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
The Soft Machine-Save yourself (1968)
Caravan-If I could do it all over again, I'd do it all over you (1970)
The Soft Machine-Why are we sleeping? (1968)
Caravan-In the land of grey and pink (1971)
Gong-Perfect mystery (1974)
Hatfield and The North-Share it (1975)
Supersister-A girl named You (1971)