Canterbury as a hotbed of literate English rock & roll, 1966-1976; discuss.
I have yet to encounter any convincing argument explaining why this sleepy cathedral town in Kent generated not only substantial numbers of musicians during this era, but also had its own distinctive style, sufficient for people to be able to talk about the ‘Canterbury Sound’ or the ‘Canterbury Scene’ and for this catch-all term to conjure up certain expectations.
1960’s Canterbury – ‘your typical city involved in a typical daydream’
Yet, all of this was generated by a small enclave of musicians; probably no more than 25 in number, who either originated from Canterbury, lived in Canterbury or were ‘fellow travellers’ of one sort or another. Some of its leading lights were from the town , some of them went to school or university there, but many – Robert Wyatt, Elton Dean, Dave Stewart and the late Pip Pyle – to name but four, were born elsewhere. Even today, the town’s population is only about 45,000; I grew up in a town over twice the size, yet the only semi-notable musician Northampton produced in this era was guitarist Mark Griffiths, who jumped ship to join Matthews’ Southern Comfort and later had the dubious distinction of becoming musical director for David Essex.
If the genesis of the Canterbury Scene can be laid at the feet of anyone, that person would be that global citizen of the hippie era, Daevid Allen. Allen arrived in the UK from his native Australia around 1960, having already spent some time sitting in with various jazz-ish ensembles in Paris. Somehow, he ended up as the lodger in Robert Wyatt’s parents’ house and duly introduced a fascinated Wyatt to his travelling collection of jazz albums and – indirectly – to playing the drums. Allen had collaborated with Terry Riley whilst in Paris and was much taken with the use of tape loops and other primitive electronic experiments. He duly passed on his enthusiasm to both Robert Wyatt and bassist Hugh Hopper, who worked with him in a free jazz trio in London in 1963.
Daevid Allen outside Robert Wyatt’s house in 1961
Jazz might have been the driving force behind much of what the musicians of the embryonic Canterbury Scene were trying to achieve, but this was also the era of The Beatles. Gigs, girls and record contracts were all a lot easier to come by if you were in a pop band, which is probably how The Wilde Flowers – the seminal Canterbury band – got started in 1964. This was initially a project started by Hugh Hopper & his brother Brian with a whole raft of players passing through, among them Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers, Mike Ratledge and all of what would eventually become Caravan. Little has survived of The Wilde Flowers’ recorded output, but much of what there is reveals a psychedelic pop band with strong jazz overtones – and virtually all of the bands from The Canterbury Scene were to produce music that could be positioned somewhere along that spectrum from psychedelic pop to jazz.
The Wilde Flowers 1965: L-R, Brian Hopper, Richard Sinclair, Robert Wyatt (with amazingly long hair!), Hugh Hopper and Kevin Ayers
Daevid Allen re-appeared in 1966 and at various stages Mike Ratledge, Robert Wyatt and Kevin Ayers jumped ship to join him in London for what became the first incarnation of Soft Machine. The Wilde Flowers drafted in a range of replacements, including Richard Coughlan, who took over the drumming duties once Wyatt decided to concentrate on singing, then cousins David & Richard Sinclair and singer/guitarist Pye Hastings, whose older brother Jimmy, was an established jazz saxophonist.
Once Kevin Ayers decided to leave Soft Machine behind in 1968, it was almost inevitable that Hugh Hopper would be offered the chance to replace him. Brian followed in his wake, playing on most of the second Soft Machine album. That left Messrs Hastings, Sinclair, Sinclair and Coughlan down in Canterbury and holding The Wilde Flowers baby. Having written some songs, the band re-named themselves Caravan and quickly signed a contract with a new label funded by MGM.
Caravan in 1968
Their first, self-titled album emerged in the summer of 1968 and was an absolute gem. It was here that the essential ingredients of Caravan’s sound were established – first of all, a sense of English whimsicality, not unlike some of Pink Floyd’s more pastoral early songs, Pye Hastings’ fragile, vulnerable vocal style, Richard Sinclair’s more polished vocals and his flair for quirky lyrics and cousin David’s distinctive organ sound; quite unlike the ‘classic’ Hammond sound as used by – for example – Steve Winwood in Traffic or Ian McLaglan in the Small Faces. Dave Sinclair’s organ was processed via who knows what gizmos to produce a reedy, almost flute-like sound that was unmistakable and swiftly became a Caravan trademark.
The first album got airplay – I heard it on John Peel’s show and quickly acquired a copy – and there was much enthusiasm for songs like ‘Place of my own’, the orientally-flavoured ‘Ride‘ and the bossa-novaish ‘Love song with flute’ which featured Pye’s brother Jimmy playing a lovely flute solo. The new band’s efforts to establish themselves weren’t particularly helped by the chaotic state of affairs at their record company. The ‘Verve Forecast’ label had been MGM’s attempt to make a splash in the rock market and had essentially evolved out of the Folkways label. Caravan found themselves promoted by a company whose stock in trade was earnest American folk musicians like Tim Hardin, Richie Havens and Janis Ian. Most of the acts were American and the only UK peers Caravan had on the label were The Alan Bown and Peter Bardens, neither exactly household names. Unsurprisingly, the forecast for Verve Forecast was stormy and the label’s UK activities effectively ceased in 1969.
The cover of Caravan’s first album
So, having just got their feet under the table, Caravan had to start again, moving to Decca for their second album in 1970. This rejoiced in the unwieldy title of "If I Could Do It All Over Again, I’d Do It All Over You’ and the complex vocal nonsense of the title track’s lyric led to an unexpected brush with Top 40 success. The album also saw Caravan already starting to move away from the fey pastoralism of their first album; their songs now had a harder edge and were often integrated into longer ‘suites’ with lengthy instrumental passages. The band’s perennial concert favourite ‘For Richard’ (in its original version on this album) was a prime early example of this new strategy.
Through the rest of 1970 and into 1971, Caravan gigged steadily; mainly club gigs around the UK, moving on to university gigs, initially in support slots, but increasingly as a headliner. A new album, ‘In the Land of Grey & Pink’ was released in April of 1971, and for many people, this defined the Caravan ‘sound’. Most of the writing was done by the Sinclairs; Richard’s sidelong quirkiness well to the fore on ‘Golf Girl’ and the title track, but showing a more tender side on ‘Winter Wine’. What grabbed most people’s attention, however, was David Sinclair’s ‘Nine Feet Underground’, which took up a whole side of the vinyl release and seemed to combine Caravan’s songwriting aspirations and their instrumental prowess over a 22-minute ‘suite’. Pye Hastings contributed only the overtly ‘poppy’ ‘Love to love you’.
For all the critical approbation which ‘Grey & Pink’ received, Caravan were sometimes dismissed as a ‘student’ band and the volume and quality of gigs they played in 1971 suggested that if they were broadening their audience they were only doing so extremely slowly. After 3 years of slog, they had managed 3 well-received albums that had, however, only sold moderately well, had started to develop a fan-base in France, Holland & Germany, but were still no closer to touring or making any impact in North America. In some respects, perhaps their quintessential Englishness was working against them.
The first person to show any impatience with this state of affairs was David Sinclair. For many people, he was the band’s best musician and his organ sound, as mentioned, almost defined the band. In August of 1971, Sinclair left the band to join Robert Wyatt’s Matching Mole project. He was replaced by Steve Miller, who was more of a pianist than an organist and this was reflected in the sound of the band’s next album ‘Waterloo Lily’, released in May of 1972. The album, though it had its moments, sounded fairly schizophrenic, with Sinclair & Miller’s jazz-inflected styles clashing with the romantic balladry of Pye Hastings. Despite touring France and the UK to promote the album, Miller only survived a few months, before leaving, taking Richard Sinclair with him to work on a project that eventually morphed into Hatfield & the North.
With the Sinclairs out of the band ( though David was to return, sporadically, throughout the ’70’s) Pye Hastings now assumed a more central role in the band, something that he has never relinquished since.
Caravan were a band in crisis and that was reflected in the number of personnel changes that ensued over the following 12 months. Hastings and Coughlan recruited viola player Geoffrey Richardson to add a new dimension to the band’s sound and set off on their first serious overseas tour to Australia ( a bizarre line-up with Slade as the headliners and Lindisfarne and Status Quo also supporting) with two short-lived members in Derek Austin on keyboards and Stuart Evans on bass. Evans & Austin both left after the Australian tour and John G Perry (bass) and the returning David Sinclair were in place to start work on the band’s fifth album, the oddly-titled ‘For girls who grow plump in the night’, which came out in October of 1973 after an unusually protracted recording process.
‘For girls’ was dominated by the songwriting of Pye Hastings and there was an overall reduction in the lengthy instrumental workouts. It was one of the band’s more popular albums, with ‘Memory Lain, Hugh’ and ‘Headloss‘ quickly becoming staples of their live sets. However, although production values were high and although Richardson added something a little different to the mix, the new songs were somehow ‘Canterbury-lite’; a ‘fast-food’ version of ‘Grey & Pink’ that saw the band departing ever further from the unique sound of their first album.
In the same month as ‘For girls ‘ was released, the band took a sideways step to record an album with an orchestra at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. This cosy venue typified Caravan’s problem at this juncture. There they were, trundling along in the middle lane of the English rock & roll autostrada, whilst artists they had supported or had even supported them flashed past in the fast lane en route to major success; big American tours, prestigious gigs at much bigger venues – Genesis, David Bowie and Deep Purple are just a few of those that come to mind. The ‘Caravan and The New Symphonia’ album was, as ever, well-received when it came out in April of 1974, but it sold only respectably and there was a general feeling that Caravan had somehow missed the boat.
John G. Perry left the band in July of 1974, with Mike Wedgwood drafted in to replace him. This line-up produced the next Caravan studio album, released in July of 1975. The titles just went from weird to embarrassing; this one was called ‘Cunning Stunts’ (how they must regret that now!) and it showed a band whose mojo was definitely on the wane. After this album, David Sinclair left the band again and I pretty much called time on Caravan. Clearly, the 1968 album had just been a momentary dream that was never going to be revisited and even the solid achievements of ‘Grey & Pink’ seemed light years in the past.
Caravan in the mid-70’s; not happening really, is it?
Pye Hastings and Richard Coughlan kept a struggling Caravan going through a series of mediocre albums for the rest of the 1970’s, but by 1979, saddled with debt after their management company went bust, Hastings and most of the original members began a cycle of reunions and partial reunions that have continued to this day. At times, it’s all got a bit too Spinal Tap-esque for comfort.
Thankfully, since the 90’s their reputation has been partially rescued thanks to the possibilities of the expanded format offered by the CD and the delving of archivist fans. Their diligence meant that we got to hear collections of the numerous radio sessions Caravan did for the BBC from 1968 onwards. Collections like ‘Songs for Oblivion Fishermen’ (1998), ‘Ether Way’ (1998), ‘Green Bottles for Marjorie’ (2002) and ‘The Show of our Lives: Caravan at the BBC, 1968-1975’ (2007) have uncovered some real gems and reminded us just how good a band Caravan were in their earliest days. Just a pity it didn’t last.
In truth, none of the Canterbury bands ever achieved any lasting success, though many had their moments. Egg, Hatfield & the North and Soft Machine all left their mark on the leafy prog rock meadows of mid-1970’s Britain. Caravan might have existed at the extreme ‘poppy’ end of the Canterbury spectrum, but they had as much success as any of their peers.
Of the original Canterbury core , only Robert Wyatt has maintained any serious public profile into the 21st Century and, as a Bristolian living in north-east Lincolnshire, he is generally dismissive of his Canterbury roots, making music which is grounded in jazz and world music rather than rock.
So what we are left with at the end of it all is a modest collection of bands, ostensibly linked by geography, but in reality connected by the creative tensions between their desire to play jazz and their ability to make rock music that is informed by jazz. Undoubtedly, like many other musicians from this era, the Canterbury Crew continue to exert an influence on contemporary music. Anyone who doubts that should sit down and listen to Texas-based Midlake.
Here’s a short playlist, offering a personal choice of some of the better offerings in the Canterbury Catalogue. You may disagree with these selections, but I won’t let it bother me…..
Caravan – ‘Caravan’ (1968)/ ‘In the Land of Grey & Pink’ (1971)/ ‘The Show of our Lives; Caravan at the BBC, 1968-1975’ (2007)
Soft Machine – ‘Third’ (1970)
Egg – ‘Egg’ (1970)/ ‘The Polite Force’ (1971)
Kevin Ayers – ‘Shooting at the Moon’ (1970) / July 1, 1974 (with John Cale, Brian Eno and Nico) (1974)
Hatfield & the North – ‘Hatfield & the North’ (1974)/’The Rotters Club’ (1975) /’Hatwise Choice’ (2005) / ‘Hattitude’ (2006)
Khan – ‘Space Shanty’ (1972)
Robert Wyatt – ‘Matching Mole’ (1972) / ‘Rock Bottom’ (1974) / ‘Nothing can stop us (1982) / ‘Cuckooland’ (2003)
Finally, I am indebted to the excellent ‘Calyx’ website for much of the detail contained in this post. They can be located here: