Canterbury Tales - Pilgrimage (originally posted 14/9/13)

By ProgBlog, Mar 28 2014 09:41PM

As part of my professional role I’d been to meetings at the Kent & Canterbury hospital in Ethelbert Road a few times before I undertook my first shopping trip to Canterbury in February 2007. Canterbury is a fascinating, compact city seeped in history and, being the centre for a prog sub-genre meant I had to seek out the music stores.

At the large Fopp store I asked a member of the sales staff if they had a “Canterbury” section. She looked at me blankly. I thought about providing her with a full explanation but instead I just suggested the names of Caravan, Soft Machine and Hatfield and the North as representative bands. I shouldn’t have bothered because in response I got a continued blank look. I had to settle for the two Syd Barrett studio albums that were on special offer: the Soft Machine line-up that recoded Two appears on Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs though they go uncredited. Fortunately for this prog rock pilgrim, there was a small record store in the indoor market on St Peters Street in the centre of the city, and not only did it have a Canterbury section, it had well informed staff with a close association to the genre. It’s a real shame but due to the economic slowdown neither this nor the Fopp store any longer exist.

My introduction to the Canterbury scene was hearing For Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night in 1974, a year or so after its release, when my brother Tony borrowed it from one of his school friends. The album title and gatefold sleeve are very representative of Caravan and their use of innuendo, so appealing to schoolboys of a certain age. The music was a bit of a mixed bag; sometimes jazzy and complex (L’Auberge Du Sanglier, C’thlu Thlu), almost always with a sense of humour (Memory Lain, Hugh; The Dog, The Dog, He’s At It Again) and sometimes disappointing (Surprise, Surprise.) It was quite likely that I was adversely influenced by the weaker tracks, though when I came across a cassette of Better by Far in a discount bin in the Tooting branch of Woolworths in 1981 I dutifully handed over my cash. On reflection I rather wish I hadn’t. Consequently I didn’t really start buying Caravan albums until 1983 after hearing Nine Feet Underground, David Sinclair’s 22 minute epic from In the Land of Grey and Pink on Alice’s Restaurant, a progressive rock radio station broadcast in the London area on Sunday mornings. I’d also heard some Soft Machine, probably Six, that Tony had borrowed from a friend, but at the time my tastes weren’t developed enough to appreciate their particular take on jazz-rock.

It’s important to point out that the scene does not relate to a geographical location, however bizarre that may seem, though Canterbury is where the seeds were sown. The Canterbury sound does in fact spread to northern France and the near continent where jazz sensibilities have allowed this music to flourish. It could be argued that there is a particular Canterbury sound that’s present in all bands associated with the genre; overdriven fuzz organ is prevalent throughout the output from Soft Machine (up until Bundles), Caravan, Matching Mole, Uriel, Egg, Khan, Steve Hillage, Hatfield and the North, and National Health though there are only three keyboard players responsible for this style: Mike Ratledge, David Sinclair and Dave Stewart. It could also be argued that Canterbury is a mind-set, with like-minded individuals seeking to work with each other because of their jazz influences.

I have a propensity for traits not necessarily essential for survival (unless the near future is going to consist of pub-quiz events based around prog rock questions, with the contestants fighting for their lives, a sort of prog Hunger Games); I regard myself as a bit of an anorak, seeking out odd facts about groups and the connections between groups. I like to digest every piece of information available, be it album sleeve or CD insert or an article in a music magazine. The insert from my vinyl edition of D.S. Al Coda by National Health details the musical career of Alan Gowen from 1971 when he joined Assegai until his death from leukaemia in 1981 and not only has it proved an invaluable source of information, revealing the almost incestuous nature of the Canterbury bands, it also shows how close these bands are to modern British jazz.

Bill Burford had been to see Caravan at Keele University during his student days (The Album tour, 1980) and frequently wore the T-shirt. This was a time of change for the band; they’d left behind their creative highs (In the Land of Grey and Pink, For Girls who Grow Plump in the Night) and by 1977 had released an album that some would regard as their low point (Better by Far). The Caravan sound was being influenced by what was happening in the musical world around them. It goes without saying that the musicianship was beyond question but I’ve always believed that Pye Hastings was a man for writing clever pop songs, not expansive progressive rock concepts. There had been a lack of compositional balance and subsequently there were hints of soft rock ballads and even disco, even with the return to the fold of keyboard player David Sinclair. The Album is generally regarded as their worst effort.

I’ve amassed a reasonable collection of Canterbury albums, from the pre-Egg Uriel to solo albums by Hugh Hopper but it wasn’t until 2011 that I managed to get to see a version of Caravan. They had just released a deluxe 40th anniversary edition of their best work, In the Land of Grey and Pink, and put together a short tour. The constantly changing line-up had settled though Richard Coughlan was too unwell to drum, so the band consisted of Pye Hastings, Geoff Richardson, Jan Schelhaas, Jim Leverton, with Mark Walker filling in on the drum stool. Pye Hastings had vocal problems, as though he was suffering from a cold or a sore throat, and consequently he sang out of tune for almost the entire set. There was a mixture of classics and more recent material but they probably should have stuck with the old songs which were much better received by a partisan audience than tracks from The Unauthorised Breakfast Item. This was a far cry from the Caravan live at the Fairfield Halls in 1974.

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