The Canterbury Sound seems to hark back to a city of 45 years ago. But has the city continued to thrive musically, or is there something more nebulous at work, and always has been? Joel Magill, bass guitarist of current leading lights Syd Arthur, says that when the band started in the mid-2000s, they weren’t even aware of their own town’s cultural history.
“We were a bit unique,” he says. “We listened to rock and slightly weirder music but we still hadn’t found the Canterbury Sound.”
With no focal point for live music in the city, it was free parties and weekend raves in the woods that fuelled the band’s creative fire.
“It drew us in ’cos there were DJs and bands playing,” he says. “That was really big locally and it inspired us to make music and put on our own events. It was such a community scene and very underground.”
Then a friend invited the band round to listen to records from their dad’s collection and played them Gong. A heavily psychedelic penny dropped. “It blew our minds,” says Magill. “We were in! From then on it was Hatfield And The North, Caravan, everyone. We became obsessed, and it was fun to find out that we’d unintentionally been going in that direction ourselves anyway with jams and improvisation. It was amazing to think these people were doing it 40 years before.”
Syd Arthur were soon hosting their own Further stage at a local festival, Lounge On The Farm, putting on unknown bands such as Wolf People alongside Polar Bear, Arthur Brown and their heroes Gong.
“That was a huge thing when Gong played there [in 2009],” says guitarist and Gare Du Nord label owner Robert Rotifer. Austrian-born Rotifer moved to Canterbury 10 years ago because of the city’s musical history. He agrees with Magill that, apart from experimental jazz venue the Orange Street Music Club, the scene is low-key: “There’s an awareness, but a sleepy sort. It’s a city oddly bereft of live music given there are so many students.”
Rotifer’s label features whimsical prog pop from Whitstable act Picturebox and his own band Papernut Cambridge, led by Ian Button, Joel Magill’s tutor in sound engineering at Canterbury College.
Due to pilgrimage-era by-laws, Canterbury’s most noticeable musical contribution seems to be busking, and Rotifer names Luke Smith as his Robert Wyatt-like minstrel of choice. “But there’s also a heritage of bands that have evolved from the scene.” Meanwhile, various signs, such as the Banksy-style graffiti of Robert Wyatt in a wheelchair behind his old club haunt, The Beehive (now a Chinese restaurant), are there for those in-the-know.
“There’s a lot of music-making in the schools, too,” says Rotifer, whose sons play in bands at Simon Langton Grammar School For Boys, where various members of Soft Machine were educated. “The Wilde Flowers were a school band. Kids listened to jazz records and played soul at The Beehive. Canterbury is still a city with a liberal jazz-listening intellectual vibe.”
Meanwhile, likeminded souls have journeyed to Syd Arthur’s own studio, Wicker, to record. Bands they’ve championed include fellow Canterbury natives Zoo For You and Broken Hands, but also come from further afield, such as Bristol’s Rae and Brighton’s Jouis.
The city is still an enigma, admits Joel Magill. “If you came to Canterbury you wouldn’t find the scene that easily,” he says. “But there’s a network that supports each other but events are word of mouth, and ‘Canterbury’ has spread down to Deal and Dover.
“What’s interesting ,” he continues, “is if you walked down the high street here and stopped someone to ask them about the Canterbury Sound they’d be like, ‘What are you talking about?’ But since going to tour in the US [with Sean Lennon, and later Yes], every place we went to, people were like, ‘Are you from Canterbury?’, and they all knew it. People our age. It was really weird, people respected it very highly.”