musicians' opinion :
"People say, what is the
Canterbury scene? I think you have to come to Canterbury and see it
and hear it ! I think Kent has got a particular sound. We've sung it
in our schools here, we were all at school in this sort of area. I was
part of the Church of England choir : up to the age of sixteen I was
singing tonalities that are very English. Over the last three or four
hundred years, and even earlier than that, some of the tonalities go
back. So they are here, and they are a mixture of European things too.
The history is very much that. A very historical centre of activity
is Canterbury for the last hundred years. So it's quite an important
stepping stone of whatever this thousand years have covered. I think
it's not to be mocked because it's a centre of communication here and
it's a meeting point - many nations come here to visit the cathedral,
so you get a very unique situation happening".
"A lot goes on here, it's
quite cosmopolitan, Canterbury, to a degree... But that's because of
the tourists, not from the people who actually live here : they are
very conservative, not cosmopolitan at all, not particularly worldly,
I don't think. The music happens outside, gets written here and taken
out. This is the Canterbury scene for me. It doesn't really exist here,
but it forms here. Musicians, friends join together and play music together,
and then they head off around Europe and play their music and get noted
for this type of sound".
"I think it's a rather artificial
label, a journalistic thing... I don't mind it, but people like Robert
[Wyatt], he in fact hates that idea, because he was born somewhere else
and just happened to go to school here. In the time when the Wilde Flowers
started we hardly ever worked in Canterbury. It wasn't until Robert
and Daevid went to London to start Soft Machine that anything happened
at all. They weren't really a Canterbury band... So, it doesn't worry
me... if it helps people understand or listen to more music then it
"Canterbury has never been
a really good place to play. I played one gig last Friday and it was
the first I played here for about two years. It's not virtually a musical
place. There are lots of people who've come from it. There are few pubs
here, but it's not really a musical hotbed at all... I was born in Canterbury
and I lived here until I was about nineteen and then I lived in other
places in France and London, other places in Kent... And I gradually
came back this way - it wasn't really a plan, it just happened this
way. So that Canterbury thing, it's a nice idea because it's a nice
little town, it's got a cathedral and in the Summer it looks good. But
not much is happening here, really".
"I couldn't tell you much
about that... I don't remember any particular movement happening there.
I was at school there, I got married there and I lived there for a while.
The school I went to had nothing special, there wasn't any particular
interest for art, and I grew bored because I wasn't really good at school...
If there ever was a Canterbury scene, it was when the Wilde Flowers
became Caravan : they were Canterbury people...".
"I didn't even know it meant
me until interviewers started asking me about it. As I say, because
I'd bussed in from outside to go to school there I didn't really consider
myself a Canterbury person. I think it really means people like Hugh
Hopper and Richard Sinclair, who are genuinely based in that area. I
met them there and I'm eternally grateful that I met someone like Hugh
who provided something I don't think anyone else could have provided.
My mind doesn't dwell on it as a place though, if I recall a former
fantasy world upon which I draw, it's Harlem in the Forties and not
Canterbury in the Fifties...".
"The Canterbury School can
be defined musically : certain chord changes, in particular the use
of minor second chords, certain harmonic combinations, and a great clarity
in the aesthetics, and a way of improvising that is very different to
what is done in jazz. I really loved Soft Machine around the time of
Third for that. The way they were playing the arrangements was
of an absolute clarity".
[about latter-day Soft Machine]
"Well, call me a mouldering
old hippy if you like but I have some sympathy with the view expressed
[that post-Wyatt Soft Machine was 'crap']. Well, sort of. It's not so
much that everything else is 'crap' but a lot of it (especially post
Robert leaving the Softs) doesn't have anything much to do with the
original 'Canterbury' feel (ethos?). Certainly, the band called Soft
Machine that we (Matching Mole) toured with in 1972 in Holland and Belgium
had precious little to do with the 1966-71 version in either feel or
approach in my humble opinion, in spite of the presence of Ratledge
and Hopper (and I may be wrong but I always felt Hugh wasn't over the
moon about it either). After that, when these two had left, the Soft
Machine was just a brand label being passed around. To be honest, Robert
always had a great grievance that the Softs retained the name when he
left... when Mike and Hugh left the name should have died with them.
Instead it was just commercially exploited for what it was worth. It
had nothing to do with Canterbury... as did none of the musicians. I
didn't like their music either (you guessed didn't you?)...".
fans' opinions :
quotes are taken from various issues of the weekly Canterbury e-mail newsletter,
"What's Rattlin'?", where the question of trying to define what typifies
Canterbury music has been raised many times.
"After having carefully read
all of the messages posted with the first three issues, I really have
a doubt. If it is clear (more or less) what I would call Canterbury
music, it is not clear at all what I would not call Canterbury music.
What do the early Softs have in common with the group of Seven? Why
do some people who write to this digest include Lindsay Cooper and exclude
Fred Frith ? Or Keith Tippett?
If the criterion is the fact
of having played in one of the "historical bands" - as one could derive
from the fact that the mere presence of Mike Ratledge or Hugh Hopper
makes a group to be Canterbury - then Fred is one of the co-founders
of Henry Cow, and Lindsay came in only much later, and for a much shorter
period of time. And Keith Tippett played more regularly with Elton Dean,
Mark Charig and Nick Evans than Mike Ratledge did.
If the criterion is purely
musical, then I really don't see the relation between early Gong and
Pierre Moerlen's ones, between early Caravan and the latest formation,
between the original Hatfield and their 1990 reunion. And one could
go on like this with more or less all the groups/musicians who have
been playing with one another, under different brands and combinations
for the past 30 years or so. Even between themselves, I am not totally
sure that the musicians would acknowledge more than some kind of loose
affinity. (In a letter he wrote to me some years ago, Fred Frith said
about National Health : "Not my kind of music, I'm afraid").
The point I'm really making
is that Canterbury is more a 'spirit', a way to interpret music and
the role of musicians, the inclination to cross musical genres without
much respect for labels, definitions or traditions.
What I would identify as
the 'Canterbury sound' does not extend - in my opinion - beyond the
first three Soft Machine albums, the first four Caravan, the first two
Kevin Ayers, Egg, Hatfield, Robert Wyatt's Rock Bottom, the first
Gilgamesh and possibly National Health.
I really don't have a definitive
answer to my initial question. I would suggest that some openness would
make any discography (or digest) more lively and interesting, and -
I would hope - encouraging to explore unknown territories, which, after
all, is the lesson I have been taught by most of the musicians we love".
"...I think Henry Cow as
an entity deserves Canterbury credentials. This is based on my own working
definition of Canterbury as a way of expressing a certain kind of humour
in melodic and rhythmic oddities. That's also why I reject Soft Machine's
Seven : it's not funny enough. I find HC pieces like "Teenbeat"
and "Bittern Storm Over Ulm" hilarious, and while the humor is more
the sort of self-referentiality/cultural critique usually associated
with Zappa, I think there's also a debt to Soft Machine. First of all,
if you listen to the Henry Cow Top Gear tapes, there's a vamp tune that's
extremely derivative of "Esther's Nose Job", the whole 7/8 groove (Frith
attributed it to former bassist Andy Powell). By the time Cow was recording,
the explicit Soft references were gone, but this stuff leaves its mark.
And I read somewhere (Melody Maker?) that Wyatt's original scheme for
Rock Bottom was to record some of the music twice, once with
Hatfield and the North as the backing band and then again with Cow,
and edit the final record with splices between the two. Who better to
judge what's Canterbury? If Wyatt thinks they can play his stuff, that's
good enough for me!
Is Keith Tippett Canterbury?
I don't know any connection he has to rock (or any amplified music)
that doesn't go through Robert Fripp - who, despite that he produced
the second Matching Mole, is no more Canterbury than I am...
Certainly [mixing different
genres] isn't the only criterion; there are lots of musicians who try
to do so all the time - like everyone on Cuneiform Records, among whom
only Hugh Hopper and Phil Miller are dyed-in-the-wool Canterbury. I'm
not even sure this is a necessary condition. I feel like, say, Alan
Gowen was not fusing genres, he was playing something that was clearly
jazz in conception, even if it was played on amplified equipment.
Certainly not everyone agrees
with me in this matter (or anything else). There's a new book out, The
Rough Guide to Jazz, written in England and quite Anglocentric (Ian
Carr is one of the three principal reviewers), and there are entries
for everyone on the Gilgamesh debut - except Gowen! They don't think
he's jazz! They cover John Marshall, but not Wyatt; Roy Babbington,
but not Hopper; most of the sidemen in In Cahoots, but not Phil Miller...
it was a real disappointment to me!
What I think distinguishes
Canterbury from other kinds of music, and what I like best about it,
is its particular quality of humor. There are other kinds of "funny"
music out there : Zappa, Devo, Randy Newman, Tom Lehrer, the Jazz Passengers,
the Swinging Erudites, etc. etc. But the Canterbury school seems to
me uniquely capable of making purely musical jokes without parody, without
insult to other musicians or listeners, without vitiating musical or
intellectual ideals. Some of this attitude resides in lyrics, like how
"Why Am I So Short?" offers Wyatt's unflattering, unsentimental self-appraisal
of his old drummer/biped character in a way that makes you laugh with
him rather than at him. But the true Canterbury musician can do it equally
well without uttering a word".
[editor of 'Why Are We Sleeping?', the Kevin Ayers fanzine]
"Oh dear, surely we've all
picked over the bones of this ancient question for long enough to know
that the 'spirit' philosophy is what we all understand, what we all
agree on and what essentially unites the nicest set of music listeners
anywhere. The pointless rummaging about what albums qualify and don't
qualify as Canterbury is what divides us. We have a huge spectrum of
music to explore and enjoy and the Canterbury grouping just gives us
a few convenient boundaries and baselines (basslines?) on which to hang
our individual hats. I respect everyone's musical tastes in this column
and I'm eager to explore some of the names that have kept cropping up
that I've not got round to hearing yet. I sincerely hope that other
subscribers will perhaps want to do the same. In my humble opinion there
are two unifying threads throughout our music : firstly the tendency
towards instrumental improvisation, but secondly, the possession of
a uniquely English lyrical and vocal content - it's Ayers, Wyatt, Sinclair
and Allen that define it for me, the way they sing and the way they
write. Is it any coincidence that many of us move onto Syd Barrett or
Peter Hammill for the same reason? But it is the 'spirit' at the root
of it - it convinced me back at the Gong 25th in 1994 when the endless
stream of Canterbury musos climbed up and played like they'd never left
[Cuneiform Records label manager]
"I'd like to put my brief
two cents in on this subject. If we're going to be "strict" about all
of this, than Canterbury means it came from Canterbury. That then restricts
us to a discussion of the members of Soft Machine, Caravan and.....well,
I guess that's about it. But in terms of *style*, there's another story!
In terms of locale, Egg were
not a Canterbury band, but for me mentally and musically, they certainly
seem to fit in. And how about the great bands who play a Soft Machine-styled
music who aren't even English! Supersister? The Muffins? Dedalus? Well,
I think you see my point of view, even if you don't share it.
I even think this list/site
should include bands in the "RIO" style, because if we're going to include,
say, Egg in the discussions, to me Egg are an obvious prototype for
the R.I.O. movement (without the folk forms many of the RIO-ers liked
I'd rather this discussion
group be inclusive rather than exclusive - I love Hugh Hopper's 1984
album, but other than the fact that it was made by a genuine Canterbury-er,
there's nothing "Canterbury" about most of it musically. The Muffins
have no "real" connections to the Canterbury scene, but Manna/Mirage
is obviously musically an Americanization of that sound".
"I) It seems to me that the
very essence of "Canterbury" is the tension between complicated harmonies,
extended improvisations, and the sincere desire to write catchy pop
songs. In the very best Canterbury music - i.e., all of Hatfield &
the North, National Health, and Matching Mole, early (i.e., with Robert
Wyatt) Soft Machine, early Caravan (pre-Cunning Stunts), and
early Gong (pre-Shamal) -, the musically silly and the musically
serious are juxtaposed in an amusing and endearing way. I've often felt
that Soft Machine lost all their 'charm' when Robert Wyatt stopped singing
(and eventually left). Much the same can be said of the various post-Allen
and post-Hillage editions of Gong in which Pierre Moerlen was the prime
mover. As great as the post-Wyatt Soft Machine music was (Seventh
was my first "C" purchase!!), a lot of the humor and silliness was gone.
Caravan went the other way & became too poppy & accessible...
they smoothed over their musical quirks, which were pretty much totally
gone by Cunning Stunts (...the title notwithstanding!).
II) Another well-known aspect
of the "Canterbury" scene is the circular nature of personnel changes
in the various groups. Without going into gory detail, it always seems
that the same players were turning up in each others' bands. To me,
this phenomenon explains why there is a "Canterbury Sound" at all. After
all, musicians are the ones making the sounds! Similar scenes have emerged
in France (Zao, Magma, Weidorje, et al.) and Belgium (Univers Zero,
Art Zoyd, etc.) to much the same effect. In contrast, Daevid Allen's
"New York Gong" albums bear absolutely NO resemblance whatsoever to
Canterbury music. To me, this is a great example of the importance of
this rotating cast of musicians to the Canterbury sound. Of course,
there are always exceptions & so there are some VERY Canterbury-sounding
(...but also very original-sounding) bands from Japan & Italy (e.g.,
Picchio dal Pozzo).
III) The vocals (if any)
are delivered in very "British" manner, with absolutely no attempt to
ape American blues and pop singers. For my money, this aspect of the
Canterbury sound, plus the tendency towards complex structures and lengthy
improvisations was enough to scare off most record companies!
IV) The lyrics (if any) betray
a strong sense of the absurd (pataphysical humour?). If they are 'about'
anything, they're often hilarious and concerned with private jokes and/or
various aspects of British domestic life. Hatfield's lyrics about "life
as a pop star" from the first album are utterly hilarious!!"
"I'm going to be a bit of
an iconoclast and defend some music that gets unfairly lambasted just
about everywhere. In particular, I am going to defend jazz-era Gong
and Soft Machine. It's not just that I like them, it's that there are
reasons to like them and reasons why saying simply that they are "crap"
Sticking to one very narrow
style of music, such as british psychedelia, is an annoying kind of
elitism, principally because it is generally based on nostalgia, one
of the worst criteria of judgment. I like music that shows high quality
musicianship, good knowledge of advanced musical principles and how
to use them, and is in some way distinctive.
I believe that jazz-era Gong
and Soft Machine meet these criteria, that they were not simply generic
fusion bands, and that they deserve their places in the hearts of Canterbury
music fans and people like me who just like good music no matter where
it comes from. The beautiful interlocking tuned percussion riffs of
the brothers Moerlen and the fabulous soloists they got to front those
riffs (Holdsworth, Oldfield, Lockwood, Way, Malherbe) certainly place
these Gong albums among the best fusion recordings. Karl Jenkins' unique
composition style of jazz mixed with minimalism is also too distinctive
to write off as simply garbage.
And it strikes me that those
who do not appreciate the musical qualities of these recordings have
not listened with any great care to what is musically there. Instead
all they hear is that it is not what Daevid Allen or Robert Wyatt would
have done, and so tune out.
I am glad that later incarnations
of Gong and Soft Machine did not try to imitate what had already been
done. Allen and Wyatt are their own kinds of musicians. The musical
world is big enough to hold them and Moerlen and Jenkins (and while
we're at it Rick Wakeman and Yes as well)".
"I'd like to give a few ideas
about THE crucial, even though academic or byzantine, question: what
is (and what is not) 'Canterburish'? Some members of the list have spoken
of 'spirit'. Of course. But I think there is more, and more simple.
There is another big question, much more difficult (try to answer, and
you'll see): what is progressive rock? The only criteria we can use
are musical, stylistic, formal. But the field, the styles are so diverse...
We are more lucky with the Canterbury Scene, because the criteria are
more specific: they are historical, biographical, personal.
Let's explain : members of
the Canterbury scene generally have personal links of friendship and
collaboration with each others. First we have the basic bunch, the ones
from the Wilde Flowers, the early Soft Machine and Caravan, and their
subsequent groups or careers (Gong, Matching Mole, Kevin Ayers...).
This is the historical criterion. Secondly, other musicians have been
involved in these groups. A good exemple: Elton Dean. One impressive
case: Delivery was (from what I read) a blues band, but ALL of its members
have been in one or another Canterburian group! So everyone of them
is a citizen of the nation. On a third level, a group has played a prominent
part, Hatfield and the North, with the introduction of Dave Stewart.
And we can see what role chance can play in history, when we read (in
his autobiography) how he got involved in the band. It is this fact
(and the involvement of Hillage in Gong) that retroactively aggregates
groups like Uriel, Egg and Khan to the Scene.
And collaborations or involvements
are also the reasons we have to count the Henry Cow family amongst the
Canterburic groups. For instance, there is a BIG black hole in the Canterbury
Scene : the Ottowa Music Company. No records (no recordings?), just
a little information... This was a reunion of Egg and Henry Cow musicians,
and it seems to me to be a major fact in the connexion between Henry
Cow and the Canterbury scene.
I still don't know if Keith
Tippett is 'canterburiable'. Some Canterbury people have worked with
him. He provided musicians like Dean, Charig or Evans to the scene.
But his music is definitely jazz (anyway, like most of the others nowadays?).
For me the question is of less importance: thanks to my exploration
of the Canterbury Scene, I have listened to his music, and I like it
(the first two albums, plus Septober Energy and Frames).
There are other, looser connexions : Bruford, Holdsworth, Fripp / Eno
/ Quiet Sun, Nucleus (another provider of musicians), the English free
jazz (Brotherhood of Breath etc.), Bley/Mantler, etc.
So, beyond the spiritual
or stylistic criteria, questions of personal links and biography are,
for me, the main characteristic of the movement. For that reason (and
musical stuff too, of course), this one is a fantastic part of the progressive
rock, a unique case. And we have, within this microcosm, all the subgenres
of progressive rock : symphonic (the Uriel branch), pop-rock (and some
jazzish: Caravan), rock-jazz (Soft Machine), "space rock", rather hippy
(Gong), pure songs (Ayers), underground and free rock (H. Cow) - and
of course, both the diamonds you can't compare to nothing: Hatfield
and National Health (the quintessence of progressive rock?).
I'm waiting (am I the only
one?) for somebody to write a large, full and complete history of it:
who did what? who knew who? who brought who? who liked who?, and so
on. (You know, the pleasure to read about it is almost as great as to
listen to the music). Such a book could be a consequence (a product)
of what we are doing here - maybe a collaboration between some of you?
Canterbury Music is a net (just look at the family trees!). What we
all love is to travel in it. My pleasure is to try to know every branch".
"...That brings me to the
ugly topic of definitions. To sum up : screw 'em! Music is an art, not
a science, so we have to enjoy the definitions as embellishment to the
experience of the music. And in the case of the Canterburians,
that includes the various family trees. It definitly makes the music
more interesting to know who plays on what and where they have come
from. I really enjoy it. But for me the idea of pinning down who or
what belongs in this group is an exercise in.... well it's an exercise.
Don't get me wrong- I immensly enjoy reading them. It flexes my muscles
of appreciation for the music. But it shouldn't go further than that.
In my opinion, everyone should just write about what they enjoy. I've
learned quite a bit just from reading just that- thus far.
Let me just say that the
other day I read a couple relevant contributions along these lines.
The first was about Archie Legget, I believe. Someone mentioned he had
played with both Charles Aznavour and Tony Sheridan. I started thinking
they, in turn have performed with Edith Piaf and The Beatles, respectively.
Meanwhile, Wyatt has worked with John Cage (as have I, I'm proud to
namedrop). So there you have the connections to the entirety of pop
music in the 20th century. By definition, the Canterbury Scene includes
damn near everything...
I personally have always
been fascinated by the Wilde Flowers. I see them as the common root
that spawned all that followed. I guess for me the "scene" is whomever
those original guys eventually played with. That is more than enough
to keep things interesting. But I must say I really enjoy hearing about
new bands who's only connections to the scene are as influences. Keep
To the Wilde Flowers' credit
is the fact that when I finally heard the CD compiled from their 1960's
demo recordings, I was quite impressed! I think it holds up! Who knew
recordings existed and that they would actually be so entertaining!?
I find some of those tunes really important in understanding the developments
that came later. A song like "No Game When You Lose" is valuable as
an historical document and it has a groove you can dance to!
The second point regards
a comment that someone mentioned: that the later (4-7
and beyond) Softs' should not be trashed, that in fact they are preferable
because of their musicianship and technical abilities. I appreciate
that and love every one of those records. But I must say that "good"
music involves much more than technique. As many have eloquently stated,
many of the Canterburians have technique in addition to the rest. But
I just want to say that "the rest" involves humor, yes and then something
else. Wyatt asked us to forgive his "dodgy" playing on End Of An
Ear because of his "painful sincerity." I think the sincerity is
part of it. And so are other things I can't articulate. But some of
the later Softs' music seemed to be a bit lacking in this quality, whatever
it is. As someone else pointed out, I always got something out
of every Softs record so I'm not complaining. But I just want to speak
out against the idea that prowess on an instrument is all there
is. Wyatt's voice is a perfect example. It is a flawed "instrument"
but he sure delivers a lot of feeling (and reeling and squealing) with
I am most enamoured with
Wyatt's vocal experiments. In fact I think all the experiments on all
this music is what changed my life. As others have said, they taught
me that more was possible than what meets the eye through the mass media.
But I also like Pop. I think what I have always enjoyed is that this
music is Pop- just slightly twisted and a bit more intelligent.
In addition to Wyatt and
the Softs I also like Hatfield, Henry Cow and anything by Daevid Allen.
Ayers too. And Hopper. Like I said, I see it all as fanning out from
the Wilde Flowers. Henry Cow is too good and fun NOT to be included.
Their links came later. Pip Pyle recently explained to me that he really
has nothing to do with Canterbury and seems to resent the phrase. So
in a way it is a misnomer. But again, when it comes to definitions,
screw 'em. It's alot easier to say "Canterburians" than it is to say
'music that evolved from the Wilde Flowers' or some other cumbersome