By ProgBlog, Aug 13 2017 09:44PM
A cultural hot-spot in the middle of a largely agricultural county, (Kent was, up until 2006 when it was deposed by North Yorkshire, described as ‘the Garden of England’ thanks to a dish of Kentish cherries which particularly satisfied King Henry VIII) Canterbury is a city of surprises. Since geography lessons in the early 70s I had always assumed that the description ‘Garden of England’ was associated with agricultural output but the criteria now applied are much wider than the initial fame for orchards and allotments which won Kent its title. They now include scenery, hidden corners, village traditions and the variety of wildlife and Kent has lost its place because of perceived congestion, pollution and the adverse affects of over-building, plus a derogatory view of young, less-well off fashion slaves who, it is alleged, first appeared in Chatham; even the Channel tunnel rail link was considered to be a negative factor.
Most recently and dramatically, this provincial city which had returned a Conservative MP since the constituency was created in 1918 (prior to that it was the Canterbury borough where up until 1885 there were two seats) elected a Labour MP, Rosie Duffield, with a 45% share of the vote. Duffield ousted sitting MP of 30 years, Sir Julian Brazier by 187 votes. This stunning victory was due to two factors, the candidate herself who seems genuinely liked by the constituents, and the student vote – Canterbury is a university city and young people have been reconnected with politics thanks to Jeremy Corbyn’s vision that there is a viable, alternative way of running the country. The promise of ending tuition fees was seen by some as a bribe but it’s clear that the current system for student finance is working neither for the students nor the loans company itself, with half of all students unlikely to pay back their loan in full and it has been argued by people like Peter Scott, professor of higher education studies at the Institute of Education and former vice-chancellor of Kingston University, that ending student tuition fees makes both economic and social sense. Furthermore, reneging on the promise would have been electoral suicide for Corbyn; does anyone remember Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems? A member of the public interviewed after the 2017 general election said that she never thought of Canterbury as a Conservative city and that her vote was vindicated, yet every other constituency in Kent has a Conservative MP and Canterbury is home to the Church of England.
It doesn’t have the feel of an especially devout place, either. There are probably more tourists on a pilgrimage to the shops, now that Sterling is so weak against the Euro, than there are who come to see the site of the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket, though the 11th Century cathedral, the ruins of St Augustine’s Abbey and St Martin’s Church, all part of a UNESCO World Heritage site are destinations worth seeking out for history and atmosphere. It’s not just the trainloads of schoolchildren arriving from France with matching laminated lanyards, part of the attraction of Canterbury is that is has an outward-looking vibe, welcoming everyone. The student adoption of Corbyn ideals fits nicely with this openness and even outside of university terms, the city feels surprisingly young.
Canterbury is of course the city associated with a particular sub-genre of progressive rock though some of the participants deny that such a construct really existed. What can’t be denied is that Soft Machine and Caravan were formed there and that Gong also has its roots in Canterbury. Original Soft Machine drummer Robert Wyatt knew Mike Ratledge, Kevin Ayers and Brian and Hugh Hopper through the Simon Langton School; Dave Sinclair also attended the school; and Daevid Allen lodged at Wyatt’s parents’ house near Canterbury. The forerunner of Soft Machine and Caravan was The Wilde Flowers, where the collective of musicians included Pye Hastings (Ayers went out with Hastings’ sister Jane); Richard Sinclair (who became friends with the Hoppers when they went to see Sinclair Sr. play in his jazz band); and Richard Coughlan (who was introduced to Hugh Hopper via a mutual friend in the Sea Cadets.) Egg (Dave Stewart, Mont Campbell and Clive Brooks) are classed as a Canterbury band despite having formed as Uriel when at the City of London School, along with fellow pupil Steve Hillage. When Hillage left to go to the University of Kent (at Canterbury) Uriel continued as a trio, got a record deal and were encouraged to change their name. The organ-heavy material has little in common with Caravan, though the overdriven keyboards do at times come into Soft Machine territory, but that’s hardly surprising since Stewart has acknowledged Ratledge as an influence. The psychedelia, whimsy and humour seemingly shared by Egg with the other two groups, was more a product of the times though they did share an interest in odd time signatures. Hillage would later join Gong (1973-75) for some of their most coherent material, having disbanded his own group Khan and played with Kevin Ayers in Decadence, appearing on Gong’s classic Radio Gnome trilogy.
If there is a Canterbury scene, then Hatfield and the North surely fit in, the result of a number of intertwining band histories. Well away from that geographical area of Canterbury, Delivery was formed in 1967 featuring Phil Miller on guitar, his brother Steve Miller on piano, Pip Pyle on drums, Jack Monck on bass and Carol Grimes on vocals. Steve Miller would replace Dave Sinclair in Caravan for Waterloo Lily (1972) and Phil Miller, who was a guest musician on Waterloo Lily joined Robert Wyatt in his post-Soft Machine Matching Mole, a band that originally included Dave Sinclair on keyboards; Wyatt introduced Pyle to Daevid Allen and the drummer went off to live and gig with Gong from 1971 to 1972.
The Hatfields first convened in 1972 and comprised Phil Miller, Pip Pyle, Dave and Richard Sinclair but the band only played a couple of gigs before Dave Sinclair left, deciding that he wasn’t best suited to lack of structure. His replacement, Dave Stewart, fitted perfectly and their two albums, the self-titled debut (1973) and The Rotters’ Club (1974) are both excellent examples of progressive rock tinged with complexity and jazz sensibility, and presented with a madcap humour. Tricky time signatures and nice melodic moments are linked together by Sinclair’s ever-so-English vocals; a collective of incredible writing skills from all four members. The branches of this scene spread out to a remarkable array of other musicians and groups, including Bill Bruford, Camel, Henry Cow and Mike Oldfield, none of which should be classed as part of the Canterbury sub-genre but which display links back to a fertile source of inspiration and musicianship.
It’s been a couple of years since I was last in the city and there’s noticeable change. My first shopping visit in 2007 (I had been a few times before that for meetings at the hospital) included a stop at the Fopp record store where I picked up two Syd Barratt CDs, and a stall in the indoor market where the owner had connections with the original Canterbury bands and I bought Hugh Hopper’s Two Rainbows Daily (with Alan Gowen) and Numero d’Vol on CD; by the time of my next visit, Fopp had gone into liquidation and had been replaced by an HMV and the indoor market stall had closed down so subsequent trips tended to focus on non-musical shopping and the odd bit of tourist activity. The difference this time was that I’d checked for record stores and their opening hours and found three I’d not previously been aware of. First stop was Vinylstore Jr (http://www.vinylstorejr.co.uk/), a new vinyl-only shop in Castle Street (which is close to Canterbury East railway station) which concentrates on new issue LPs but does have a small second-hand section.
It’s run by a very pleasant, helpful and knowledgeable chap called Nick who recognised the difficulty of providing a dedicated ‘Canterbury’ section in a shop selling new vinyl; there appear to be only two Caravan albums which have been rereleased as an LP, In the Land of Grey and Pink (the 40th anniversary edition remastered by Steven Wilson from 2011 which is actually a double LP with bonus tracks), and If I Could do it Again, I’d do it All Over You. The former was a limited pressing and there can’t be many available now and the latter is on the 4 Men with Beards label in the US (catalogue no. 4M239). There are reissues of a few Soft Machine albums on vinyl commencing in 2010, including the self-titled first album, Second and Third. I indulged in the latest Roger Waters album Is this the Life we Really Want? plus a 2017 reissue of On An On by a much more recent Canterbury-based band, Syd Arthur; Sound Mirrors and Apricity were also available. This quartet, now comprised of three Magill brothers and Raven Bush play mostly short, always intelligent and intricate songs washed with a gentle psychedelia which at times do call to mind Canterbury bands of the late 60s and 70s. The closest On An On comes to progressive rock (the group won the Prog Breakthrough Act award in 2014) is the rather wonderful Paradise Lost. After explaining to him the sort of music I liked, Nick pointed out one album and suggested that I listen to Melbourne psyche band King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard latest release, Murder of the Universe. He was right that it’s more proggy than their previous work but it’s still a little too straight psyche for my taste.
Second stop was the almost all second-hand Soundz ‘n’ Sitez in St Peter’s Street, the main thoroughfare through the city heading towards the Westgate. Run by Paul and Jayson, the shop is absolutely rammed with crates of albums and a small comic collection, retained from the store’s previous incarnation, but still no dedicated section for ‘Canterbury’. It turns out that they knew the former stall-holder from the indoor market, Dave Radford, and that Radford used to be in a Canterbury prog band called Gizmo... ...and Gizmo had released a couple of albums in the past five years, a self-titled effort in 2012 and Marlowe’s Children, part 1: The Innocence from 2015. The band had also covered Van der Graaf Generator's House with No Door for a Mellow Records compilation. Available on two formats in the shop, I chose the limited edition Gizmo on vinyl. The shop has attracted a few famous visitors including Rick Wakeman, in town for a gig, who ventured in and signed some records.
The third stop was a like walking into a slice of history. Canterbury Rock has been around since around 1979 and is run by Jim, a former council gardener and Fairport Convention fan, even though this was the first time I’d managed to find it, out beyond Canterbury West station. The shop has second-hand records, CDs, DVDs and audio equipment and has housed small musical events. If you were fussy you might think the place shabby, but its collection of posters and memorabilia from all genres, none of which is for sale, provides a unique documentary of popular music from the 60s onwards. There are some treasures which remain out-of-sight, but if you engage Jim in conversation he’ll tell you some brilliant stories. The Sinclairs lived around the corner, and when I’d handed over my money for a couple of LPs, he showed me a rather unusual, slightly battered copy of Soft Machine’s Third, hidden somewhere behind the counter. Pasted inside was a Simon Langton School photo, with an arrow linking the sleeve photo of Mike Ratledge to a young Mike Ratledge in the school photograph.
Jim, if you read this, your website link doesn’t work.
This means there’s now a different reason to make the pilgrimage to Canterbury; three excellent independent record stores which cover subtly different markets. Some of the other touristy bits aren’t too bad either.