Exhaustive round-up of Robert Wyatt and Kevin Ayers' Canterbury Scene precursors
Take almost any iconic British musician of the late ’60s or early ’70s, and a failed group lurks in their past. Bryan Ferry had the Gas Board, for example, and David Gilmour his Jokers Wild; even David Bowie tried his hand in The Lower Third, The Konrads and The King Bees.
But one such group, The Wilde Flowers, who floundered quietly in Canterbury in the mid-’60s, not only spawned a whole batch of England’s finest songwriters and musicians, but an entire genre – the Canterbury Scene, made up of jazz-tinged, psychedelically playful outfits such as Soft Machine, Caravan, Matching Mole and Hatfield And The North, and solo artists like Robert Wyatt and Kevin Ayers.
During their existence from 1964 to ’68, The Wilde Flowers were heard by very few. They released no songs, and received little attention outside east Kent, but owing to their members’ later successes, what they did record was compiled and released in 1994. With that now long out of print, here the insightful roots of the Canterbury Scene are remastered and packaged with a second disc of previously unreleased tracks.
The Wilde Flowers’ surviving material stems from various unearthed sessions, often taped from the acetates by the band’s longest-running member Brian Hopper. Robert Wyatt takes lead on most of these: when the drummer begins singing on “He’s Bad For You”, recorded in Sellindge, Kent, in 1965, his reedy tones are immediately recognisable as the man who would later create the masterful Rock Bottom. Kevin Ayers helms two songs: Booker White’s swinging “Parchman Farm” is fun, though hardly essential, but Ayers’ own “She’s Gone” is much more interesting, its grimy chugging reminiscent of The Velvet Underground’s early material. Soon, however, the charismatic frontman would flit to the Balearics, something he seemed to be fond of doing throughout his career whenever anything got too staid.
For a group who all involved admit were primarily a “dance band”, the sheer weirdness of some of the cuts here is a surprise, with “He’s Bad For You” predicting the spindly, grey-scale sound of post-punks like The Raincoats. Meanwhile, freakbeat cuts “Those Words They Say” and “No Game When You Lose”, both recorded at Woot Steinhuis’ Broadstairs studio in early 1966, today recall the work of another Kent maverick, Billy Childish. Their modal melodies, out-there guitar solos and melancholic moods were at right angles to most mid-’60s British rock, but would have fitted well alongside some of the selections on Nuggets. Before the dawn of psychedelia, while The Beatles were still singing about paperback writers and “Tomorrow Never Knows” was yet to be heard, it’s hard to imagine songs like these going down well at the sort of gigs The Wilde Flowers played in sleepy Canterbury venues like the Beehive.
This stranger side of The Wilde Flowers’ music, which would of course find fuller expression later on, was testament in part to the band members’ sophisticated tastes. Rather than being into the trad jazz popular in the late ’50s and early ’60s – even Pete Townshend and John Entwistle first met in such a group, The Confederates – the Flowers bonded over their passions for the likes of Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus and Cecil Taylor, just some of the acts introduced to them by Wyatt’s half-brother, Mark Ellidge, and Daevid Allen, the Australian Beatnik and future Gong leader lodging at Wyatt’s parents’ house. Inspired by the Beats and free jazz, Allen enlisted Wyatt – who had been taught drums by the Californian jazz player George Neidorf – and his friend Hugh Hopper for the experimental Daevid Allen Trio in 1963, before The Wilde Flowers formed; a pretty out-there experience for two Canterbury teenagers.
Despite these experimental beginnings, some of The Wilde Flowers’ finest songs were their most contemplative. Hugh Hopper’s fine “Memories” appears three times here in various guises, and in many ways is the ur-text for the entire Canterbury Scene. The tempo is slow, the beat lightly swinging, as Wyatt’s voice flits plaintively above the shifting chords. “I know I cannot leave this place,” he sings, “full of memories… Memories, can hang you up/And haunt you all your life, you know.” Disc One ends with an alternate version recorded in August 1969, with Soft Machine organist Mike Ratledge supplying skilful, Bill Evans-esque piano. Its funereal mood is strangely not unlike something from Wyatt’s last album, 2007’s Comicopera.
Hopper also contributed another highlight to the Flowers’ canon, with “Impotence”, co-written with Wyatt. Again only captured properly in August 1969 at London’s Regent Sound Studios, it’s a bouncing, minor-chord delight. “I can’t stand the pain of the tension between your wet eyes and mine,” wails Wyatt. “It’s like something obscene.”
Disc Two provides a glimpse into the myriad contemporaneous outlets of the Flowers. “Slow Walkin’ Talk” is performed by Robert Wyatt and one of his ‘friends’ in the US in 1968, most likely Jimi Hendrix, while versions of “The Pieman Cometh” and “Hope For Happiness” date from a 2003 session by Wyatt and Brian Hopper. Most interesting, perhaps, are a number of duo performances from 1962 and ’63, featuring Brian Hopper and Wyatt on the experimental “Mummie” and “Orientasian”, and Wyatt and Mike Ratledge on “Frenetica”, complete with suitably jagged free jazz drums and piano. The pair’s take on Gershwin’s “Summertime” is also a beautiful miniature, Wyatt restricting himself mostly to cymbals as the tempo bends and warps.
Not long after moving from the drums to take up vocals full-time in 1966, Wyatt would leave the band and hook up with Ayers and Daevid Allen to form Soft Machine. By the middle of 1967, Brian Hopper had left the band to form Zobe (and later become an agricultural scientist), and the rest of the latter-day Flowers, including Pye Hastings on guitar and Richard Coughlan on drums, formed Caravan.
Though the band had ended, their bonds would remain. With Soft Machine on tour in America in 1968, Caravan used their friends’ equipment to record their debut, while some of the highlights of the former’s debut album were written by Brian Hopper. Meanwhile, his brother Hugh’s “Memories” has been often performed by Wyatt, as captured on his 1974 Drury Lane live album, and by Daevid Allen on 1971’s Banana Moon, with Wyatt on drums and vocals. Collaborations continued throughout the years, with Hugh Hopper and Wyatt even appearing on Kevin Ayers’ final album, 2007’s The Unfairground. Today, Pye Hastings still leads Caravan, with Richard Coughlan remaining on the drum stool until his death in 2013.
In hindsight, the level of talent involved in The Wilde Flowers never seemed to be their problem – indeed, on the evidence of these two discs, they appeared to suffer from a surfeit of ideas, members and avenues that they wished to explore, leaving their identity perhaps a little too fluid for the casual listeners of the mid-’60s. As they neared the end of their existence, London’s countercultural underground exploded, the UFO Club opened and teenagers were suddenly content to sit and listen to melancholic, expansive music – only then would many of the Flowers find their own audiences. Yet, over 50 years on, these seeds of the Canterbury Scene are worthy of rediscovery.
How did The Wilde Flowers start out?
The Wilde Flowers was basically Brian and Hugh [Hopper], who I met at school in Canterbury, where they lived. That was an hour’s bus ride from my home, which was near Dover. I’d left home for good by 1962, I think. The Wilde Flowers happened when I was staying in several places in Canterbury, from which I got occasional seasonal work hop-picking, life modelling at the art college, and so on.
What part did Daevid Allen play in the development of the group? I understand he introduced you all to a lot of music and art.
Yes, I’ve read that too. David was a lodger at our near-Dover home in the late ’50s. He did indeed have many jazz records, but I’d already been listening to similar: my brother Mark’s records, added to the music my dad played, and to the music I’d heard abroad while I was still in short trousers. But anyhow, I was an aspiring painter then, if anything.
Why did you all move from jazz to R’n’B? I’m guessing the rise of beat groups was pretty irresistible.
It happened when Brian bought a guitar and started playing Chuck Berry songs. The bridge between being the very danceable ‘soul’ jazz of Nat and Julian Adderly, and the heroes in London, like Georgie Fame and Zoot Money. If you’re curious about the connection between our classic jazz listening and the more widely accessible music that inspired us later, I’ve heard a whole evening of the kind of records we used to love being played by the actor Martin Freeman in his unexpected role as disc-jockey. His choices are totally spot-on.
How was it melding your jazz drumming chops to more straightahead material?
The key influence was playing for dancers, with the backbeat you really must not lose.
What were the rehearsals at the Hoppers’ home, Tanglewood, like?
A huddle round Mrs Hopper’s piano. Hugh and Brian would think of tunes we might try, and some of their own. Though I was behind the drumkit, the brothers were reluctant singers, so I did some of that. Then [rhythmn guitarist] Richard Sinclair and Kevin Ayers came to the rescue.
Kevin must have seemed like a very exotic character when he first appeared in your circles… did he galvanise the group?
He certainly added the ‘e’ to Wild. For Oscar, of course. I don’t recall ‘exotic’ being a feature of his presence. But he was certainly more laidback than us. I really enjoyed his company, that’s for sure.
What were The Wilde Flowers like live?
We got into our stride in a Canterbury club called The Beehive. Lively crowds, steamy atmosphere. We got loud.
You eventually took over vocals and frontman duties – how did it feel to step away from the drums?
The [Hopper] brothers came across Richard [Coughlan], a good drummer who seemed content to just play drums. This is rarer than you’d think.
What were your recording sessions like? The material from Woot Steinhuis’ studio sounds great.
Wout Steinhuis – Dutch, I think – was a successful musician with his own studio. He very kindly allowed us there to try out a few sessions, for demos or just so the songwriters could hear what their songs sounded like before trying them out in public.
Why did the band eventually disintegrate?
They carried on after I’d gone London to join Kevin and Daevid, who were collaborating on songwriting, so I don’t know really. Brian was studying to become a scientist, so I suppose that that took over his priorities. He did carry on writing and playing though, which I’m happy about because decades later I got to sing his “The Pieman Cometh”, which I really enjoyed doing with him.
Do you have any favourites among The Wilde Flowers’ songs?
Hugh’s tunes were often unusually haunting. I’d say “Memories”, perhaps his very first. I’ve returned to it several times since.
What do you see as the ‘classic’ Wilde Flowers lineup?
Probably what they did after I left! But of the times I was with them, the lineup for 20-odd minutes during which we played “I Put A Spell On You”, “Watermelon Man” and a James Brown number, for a surprising win at the Margate Beat Group competition. That was Hugh, Brian and me with, um, Pye Hastings?
INTERVIEW: TOM PINNOCK
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