Canterbury Tales (part 2) (originally posted 14/9/13)
By ProgBlog, Apr 10 2014 06:36PM
Jerry Lucky describes the formation of the Canterbury scene as the first schism in the genre, with Yes, Genesis and ELP becoming the ‘mainstream’ acts and another branch, many with their roots in the Canterbury region of England, being a more ‘serious’ group of musicians. Other commentators also link this sub-genre with distinctive creative and interesting outpourings. Jonathan Coe, the English author, wrote the sleeve notes to the Hatwise Choice Hatfield and the North retrospective CD and equates Hatfield and the North, Henry Cow and Gentle Giant with ‘fringe’ progressive acts quite distinct from Yes and ELP. He sides with the many critics that branded progressive rock as “pretentious and humourless” inferring that Hatfield and the North were anything but lacking a sense of humour. His opinion is not without reason. Would Yes have ever released a track entitled Lobster in Cleavage Probe or Gigantic Land Crabs In Earth Takeover Bid, or Big Jobs (Poo Poo Extract)?
Jerry Lucky includes Gentle Giant as a Canterbury band in his organisational chart describing the branches of progressive rock . I suppose he’s thinking of the Canterbury sound, or psyche, though this could be a simple geographical error (Lucky is from Canada where an appreciation for the relatively short distances between cities in the UK compared to say, the distance between Halifax and Vancouver or New York and Los Angeles, may be a factor in the thinking of commentators who have no appreciation of the difference between for example, Bournemouth, a coastal town in Dorset and the early centre of activity for a number of key progressive rock players, and Canterbury, a very well-to-do provincial city in the middle of Kent.) I’m personally not so sure that there’s any validity in attempting to make a qualitative distinction between the mainstream prog acts and the cohort of less commercially successful bands who did not make the mainstream, some of which like Caravan, were geographically associated with Canterbury.
I propose that the Canterbury movement itself underwent a divergence when the Wilde Flowers split into two main acts, Soft Machine and Caravan. If Caravan represent the more accessible side of the Canterbury scene, with albums that are close to mainstream prog with light jazz embellishments, then Soft Machine represent the innovative jazz rockers, the predecessors to modern British jazz.
The history of The Wilde Flowers (the “e” in Wilde was said to have been introduced by the Malaysian-born Kevin Ayers as a tribute to Oscar Wilde) has been fully documented elsewhere, but it’s important to mention that the precursor to Caravan and Soft Machine formed from the core of the Daevid Allen Trio in 1963, a differently-named version of which first appeared at the exclusive, Simon Langton School on the outskirts of Canterbury described by former NME editor Ian McDonald as an “establishment for the sons of local intellectuals and artists” that was “emphatically geared to the uninhibited development of self-expression", because it introduces the Australian beatnik Daevid Allen. The Wilde Flowers was something of a musical collective, with band members coming and going, and though not all of this series of musicians formed the original line-ups of Caravan and Soft Machine, their careers were closely woven with the progress of these bands.
The original Wilde Flowers consisted of Robert Wyatt on drums, Kevin Ayers on vocals, Hugh Hopper on bass, Richard Sinclair on guitar and vocals, and Hugh’s brother Brian Hopper on guitar, saxophone, and flute; the original Soft Machine line-up consisted of Daevid Allen, Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayres and Mike Ratledge, another former Simon Langton alumnus who had returned from university in Oxford. Both Soft Machine and Caravan were plagued throughout their careers with frequent personnel changes, as though they’d inherited a faulty gene from the Wilde Flowers. The first Soft Machine line-up failed to even record an album despite being, alongside early Pink Floyd, the darlings of London’s underground movement. Following a gig in St. Tropez, Daevid Allen was refused re-entry into the UK because of an expired visa and he remained in France where he formed Gong, another core band of the Canterbury scene. The remaining trio, augmented by future Police guitarist Andy Summers went on to tour the US supporting Jimi Hendrix (his manager Chas Chandler had signed the Softs to Polydor and Hendrix had also contributed guitar to Feelin’ Reelin’ Squeelin’ the B-side of their first single Love Makes Sweet Music). They recorded their debut album The Soft Machine in New York half-way through the tour but it was only released in America. The album material was mostly pop-psychedelia, and quite different from the free-form avant jazz that comprised their live set. Long-time associate Hugh Hopper had acted as the group's tour manager and occasional roadie, and he took up musician’s duties once more to replace bassist/vocalist Ayers when he decamped to Ibiza at the end of the tour 1968. My friend Mark Prior gave me a copy of the first Soft Machine album when he thought he’d bought himself a double album of the first two albums, only to find it contained two copies of The Soft Machine.
There’s a Robert Fripp connection to Canterbury that goes back to 1970 when he was involved in Keith Tippett’s Centipede project, a collection of all the bright young things of the British jazz scene, including members of Soft Machine and other members of King Crimson. This musical cross-fertilisation was responsible for the guest appearance of Tippett on In the Wake of Poseidon, Lizard and Islands, and Tippett band members Marc Charig and Robin Miller on Lizard, Islands and Red, and Nick Evans on Lizard. Fripp produced a couple of Keith Tippett albums and also produced Matching Mole’s Little Red Record. This all adds weight to the theory that Canterbury bands were outside the mainstream – Fripp liked to distance himself from the main culprits of progressive rock excess.
The Canterbury scene seems to have a close association with left-wing politics, despite the casual sexism that is present throughout the works of Caravan. Robert Wyatt embraced the internationalism of the British Communist Party and recorded Little Red Record with his post-Soft Machine outfit Matching Mole. Henry Cow, with their numerous Canterbury links, were also communists famous for the inception of the Rock in Opposition (RIO) movement, and Henry Cow oboist Lindsay Cooper and cellist Georgie Born formed the Feminist Improvising Group.
Left-wing and highly challenging. That’s why I have more than a passing interest in this particular sub-genre.