Soft Machine: Kevin Ayers (vocals, guitar, bass guitar); Robert Wyatt (vocals, drums); Mike Ratledge (organ).
Soft Machine's 1967 lineup was, for most fans, the most essential form of the band -- the core on which every subsequent incarnation would hinge upon in one way or another. Kevin Ayers (bass, guitar, vocals), Mike Ratledge (organ) and Robert Wyatt (drums, vocals) took the notion of the power trio well past its logical potentialities and created a sound that was far beyond mere psychedelia. Elements of jazz, rock and folk were dissected, re-formed (and then blasted) through Soft's collective groove machine -- leaving early bystanders wondering what the hell was so "trippy" about Syd Barrett's Floyd. This stuff was nuts -- but it was darn good. Soft Machine's early live shows were brutally loud and supremely unhinged affairs -- fun for the audience, but a bear for anyone trying to capture a decent recording. Early attempts at getting the live Soft Machine experience on tape were largely failures and, for a long time, thought to be too rough for commercial release -- until now. Bob Woolford's valiant attempt to record Soft's September 16, 1967 performance at Covent Garden's Middle Earth club has been resurrected by mastering engineer/sound-surgeon Michael King (through a laborious sequence of sonic repairs) and presented anew by the folks at Cuneiform Records as Middle Earth Masters. King's painstaking labor of love now provides fans of Soft Machine the closest approximation of what it was like to be in that sprawling basement club with the band blasting out at you from three feet away. Considering the source, the sound is superb, but still plagued with the common problems of a less-than-ideal PA mix. The vocals (both Ayers' and Wyatt's) are pretty much buried throughout the set (occasionally peeking out during the less bombastic sections). Musical flubs and note missteps abound as well, but are more charming than annoying, giving fans even more of that "just like being there" feeling. All in all, this is not only a good taste of the Soft Machine's early live experience, but a good document of the sound and feel of the early British underground scene as well. ~ J. Scott McClintock
Rolling Stone (p.126) - "Ayers' bass, Mike Ratledge's organ and Robert Wyatt's drums explode together in a crude and truly psychedelic magnificence."
Mojo (Publisher) (p.117) - 3 stars out of 5 -- "Anyone expecting power trio dynamics will be pleasantly disarmed by the beguiling, rudimentary takes on 'Clarence In Wonderland' and 'We Know What You Mean' that commence the set."