Hugh Hopper R.I.P.: Soft Machine’s Soul

HopperHugh Hopper 1945-2009

The name Hugh Hopper probably wasn’t well known outside of the most progressive of progressive rock circles.  As a member of The Wilde Flowers and then Soft Machine, he was one of the principal architects of the “Canterbury Sound” in progressive rock, which included Caravan, Hatfield and the North, Gong .

The Soft Machine emerged out of psychedelia with drummer/singer Robert Wyatt, bassist/vocalist Kevin Ayers, guitarist Daevid Allen, and organist Mike Ratledge.  For various reasons, Allen left to form Gong and Ayers subsequently departed for a solo career.  Into the breach stepped Hugh Hopper.  He’d been the band’s roadie, but quickly became a defining aspect of the Soft’s sound with roaming, prowling bass lines that navigated polyrhythmic grooves and elliptical melodies.  The Soft Machine - Volume Two Soft Machine Volume Two was a watershed album often driven by Hopper’s signature fuzz bass lines.  But it was on albums like Third, Fourth and Fifth that Hughes proved to be a master lead bass, predating electric players like Jaco Pastorius and Stanley Clarke.  But unlike those lead bassists, Hopper never forgot that the bass needed to hold down the bottom, especially in Soft Machine where the music always threatened to leave its moorings, and often did float into space. I can still sing bass lines to “Facelift” and “Slightly All the Time.”

European Tour (1977) In an interview in All About Jazz Hugh Hopper claims he wasn’t a virtuoso.  I’d disagree.  I’d say he considered the ensemble over the soloist and wasn’t prone to pointless flash technical displays.  You don’t get to tour and record with Carla Bley, as Hopper did (European Tour 1977), without being able to play your ass off.

Hugh Hopper was also a musical explorer.  He worked extensively with tape loops and other effects and after the Softs, he pursued multiple and often idiosyncratic directions that ranged from hard free-fusion with The Hugh Hopper Band to looping journeys on Jazzloops.

Two Rainbows Daily He kept the Soft Machine name going with his Soft Heap, Soft Mountain and Polysoft projects, but I lost track of Hopper in the 1980s.  He was fairly prolific, but to my ears his music often meandered and had that haphazard sound to which improvisors sometimes fall prey.  But that’s the curse and the blessing of the experimentalist.

But I also have a special soft-spot for the bassist.  Hugh Hopper was my first interview.  At the time he was touring with Isotope, a fusion banded fronted by guitarist Gary Boyle.  In March or April of 1975, the band tromped up to the third floor studios West Philadelphia studios of WXPN before a gig at The Main Point in Bryn Mawr.  They were all very forgiving of a college junior getting to interview one of his heroes.  I remember specifically asking Hugh why he used the fuzz-tone on so much of his bass-playing.  He averred that he didn’t think he did, but after I listed about ten songs, the band joined me in correcting him.  Do you think he was having a laugh?

Third I’m listening to Third right now.  There’s no fuzz, just that deep bending tone Hugh would get in his soulful moments.

Hugh died this past Sunday, June 7th, after a long bout with cancer.  He’s survived by his wife, Christine.

If you’ve never heard Hugh Hopper, pick up Soft Machine Volume Two or Third.  For his soulful side, Two Rainbows Daily is a classic of intuitive playing for electric bass and keyboards.   And for his personal take on fusion and jazz-pop, listen to his underrated 1999  Delta Flora album with his group, Hughscore, featuring vocals from Elaine Di Falco.  Ahhh, there’s that fuzzbass again.

Hugh Hopper: Om Mani Padme Hum*

John Diliberto ((( echoes )))

*Hopper was a Buddhist follower.

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