It’s not always easy when it comes to deciding what is and isn’t part of the Canterbury Scene. Certainly geography itself is of little help with only Caravan and Soft Machine hailing from the environs and surroundings of that Cathedral city.
The borders of the scene are especially permeable, absorbing a list of groups and artists from all kinds of locations and backgrounds that have little to do with the city in Kent.
For example, all of the following have been cited at one time or another as belonging to the Canterbury scene: Soft Machine, Caravan, Kevin Ayers, Bruford, Egg, Hatfield And The North, National Health, Rapid Eye Movement,(basically anything with Dave Stewart in the line-up), Henry Cow, Khan, Soft Heap, Radar Favourites, Gong, Slapp Happy, In Cahoots, Mike Oldfield, Camel, Gilgamesh, Matching Mole, Quiet Sun and that’s just in the UK. In Europe Supersister, D.F.A, The Wrong Object, Moving Gelatine Plates, Picchio Dal Pozzo, Alco Frisbass, Forgas Band Phenomena are also judged to be part of the Canterbury club.
While clearly very diverse, what all of the above have in common is a series of musical traits, often overlapping and sometimes within the span of one song, that could be described as humorous, cerebral, poppy, complex, melodic, lyrical, experimental and, well, strange. Clearly Canterbury is more a state of mind and attitude to making music than any adherence to strict geographical boundaries.
It can be confusing but here are some examples of the Canterbury scene that should help it all make sense. And if it doesn’t, well it’s just some damn fine music regardless.
Soft Machine - Moon In June (1970)
Released in 1970, Soft Machine’s Third is widely held to be a classic by commentators and fans alike. Despite some curiously underpowered production in places, the double album consisting of four side-long pieces it showcases Mike Ratledge’s blistering organ work, Hugh Hopper’s snarling fuzz bass, Elton Dean’s fiery sax, and Robert Wyatt’s excited, turbulent drumming.
With Facelift’s contorted brutalist collage, the penetratingly meditative Slightly All The Time, and the transcendent Out-Bloody-Rageous with its Terry Riley-inspired tape loops bliss, the album augmented by guest players, is an instrumental tour-de-force. However, the gem for many is Robert Wyatt’s surreal stream-of-consciousness song, Moon In June.
The last studio vocal he would make with the band, it's mostly a solo Wyatt piece with his bandmates only appearing after 10 minutes, foreshadowing the split that would come the following year. Nevertheless, Third remains a remarkably focussed and outstanding incisive aggregation of ideas and tunes, easily vindicating its legendary status in the Canterbury scene.
Caravan - In The Land Of Grey And Pink (1971)
Arguably the Canterbury album. With its title coined by bassist Richard Sinclair when describing a sunset in his native Kent, the album is dominated by keyboardist Dave Sinclair’s tasteful use of fuzzed organ, which does so much to define the Canterbury sound. In his capable hands, it can sound icy and distorted as heard during the 22-minute Nine Feet Underground or evoke a feeling of longing passion in the dreamy Winter Wine.
Whether it's the straightforward chiming pop of Love To You or the clandestine romantic assignations described in Golf Girl, Caravan’s third studio album distills a sense of life-affirming vibe of optimism and hope, not to mention an ineffable air of Englishness. In The Land Of Grey And Pink, with its endearingly charming lyrics expressing the desire to escape societal norms contains Dave Sinclair’s stunningly melodic piano and subsequent organ break wherein both are filled with a skipping joy, beautifully conveying the album's overall sense of giddy emotional freedom.
Matching Mole - O Caroline (1972)
Formed in the aftermath of his enforced departure from Soft Machine, Robert Wyatt’s new venture, Matching Mole, brought together the formidable talents of future Hatfields/National Health guitarist Phil Miller, Quiet Sun/801 bassist Bill MacCormick, and Caravan keyboardist, Dave Sinclair. With music written by Sinclair, Wyatt commandeered the tune working through the night in order to create a plaintive lyric to an ex-girlfriend, and a vulnerable, genuinely moving vocal.
O Caroline, which opens their self-titled debut, is perhaps untypical of the rest of the record which moves between jazzy noodling, caustic guitar solos, and extended echo-drenched Mellotron freak-outs. Nevertheless, this simple, stripped-back showcases something of the yearning romanticism that permeates the Canterbury imprint.
Gong - Oily Way/Outer Temple/Inner Temple (1973)
When cosmic hobo Daevid Allen was refused entry back into the UK following a European tour with his band, Soft Machine in 1967, it could have been a disaster. Instead, it was the making of this Australian-born citizen of the galaxy. Pouring his considerable creative energies into Gong, he created a sprawling mythology featuring Pot Head Pixies, Octave Doctors, and other wild and wacky characters. It was all given expressive and expansive voice via a menagerie of top-notch players including drummer Pierre Moerlen and Steve Hillage.
Angel’s Egg, the second part of his Radio Gnome Invisible trilogy, contains some of their best high-energy playing, a result, no doubt, of the album being recorded in the open-air surrounding of their communal HQ in France. Overflowing with sinuous flute, sputtering synth transmissions, Allen’s heavenly glissando guitar, underpinned by muscular bass and drums, provides a nebulous harmonic cloud within which they work their other-worldly magick.
Spyogyra - In The Western World (1973)
Spirogyra was formed in 1969 at the University of Kent in Canterbury and is very definitely not to be confused with the American easy-listening fusion outfit of almost the same name. Usually considered as an obscure footnote in folk-rock circles, their place in the Canterbury firmament stems from singer Barbara Gaskin. While still a member of Spirogyra she became one of The Northettes, the vocal trio appearing on both Hatfield And The North albums and Egg’s Civil Surface, and later still, as one half of the long-running duo with partner, Dave Stewart which endures to this day.
Alongside founder singer-songwriter Martin Cockerham and guests such as bassist Rick Biddulph and drummer Dave Mattacks, they recorded three records between 1971 and 1973. Full of fetching songs, often with ambitious arrangements, Gaskin’s voice has a beguiling purity that is the perfect foil to Cockerham’s more earthy delivery. This track from their final album, the now-highly collectible, Bells, Boots And Shambles, features a wonderfully rousing finale from trumpeter Henry Lowther.
Egg - Enneagram
Egg’s 1970 self-titled debut and The Polite Force from 1971 are today hailed as stone-cold Canterbury classics. At the time, however, sluggish sales and record company indifference saw the trio breakup. In 1974 Dave Stewart, then with Hatfield And The North, managed to nab a minuscule budget from Virgin to record some Egg numbers that never made it to an album. The result was The Civil Surface with old Egg bandmates, bassist Mont Campbell and drummer Clive Brooks.
A brutally acerbic sequence of rapid handbrake-turn time signatures, rippling electric piano, and jabbing chords, Enneagram was sometimes the opening number at Egg gigs scrambling the audience's brains in the process. A tearaway track from which twisting melodies hurtle as though shot from a cannon, it displays Egg's manic brilliance and the kind of highly controlled yet quirky mayhem that makes their three albums such a richly rewarding experience for countless Canterbury fans.
Hatfield And The North - Mumps: Your Majesty Is Like A Cream Donut (Quiet)/Lumps/Prenut/Your Majesty Is Like A Cream Donut (Loud) (1975)
Although Caravan keyboardist Dave Sinclair was briefly an early member, the definitive Hatfield lineup of Delivery/Gong drummer, Pip Pyle, Delivery guitarist Phil Miller, Caravan’s Richard Sinclair on bass and vocals, and the ubiquitous Dave Stewart on keyboards produced their 1974 self-titled debut and 1975’s The Rotters’ Club - both indispensable classics of the Canterbury genre.
This 20-minute Dave Stewart composition exemplifies the keyboard player’s meticulous scoring and pastoral setting for the voices of The Northettes aka Spirogyra’s Barbara Gaskin, Anne Rosenthal, and future National Health vocalist, Amanda Parsons. As with much of their oeuvre, it’s all about the intricate layering of different textures; the harp-like interlocking guitar and Fender Rhodes piano,
Sinclair’s highly melodic bass patterns, Miller’s savage attack on the fretboard, including a 20-second sustained note and some frenetic see-saw riffing. Even Sinclair’s vocal section in the middle, with its punning lyrics providing a humorous interlude, the Hatfields’ control of the shifting dynamics creates a glorious sequence of tension and release, delivering a surprising degree of weight, power, and bite.
Gilgamesh - Island Of Rhodes/Paper Boat/As If Your Eyes Were Open (1975)
The death of Alan Gowen in 1981 robbed the music scene of a gifted composer and soloist. Gilgamesh was his attempt to bring together a space wherein improvisation and composition would sit naturally together. Their first self-titled debut features jazz veteran, guitarist Phil Lee and ex-Nucleus bassist Jeff Clyne making up a dextrous rhythm section with drummer, Mike Travis. The music, while agile and intelligent, never strays far from strong melodies and graceful soloing.
Co-produced by Dave Stewart, the first album and this suite, in particular, typifies the warmth in Gowen’s approachable writing. His later partnership with ex-Soft Machine bassist Hugh Hopper, who would join Gilgamesh on their excellent 1978 second album, Another Fine Tune You’ve Got Me Into, was extremely fruitful and their duet album, Two Rainbows Daily is also highly recommended.
National Health - Elephants (1978)
Formed in 1975 National Health was a dazzling combination of Dave Stewart and Phil Miller of Hatfield And The North and Gilgamesh’s Alan Gowen and Phil Lee with Egg’s bassist Mont Campbell, and, in the early days, Bill Bruford, then just out of King Crimson. Producing a super-smart chamber rock their tracks are studded with intricate time signatures, dovetailing arrangements, inspired soloing and memorable themes.
Though popular on the live circuit of the day, the music industry much preferred punk and by the time of their 1978 self-titled debut the band had undergone many personnel changes, with future Whitesnake bassist, Neil Murray and ex-Hatfield Pip Pyle on drums.
Elephants is brimming with light and shade, capturing the band’s stirring mix of abrasive wigging out - that’s Phil Miller’s honking on guitar synth at the start - gnarly jigsaw structures and the sublime vocals of Amanda Parsons heard at the end on a reprise of Tenemos Roads, one of Dave Stewart’s most memorable compositions.
Richard Sinclair - What's Rattlin' (1994)
The opening track from Richard’s second solo album, Pip Pyle’s affectionately witty lyric describes the frustration of being pigeonholed by Canterbury fans. “I’m bored with cups of tea and riffs in 15/8 ala Hatfield And The North with clever rhythmic signatures and tricky-dicky chords, rehearsing for a week, the bloody middle-eight.”
The song delivered with Sinclair’s lugubrious vocal is underpinned by his supple bass interacting with shuffling drums and Gong’s Didier Malherbe’s crooning soprano sax. Effortlessly ight and nimble and mixing a soupçon of jazzy inflection it features another memorable line: “One question we all dread, what’s doing Mike Ratledge,” a world-weary reference to the endless queries Pyle and others in the Canterbury scene have received over the years regarding Soft Machine’s enigmatic keyboard player who quit the band in 1976.
Zopp - You (2023)
Though a resident of Nottingham, Ryan Wilkinson is proof that the Canterbury family tree is constantly sprouting new branches. Ryan grew up listening to his dad’s Canterbury collection so it shouldn’t have been a surprise that his first album as Zopp in 2020 should pay homage to some of the major musical hallmarks of the scene. His latest album, Dominion is packed with evolving themes.
While Stevenson handles the fuzzed-up Hammond, overdriven pianet, raspy synth, labyrinthine bass lines, sustained guitar, and the occasional frosting of Mellotron, he’s joined by guests variously contributing saxes, flutes, and female harmony vocals, with all of it underpinned by Andrea Moneta’s taut, agile drumming.