Intro: Dimitris Kaltsas
Translation: Alexandros Mantas
Τhe scene of Canterbury is the most beloved sonic gem of every progressive rock fan. If someone gives it some good thought, what started with the legendary Wilde Flowers back in 1964, which was later morphed into a musical subgenre, is a unique phenomenon in rock music, given the very narrow limits of a city with just 55,000 residents in Kent in the South East corner of England. Any attempt to pin down the roots of this causality is obviously futile. What took place during the 70s in Canterbury was a lucky coincidence where abundant talent and intense personalities converged, in a time when the ground was fertile for creative experimentation, especially when it came to mixing artistic raw materials. The wide palette of influences, the incessant flow, the caustic humour filtered with jazz / fusion, the marriage between British sweetness and avant-garde darkness, plus the elimination of any structural constraints, are typical features of the Canterbury sound, but in this case the descriptions above fall short of the sonic experience.
In order to analyze and share our passion for this sound that is far from anything else, we paid close attention to prog epics that drag past the ten-minute mark and stand out thanks to their groundbreaking structure, the chances they took and the evolvement of all these traits that identify the scene of Canterbury; a scene that would soon break through the British borders and find worthy and genuine representatives all over Europe and not only.
Soft Machine – Slightly All the Time
It is impossible to think of Canterbury’s sonic legacy if the impact of Soft Machine on it is omitted. Slightly All The Time displays one of the top improvisational attitudes that defined this scene which came into light more enjoyably than ever through their third album, Third.
It is a composition that drags past the 18 minute mark, which in the year of 1970 carries the passion that the band we speak of had for the jazz-meets-rock style, filtered through a psychedelic prism. Having their ear on the ground and all the stuff that took place a few months before on the delirious spree of Bitches Brew by Miles Davis and Co., the quartet of Mike Ratledge, Hugh Hopper, Robert Wyatt and Elton Dean delivers a trippy bash consisting of natural diversity and complexity.
In essence, our ears are treated with a three-cut medley (Noisette, Backwards, Noisette Reprise) that exhilarates, functioning as a cohesive artistic entity and presents an out-and-out progressive group with equal shots of maturity, soulfulness and eloquence. Ratledge leaves his mark through the regulating role that his piano plays, as well as the fuzzy frequencies of his organ, Hopper and Wyatt do their bit by adding magnificent groovy rhythms, while Dean conveys the sensuous odes of his saxophone. Nick Evans and Jimmy Hastings on the trombone and clarinet respectively contribute vitally and in between the sixth and the eighth minute of the song, where the graceful melodies of the wind instruments converge, time freezes instantly.
Egg – Long Piece No. 3
Dave Stewart is an iconic figure of the keyboards for Canterbury and progressive rock in general. Egg was the only band in which he was unquestionably the leader and The Polite Force is, generally admitted, their best album. Long Piece No. 3 encompasses the entire second side and is toe-to-toe with the starter A Visit to Newport Hospital to claim the honour of the album’s best composition. The fact that it is divided in four parts does not affect particularly the song’s cohesiveness since the adventurous development and a number of rhythmic changes are trademarks of this tune. Egg were a trio, consisting of bass, drums and keyboards, a pattern that brings ELP immediately to mind. Nevertheless, abundant jazz influences via the Canterbury sound differentiate them to a great extent. In Long Piece No.3, the unconventional rhythmic patterns of Campbell and Brooks and the multiple changes they are going through, tickle the listener’s fancy. Yet, what really makes an impression is the tone of Stewart’s keyboards. Using Hammond organ, tone generator and orchestron (a variation of mellotron) pulls off to add colours to the composition. He starts from soft melodies, then moves on to more à la Keith Emerson themes and in the end he creates really heavy and fuzzy keyboard riffs, just like the one that bookends the song which sounds much too futuristic for its time. The gap of the guitar is skillfully filled, in some parts, by Mont Campbell, too. In conclusion, Long Piece No.3 is a typical example of a progressive rock tune, heavily immersed in the Canterbury atmosphere.
Caravan – Nine Feet Underground
There is not a single fan of progressive who can’t identify the cover that bedecks the third and top-notch album of Caravan, immersed in a Tolkien-ish grey and pink atmosphere. The troupe of Richard Coughlan, Pye Hastings, Richard Sinclair and David Sinclair gave birth in 1971 to one of the most important albums of progressive rock, paving the way for moulding the distinctive Canterbury sound.
The album’s B-Side was occupied by the suite Nine Feet Underground, which consists of eight parts and in spite of its 22-minute duration, it is one of the most well-liked tunes of the band up to this day. The song, which is an inspiration but it is also where the keyboardist David Sinclair really shines, is basically instrumental where only two sections include vocals sung by Pye Hastings (II. Love’s a Friend) and Richard Sinclair (VII. Disassociation). Even though I never managed to put my finger on the connection between the title and the – weirder even – subtitles, the melodies and the lyrics alike nod to a song where the man and the quest for personal happiness is the main theme. The playful, relaxed intro (I. Nigel Blows a Tune) segues smoothly into the second section which is one of the most feel-good parts that Caravan have ever written, whereas the penultimate part sung by Richard Sinclair is one of the most beautiful, bittersweet moments of the album, where the tangible is concurrently out-of-reach (There’s a place where I can go/ Where I listen to the wind singing…).
Supersister – Energy (Out Of Future)
A tentative opening that hardly keeps the rhythm so that wind instruments can build upon, till an orgiastic, but also mysterious, ending; everything in between, is a voyage on the sea foam of progressive rock. It is a fair description of the masterpiece of the Dutch Supersister, called Energy. It can be viewed as a typical example of the progressive sound, as well as of the -almost selfsame- Canterbury genre and it makes a claim on being tagged as a potential “video clip” of an entire era and scene. Indeed, the 16-minute epic of the North Europeans caters for everything: top-notch drum solos, melodic vocals, symphonic sections equal to Genesis’ highlights, even sarcastic moments that bring to mind their “colleagues” Gong.
Worthy representatives of an indeed vast scene, Supersister succeeded in putting together songs whose energy force has repercussions even to this day. Perhaps the most preposterous aspect of Energy is the way that it is bookended (“mysterious” we called it before). The last three minutes, ambient in primitive form one could say, sound as if they were online with Germany. Because of the geographic position of Holland maybe? Could be, let’s not forget the ever-present interaction between the Anglo-Saxon and European mainland philosophies. The eccentric, pretentious implementation of so many elements by Supersister, could be explained if we think of the quote “God made the Earth, but the Dutch made Holland”.
Moving Gelatine Plates – The World of Genius Hans
MGP, a four-piece band along with additional guests in organ and vocals contributed to the Canterbury scene with two excellent albums in the 70s, in a kind of extravagant way and managed to successfully establish their name into that fertile, UK-based, musical idiom. As the French avant-prog scene was flourishing by that time, MGP were a bright exception.
The album cover is a historical prog classic as it attributes to their sense of humor, along with the band’s name, a phrase that Coulon discovered while reading Steinbeck. Musically, the quartet achieves to combine the darkness of the experimental avant-garde and prog-fusion of that era in France with the playful spirit of the Canterbury scene. The World of Genius Hans stands out as an undoubted trademark of their sound. The tempos occasionally change creating a complex structure of alternating rhythms, yet resulting in a cohesive masterpiece. A tradeoff of musical experimentation and perfect arrangements is balancing successfully in a high musical level. Didier Thibault’s fuzzy bass is aggressive and along with the guitars, they do an excellent job delivering a flowing and at times groovy piece. Melodious and yet attacking, this masterpiece sounds like a delightful orgy for the initiated listener.
In retrospect, 45 years after its release, The World of Genius Hans is rightfully considered as one of the most inspired, challenging, exceptional, prog epics of the Canterbury scene, awaiting new enthusiasts among those many who have not heard it yet.
Pantheon – Orion
The historical injustices in progressive music are a common phenomenon that triggers the attention of those who follow it closely. No, Orion, the sole album of the Dutch Pantheon, does not belong to the cream of the crop of the Canterbury scene, yet its undisputed quality is, beyond any doubt, underestimated and most notably the title-track that encompasses the entire b-side of the vinyl and clocks in at over 19 rejoicing minutes. The relaxed, typical Canterbury intro driven by the saxophone and flute of Hans Boer is followed by choir vocals, resulting in one of my ever-favourite Canterbury melodies that kicks in the fourth minute, emanating from the keyboards of Ruud Woutersen, the band’s sole composer. After the sparse lyrics (of the song and the album) the tempo goes up in the middle-part and the quartet unleashes magnificently its technical skills in the most unpredictable and unrestrained part of the composition, before it goes back to the initial relaxed melody, bookending it ideally. The unusual, for the Canterbury standards, strict structure which borders on the symphonic prog style, is combined in a most charming way with the free jazz expression, as it happens also in the other album’s epic, the grandiose 11-minute Apocalyps.
Pantheon were a support act for Steve Miller Band, Mungo Jerry and of course their compatriots Focus and Solution, and then split up, leaving us a legacy of one album, still flying under the radar or being underestimated by the best part of those who love the Canterbury scene or Dutch prog. As the b-side plays again and again ad infinitum, you can’t help but realize that sometimes it’s so nice to belong to the minority…
Hatfield and the North – Mumps
Hatfield and the North incarnate the legacy of the Canterbury scene. The band consists of artists who were already pioneers and they were boiling progressive rock to more British fusion forms. The self-titled album, released in 1973, was indeed phenomenal, yet the follow-up surpassed it in terms of artistic and compositional skills, a true precious gem of the 70s progressive rock and one of the cream of the crop of Canterbury albums. Our engagement with the band will be confined in the 20-minute Mumps, the swan song of the British band since it is the concluding piece of The Rotters’ Club, the second and also the last full length album of Hatfield and the North, released in 1975.
It is a convoluted sonic structure divided in four parts draped in a jazz cloak -a style already appropriated by the bands of the specific scene- a pompous epic where the nods to In the Land of Grey and Pink, due to Richard Sinclair (Mumps might as well be juxtaposed with Caravan’s Nine Feet Underground, a composition by Hastings and Sinclair), escalate as the song rolls on. Its long duration not only fails to cause ennui to the listener, but on the contrary rivets them with its prudent pithiness, where the elegiac British progressive rock maturates via imperceptible prog/jazz forms. The recital of artistic genius differentiates any potential formalism: Mumps substantiates the cultured freedom, where the artist’s generosity becomes a reason for communing experience. A song of dazzling beauty and gushing prog aesthetic.
Steve Hillage – Solar Musick Suite
As a newbie, I made further research into the world of Canterbury thanks to the live appearance (which never took place) of Gong in Gagarin 205 live venue. Therefore, following up the majesty of Radio Gnome Invisible Part 1-2-3, I soon made my way to the first solo album of Steve Hillage. Fish Rising was born when Hillage figured out that he can’t fill Daevid Allen’s shoes as a lead singer, so he recorded his first album along with other Gong members. The epic Solar Musick Suite that opens it, leaves no doubt whatsoever about Hillage’s insightfulness and compositional perception. The distinctive style and the evolution of the Canterbury sound are evident all over the tune, since it blends the early psychedelic sounds (Dave Stewart is the driving wheel) with improvisational jazz parts, leaving room for Hillage to develop his ideas.
During its nearly 17 minutes, Hillage unfolds his guitar ingenuity which is accompanied by the spacey atmosphere weaved by Tim Blake’s synths and Dave Stewart’s organ. The song kicks off in a relaxed mood and gradually the tempo builds up, with Hillage as a man at the helm. In the second part (Canterbury Sunrise), things take a more spacey turn where the sound becomes richer and more psychedelic up to the third part Hiram Afterglid Meets the Dervish. The song reaches its peak at the 13th minute and finally goes back to its initial relaxed tempo where Hillage does the vocals, too.
Cos – L’ Idiot Leon
Even though they are pigeonholed as a Canterbury act, Cos flirt heavily with the mysticism of Magma, something that becomes plain in L’ Idiot Leon. While the sonic imprint clearly classifies the song into mid-seventies, yet the production, as well as the distinctive freshness that dominates the artistic style of Cos, reserves them effortlessly a slot on the current business scene, as a trend no less.
The superb voice of Pascale Son infuses a supreme childishness which is undoubtedly the reference point. Aside that, Daniel Schnell’s minimal guitaristic approach really shines throughout the ingenious arrangement, where the surreal, if anything, tale of the idiotic lion is being weaved through the interchanges of musical phrases over the jazzy, almost hypnotizing, drums and the bass which dictates in a low voice. Deprived of intense climaxes and the acid element, instead tinged with some gentle “nudges” in a sweet 11-minute (10:59) lullaby, it is unique in its kind.
Viva Boma of the Belgians Cos, which was released in 1976, is the album that when your hipster friend finds out, he will have no choice but quit everything and up his sticks and move to Alps to spend the rest of his life as a goat. L’ Idiot Leon is probably its top song.
Picchio Dal Pozzo – Seppia
The musical legacy of the Canterbury scene that flourished mainly in the early 70s could not be confined within the English borders. One of the most prominent non-English groups was the Italians Picchio Dal Pozzo, who gained some traction since symphonic prog had always been Italy’s main strength. In their stunning debut released in 1976, the ten-minute suite Seppia stands out, which is divided in three parts, Sottotitolo, Frescrofresco and Rusf. The quartet, with the invaluable contribution of six more guests, pulls off to combine beautifully jazz and psychedelia, a mixture that characterized the Canterbury sound, with avant-garde aesthetic. In the first two minutes we are gripped by a repeated melody on the keyboards, which is gradually accompanied by wind instruments, till a dark riff kicks in with trippy experimentations on the keyboards, percussions and vocals, all at the same time to get us into the prog world of the Italians for good. An abrupt change on the sixth minute of the composition, where the flute and the xylophone feature, is followed up by a beautiful guitar melody which, aided by reciting vocals and jazz horns and percussion, bookends in the most delicate way one of the top Canterbury pieces. It is worth mentioning that the whole album is of high standards and it is recommended without the slightest reservation.
National Health – Squarer For Maud
John Greaves made here his most substantial contribution in Of Queues And Cures as a member of National Health. Bringing his experience from his tenure at Henry Cow, he added the avant-prog element to counterbalance in a most artistic way the already existing dominance of the well-structured compositions (mainly Dave Stewart’s). Following a darker and less mathematical approach with regard to composition and philosophy, the musicians make full use of the free rein they are given, without setting much store by the scales and notes.
The basic ingredients are all present here: the dramatic climaxes in Phil Miller’s guitar playing, the passionate technical drumming of Pip Pyle and the abundant (as always) keyboards of Dave Stewart are but the basis. Time changes, shifts in moods and motifs, ample time for improvisations, a pause in the middle which allows Peter Blegvad to chip in with a strange monologue and an anarchic ending, where the special guests Georgie Born (Henry Cow), Jimmy Hastings (Caravan) and Keith Thompson take the rest of the band along with them to a spectacular deconstruction. When the sessions of Οf Queues and Cures were over, Georgie Born was convinced to remain in National Health and along with the addition of Lindsay Cooper, they turned the band into a sextet. Unfortunately, this line-up lasted only for a few rehearsals and a handful of gigs where this song was in pride of place, keeping the spirit of Henry Cow alive, so it is an educated guess for the listener to picture in their mind’s eye the live performance of this one: a feast for the ears!
Zyma – Businessman
A special Canterbury, outside Canterbury, case is the German band Zyma, hailing from the immediate vicinities of Heidelberg and Mannheim. Out of a rather poor haul, the twelve-minute masterpiece Businessman off Thoughts (1978) makes the cut. Spacey effects kick in for two minutes, setting the necessary atmosphere as an intro. The intense percussions come gradually to the fore, then it is the organ’s turn and along with the bass the company of instruments, which is the ring of authenticity of Canterbury sound in Zyma, is finally shaped. The accelerating rhythm section spawns the orgasmic environment, within which every instrument begins to solo. When the vocals come in some things start to fall into place and successive solos from the organ, the flute and the violin result in the ideal development where the aroma of jazz-rock has permeated for good. The band attempts to simplify things somehow and as the song rolls on to the tenth minute, it makes a short pit stop before the epilogue, where the original atmosphere of the intro is imposed once more. The solos are by now outstretched and the vocals sound melancholic as the end approaches. Businessman sounds initially as dime a dozen but it is the second listen that welcomes the listener on board, owing its Canterbury sound mainly to organ combined with a pile of jazz-rock elements. Stunning performing abilities, excellent teamwork and genuine free expression, bring a masterpiece into existence based on a rather simple structure; and this is, in essence, the most beloved trait of this band.