they were doing. This is a very important difference. Musicians now are much more balanced people, because they have to be. After Thatcher they had to be, but you can hear the effect on the music. Hendrix, Clapton, the intensity of their playing was extraordinary. Nobody plays like that now.”

Etheridge’s accounts of the 1960 would fill volumes. “It was crazy, it was a crazy period and a great period, inspiring but crazy, and destructive.”

I enjoyed a description I’d read of Soft Machine’s “deep roots in the musical revolution of the 1960s”, which was followed by an extended tree metaphor about limbs branching off. The Soft Machine family tree is particularly complicated. You can count at least 24 different incarnations, though it has been reasonably stable for over a decade now as Soft Machine Legacy. In 2015, the band reverted to the name Soft Machine. I ask John Etheridge about the philosophical and legal implications of that change.

“Because of the way the law goes, if you're directors of a firm that packs up you still technically own the name. When we reformed in 2004 there was talk about calling it Soft Machine. A lot of people abroad just called us Soft Machine, and people were saying, ‘Look! Just drop the ‘Legacy’, call it Soft Machine, ’cos people think it’s a tribute band’. That was the problem. We would go to a gig and not many people would show up, because they thought it was a tribute band. Last year we toured as Soft Machine and it went so much better. But I do still have this funny feeling about calling it Soft Machine.”

I ask him about a comment from Hugh Hopper, the long-standing bass player until 2008, who said, “We [Soft Machine] weren't consciously playing jazz rock. It was more a case of not wanting to sound like other bands; we certainly didn't want a guitarist.” Etheridge laughs: “That’s very interesting! It was a thing about Soft Machine, that there was no guitar, which was why I took no interest in them whatsoever, which stood me in good stead because there were loads of people going, ‘This isn't proper Soft Machine’. I didn't feel it personally at all. I was honoured to be in the band. They didn't have a guitarist for ages and, when they did, it was a bit like, ‘oh god, why have they got a guitar?’”

When the Soft Machine job came up in 1975, the album Bundles had already been recorded with Allan Holdsworth on guitar, who recommended Etheridge to the group (“which was incredible for me, an incredible break”). There was a ‘Year Zero’ feeling that Etheridge sardonically compares to the Soviet-era politburo, when Stalin dies and Khrushchev takes over. “When I joined, everybody from the earlier period was dissed: ‘They couldn't play, they're no good, their compositions were no good’, and without thinking I took that on board, because I respected the people I was playing with. They were very sniffy about the old days. The people who joined didn't have respect for the people from the past. It was only years later, when I listened to the old stuff, that I realised how good it was.

He explains his qualms: “I remember some friends of mine had Soft Machine’s Third at university and I listened to it and thought that as there’s no guitar player, I'm not interested. But now, when I hear it, I realise how good it was. Robert Wyatt was a very creative force. If they’d followed his direction with the vocals and things it would have made Soft Machine into a superstar band. Soft Machine could have been Pink Floyd. But they went into the jazz instrumental direction. As soon as you ditch vocals you're not finished, but your place in the pantheon is lowered.”

Before the dreaded guitar entered the Soft Machine mix with Allan Holdsworth in the mid-1970s, the band was briefly dominated by the compositionally-led keyboard player and composer Karl Jenkins, who was very much a ‘leader’. “When I listen to the albums I think they're good, but he was the opposite of a free improviser,” explains Etheridge. “He was a very controlling influence, extremely non-improvisational in essence. Jenkins was essentially not a jazz musician. He'd admit that. Marshall is, and I am by temperament, and Roy Babbington as well, and Hugh Hopper. But Hugh and Jenkins had this implicit hatred of each other.”

This returns to a key point. “In the 1960s and 1970s the other side of the intensity with which people played was the intensity with which they hated and loved. I don’t know what young people are like now, but it was a difficult environment.” I ask Etheridge if this might have been what Hugh Hopper really meant when he cited Jenkins’ “third-rate musical involvement”, and Etheridge’s own comments about the band in the late 1970s “not achieving its potential”. “No!” he protests. “Initially I levelled blame at the band’s appalling management arrangements: a certain amount of internecine strife, people pulling in different directions. When I look back now, I realise that the Wyatt direction would have probably borne more fruit. It wouldn't have involved me, obviously. So, thank god it never happened, or I’d never have been in the Soft Machine!”

Following Allan Holdsworth’s parts on 1975’s Bundles was hard work, but rewarding. Etheridge explains: “When I later joined Stéphane Grappelli people would say, ‘god, you're following Django Reinhardt!’ and I’d say, ‘No, I'm not: Stéphane Grappelli has played with 150 mediocre guitarists since Django died, so I don't feel intimidated at all!’ Whereas following Allan as the Soft Machine guitarist was demanding. I did feel that I was one of the few people who could cope. I was quite proud of that.”

Etheridge goes on to explain why the band went on hiatus: “We did some great touring, then that finished and the 1980s came along. Hugh Hopper was driving a cab. People went into running pubs and things because the 1980s killed everything. I loathed that decade. It was an appalling time for me and my generation. I had all sorts of awful things going on in my life, but through Stéphane Grappelli’s band I slipped into the jazz scene, in which I was low-level active throughout the 1980s. I did okay, but people like Hugh had to pack up.”

He offers a glimpse of what could have happened: “It was only come 1993-94 that a lot of bands started reforming and there was suddenly an interest. Soft Machine should have done something then, but because of the chaotic nature of the general thing it didn't. Coliseum reformed about 1995, Caravan reformed in the same year – suddenly there was an interest, which there hadn't been throughout the 1980s. I did okay in the 1980s, but I didn't do anything particularly constructive.”

Etheridge tells me that this time around, and for the first time in its history, Soft Machine is a true democracy. With the group’s focus on improvisation, does that make the creative process easier? “Absolutely!” he enthuses. ‘You can’t do free improvisation unless it’s a democracy. You can’t! Imagine a dinner party where you've got four people and if one person holds forth the whole time it’s boring for everybody else. Or if one person doesn't speak at all it’s embarrassing. A good free is like a successful social interaction. Whether it’s of interest to the audience is something else. I never thought it was much of a spectator sport. Free improv is a participant sport, but it’s very satisfying.”

The most recent full-time member of the Soft Machine set-up, Theo Travis, gives the group a vital impetus. What I really like off albums like 2007’s Steam are the intensely-layered textures, with Travis and Etheridge’s free use of effects over disciplined rhythm playing. Etheridge agrees: “It’s quite communal in that sense. It’s got a good balance, which is the democratic thing. We’ve got our compositions, which tend to be fairly well-structured, with ordinary songs and solos, and then tunes that just start from somewhere and go anywhere else. I like doing that myself when playing solo, but I never quite have the nerve!”

It’s a surprising admission of humility for a man who throughout his career has always struck out on his own creative path, pursuing what felt right to him. “I love doing it! There are elements of me that are uncompromising, but I never had jazz bitterness. I accept that if I want to play like I want to play that it isn’t going to have universal appeal. It’s for a very limited, but obsessive, audience.” Etheridge remains unrepentant: “The very fortunate people in life, like Hendrix and Clapton, were playing to the max of what they could do and it also appealed to people. Everybody else goes into singing: Clapton, George Benson, Richard Thompson… They write songs and sing them and then you can go anywhere. But I was a guitar player who was hooked up on jazz, so there was no way! Considering all that, I’ve done okay. Once you’ve got the jazz disease you're on the way to penury and financial embarrassment. I’ve worked out that no guitarist who plays long lines has ever made any money. The highest paid guitarist in the universe per note is Pink Floyd’s Dave, don't you think?”

He may have a point. From as early as the 1960s, many Soft Machine tracks have been based around riffs or very tight one-note basslines, rather than chord progressions as such.

“One chord. Yep. Very little harmonic movement in the solo. But I'm happy with that. What you can do, if there’s no keyboard, is invent your own harmonies over the one-note bass, play a lot of chromatic stuff which implies harmonies that aren't there. That’s very liberating. In the 1980s, I spent a lot of time studying what they call playing outside, which is what John Schofield and people were doing.” Etheridge contrasts this to the playing of Stéphane Grappelli, who was “completely dependent on the harmony to generate ideas” and to ‘the Blues Dentist’: “If you took Joe Bonamassa, he’s a clever musician, but he'd probably find playing over changes difficult. It’s a thing that jazz musicians do. To me, it doesn't matter. I went through this jazz snobbery period in the 1980s where, if the changes weren't complicated, it was like cheating. But who gives a fuck? People don’t care.”

Confirming both his humility and his jazz sensibility he concludes: “The important thing is that you and the audience get to a space. If you're just trying to tickle the audience cynically then you're a cabaret act. If you're just getting off on playing and the audience are unmoved then you're a wanker. But if both of you go to some place together, like I experienced with Eric Clapton in 1965, that’s a real interaction.”

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