In following the path of seminal British group Soft Machine, there seems to be little to link its mid-1960s emergence as a psychedelic avant-pop band to its guitar-centric fusion at the end of the 1970s. But every evolutionary step revealed a band evolving from one incarnation to the next in logical increments. Middle Earth Masters, culled from three performances from the fall of 1967 through the same time a year later, shows that the building blocks for the classic 1970-72 lineup (keyboardist Mike Ratledge, drummer/vocalist Robert Wyatt, bassist Hugh Hopper and saxophonist Elton Dean) were already in place, albeit in a significantly different setting.
By the time of these recordings, Soft Machine had already experienced the first of what would be many personnel shifts. When the UK refused to readmit Australian-born guitarist/vocalist Daevid Allen following the group's summer 1967 gig on the French Riviera, the band was forced to continue as a trio, with bassist/vocalist Kevin Ayers picking up occasional guitar duties. It would be this trio, rounded out by Ratledge and Wyatt, which would play at the Middle Earth, a London venue which was home to contemporaries like Pink Floyd, Family, and the Crazy World of Arthur Brown.
The recordings made by Bob Woolford, who has been a source of other Soft Machine archival material including Noisette (Cuneiform, 2000) and Spaced (Cuneiform, 1995), are decidedly lo-fi. Still, careful mastering by Michael King has made them far more listenable than most of Brian Hopper's archival tapes released on Voiceprint. The vocals are for the most part obscured by the group's ear-shattering instrumental volume.
Sonic considerations aside, the 24 year-old Ratledge emerges here as a surprisingly developed player. He may have begun in pop, but was clearly listening to free jazzas was Wyatt. Nothing on the group's first two studio albums provides any precedence for Ratledge's free-form "Disorganisation solo. Similarly, the psychedelia of "Hope for Happiness is extended with an East Indian-informed improvised vocal intro by Wyatt, supported by Ratledge's droning but occasionally sharp-edged organ. Ayers may not have been the bassist Hugh Hopper would prove to be when he replaced him in late 1968. Still, despite his limitations, this trio was capable of surprising improvisational power and élan that far surpassed the equally jamming but less sophisticated Floyd.
There are moments of pure pop, most notably Ayers' "Clarence in Wonderland and Wyatt's "That's How Much I Need You Now. But with the exception of a pause after "Clarence, the rest of the 52-minute set that forms the bulk of Middle Earth Masters takes the form of a continuous performance that sets the direction for Soft Machine incarnations to come. This may have been early days, but these unbridled and provocative performances reveal Soft Machine's greater developmental arc to be not only logical, but inevitable.
Clarence in Wonderland; We Know What You Mean; Bossa Nova Express; Hope for Happiness; Disorganisation; We Did It Again; Why Are We Sleeping?; I Should've Known; THat's How Much I Need You Now; I Should've Known; A Certain Kind.
Kevin Ayers: guitar, bass, vocals; Mike Ratledge: organ; Robert Wyatt: drums, vocals.