Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Soft Machine's 1967 St Tropez sojourn: [whatevershebringswesing] Do You Know The Way To St Tropez? (by Steve Foster)


Re-posted  from the WHATEVERSHEBRINGSWESING yahoo group:
I'm really grateful to Steve Foster for researching this excellent piece on the Soft Machine's 1967 St Tropez sojourn. Both Steve and I have tried posting it to the group complete with photos, but Yahoo's not having it. So here is the unillustrated, but still illuminating report in the words of Bananababa Steve...

Details of The Soft Machine's sojourn in St Tropez in the summer of 1967 have always seemed a bit sketchy to me. The various chronologies never seem to quite match up and all the versions I've read leave me wanting to know just a little bit more. Almost inadvertently I found myself in the vicinity of St Tropez in September. I'd left my other half to make the arrangements for the first part of our holidays so that I could concentrate on the arrangements for the second part - a walking holiday in the Pyrenees. She arranged for us to go camping on the Cote d'Azur with her sister and brother-in-law. We'd done something similar about 20 years previously. It hadn't been a great success. Very hot and very busy that August and pitching the tent full in the sun hadn't helped this pink, prickly Brit relax and enjoy his holiday. From memory, I think I lasted three days. I wasn't that keen on a repeat but it was too late to back pedal. This time around it was September; much less crowded, the temperature several notches below blast furnace and we were in a caravan in a shady pine grove. Best of all, as we pitched up, I realised that the campsite was half way between Sainte Maxime and Port Grimaud, and that I could see Saint Tropez almost diametrically opposite across the bay, 20 minutes by Bateaux Verts shuttle or an 8 km jog along shady cycle paths. In spite of the heat I soon had my anorak on, Google whirring away, paper and pen at the ready. 
I could find itemized chronologies of what Soft Machine were doing throughout the years, and where they were doing it, online, on the Pink Floyd Archives, Calyx and Planet Gong, but the St Tropez episode hung somewhere rather nebulously between the realms of myth and fantasy. Planet Gong isn't of much help and freely admits to being 'almost a blank canvas' for that whole year. For July and August 1967 it is limited to:

'Thursday 24/08 - Daevid refused entry to the UK at Dover under 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act
Friday 25/08 - Daevid sent back to Boulogne, France on The Maid of Kent' (1)

And the other two sources don't always correlate. As per the Pink Floyd Archive, Soft Machine played a gig in an underground car park, late June, on the Avenue Foch in Paris. Presumably on the way down to the French Riviera. This, along with the dates of Daevid Allen's refused re-entry into the UK at least helps to bookend the time frame of the episode: late June to 24th August 1967. Marking the first of several  dénouéments in the Soft Machine story but also the beginning of another story, that of Gong.

At home I had accounts in three published books. Gong Dreaming 1, the first part of the autobiography of Daevid Allen, one of our four protagonists.Different Every Time, the authorised biography by Marcus O'Dair of Robert Wyatt, another of the protagonists. Out-Bloody-Rageous, a history of The Soft Machine by Graham Bennett. The latter two are particularly well researched and informative. The former, a highly entertaining, though very personalised account of the period 1966 to 1975. As Pip Pyle said of Gong Dreaming 2, which it is true covered a later period; 'some details, I remember a bit differently'. If Graham Bennett and Marcus O'Dair are the Mark and the 'Q' of the Soft Machine gospel, then Daevid Allen must be the John, although of course, Daevid really was there.

Online there is also a Wikipedia entry for Soft Machine with a brief paragraph on the period and, as I was to discover, a very enlightening article/interview with Jean-Jacques Lebel. Lebel it was, who staged Picasso's Le Dé sir Attrapé Par La Queue at the Festival de la Libre Expression in St Tropez in the summer of 1967 and who had chanced upon the Soft Machine on the beach at Sainte Maxime a few days previously.

Can't say I've read or seen Picasso's play but it's an interesting story in itself. Written by Picasso in Paris during the Occupation. It had a read through shortly after the war with Camus directing, Sartre and de Beauvoir, amongst others, reading parts. Jean-Jacques Lebel came across the text in 1966 and premiered the play as a fully staged production in 1967 in the St Tropez area. Here's the Wikipedia entry:


Bernard Frechtman, who translated the work from the original French, had this to say in his Foreword. 'It says nothing of human destiny or of the human condition. In an age which has discovered man with a capital M, it is gratifying to advise the reader that Picasso has nothing to say of man, nor of the universe. This in itself is a considerable achievement.'

But back to our chronology. Gorgio Gomelsky, the producer and impresario had 'planned' a number of 'gigs' for Soft Machine on the French Riviera. Alternatively he had just planned a residency in a 'pop-up' discotheque on the beach at St Aygulf. Its hard to tell. The Discothèque Interplay took place within some sort of a dome or igloo (Wikipedia calls it 'a flat-pack Fun Palace') erected by Keith (father of Damon) Albarn.

01-05 July - Discothèque Interplay in St Aygulf.

Depending on who you read, the band only played the first night, they played all five nights or something in between (three according to Daevid Allen), before they got the bullet. And they were either playing as part of a beer festival or in parallel to said beer festival. Which ever was the case, clearly Soft Machine didn't go down well with beer drinkers. Lack of interest by paying customers as someone put it, a reaction to 'noise pollution' as Daevid Allen has it or even the objections of the other clubs in St Aygulf put pay to them. And the band didn't get paid. What is even stranger is that the tour then came to an abrupt end. What happened to the rest of the Riviera gigs that Gomelski had organised? Had he organized much else apart from this residency? Was it hoped that other gigs would organically follow? It appears the band now had no money for the return journey. Soft Machine seem to have been left to their own devises. As per Kevin Ayers: 'We were sort of abandoned in the South of France with no money, we had all the gear and stuff with us though'.

Jean-Jacques Lebel, who was staying with friends in Sainte Maxime: 'We could hear people singing on the beach and we thought that amazing. They were English hippies, sleeping on the beach in their sleeping bags. To eat, they busked and passed the hat around. They explained that they were interested in William Burroughs and that they were called Soft Machine. At the time they were unknown, and hadn't yet recorded an album. I suggested to them that they come and perform during the play as musicians and actors. They accepted straight away, they didn't know where to sleep. They therefore hitched and caught up with us in St Tropez and it is maybe what set them on their world trajectory. They were excellent.' And later in the same article: 'Soft Machine, it was my wife who spotted them on the beach at Sainte Maxime; and so we went to see them. They slept on the beach, they busked and passed the hat around... I invited them to come and play in exchange of which they slept under the big top, and we tried, with the few tickets we sold, to feed ourselves, of course the vast majority of people did not pay, they were coming from all over Europe, those that were being called hippies, stoned, nomads; so we all lived there together, under what has now sadly become a myth: the sexual revolution...'

'The promoter of this play by Picasso thought it would be a good idea to have us as the first part of the show to make more of an evening of it, it worked very well. So we were hired, sort of for nothing, peanuts, but we had a great time, it was very good.' Kevin Ayers (Calyx).

Sainte Maxime is a short hop down the coast from St Aygulf heading towards St Tropez. St Tropez had already created its own legend by the 50s and may well have been a destination for the band anyway. July and August in St Tropez was probably as hip as it got, certainly in Europe. When did this meeting on the beach with Jean-Jacques Lebel occur? Before or after the 14th July? Had Soft Machine already been to St Tropez? As the crow flies Sainte Maxime and Saint Tropez are probably no more than 5km from each other across the bay and some 15 kilometres around the bay. What strikes me as bizarre is the hitching. Soft Machine had instruments, amplifiers as well as a cast of at least 7 other people as per Graham Bennett (2). Daevid Allen refers to the tour being undertaken in a 'shiny new yellow bandwagon. Following the St Aygulf cancellation had Keith Albarn, 'flat-pack Fun Palace' and tour bus returned to the UK?

The next date in any of the chronologies is 14th July in St Tropez, where by common accord, except in Daevid Allen's account where this is down as the 4th July, Soft Machine played in the town square. I take this to be Place des Lices. There are undated entries indicating that the band then played Le Café des Arts sometime in July. Café des Arts also happens to be on the Place des Lices and unless the café has moved or been much reduced in size since 1967, I can't see how an electric band could play inside the café - it is much too small. Since the Café des Arts is right on the Place des Lices, it is possible that the band were on the Place des Lices itself and playing to an audience sat on and around the terrace of the café. Could this gig have been one and the same as the 14th July gig? Perhaps sponsored/paid for/simply just outside the Café des Arts?

By the 24th July Le Désir Attrapé Par La Queue would appear to have begun its three week run with Soft Machine playing either before or after (possibly both) the play, under instructions from Jean-Jacques Lebel to produce 'transmissions hallucinatoires'. The play was to have been staged in St Tropez at the Papagayo night club under canvas in the internal courtyard. The Gaullist maire, a member of the paramilitary Service d'Action Civique (SAC) to boot, caught cold feet when he heard of the contents of the play and had it banned. Needless to say, the socialist maire of the neighbouring commune of Gassin was only too pleased to take up the relay. The tent was pitched in an area of rough ground, where the circus came to town, in Gassin. Jean-Jacques Lebel claims in his interview that the play ran for two and a half months, seven days a week, to full houses every night. That may well have been the case, but Soft Machine's involvement would appear to have been for no more than 3 weeks. However long the run, the SAC couldn't let the opportunity pass without getting involved and machine gunned the generator. I've read somewhere that Robert Wyatt's drum kit took a bullet. 

'The play had enormous worldly success, press and TV..... People came from all over Europe, hitching or in 2CVs. People who had no idea where they were going to sleep, they had seen this on TV in Denmark, in Italy... They slept every night under the big top. They had no dosh for food. So when we had tuppence-halfpenny, and the money from a few sold tickets - most entered free - we'd make pasta for everyone at the interval. They passed their joints around. It's true everyone was wrecked, and I would never state that there were things, more or less collective, going on that bourgeois moral would approve of. It was banal at the time. So there was this little wordly success vis-a-vis St Tropez society who came along to mix with the riff-raff but what interested me more was this nation-less, European, youth culture, coming from everywhere and nowhere, which found itself there. And it was they who made Soft Machine's success. This population of young people who wanted another life-style and for whom this new art made sense.'

Kevin Ayers in Graham Bennett: 'In fact what made Soft Machine was an article in Le Nouvel Observateur. We got written up, I think, because Mike (Ratledge) was fucking the journalist. So we got a good review and that was it. Suddenly France just opened up. We were the darlings of the literary scene there.' (3)

Daevid Allen in Gong Dreaming 1: 'Suddenly we were the avant garde of intelligent rock. Within three months Soft Machine would be the third most popular band behind the Beatles and the Stones. We were soon invited to stay in luxurious beachfront houses, with the best food, wine, hash and cocaine.'

Certainly Soft Machine appeared twice on French TV the following October, though by then they were a trio. As Marcus O'Dair writes they 'had lost their Christopher Robin'; Daevid Allen. On En Parlera (3rd October) and Dim Dam Dom (8th October). Sometime in mid-October they filmed for the Guy Beart Show (4), although this wasn't broadcast until 25th August 1968 (Calyx).

'It was extraordinary. Firstly there were musicians who were actors and who acted....one could improvise and surprise one another. Taylor Mead was magnificent. He was homosexual. He brought his lovers on stage..... he was amazing when he arrived on stage dressed as a dog, on all fours with his long tail and pointed ears, everyone just burst out laughing..... He has a comic genius, that just doesn't come through very well in Warhol's films...... One day he brought along a young guy he had picked up on the beach. This guy had a camel and he would make a few bob taking photos of the holiday-makers on the camel. He brought him from a long way, some ten, fifteen kilometres, he was late but he got on stage.... He arrived as a dog leading the camel, the Soft Machine got playing and danced around the camel. But the camel got scared and started to shit enormous turds. People were screaming with laughter. We'd planned none of this but the great thing is improvisation, to allow people freedom, not to impose anything. The problem was to get the camel off stage. It was impossible and it spent the night on the stage. We managed to get it down the following morning. Every night we improvised with something new, it was absolutely fabulous.' (5)

The Pink Floyd Archive has the play being performed in Cogolin for two weeks in August. Cogolin is the next village/commune west of Gassin and has perhaps been confused with Jean-Jacques Lebel's one-off Sun Love happening in Cogolin, where Soft Machine performed naked around a swimming pool. As per Jean Jacques Lebel: 'The Picasso part lasted an hour, that depended on the Soft Machine, and afterwards there were happenings, concerts... An American actor told us 'come back to my place, I've got a swimming pool', so we went and we created a happening which took the piss out of the faux-mystics, and we made a pseudo ritual to the rising sun, we took the piss out those people who were taking the piss out of the hippies, it was Sun Love... in my 16 mm films one won't hear the Soft Machine but one will see them... it wasn't recorded.'

'Jean-Jacques Lebel had us playing one of his happenings, around a swimming pool at night. And the only rule was that everybody had to be undressed, including the band. Completely. If you weren't, you had to stay indoors. It was a very nice feeling, on a warm, breezy, Saint-Tropez evening, to be playing without clothes. That's when I realised you could do it. And being behind a drumkit protected what they call your modesty'. Wyatt's bare torso would become intrinsic to his image as a drummer, occasionally embellished with shirt and tie drawn onto his flesh in crayon (Marcus O'Dair).

The Pink Floyd Archive also has the band playing private parties for Barclay Records and Caroll Baker in July and the Café des Arts early in August. I suspect that the Barclay Records do was Eddie Barclay's La Nuit Psychédélique at L'Epi Plage on the 13th August as per Graham Bennett and others. There is also mention of Soft Machine opening the Voom Voom Club in St Tropez. Strangely, for such a verifiable event, there is no date, other than what we have to assume is pre-13 August. Soft Machine may well have played the Voom Voom Club but the club seems to have been open for business from 1966 as far as I can make out.

At some point, at one of the parties in St Tropez, Brigitte Bardot was in attendance, though I can find no evidence that Bardot herself threw the party. La Nuit Psychédélique, perhaps? Daevid Allen is reported in Marcus O'Dair as saying that this was 'the best concert Soft Machine ever played. Kevin Ayers later recalled the event in his track Clarence In Wonderland: Let's go to my chateau/We could have a good time/Drinking lots of sky wine'. See below for a photo of La Madrague (aka 'My Chateau') with its wall to keep paparazzi and rubber neckers at a distance.

It was in St Tropez and at the party that Brigitte Bardot attended that Soft Machine performed their now near legendary rendition of We Did It Again, repeating their version of the The Kinks You Really Got Me riff non-stop for between 40 minutes and an hour. 'By taking the ostinato technique to its extreme, Kevin was actually making a serious artistic statement.' As per Mike Ratledge, again in Graham Bennett 'It was his idea that if you find something boring - a basic Zen concept - then in the end you will find it interesting. And there is something in that: if you listen to something repeated in the same way, your mind changes the structure of it each time..... Kevin saw it halfway between the spiritual liberation thing and showing off how hip we were.' And to lift more from Graham Bennett: Kevin says that he 'pinched the idea from the Sufi thing of Dervish dances, the repetition of a straight rhythmic figure which promotes release from all the things that one finds difficult in releasing normally'. Kevin is adamant that it 'was the nearest I got to doing what I wanted with that song. Since then it's become sort of orchestrated. We've split it up into bits and got away from the point.' Daevid remembers with undisguised glee the profound effect the performance had on their audience: 'This bout of Terry Riley-inspired minimalism was enough to make us the toast of the new Parisian fashion season.' In Gong Dreaming 1, he has this to say; 'To amuse ourselves we decided to perform a live loop of the louee-loui riff with a repetitive chorus of: WE DID IT AGAIN. We played it for forty minutes to an ecstatic 'in' crowd who instantly decided that we were to be the fashionable flavour of the month on their return to Paris.' Louis Louis or You Really Got Me? Daevid also has this down as being at a party given by Bridget (sic) Bardot following the performance on the town square of the 4th July. Essence over detail, et alors?

Somewhere out there is a quote of Kevin Ayers' answer to an interviewer pressing him on what Brigitte Bardot thought of the We Did It Again piece. 'She probably said: Get the w*****s off.' Whatever she thought of the music she had an eye on the bass player. Ayers and Bardot. I certainly hadn't jogged over to St Tropez to try and substantiate the rumour. For me it has been fact for some time. Ever since I had it on good authority, by someone who had asked Kevin Ayers. Ayers answered something along the lines of: Yes, it's true but not the rumours about Bianca Jagger.

Here's an early version of Clarence In Wonderland recorded for French TV on 3rd October 1967 and incorporating a brief reprise of We Did It Again. Note the extended and rather disturbing lyric.


The programme, I suspect is On En Parlera rather than Camera III, as per Calyx. I would imagine that Camera III was a cue to the director?

And this is what Brigitte Bardot looked like at the time. Well a couple of months later when performing Harley-Davidson written for her by her latest paramour, Serge Gainsbourg.


As it happened, within a day or two of our arrival in the St Tropez area, a small gang of Harley-Davidson bikers descended on our campsite. They were from Breda in The Netherlands. Inevitably, we immediately referred to them as The Breda Reaktors (6), not least because they were a quintet. One of them, it must have been Hannes (at least three of them were called Hannes) told me he had Soft Machine I and Soft Machine II on his I-Pod. Just like me, he couldn't see much further than those first two albums. We had a memorable, what bikers may call a hoedown, that evening. Photo of Breda Reaktors below.

But back to Bardot. Only recently have I been made aware that the follow up to Bardot's Harley-Davidson was to have been Serge Gainsbourg's Je T'aime... Moi Non Plus. Gunter Sachs had turned a blind eye to his wife's  libertinage but putting them down, literally, on record was too much even for him. Je T'aime... Moi Non Plus was to appear a year later as a Gainsbourg duet with Jane Birkin. Personally I've never understood the fuss around the Jane Birkin version. Here's the Bardot version, which only came to light some 20 years later.


We presume that Clarence In Wonderland was inspired by Brigitte Bardot. But what might Kevin Ayers have written for Bardot à la Gainsbourg? Could the Jolie Madame duet, recorded with Bridget St John in 1971 have had its genesis in St Tropez? 

We don't quite know when the band left St Tropez (16th August as per The Pink Floyd Archives) but we do know that they caught a ferry to Dover on 24th August (7).

I can find few photographs of this whole episode, in spite of there being a dedicated photographer amongst the party - Mark Ellidge. There's one photo in Gong Dreaming 1 of Daevid Allen busking with a recorder labelled 'le busking en st tropez' and photos of  Le Désir Attrapé Par La Queue can be found on the Internet, though none feature any of the members of Soft Machine. Gong Dreaming 1 also features an all too small reproduction of the poster for the Discothèque Interplay at St Aygulf. 'Dansez! Freak Out! avec la meilleur formation psych éélique de Londres, à partir de 23 heures 45, les fantastiques SOFT MACHINE leur dernier disque LOVE MAKES SWEET MUSIC sur Barclay' it proclaims. Rather than their latest record Love Makes Sweet Music was their one and only record to date. That it appeared on Barclay Records may have something to do with the band playing at Eddie Barclay's La Nuit Psychédélique the following month. Out-Bloody-Rageous has a photo of the band (Daevid Allen and Kevin Ayers) performing at the Discothèque Interplay in St Aygulf.

Nor do we know, apart from We Did It Again, what pieces Soft Machine played. I can only assume that their repertoire was likely made up of the pieces recorded three months previously for the Gomelsky Tapes/Jet Propelled Photograph, Love Makes Sweet Music and perhaps Daevid Allen's Fred The Fish (8).

I've lifted whole chunks from Graham Bennett's Soft Machine Out-Bloody-Rageous (pages 107-112), Marcus O'Dair's Different Every Time (pages 77-80) and Daevid Allen's Gong Dreaming 1 (pages 60-62) and referred extensively to Calyx, the Pink Floyd Archive and Jean Jacques Lebel's article/interview. Translations of the latter are mine, I've tried to convey the spirit rather than to be word for word accurate. Facts, dates and quotes are all their's. All errors and interpretations are entirely a figment of my over-ripe banana imagination. It is really the Nicaean omissions that interest me now, any Mediterranean Sea Scrolls that have yet to be revealed and of course the gospel according to Kevin Ayers. There's a lot more to be said about this trip to the South of France, I am certain. I'd be interested to know more. It is sad, though a fact of life, that at least five of those who made up the Soft Machine party in the summer 1967 are no longer in the room. I've written to Les Archives Municipales in St Tropez for any articles (there's mention of an article in Le Figaro, and the local paper must have reviewed these events) or any photos that they may have. I intend to make a return visit to St Tropez in the summer of 2017 to 'Do It Again', perhaps I'll get my other half to make arrangements to Take Me To Tahiti (Plage).


(1) Daevid Allen was an Australian citizen with an Australian passport.
(2) Daevid Allen, Kevin Ayers, Mike Ratledge, Robert Wyatt (Soft Machine musicians), Ted Bing (roadie and old school friend), Mark Boyle (light show), Ian Knight ('on behalf of management'), Gilli Smith (Daevid's girlfriend), Mark Ellidge (Robert's half-brother and tour photographer), Michael Chapman and Keith Albarn.
(3) Yvette Romi's short but effusive article which appeared in Le Nouvel Observateur in September 1967 is reproduced in Graham Bennett's Out-Bloody-Rageous.
(4) Guy Beart died just recently (16th September) aged 85.
(5) This paragraph is a synopsis rather than a strict translation.
(6) Breda Reactor is the title of a Soft Machine bootleg recorded in Breda in 1970. I think I'm right in saying that it didn't get an official release until 2005. An interesting footnote: I'm told that Breda Reactor features one of the few (two?) examples of a post-Ayers era version of We Did It Again.
(7) I'm rarely on the side of officialdom. But hats off to that over diligent immigration official. Without him there might not have been a Gong. Unable to return to the UK, Daevid Allen went to found Gong in Paris.

(8) That's How Much I Need You, Save Yourself, I Should Have Known, Jet-Propelled Photograph/Shooting At The Moon, When I Don't Want You, Memories, You Don't Remember, She's Gone, I'd Rather Be With You. Fred The Fish was never released and presumed lost. What I imagine is a very different version appeared on Daevid Allen's Bananamoon album in 1971.

1 comment:

AnthonyH said...

Very interesting article. One comment I would make is that the inspiration for "We Did It Again" I have always thought was pretty obvious, John Coltrane's title track on his "Love Supreme" album. The Softs had a strong grounding in Jazz and everyone was listening to Coltrane at this time. Coltrane, in what I believe was his only vocal recording, sings repeatedly the words 'a love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme' while the backing musicians play a VERY similar riff to Kevin's song.