Canterbury Scene: The Basics

By: Andrew Mills (DJ Captain Cozy)

To understand the “Canterbury Scene” it is important to look at where it started. In Canterbury in the early 60s, a psychedelic pop rock group was formed under the name The Wilde Flowers. In London, a jazz rock group was also formed under the name The Daevid Allen Trio. While neither of these bands have high quality recordings of their work today, their members would go on to form a series of assorted virtuosic hippie supergroups in the late 60s and early 70s that all shared in a very distinct “Canterbury Sound”. Some commonly recognized members of the scene include Steve Hillage, Robert Wyatt, Daevid Allen, Hugh and Brian Hopper, Dave and Richard Sinclair, Kevin Ayers, and Mike Ratledge, although there are many other members as well. It should also be noted that the Canterbury Scene does not necessarily refer exclusively to the geographic location of Canterbury, but more specifically to the distinct sound of the scene that its original members developed while playing in each other’s bands. If a band carries this trademark sound, it can oftentimes be considered “Canterbury Scene” despite having no relation to the original scene itself.

The trademark Canterbury Sound is best understood by putting it into context. At its origins, the Canterbury Scene emerged during a key developing point in rock music; in the midst of 60s psychedelic rock experimentation, but also before the common motifs of 70s progressive rock had really taken hold. This influence, combined with the supreme talent of its members, allowed the scene to be a breeding ground for some of the greatest rock music ever made. Bands within the Canterbury Scene combined psychedelic rock, jazz, progressive rock, and pop with an added heavy dose of avant experimentation thrown in. Of course, it is a very wide scene so each band you listen to from the Canterbury Scene will have a varying degree of influence from each of these genres. Another key element of the scene is the underlying mood. Bands within the scene often combine absurdly complex jazz and rock instrumentation with more straightforward catchy pop sections that meld into an interesting juxtaposition. This, alongside the whimsical lyrics, create the wonderful “Canterbury Sound”. This seeming self awareness and lightheartedness in lyrics, even during mind numbingly complex performances, set this scene apart from their contemporaries in progressive rock music who often gave off a far more pretentious aire. With all that being said, you really just have to dig into the Canterbury Scene to understand what makes it so special.

Due to how diverse the scene is, you may not know if it is for you, or perhaps you simply don’t know where to start. The great thing about the Canterbury Scene combining so many different genres around a central sound is that each album you listen to will be a melting pot of different influences. Within this melting pot, there is guaranteed to be something within each album that you love, but there are also other elements present which add an interesting spice. Due to the frequent experimentation in the Canterbury Scene, you could also call this melting pot a kind of witches’ cauldron which produces fantastic new creations and sounds for the listener. Additionally, a great feature of the Canterbury Scene is the lineup of the performers behind it all. The sheer talent within each musician is a treat all on its own, both with their instruments and song writing capabilities. On top of this, each band often swaps between their members so if you like the guitar/drums/keys on one album, there are many more albums to check out with that same style. No matter what you are into, there is something in the Canterbury Scene for you, but you just need to know where to start. As mentioned before, each band has their own recognizable sound, so it’s best to get into the scene with a band that plays in a style you already enjoy. Without further ado, let’s dive in.

For the Hippies

If you enjoy 60s pop music, listen to In the Land of Grey and Pink by Caravan. This album carries a breezy pop verve with occasional uplifting fuzzy solos thrown in at just the right moments, making it the perfect pastoral hippie album. Listening to the title track, “In the Land of Grey and Pink”, makes you feel like you are out picnicking on a sunny England day underneath the shade of a giant mushroom. If you enjoy the organ/mellotron/piano by Dave Sinclair, you can also find him on Matching Mole’s self titled album, another great Canterbury Scene release. If you enjoy the bass or vocals, I would recommend checking out any album by Hatfield and the North where you can find Richard Sinclair performing in a more jazzy context.

If you are more into Doors-esque psychedelic rock, check out The Soft Machine by Soft Machine. The Soft Machine contains a perfect mix of 60s psych rock and explosive experimentation. While the line up of the band has changed significantly over the years, you have an absolutely legendary lineup on the first album with Robert Wyatt (drums, vocals), Mike Ratledge (keys), Kevin Ayers (bass, vocals) and Hugh Hopper (bass). Here you see the full force of every member on display in an onslaught of non-stop frantic improv performances plastered over the backdrop of psychedelic pop songs. The first track “Hope for Happiness” sets the scene for the album by assembling a hodge podge of 60s pop sensibilities accented by torrential hazy freakouts. Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt both have their own solo projects as well which feature assorted members of the Canterbury Scene, so I would recommend those if you enjoy Soft Machine. Overall, this is one of the best Canterbury albums and a perfect point of introduction.

For the Rockers

If you enjoy Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath, I would recommend Arzachel by Arzachel. Arzachel is one of the heavier and darker Canterbury Scene albums, but it still maintains the tenderness of the Canterbury Scene underneath it all. The album presents you with melodic rock hymns that trail off into dense roaring solos and psychedelic breakdowns. This album has a mean bite, but with a blazing astral finish. Arzachel also went on to become the band Egg, which features every member of Arzachel, without Steve Hillage. Egg is another band to check out if you want something more on the progressive rock side of things.

 If you are a fan of King Crimson and Pink Floyd, then you should check out Fish Rising by Steve Hillage. Here you have Steve Hillage, the man responsible for the gnarly riffs on Arzachel, fronting a progressive rock band that kicks out some really fantastic spacey jams. The band moves between dreamy expenses into frenzied sweeping grooves, all with some science fiction-esque synths for a stellar atmosphere throughout the experience. You should be warned that this album can be a little bit weird if you are just getting into the scene, the whole thing sounds like Genesis being sent through a kaleidoscope on the surface of the moon. This album showcases what the Canterbury Scene is all about.

For the Cool Cats

If you are more interested in jazz, there are numerous Canterbury Scene bands that you can jump into. While the jazz influence is pervasive in all Canterbury Scene bands, Hatfield and the North is the most straight forward jazz rock band. Hatfield and the North by Hatfield and the North has a load of personality with a smooth and playful atmosphere. Under this eclectic carefree aura, there also lies a mysterious and almost sinister undertone. This album presents you with a mild taste of how the Canterbury Scene experiments with composition, particularly when drawing from jazz.

Of Queues and Cures by National Health, on the other hand, is more rock oriented and it allows you to appreciate the technical aspects of Canterbury musicians and composers. If you like Frank Zappa style jazz rock, this is a great album to get into. This is a great gateway into the scene because you are able to hear the complex progressive rock style that most Canterbury Scene bands use, but the jazz elements are still present to help ease you in. This is a great album if you enjoy faster complex rock with loads of jazz elements.

For the Hipsters

If you are more into artsy singer/songwriter rock artists like Lou Reed, John Cale, or Syd Barrett, I would recommend Joy of a Toy by Kevin Ayers. This album is amazing because it is warm and comforting while also being intentionally absurd at times. Though not as dense as other Canterbury projects, it features delicate well crafted songwriting that is accessible to all. It is also fitting that Kevin Ayers takes a more baroque classical approach to instrumentation as opposed to the jazzier sound that most Canterbury bands use. Ayers guides you through his songs in a deep imperfect baritone voice with all sorts of curious lyrics that provide a subtle comic tone to the album. Emotionally, the album has a cozy vaudeville feeling that is difficult to find anywhere else. While this album may not be entirely representative of the Canterbury Scene, it’s zany approach gives you a healthy taste of the ethos common within many other bands in the scene.

For the Wizards

Ok, maybe all of that bores you. Perhaps you just want things to get as weird as possible. That’s ok, because you haven’t heard the far fringes of Canterbury yet. If you are here for the real power of the Canterbury Scene, the real sonic psychedelia, there are multiple albums still left to explore. If you want to hear cosmic fairy tales as told by a group of extremely talented musicians who (literally) dress like gnomes, check out The Flying Teapot by Gong. This album is best described as jazzy rock for magic interdimensional pixies. It’s undeniably groovy, but that groove is coupled with delirious tangents and ethereal drones that make this listen a verifiable journey into the wacky world of Gong. Gong is definitely the most fun and quirky band in the Canterbury Scene, but you truly have to be prepared for its unrelenting strangeness to enjoy it. Flying Teapot is also the first album in the “Radio Gnome Invisible Trilogy”, so I also recommend both subsequent albums Angel’s Egg and You along with this one. While Gong is definitely considered a part of the Canterbury Scene, the band was formed by Daevid Allen in France, far from the other common members, so you won’t see your usual Canterbury lineup on any of the Radio Gnome Invisible Trilogy apart from Daevid Allen himself and Steve Hillage. If you enjoy all of those albums, Gong also has countless offshoot bands that you can check out as well. Gong is, without a doubt, my all time personal favorite Canterbury Scene band.

For those of you who want the most technically complex album in the Canterbury Scene, listen to Third by Soft Machine. Third is a cohesive masterwork of experimental rock that shows both compositional artisanship and improvisational mastery. The album contains four tracks, each at a length of about 20 minutes. These tracks allow each musician to showcase their own personality via improvisation around various Canterbury-esque musical ideas. The album takes jagged twists and turns into uncommon time signatures and bizarre harmonic combinations all while able to maintain a sense of cohesion. The third track, “Moon in June”, the only track to feature vocals, takes interesting pop melodies and rearranges them into ambitious cryptic tirades of sound that could only be accomplished by the musical geniuses of the Canterbury Scene. This is the Canterbury Scene at its most aspiring height.

The final album I can recommend to you is Rock Bottom by Robert Wyatt. While this album is a large departure from the Canterbury Scene in terms of sound, being that it is the solo project of Robert Wyatt, a true Canterbury veteran, it earns its place as being a part of the Canterbury Scene conversation. In addition to Wyatt, other Canterbury Scene members make an appearance on this album including Richard Sinclair, Hugh Hopper, and Laurie Allen. This album is unlike any other album you will hear. On Rock Bottom, you experience extremely advanced songwriting that appears to be perfectly wrong in all the right places. The album is both unsettling and hypnotizingly compelling. The phantom-like instrumentation ventures into uncharted emotional territory that revels in a gloomy ambiguity. This foreign sound does not wander carelessly, but rather the whole album feels perfectly direct and exacting in its execution. On the album you will also hear Wyatt’s vocals, composed of abstract poetry, go from longing wailing to wistful crooning and even to breathy rhythmic chanting. This album is not for the faint of heart, and it may require many listens to fully wrap your head around, but those who do will be greatly rewarded. Definitely check this out for something weird.

Further listening

I only have mentioned just a few of the many Canterbury bands. There are endless projects, not only from each of the more recognized members, but also from numerous acts around the world who have adopted a similar sound. Some international acts associated with the Canterbury Sound include Supersister, Moving Gelatine Plates, Henry Cow, Picchio dal Pozzo, and Cos, although there are many more. The albums previously mentioned are great introduction points, as such, I would definitely recommend checking out some other albums from these bands or looking at other projects that each of the members have participated in if you enjoy any of these albums. The Canterbury Scene is truly amazing and I wish you all some groovy listening.

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