The third DVD in film-makers’ Adele Schmidt and José Zegarra Holder’s Romantic Warriors documentary series shining the spotlight on progressive rock in all its many forms focuses on the sub-genre named after the cathedral city in Kent, England, where it originated.
Canterbury was that city and The Wilde Flowers were the near-mythical and sadly unsigned band from which it all started, featuring as it did future members of The Soft Machine and Caravan in its line up, as well as one Kevin Ayers. Logically enough, this is where the film starts its highly enjoyable two-hour exploration of the labyrinthine growth of the Canterbury tree from those small beginnings.
One of the members of The Wilde Flowers was Robert Wyatt, a central figure in the story who for whatever reason is not included in the long list of contemporary interviewees, which is a shame. Another figure who was a key member of several bands associated with the Canterbury scene was keyboard player Dave Stewart, another absentee as far as interviews go, and one of his bands was Egg, whose bass player Mont Campbell seems somewhat bemused by their inclusion in the genre – “We (Egg) were lumped together with Soft Machine, Caravan, and Spyrogyra. We were four completely different bands who had nothing in common”. Well, Mont, you could argue that a shared desire to push a jazz-flavoured envelope might be a link. Granted, the “Canterbury” label was a convenient journalistic catch-all that however came to define an adventurous style of rock music that, to a greater or lesser extent exhibited a jazz influence, and it is one of the more enduring pigeonholes from that heady time in the late 60s and early 70s when the underground music maxim was “anything goes”.
In these hard-bitten times of neo-liberal capitalistic excess it is sometimes hard to grasp (or remember, if you’re old enough) the childlike commercial naivety of the artists of that post-hippy age, and one of the earliest comments in the film, from Matching Mole’s Bill MacCormick is “Where’s the bloody money? Someone must have had a good time with it, it certainly wasn’t me!” A common complaint from musicians of all types right up to the late 80s one suspects.
Winding through the film like a zesty lemon drizzle in a layer cake are the impishly humorous asides from the sadly recently departed Daevid Allen, whose enforced stay in France after being refused re-entry into the UK after a Soft Machine tour led to the formation of those pothead pixies Gong on the other side of La Manche, thereby sowing the seeds for the expansion of the Canterbury scene on the continent. Indeed, bands like Soft Machine made far more money touring in Europe than they ever did in their homeland. And so we have the French band Moving Gelatine Plates, Supersister in The Netherlands, and others who took the psychedelic jazz rock sounds of the UK groups and fused them to their own native influence. Strangely, no mention is made of the Italian variant of Canterbury, with bands such as Picchio dal Pozzo being as important to the scene as Supersister – in my mind at any rate.
The film is interspersed with interviews with contemporary commentators such as Aymeric Leroy, and Moonjune’s Leonardo Pavkovic, and with musicians such as Dave Sinclair, Richard Sinclair, Phil Miller, Bill MacCormick and many others that serve to form a connected narrative which works very well. The storyboarding is a success, with the progress of the documentary being mostly chronologically linear, the early inclusion of relatively modern French band Forgas Band Phenomena being one diversion from the formula that slightly jars, whereas the stories of Gong, Caravan and Soft Machine, popping up in various places, works just fine, as they are the threads that holds it all together. Soft Machine are still going today as Soft Machine Legacy, and interestingly they have now dropped the “Legacy” appendage from recent live shows and quite rightly are now just “Soft Machine” again. Whether or not Gong continue without their reluctant leader is a question for another time, and Caravan are still a functioning unit.
Apparently Geoffrey Richardson’s inclusion in Caravan caused some rumblings amongst the fans back in the day, surprised at the sudden inclusion of a strings player. They needn’t have worried, for the first album from that line up, 1973’s For Girls Who Grow Plump In The Night was a great artistic and commercial success. In my mind it was the best album the band released.
Hatfield And The North were heralded at the time as a kind of Canterbury supergroup, including as they did Dave Stewart (Egg), Richard Sinclair (Caravan), Pip Pyle (Gong) and Phil Miller (Matching Mole) in their line up. There’s a great clip of a guesting Robert Wyatt duetting with Richard Sinclair on a Hatfield’s song which I must find in full on YouTube!
Mont Campbell explaining the British class obsession of the time, highlighting the difference between working class bands like The Who and the Hatfields, with the latter’s fixation on middle class Pythoneseque humour is no doubt necessary for non-British audiences and will make us Brits smile knowingly. Let’s face it Pete Townshend could never have written a tune called Going Up To People And Tinkling!
And so we progress through Gilgamesh, National Health (guess who plays keyboards?!), all the major players in the scene get their few minutes, and we are brought up to date firstly with Spanish band Planeta Imaginario, who are the only group featured I’ve not come across before. They sound like they need investigating, too! The superb Belgian band The Wrong Object are featured and their guitarist and leader Michel Delville succinctly explains the influence the original Canterbury bands had on his group’s music.
Back in the UK, and in Canterbury no less, we have our very own Syd Arthur, who go right back to the first Caravan album for their sonic starting point, taking the jazz-psychedelic influence to another place in the modern age. Fittingly we get a clip of Caravan performing at the 2012 RIO festival in Carmaux, France, still playing their instantly recognisable English whimsy with panache, held together over all those years by the glue that is Pye Hastings. “Good old Pye, long may he live” as Geoffrey Richardson lovingly says.
America’s sole representative on the film is The Muffins, who credit Daevid Allen with being the catalyst behind the 1978 New York “Zu” festival that brought together the European and American Canterbury cultures. The Muffins were one of the American bands on that bill.
The modern audience for the Canterbury sound is as enthusiastic as it ever was, and Supersister’s Robert Jan Stips is quite taken aback by the emotional response of an audience at a reunion gig, not realising the enduring popularity of his band. This is the case for the whole scene, the audience is still there and attracting new members all the time, something Romantic Warriors III – Canterbury Tales can only assist with.
For the uninitiated, this well assembled documentary is a great introduction to a musical byway that you will have many hours of enjoyment exploring. If, like me you are a long-term Canterbury devotee, the film is a great reminder of some wonderful music you may not have played in a while…right, where’s that Quiet Sun album…
Record Label: Zeitgeist Media
Year Of Release: 2015
Total time: 118 minutes
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