Note: This is a revised version of an article that appeared in Progression Magazine in the late 90s.
Having discovered the Canterbury Music Scene over thirty-five years ago, it still amazes me that there are still a lot of people, in America anyway, that don't know what I'm talking about when I say... Canterbury Music. Maybe this is because the fans themselves coined the term—not the critics, the record companies, or even the musicians themselves. Audiences familiar with this legendary school of progressive rock understand immediately the immense implications of the term. It is much more than a particular style of music, or simply a nod to the town in southern England where it all started. Canterbury Music encompasses an entire family tree of musicians who have played together in various configurations for nearly fifty years. Although Canterbury Music has never enjoyed the commercial success that bands like Pink Floyd, Yes, or Jethro Tull have had at one time or another, the Canterbury Scene has achieved a strong and loyal underground following. It could arguably be the largest, yet most under-appreciated, school of progressive music. (Maybe this is because much of the Canterbury product was originally never released in the United States, available only in the "import bins.")
Is it a style of music? Yes, in a way, but one might argue that there are several different styles at work here—psychedelia, jazz-rock, jazz-fusion, folk rock, avant-garde, and experimental. It's all that plus a little improvisation mixed in. Add a touch of humor and you might have something that resembles the sound.
An entire encyclopedia could be written on the subject, but I will attempt to briefly summarize the essentials to give the uninitiated a taste of what Canterbury is all about and who to look for and try out when you're in the mood to buy a CD you've never heard before but have heard a lot about....! As for the genealogy of the movement, Pete Frame's wonderful Rock Family Trees book devoted a detailed page to the Canterbury Scene (written and drawn in 1976). An expanded version of this family tree first appeared in Soft Machine's compilation three-LP set called Triple Echo (Harvest Records, 1977, sadly out of print and unavailable on CD). This family tree perfectly illustrates the complex, ever-changing, and interweaving nature of the music's history. Bands were formed, broken up, and then metamorphosed into other bands. Musicians came and went, played with others or played solo, and changed musical styles.
It all began in the early sixties. Canterbury is an historic but relatively small town in the south of England, in Kent. Simon Langton School, in Canterbury, brought together the likes of Robert Wyatt (nee Ellidge), Mike Ratledge, Hugh Hopper, and David Sinclair. Along with Hugh's older brother Brian, and David's younger cousin Richard, these ambitious and talented young men (who actually came from the town or nearby) became the grandfathers of what eventually came to be called Canterbury Music. Eventually the "scene" would move away from Canterbury, the town, and incorporate musicians from all over England and Europe.
As early as 1961, this group of lads used to gather and attempt to play the latest jazz releases at the home of Wyatt's writer/broadcaster mother. As the boys grew older, some of them attended the Canterbury College of Art. Forming a band called The Wilde Flowers in 1963, they laid the cornerstone of the movement. By 1965, The Wilde Flowers was a gigging, viable unit with ever-changing personnel—but it usually included the Hopper brothers, Wyatt, Kevin Ayers, the Sinclair cousins, Pye Hastings, and Richard Coughlan.
They played a bit of jazz, a little rock; but when Daevid Allen, an older, Australian beatnik, arrived on the scene (Wyatt had met him in Europe in '63), the emphasis was pointed more toward rock and free-form improvisation.
In 1966, Mike Ratledge, who was attending Oxford, decided to quit school and come home. While the Hopper brothers, Pye Hastings, Richard Coughlan, and the Sinclair cousins went off to form the next incarnation of The Wilde Flowers (which later became Caravan), Ratledge (keyboards), Wyatt (drums/vocals), Ayers (bass/vocals), and Allen (guitar) formed their own band. After going through a list of possible names, they settled on Soft Machine, from a William Burroughs novel.
Bursting with energy and talent, the band moved to London, where one of its earliest gigs was playing opposite an early Pink Floyd at the UFO Club. Friendships were formed; and although Pink Floyd is not generally considered a Canterbury band, the connection between the Floyd and the Softs continued through the years. (For example, Nick Mason, Pink Floyd's drummer, would one day produce Robert Wyatt's stunning solo album, Rock Bottom, in 1974).
The first official Canterbury recording appeared in mid-1967. Eccentric West Coast producer Kim Fowley met the Soft Machine and liked their offbeat, indescribable sound. A single was released, the rare "Love Makes Sweet Music" b/w "Feelin' Reelin' Squealin'". The tracks featured none other than Jimi Hendrix on rhythm guitar; he happened to be working on his first single, "Hey Joe", in the same studio.
The single made little impact, so the Softs traveled to the Continent, where they secured a loyal and devoted following in France. There, they recorded demos for a first studio album that wasn't released until years later. This legendary recording is the only document of the original Softs line-up. (Today it is available on CD on various labels and with just as many titles, but usually it’s called Jet-Propelled Photographs). Containing pop tunes, jazz-rock, and odd humor, the songs were notable for Wyatt's plaintive and Ayers' baritone vocals, respectively.
Upon returning to England, Daevid Allen was denied re-entry due to an invalid passport, so he stayed in France to form another Canterbury band—the psychedelic, inimitable Gong. But more on them later.
Soft Machine carried on as a trio. They were discovered by Hendrix's producer, Chas Chandler, who hired them to support The Jimi Hendrix Experience's first U.S. tour. So, in 1968, Wyatt, Ratledge, and Ayers found themselves travelling across America and opening for one of the biggest acts in rock history. While in New York, they recorded their first official album, The Soft Machine, for independent label Probe Records, 1968.
The touring experience was too much for Ayers, so he left the band and became a solo act of considerable output and quality. In 1969, he released Joy of a Toy (Harvest), and formed his own band called The Whole World (which happened to include a young guitarist by the name of Mike Oldfield, and future Canterbury stars David Bedford and Lol Coxhill). The Whole World split up in 1972; Oldfield went on to create Tubular Bells (Virgin, 1973), and Ayers went on making solo albums. He is still recording and does the occasional tour.
Meanwhile, the Soft Machine replaced Ayers with Wilde Flowers alumnus Hugh Hopper. This trio recorded another album, Volume II (Probe, 1969), after which they began to expand the line-up to include woodwinds and brass. While the American pop groups Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears are often credited for blending rock with a jazz section, Soft Machine did it better across the Atlantic. CBS/Columbia signed them, and they hit their high water mark with Third (1970).
The Softs gradually turned into a jazz-rock-fusion band, especially after the departure of Wyatt in 1971. By 1976, none of the original members were left. Soft Machine became the adopted child of Karl Jenkins and John Marshall, classically-trained musicians who had no connections at all to Canterbury, geographically. Under their leadership, the band went further into prog-rock/jazz fusion territory, until its demise in 1981.
Probably the most pivotal band in the Canterbury Scene, Soft Machine still enjoys cult status with previously unreleased recordings appearing right and left. Alumni, of which there are many, include Allan Holdsworth, Elton Dean, John Etheridge, Roy Babbington, and Rick Sanders.
While the Softs were busy making a name for themselves in the late sixties, The Wilde Flowers carried on and eventually changed their name to Caravan. The original line-up for this extremely likable (and probably most commercially accessible) branch of the Canterbury Scene was Richard Sinclair (vocals/bass), David Sinclair (keyboards), Pye Hastings (vocals, guitar), and Richard Coughlan (drums). While Caravan was mostly a group effort, Richard Sinclair was a driving force in the early days. He has become well known for his distinctive, laid-back baritone voice. Their debut album, Caravan, was released in 1969 on MGM. They were then signed to the prestigious Deram label and produced three classics, If I Could Do It All Over Again--I'd Do It All Over You (1970), In the Land of Grey and Pink (1971), and Waterloo Lily (1972). The band carried on through the seventies, broke up for most of the eighties, and is now back together again (minus Richard Sinclair, who has enjoyed an on-again, off-again solo career).
By 1972, other bands were sprouting up. Robert Wyatt, fresh from the Softs, formed his own prog unit, Matching Mole. The lead guitarist for the band was a young man named Phil Miller. He would go on to be influential in two of the better "second generation" Canterbury bands, Hatfield and the North and National Health. After two excellent albums (Matching Mole and Little Red Record, both in 1972), the Mole split up. Wyatt was in the process of re-forming it when, in 1973, he fell from a third story window during a party and broke his back. Although permanently paralyzed from the waist down, Wyatt has continued as a solo artist, garnering critical praise and respect from the music press the world over. His 1974 masterpiece, Rock Bottom, is full of Wyatt's funny-yet-sad sensibility. Today he remains at the top of the tree, continuing to release acclaimed solo works such as Shleep and ComicOpera.
The previously-mentioned Gong geared up in the early seventies to be an influential band and one that would inspire today's psychedelic groups like Ozric Tentacles. Daevid Allen, a hippie in every sense of the word, created a humorous mythology surrounding the band's music. Their three best albums for Virgin are a trilogy called "Radio Gnome Invisible," being the adventures of Zero the Hero in a spacey, trippy universe of Pot-Head Pixies and Magic Tea (The Flying Teapot, Angel's Egg, and You, 1973, 1974, 1975, respectively). The classic Gong included such members as Allen (guitar, vocals), Steve Hillage (guitar), Gilli Smyth (vocals), Tim Blake (keyboards), Didier Malherbe (woodwinds), Pip Pyle (drums), and others. Allen eventually left the band in the hands of percussionist Pierre Moerlen, who turned Gong into a tight, intelligent prog-rock fusion band.
Virgin Records, formed by Richard Branson in 1973, began its influential mark on the music scene by signing up several members of the Canterbury Scene. The success of Tubular Bells allowed some room for experimentation. Mike Oldfield is arguably a part of the Canterbury Scene, having been involved with Kevin Ayers and taken part in other bands' projects, such as Robert Wyatt and Gong; but he is generally not considered as such. However, Virgin signed a new band called Hatfield and the North, which was made up of Richard Sinclair on bass/vocals (fresh from Caravan), Phil Miller on guitar (fresh from Matching Mole), Pip Pyle on drums (fresh from Gong), and Dave Stewart on keyboards.
Dave Stewart, while not from Canterbury, is another pivotal member of what is called Canterbury Music, although he would probably be the first one to denounce that label. (And he is not the Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics!) His first band was a tight progressive outfit called Egg, which played something similar to The Nice or Emerson Lake & Palmer. Egg released three outstanding, challenging albums in the early seventies. He joined Hatfield and the North "in progress," so to speak, and this line-up recorded two of the best Canterbury albums of all time, Hatfield and the North (1974) and The Rotters' Club (1975).
National Health made a name for themselves gigging and playing on John Peel's illustrious "Top Gear" BBC radio program. Bruford and Campbell eventually left, being replaced by Pip Pyle and Neil Murray (and later John Greaves). The first album, National Health, was finally released in early 1978, with a second Of Queues and Cures a few months later. A third “reunion” album came out in 1982.
Dave Stewart left the Health in 1978 to join Bill Bruford in the creation of his own band, simply called Bruford. Utilizing the talents of Allan Holdsworth and Jeff Berlin (on bass/vocals), Bruford, the band, raised the ante on prog fusion. Their album One of a Kind (1979) certainly ranks as one of the best examples of jazz-rock ever recorded. While Bill Bruford went on to rejoin King Crimson, and later Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe (and Yes, too!) and back to King Crimson, his connection with the Canterbury Scene is not to be dismissed.
There are many other bands that deserve mentioning as being a part of Canterbury Music, or at least having associations with it: Henry Cow and Slapp Happy, two avant-garde improvisational and avant-garde pop (respectively) bands signed by Virgin in the early seventies, and one-shot bands or solo albums by former members of The Wilde Flowers, Soft Machine, Caravan, Egg, or Gong. Henry Cow was made up of Fred Frith (guitar), John Greaves (bass), Tim Hodgkinson (woodwinds, keyboards), Chris Cutler (drums), and Geoff Leigh (woodwinds), the latter replaced after one album by Lindsay Cooper. The Cow produced some of the strangest and challenging music to come out of the period—definitely an acquired taste. They were part of the movement known in England as "Rock in Opposition"—happily thumbing their noses at commerciality, playing for their art, and starving.
Slapp Happy consisted of Peter Blegvad (vocals, guitar), Anthony Moore (guitar, keyboards), and Dagmar Krause (vocals), and whatever sessions musicians they could bring if for augmentation. They were much more accessible than Henry Cow, but the avant-garde sensibility was still there. Slapp Happy sounded like a band that might have been performing in 1920s Germany—very Brechtian with a Kurt Weill feel. In 1975, Slapp Happy and Henry Cow merged into one band (dropping the Slapp Happy name). But eventually both Blegvad and Moore left to do other projects. Peter Blegvad collaborated a few times with Cow's bassist, John Greaves; their album Kew. Rhone. (Virgin, 1977) is a high water mark for them.
Even the prog outfit Camel was at one point considered a Canterbury band, or at least "married" into it. Richard Sinclair, fresh out of Hatfield and the North, joined Camel in 1976 and recorded three of their better albums (Rain Dances, Breathless and a live record) with them, each marked by his distinctive vocals. When other former members from Caravan joined Camel, the music press began to call them "Caramel"!
Today, Canterbury Music quietly carries on. Robert Wyatt continues to make his mark. Caravan occasionally still plugs away after a long hiatus. Karl Jenkins has made a new career for himself as the composer and brainchild of the New Age best-seller, Adiemus. Phil Miller has his own band, In Cahoots, which has employed other Canterbury alumni like Hugh Hopper, Elton Dean, Pip Pyle, etc. Richard Sinclair pops up every now and then. He had a comeback of sorts in the early nineties with his own band, Caravan of Dreams, which included Camel's drummer Andy Ward and bassist Rick Biddulph. Kevin Ayers shows up every now and then with a new album. Dave Stewart, for the last eighteen years, has collaborated with singer Barbara Gaskin. They had a UK number one single with a hip cover of "It's My Party" in 1981, and have produced an impressive catalog of "intelligent pop music for adults." And Mike Oldfield, the fellow on the fringe of Canterbury with a lot of connections within, is still producing great music. We haven't even mentioned the many offshoots and related bands such as Soft Head, Soft Heap, the Hugh Hopper Band, 64 Spoons, or Ivor Cutler...!
Are you confused yet? It's not surprising. Keeping track of the comings and goings of the various band members requires something as organized as Pete Frame's previously mentioned family tree. And this article really just covers the basics. The roots, branches, and leaves of the Canterbury Family Tree are immense—we could keep naming bands and musicians for days and still not touch on them all. Sadly, we have lost several members of the tree during the past 15-20 years: Hugh Hopper, Pip Pyle, Elton Dean, Pierre Moerlen, and others are no longer with us.
As you can see, once one begins to delve into Canterbury Music, it's difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is. The bands and artists all have varying styles and disciplines in their music. Perhaps the most accurate definition of Canterbury Music is that it could be called a state of mind. It's not just a bunch of guys playing weird, funny, and inventive music; it's not the town in England known for its cathedral; and it's not simply a single style of music or sound. It's really all of that in one huge magic cup of tea.
Raymond Benson is the author of 24 published books, including several James Bond continuation novels, two New York Times best-selling tie-ins for Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell (as “David Michaels”), two Metal Gear Solid novelizations, Homefront: the Voice of Freedom (co-written with John Milius), two “rock ‘n’ roll thrillers”—A Hard Day’s Death and Dark Side of the Morgue, and the upcoming The Black Stiletto (www.theblackstiletto.net). Visit Raymond at www.raymondbenson.com.