Soft Machine: NDR Jazz Workshop – Hamburg, Germany, May 17, 1973

Mid-period Soft Machine live album from the ever-reliable Cuneiform. Hope you're not allergic to sax solos.

Soft Machine

NDR Jazz Workshop – Hamburg, Germany, May 17, 1973

Label: Cuneiform Records
US Release Date: 2010-05-25
UK Release Date: 2010-05-24

As anyone who’s been around a few years will know, life is full of little mysteries. Like, what’s the point of wasps? Why isn’t a building called a ‘built’? How fat would you need to be to be bullet-proof? And, most crucially, how on Earth does a pop writer go about trying to provide an objective critique of an hour-and-a-half long, live, wholly instrumental jazz fusion LP? Well, as it happens (but unfortunately only in the case of the latter), you’re about to find out.

By 1973, Soft Machine (the Softs and their “The” having parted ways with the release of Third three years previous) were already unrecognisable as the pioneeringly bizarre psychedelic pranksters responsible for two of the most unique albums of the late 1960s. 1968’s freewheeling song suite The Soft Machine was an ambitious, surreal, and wildly successful attempt by three white pop musicians to combine rock and roll energy with jazz complexity, whilst the unabashed Dadaism of the following year’s Volume Two pushed the envelope further, its 33 minutes a rollercoaster ride of erudite pop, quirky humour, and avante-garde experimentation (not to mention the slice of proto-technicolour lunacy that was February 1967’s "Love Makes Sweet Music", a single which opens with a line which sounds, to quote Julian Cope, rather a lot like: “Ba-ba-baaa / Doodoodoodaadaadibblyahbah”; it’s "Tutti-Frutti", Jim, but not as we know it).

But, alas, all great bands must evolve, and Soft Machine were no exception. While their former underground contemporaries variously trotted off and decided to invent space rock (the Floyd, Hawkwind), electronica (Arthur Brown), shock rock (Arthur Brown again), and prog (Tomorrow’s, and later Yes’s, Steve Howe), the three boys from Canterbury resolved their own destiny lay in improvisional, weird-time-signatured, 99% vocal-free jazz fusion noodling (well, rather Mike Ratledge did; by the time of the NDR concert, the moustachioed keyboardist held the position of the group’s last remaining founder member, Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt having both departed for pastures new at the beginning of the decade). And if that’s what you’re after, NDR Jazz Workshop -- Hamburg, Germany, May 17, 1973, to give this latest live Softs release from Cuneiform its full title, definitely won’t disappoint.

It’s certainly solid fusion. The songs have titles like "Link 3a", "Riff II", and "Stanley Stamp’s Gibbon Album". Keyboards are chiming and dissonant and sound precisely like the ‘Jazz Organ’ setting on my kids’ Casio Tonebank 101. The saxes involved appear to have two settings: wailing and silence. Drums are limited strictly to arrhythmic off-kilter fills and cymbal crashes. Solos from all parties are long and bountiful. The musicianship can’t faulted, and the sound quality is top notch. As an album, by, say, Return to Forever, it would be fine.

But it’s not. It’s an album by Soft Machine, and herein lies the problem. Coming from one of the most trailblazingly original bands of the rock era, this release seems to exist solely to confuse, bewilder, and sadden. Unlike The Soft Machine, Volume Two, and the harder-edged, live Bitches Brew-esque fusion of Third, NDR Jazz Workshop is no longer the sound of a band innovating. Quite the opposite, in fact; this is a document of a group of musicians who’ve reached the end of their logical musical progression and haven’t the foggiest where they’re supposed to go next.

If you want to hear what Ratledge and Co. were once capable of, give the superb Middle Earth Masters -- another Cuneiform release which presents the original four-man lineup in concert at the London Middle Earth club in late 1967 -- a spin, and there’s no way you’re ever going want to listen to Jazz Workshop again. Or, if you do really need a good live document of where the Canterbury scene’s head was at by by the uncertainty of the mid-'70s, pick yourself up a copy of the infinitely more listenable orchestral pomp of Caravan’s Caravan & the New Symphonia instead.

It’s difficult to say anything too positive about this album (aside from the fact it’s perfect cycling music, speaking from personal experience), but it would also be unfair to say anything too negative either. It is what it is, and fusion junkies and Softs aficionados will no doubt lap up this double CD and DVD set. But everybody else, especially those listeners not fond of straight jazz, should approach with extreme caution.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.