Rivmic Melodies & Radio Gnome Frequencies: a Pataphysical Introduction to the Canterbury Sound [DJ mix and Recommended Albums]

IMG_1968

In mid-60s Canterbury, a new sound was germinating that would combine musical complexity with psychedelic whimsy, jazz-inspired improvisation, and avant-garde production techniques, proving to be a cornerstone of progressive music for decades to come. Unlike the prog-rock bands developing 60 miles away in London, the Canterbury bands usually refrained from taking themselves too seriously, balancing out their instrumental chops with a sense of humor and an affinity for pop melodicism. Below I’ve posted a 100-minute vinyl mix that includes many of my favorite Canterbury tracks, a brief history of Soft Machine, and a list of 5 albums I recommend to explore this exciting sound.


Listen:

Tracklist:

Artist

Track

Album

The Soft Machine

Joy Of A Toy/Hope For Happiness (Reprise)

The Soft Machine

The Soft Machine

As Long As He Lies Perfectly Still

Volume Two

Gong

Gong Song

Magick Brother

Soft Machine

Moon in June

Third

Caravan

In The Land Of Grey & Pink

In The Land Of Grey & Pink

Kevin Ayers

Song of the Bottom of a Well

Whatevershebringswesing

Soft Machine

Neo-Caliban Grides/Out-Bloody-Rageous (Live, 1971)

Live at Henie Onstad Art Centre 1971

Matching Mole

God Song

Little Red Record

Hatfield and the North

The Stubbs Effect/Big Jobs/Going Up to People/Calyx (Suite)

Hatfield and the North

Gong

Flying Teapot/Wet Drum Sandwich (Live, 1973)

Live Au Bataclan 1973

Gong

I Never Glid Before

Angel’s Egg

Robert Wyatt

Alifib/Alife

Rock Bottom

Gong

Magick Mother Invocation/Master Builder

You

Hatfield and the North

Didn’t Matter Anyway

The Rotters’ Club


A Brief History of Soft Machine

Many of the primary culprits of the scene, including Robert Wyatt, Hugh Hopper, Dave Sinclair, and Kevin Ayers, originally met at a secondary grammar school where they shared their love for dadaist philosophy, jazz LPs, and playing music. One of the resulting bands was the unassuming rock group The Wilde Flowers founded in 1964, which would eventually splinter off Canterbury’s most pivotal groups, Soft Machine, Caravan, and Hatfield & the North.

Soft Machine remains the most well-known of the scene, getting their start playing psychedelic parties with Pink Floyd at London’s UFO Club. The first incarnation consisted of Canterbury natives Robert Wyatt (drums, vocals), Kevin Ayers (bass, vocals), and Mike Ratledge (keyboard, organ), as well as Daevid Allen (guitar), an Australian beatnik who was renting a room at Wyatt’s family home. Allen’s tenure didn’t last long, however; after a show in France, he was prevented from returning to England with the rest of the band because of his immigration status, and stayed in France where he began a commune with local musicians and started the spacey jazz-rock group, Gong. Yet the Softs continued on without a dedicated guitarist, something that makes Soft Machine’s music very interesting in retrospect; the fuzz-drenched organs took on the lead role in a time when guitar bands were dominating the music world.

In 1968, the Softs released their self-titled album, a whimsical psych-pop comparable to  The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, although with less of Floyd’s interstellar spaciness and more technical chops and jazz influences. Kevin Ayers, weary from a long US tour with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, soon left the group and started a progressive pop career of his own. He was replaced by former schoolmate Hugh Hopper, already a collaborator/friend with the group and a more accomplished bassist than Ayers. Volume Two followed shortly thereafter, incorporating more progressive structures, complexity, and avant-garde tendencies into Soft Machine’s sound.

With Robert Wyatt being the only remaining member with a love for playful eclecticism and pop vocals, Third (1970) was a much more serious affair. It brought adventurous jazz-rock and avant-garde editing techniques to the forefront of 3 side-long instrumental pieces, relegating Wyatt’s influence and vocals to Side C, consisting of a single composition, “Moon in June”, his last for the group. For the first half of the track, Wyatt performed most of the instruments himself in his creatively naive way (since the band refused to support his vocal indulgences), before a transitional tape-splice into a full-band jam. Wyatt was fired after Fourth (1971), the last classic Soft Machine album, as the band ventured into a straight-laced jazz fusion style and lost most of the spontaneous energy that gave them such a unique sound.

Getting fired was only the beginning for Wyatt though; he soon joined up with Dave Sinclair of Caravan and a few other local musicians to start the great (but short-lived) Matching Mole–a pun on the French translation of “Soft Machine”, Machine Molle. After falling multiple stories in a drunk accident, Wyatt was paralyzed from the waist down, losing his ability to drum. He took it in stride, however, claiming it was the best thing to ever happen to him, leading to his imaginative solo masterpiece, Rock Bottom. In the decades to come, he would continue his creative solo career, get heavily involved in communist and leftist activism, and become a widely sought out collaborator with everyone from Brian Eno to Björk.


5 Recommended Albums

  1. Soft Machine – Third
  2. Caravan – In the Land of Grey and Pink
  3. Gong – You
  4. Hatfield & The North – The Rotters’ Club
  5. Robert Wyatt – Rock Bottom

Recommended Sources

  1. O’Dair, Marcus. Different Every Time (The Authorized Biography of Robert Wyatt). 2014.
  2. 1973 Gong on French TV
  3. https://www.progdocs.com/rw-iii/

 

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