Prog Rock Sub-genres: Canterbury Scene

The Canterbury Scene is a term used to loosely describe the group of progressive rock, avant-garde and jazz musicians, many of whom were based around the city of Canterbury, Kent, England during the late 1960's and early 1970's. With many other types of English progressive music developing mostly in London, it may at first seem strange that the old pilgrimage centre and relatively quiet cathedral city of Canterbury, became the centre of this very English form of progressive music and jazz fusion. Originally The Wilde Flowers, a teenage band of members living in and around Canterbury, playing a mix of pop, R'n'B and band members with a developing love of jazz, was formed in the 60's and became the seedling from which the Canterbury Scene grew. Australian Daevid Allen during a long stop-over at Robert Wyatt's parent's home, a refuge for many artists, was to catalyse the evolution of The Wilde Flowers into the fledging Soft Machine and the development of some avant music during the English psychedelic and underground period. From 1963 to 1969, The Wilde Flowers included most of the figures who later formed Canterbury's two best known bands, Soft Machine (Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers, Hugh Hopper) and Caravan (Pye Hastings, David Sinclair, Richard Sinclair, Richard Coughlan). Many prominent British avant-garde or fusion musicians began their career in Canterbury bands, such as Steve Hillage, Dave Stewart (the keyboardist), Mike Ratledge, Fred Frith, and Peter Blegvad. Over the years, with band membership changes and new bands evolving, the term Canterbury Scene has been used to describe a musical style, a prog rock subgenre, rather than a regional group of musicians. 


The Canterbury Scene is largely defined by a set of musicians and bands with intertwined memberships. These are not tied by very strong musical similarities, but a certain whimsicality, touches of psychedelia, rather abstruse lyrics, and a use of improvisation derived from jazz are common elements in their work. “The real essence of Canterbury sound is the tension between complicated harmonies, extended improvisations, and the sincere desire to write catchy pop songs. In the very best Canterbury music, the musically silly and the musically serious are juxtaposed in an amusing and endearing way.” There is variation within the scene, for example from pop/rock like early Soft Machine and much Caravan to avant-garde composed pieces as with early National Health to improvised jazz as with later Soft Machine or In Cahoots. Didier Malherbe (of Gong) has defined the scene as having "certain chord changes, in particular the use of minor second chords, certain harmonic combinations, a great clarity in the aesthetics, and a way of improvising that is very different from what is done in jazz." Many musicians never had anything to do with Canterbury, the place. However, Hugh Hopper's family lived in the city and The Wilde Flowers did play many of their early gigs in Canterbury, notably at the Beehive Club, in Dover Street, and the city's various colleges. It was at a Students Union-organised event at Canterbury Technical College that Soft Machine gigged with Pink Floyd twice, before and after Floyd were signed to a record deal. And it was in a house in Whitstable (within the Canterbury City Council area) that Caravan went into rehearsal for some months before moving to London and a recording contract.


The genesis of the Canterbury sound may, in part, be traced back to 1960, when Australian beatnik Daevid Allen lodged at Robert Wyatt's parents' guest-house in Lydden, ten miles to the south of Canterbury. Allen brought with him an extensive collection of jazz records, a different lifestyle, and the jazz drummer George Niedorf who later taught Wyatt the drums. In 1963, Wyatt, Allen and Hugh Hopper formed the Daevid Allen Trio (in London) which metamorphosised into The Wilde Flowers -formed in 1964 which never released a record during their existence- when Allen left for France. The Canterbury scene had one main root in The Wilde Flowers which at various times, was home to most of the founding musicians of both The Soft Machine and Caravan, bands which in turn provided the musicians of several later bands, such as Hatfield and The North and National Health. 

The Wilde Flowers-Those words they say

Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers, Hugh Hopper (from The Wilde Flowers) and Mike Ratledge (who had played on occasion with the Daevid Allen Trio) formed The Soft Machine in 1966.

The Soft Machine-Save yourself (1968)

The Wilde Flowers survived, however, led by Pye Hastings, often joined by his brother Jimmy who guested with Wilde Flowers and Caravan when not busy with his other, jazz, engagements. From this second Wilde Flowers incarnation was born the band Caravan. Its initial line-up was: Pye Hastings (vocals, lead guitar), Richard Sinclair (bass), David Sinclair (keyboards) and Richard Coughlan (drums). Although enjoying success in the UK, holding their own with respectable album sales, they really came into their own in mainland Europe, particularly France, Holland and Germany, where they achieved star status in the 1970's and played some of those countries' largest and most prestigious venues. They went quiet during the 1980's, but Caravan reappeared, still led by Hastings, in the 1990's and were gigging into the 2000's, at home and abroad, including in the US.

Caravan-If I could do it all over again, I'd do it all over you (1970)

Other key early bands were Delivery and Egg, whose members blended into the Canterbury scene in the early 1970's. For example, Phil Miller of Delivery went on to found Matching Mole with Robert Wyatt, and Hatfield and the North with Dave Stewart of Egg. Both were later in National Health, while Steve Hillage, who dropped out of a degree course at the University of Kent at Canterbury, had worked with the members of Egg in a previous band, Uriel and he was later in Gong with Allen.

Egg-Contrasong (1971)

The Canterbury Scene is known for having a set of musicians who often rotated into different Canterbury bands. Richard Sinclair, for example, was at different points of his career, in The Wilde Flowers, Camel, Caravan, Hatfield and the North and, briefly, Gilgamesh; he also worked with National Health. His cousin Dave Sinclair was in Caravan, Camel, Matching Mole and, briefly, Hatfield and the North. Robert Wyatt was a member of The Wilde Flowers, The Soft Machine, Matching Mole, and also did work as a solo artist. The late Pip Pyle was in Delivery, Gong, Hatfield and the North, National Health, Soft Heap and In Cahoots. Hugh Hopper was in The Soft Machine, Isotope, Soft Heap, In Cahoots and, with Pyle and Allen, Brainville, as well as doing numerous of his own group and solo projects and working with non-Canterbury bands. Multi-instrumentalist Mike Oldfield started his professional career in Kevin Ayers' band The Whole World in 1970 as the bass and lead guitarist; some musicians of the Canterbury Scene contributed to Oldfield's mid-1970's solo output, such as Lindsay Cooper (on Tubular Bells and Hergest Ridge) and Steve Hillage, Mike Ratledge and Fred Frith (in a 1974 BBC live performance of extracts from Tubular Bells). Other individuals peripheral to the scene but with connections include: Bill Bruford from Yes and King Crimson (briefly drummed in Gong and National Health and employed Dave Stewart in his late 1970's band, Bruford), Allan Holdsworth (who worked with The Soft Machine, Gong in their jazz rock period, and the Bruford band, which played a style of jazz fusion heavily influenced by Canterbury Scene artists) and Andy Summers (who was briefly a member of The Soft Machine, and also worked separately with Kevin Ayers). Lady June has been regarded an honorary member of the Canterbury Scene for having performed and recorded with some of the members, and being a landlady to many in her flat in Maida Vale, London.

The Soft Machine-Why are we sleeping? (1968)

Canterbury was the cradle for several of the more freewheeling British bands of the post-psychedelic era. Fans would suggest this is the home of an English musical quirkiness tempered with quite a bit of whimsy. Most bands will be found employing a clever fusion of rock rhythms and jazz improvisation with intellectual song-writing and varying strengths of psychedelia; some would too include folk elements (e.g. Spirogyra), others blues (e.g. Carol Grimes and Delivery). In addition, a number of bands employed various elements from classical music, for instance those bands with Dave Stewart playing keyboards. Whilst there have been a handful of excellent and distinctly different guitarists to play with Canterbury bands (e.g. Andy Summers, Allan Holdsworth, John Etheridge, Steve Hillage, Phil Miller), the lead instrument of choice has been keyboards. One English peculiarity of Canterbury is what the late John Peel called the "School of Anti-song" because of particular Wyatt, Ayers and Richard Sinclair's approaches to vocals and perhaps the whimsy. More recently Richard Sinclair's vocal style has perhaps accurately been labelled as "English jazz singing" by Jazzwise (i.e. singing jazz with an English rather than the usual American accent). In addition Canterbury musicians have experimented as avant garde, free jazz players, e.g. instance Elton Dean, Lol Coxhill, Steve Miller.

Caravan-In the land of grey and pink (1971)

Both The Soft Machine and Caravan were popular in England's psychedelic/underground scene before releasing their first albums in 1968. However, by the early 70's a series of fragmenting changes of bands' line-ups, (Soft Machine went through about 30) and the subsequent formation of new bands, rapidly broadened Canterbury's range, with many newer musicians with only loose and in fact, no previous Canterbury connections. Early Soft Machine member Daevid Allen formed Gong in Paris

Gong-Perfect mystery (1974)

Both Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt left The Soft Machine because of musical developments they did not like, to begin their own solo careers. By the mid-70's, most the old and new Canterbury bands had progressed away from psychedelia, developing their distinct forms of progressive rock some embracing jazz fusion, many playing extended jams with now limited lyrical input, like Hatfield and The North, National Health and Gilgamesh. Caravan became more folky. 

Hatfield and The North-Share it (1975)

National Health-The collapso (1978)

However, as the 70's progressed several Canterbury bands would lose most of the rock element from their music. Gong retained their psychedelic side longest, but with the departure of Daevid Allen and Steve Hillage in the mid 70's, the band evolved into the percussion-oriented, jazz rock group Gong, which eventually became the modern day Gongzilla. Daevid Allen regained Gong's name in the 90's and through his solo work and with his University of Errors, is still evidently producing psychedelia. Steve Hillage's form of psychedelia evolved into the glissando rock of his own band and then into electronica, by the end of the 70's. In particular, Hillage through his work as a successful record producer of new bands from the 80's, developed his form of electronica through other bands. This music lost much of its complexity e.g. few riffs played over and over, rather than dozens per tune that previously had often typified prog, into a very popular form that is the antithesis of prog, i.e. the various forms of house music, with associated remixing/turntablism. For instance, Gong's "You" got the remix treatment in the 90's, but then to reflect his range of activities, Hillage has also produced and played guitar for Algerian Rai singer, Rachid Taha for over 20 years. Many of Britain's better known avant-garde and fusion musicians of the 70's and 80's -including Fred Frith (Henry Cow), Allan Holdsworth (Gong, Soft Machine, UK, Bruford) and Peter Blegvad were involved during their early careers playing in Canterbury bands. And still new musicians join the Canterbury Scene's ranks, Theo Travis being perhaps the most notable recently (Gong, The Soft Machine Legacy). The Canterbury Scene was to have a major influence on musicians in Europe, especially France (e.g. Gong, Moving Gelatine Plates), the Netherlands (Supersister) and Italy (Daedalus), and more belatedly in the USA (Hughscore). Caravan reformed in the mid 90's, while ex-members of The Soft Machine could be found in various avant jazz and straight jazz fusion groups, e.g. Just Us, Soft Heap, Soft Works and most recently The Soft Machine Legacy. From the Canterbury Scene, Rock in Opposition (RIO) in its various forms has developed.

Supersister-A girl named You (1971)