Note from Phil Howitt: One of the reasons that the Facelift blog has gone a bit quiet since Christmas is that I’ve been in the privileged position of helping to fine-tune the translation of Aymeric Leroy’s definitive Canterbury scene history ‘L’école de Canterbury’. This magnificent 700-page plus book has been out in French since 2016 – there are advanced plans now to publish an English language version in the not too distant future.
In the meantime, I’ve had some really nice correspondence with Marc Hadley, who offers his own lengthy thoughts on the French version of the book below. Marc will be familiar to many blog readers as one of the last musicians to work with Phil Miller (with the Relatives) but is also an esteemed ethnomusicologist!
Marc would welcome feedback (via the blog) on his review, the book and the themes discussed in both.
All images reproduced here are taken from ‘L’école de Canterbury’ with kind permission
‘L’école de Canterbury’ is currently available to buy here
L’École de Canterbury -Aymeric Leroy -Review by Marc Hadley
Clarification: the review text is the French edition, but the author plans to publish an English version soon. I might anticipate that the English edition emerges with revisions and tweaks.
This eagerly-awaited book- the first all-embracing account of what some people call “The Canterbury Scene”- is highly ambitious in its scope. Most works of this type focus on a single band or artist, and document or comment on their career trajectory and legacy. “L’École de Canterbury” presents the history of an entire subset of English 1960’s/70’s “Art Music” and follows a “musical tree” from its roots (Daevid Allen, Robert Wyatt, The Wilde Flowers) and original trunk (the prototype Soft Machine manifested by Allen, Wyatt, Ayers and Ratledge) to its evolving system of stems, branches and interweaving twigs and leaves. It’s a weighty volume and represents the culmination of years of research; a secure work of history founded on authentic and cite-able sources; and can credibly claim to be a work of Musicology into the bargain.
Aymeric Leroy’s oeuvre is subtly provocative from the title and the jacket artwork onward. He has chosen to define the entity known as “The Canterbury Scene” by using the word “School”, as in a ‘school of thought’, a creative cluster such as The Bloomsbury Group and The Pre-Raphaelites. Historically, it has been quite normal within Musicology to highlight certain traditions or sub-traditions in places or times where key individuals formed a creative hub whose influence then spread and evolved via its disciples. However, Leroy is possibly the first author to assert such a status for the music and musicians who have until now been informally categorised as “The Canterbury Scene.” Some of those involved in it have denied there actually was a “scene” at all. Other music ‘consumers’ and critics have commented that the ‘Canterbury’ label is arbitrary and lazy (coined by the Music press) as the geographical connection of the principal actors to the Cathedral City is marginal, and the notion of a clear stylistic musical kinship between bands like Caravan, Gong and Soft Machine is impossible to sustain.
The controversy is sustained by the book’s jacket artwork: a panel of four album covers. Leroy is running a set of flags up the pole atop his castle keep. He asserts a catalogue of works that constitute the artistic cannon of Canterbury (a subject over which debate still rages on Canterburian internet chat forums.) Furthermore, the selection implies that Soft Machine’s “Volume Two”, Caravan’s “if I could do it all over again”, Hatfield & The North’s “Rotter’s Club” and Robert Wyatt’s “Rock Bottom” are the School’s finest achievements.
I happen to largely agree with Leroy’s aesthetic choices; and I agree that all the material (personal biographies, interviews, commentaries, critiques, studio and radio broadcasts, song lyrics) and the legacy of songs and pieces that withstand the test of time generally supports his thesis that there exists this distinct musical School at work in the UK’s “counterculture” between 1960-82. Furthermore, some individuals and time periods within the development of The School were particularly significant. We learn that places like Cambridge, France, The Netherlands, Hertfordshire and London made their formative contributions to the flowering of the movement just as potently as Canterbury: but the cathedral city has become a “brand” that we’re stuck with.
Leroy clearly appreciates and explicitly articulates the social construction of the Canterbury School in justifying a corporate identity for these musicians and musical auteurs. Particularly interesting is the light shone on apparently disparate stories; crucially, we see that the connections between bands like Gong, Matching Mole, Delivery and Hatfield & The North were not exclusively musical, but arose via friendships- the musicians we are reading about so often preferred to play with or recruit people they knew. Thanks to the insights provided by “L’Ecole de Canterbury”, I begin to understand why as a teenager I was instinctively following Gong, The Hatfields, Caravan, Kevin Ayers, The Soft Machine… and why these acts were often sharing the billing at the gigs I attended.
Trying to draw concrete links between the different musical works purely via assertion of musical similarities (which would have to be backed up by complex analysis and score extracts) would be a much less successful enterprise; yes, there are a number of common musical traits that one might try to list and demonstrate, but beyond citing “use of distortion on organ and bass guitar”…” complex time signatures”…”use of the voice as an instrument” and so on, the arguments can become too tenuous: many of these simply can’t be inferred across the whole diverse Canterbury stage, and while some are demonstrably present there, they are also present within Prog Rock and early British ‘Fusion jazz’. A future discussion theme must surely be, “which of the commonly-cited musical traits are indisputably unique to “Canterbury”?
This oeuvre will be the primary source for historical record and critical evaluations of the music in the decades to come. Perhaps its main achievement is to have provided a reliable set of musical biographies of the bands and artists set within a well-researched chronology. Those who love this music must offer Mr Leroy a vote of thanks- he has been the first to accomplish what would have been a daunting task for any musical author or musicologist.
It is of course somewhat frustrating that the Canterbury story has had to wait so long to be told, and rather revealing that the author (who has in the past been the main archivist of the genre via his ‘Calyx’ website) is not English- perhaps the quirkiness, humour, inventiveness, originality, and self-deprecating nature of the music are things that are more appreciated by cultural outsiders. It’s true that Canterbury music was sustained commercially by international interest- if it had depended on domestic record sales and gig fees alone, the Canterbury Scholars would have starved to death.
A propos of the commercial aspect of “The School”, it is highly relevant from a historical viewpoint that we learn more about the interplay between Art and Enterprise, as economic and commercial factors undeniably impact upon the music as constructed not only by the authors and players but also by the entrepreneurs involved in its production and marketing. Leroy does for the first time provide us with an overview of these relationships- for example, the relationship between Richard Branson’s Virgin Records and artists such as Gong, Robert Wyatt and Hatfield and the North. In my own research I have noted that it is quite difficult to retrieve sales data for the records made by the artists and bands; it would be most interesting to see an appendix included within future editions showing the sales volumes for particular releases, illustrating what numbers of albums were sold during the seminal development period (1966- 1980?) and how the listenership subsequently expanded (or not) following the advent of the CD format. Anecdotal: during a telephone conversation I had with Richard Sinclair in 2013, he told me that “The Land of Grey & Pink” had since its release nearly 40 years ago sold 3 million copies- but yet he personally had never gained significant financial benefit.
In this edition Leroy addresses a readership who are versed in the jargon of the (French) Rock and Jazz ‘scene.’ But of course, we should probably assume for the future that regardless of in which language the majority of readers engage with this book, it will tend to attract the kind of people who know what a ‘Jam’ or a ‘quarter inch jack’ is. In general, his account is valuably enhanced by inclusion of reviews published as the works were being performed and recordings commercially released. There is a recurring pattern; mostly, the Melody Maker’s Steve Lake is quoted as a supportive voice, and Ian Macdonald of the NME frequently sounds a dismissive note [this is a pity- I have come across some well-written and authoritative reviews of ‘Canterbury’ recordings by Jazz critics.] Alongside these are more often than not a digest of the main French rock critics too.
Kevin Ayers and the Whole World
A degree of ‘Franco-centricity’ lives in the centrepiece of Leroy’s chronicle- the portion of the 1974 chapter covering Robert Wyatt’s “Rock Bottom”. A certain intensity and engagement with the subject in the writing here that tells us that for him, Wyatt is the most significant player in the whole saga, and that Rock Bottom is “one of the most profoundly original works of its time.” So, he goes to some trouble to translate English phrases such “to hit rock bottom”, “the last straw” or “the straw that broke the camel’s back” into their French equivalents.
Thanks to this commentary, I’m struck by the textual aspect of the album, whose lyrics draw upon the uniquely English weirdness articulated by Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. Words are used randomly, chosen as much for their sound as anything else- but the ‘nonsense’ of words or phrases somehow conveys new or alternative meanings through odd juxtapositions. Wyatt is drawing on his experience of vocal improvisation and walking a path first trodden by American “Beat Poets” (one thinks of Ginsberg, or Kerouac’s evocations of improvisatory Jazz poetry,) but also on the European Art experimentations of Dada and Surrealism. The words respond to or feed the unsettlingly odd musical atmospheres of the album. The Canterburian musicians who accompany Wyatt are well-versed in sympathetic improvisation, thus their contributions all reinforce the vision and the musical achievement.
The synergy between words and music heard in ‘Rock Bottom’ is quite exceptional within the “Canterbury Cannon. Leroy rightly highlights the contributions of Alfreda Benge; this is right, but commentators could take this further. There is a predominance of male voices and, dare I say it, a very “male” form of music-making in this genre, but Alfie brings something into the album mix here which makes it stand out: her background as a visual artist has a potency, but more simply, she brings an intuitive femininity into the music. Another rare example of this introduction of “otherness” into the soundscape is Dave Stewart’s use of the Northettes in his arrangements for both Hatfield and the North albums. And as a request posed to future scholars of this field, might I ask for more female voices to be added to the pool of recollections that are used to colour in the personal and social context for the music and those who were involved in it?
However, as someone of dual heritage struggling with erudite vocabulary and sentence constructions on almost every page as I read through the work, I found myself addressing an issue that has long puzzled me: how did the idiosyncrasies of English culture and language as manifested by “Canterbury” even cross The Channel?
Take the case of Leroy’s detailed commentary on Hatfield & the North’s second album… the whole idea of “The Rotter’s Club” is peculiarly rooted in certain British educational cultures (‘Public School’, or ‘Grammar School’ as beautifully evoked by Jonathan Coe’s novel of the same name) and there can be no exact French equivalent. It takes a rather neat exposition by Pip Pyle (in a few sentences drawn from an interview) to explain the concept in French (or indeed, a form that any non- ‘Anglo’ could understand.) However, when we reach Leroy’s description of the introduction to Dave Stewart’s “Lumps” (again, the relationship between ‘lumps’ and ‘mumps’ necessitates a skilful linguistic autopsy) we find a familiar simile deployed: “The first few seconds… are the musical equivalent of an elephant in a china shop”(un magazin de porcelaine). I got his meaning immediately- here is one of many colloquialisms that English and French share across the apparent geographical and historical divides: the minor difference being that china shop destructions in Britain are usually committed by bulls.
And if I may continue to play the French riff (which will probably be in 11/8 time using a Lydian augmented scale) I would highlight another overlooked aspect of the Canterburian heritage that is authoritatively covered in this book: the French role in the development of what is usually considered quintessentially English music. We learn of the early Soft Machine expeditions to the Cote D’Azur and other touring and broadcast opportunities within France- the quartet got their first taste of fame over the Channel, at a point when they were struggling to get a paid gig in a pub in their homeland. UK immigration officials changed History by refusing to let the (Australian) Allen back into Dover, unwittingly instigating future outbreaks of Gong-ism throughout the Universities of The British Isles, and the induction of a number of significant French musicians (Malherbe, Moerlen, Bauer etc) into the Orchestre Invisible De Thibet. Many of us feasted on Camembert Electrique, and in the 21st century we discovered a wealth of French TV recordings of Hatfield and The North, Caravan and Matching Mole that still survive- without them and You-Tube, there would be scant video record of these landmark artists.
Another theme that would form an interesting future discussion topic could be that that “Canterbury” was the only English Rock/crossover music genre in which home-grown musicians mingled with European players (although clearly in other genres there was and is a clear mingling of Brits with Americans.) At the same time, I find myself writing about this sub-genre of British ‘popular music’ at a time when issues of the UK’s connection or disconnection with
Europe- and, behind that, issues of identities and autonomy with the UK’s constituent nationalities- have become a very live and bitterly-contested arena. In this context, there are voices who assert markers of “Englishness” or “otherness” without themselves having a clear or coherent notion of what “English” means either historically or culturally. I might therefore urge my fellow-citizens to take more of an interest in The Canterbury Scene than they have previously, for here may lie an art-form that is, alongside some of its “Prog-Rock” cousins, unusually and very particularly ‘English.’ Or is it?
I think there is certainly a problem that the English themselves need to address in the course of time: why hasn’t this chronicle been attempted by any native journalist, scholar or musician? Might it be because, for various reasons, there would have been no money in it… a perception that such a work wouldn’t attract a wide enough readership? And if not, why not? The Island race have missed a trick here…in any study of an “Arts & Humanities” topic, there are assets that an ‘outsider’ perspective brings to the table, but there are also insights that are best supplied by ‘insiders.’ Sure, Leroy has tried hard to address this by providing a wealth of interview material with the main actors, but I think when a writer is offering critical assessments, an insider perspective really helps.
From an insider musical and cultural perspective, there are some aspects of this creative school that could have been covered in more depth. Leroy does bring a lot of detail about the British Jazz scene of the 1960’s and 70’s into the narrative– inevitable, given that so many of the musicians involved in “The Canterbury Scene” were recruited from the ranks of Britain’s brightest and best jazz players.
We should also remember that at least two British Jazz musicians– John McLaughlin and Dave Holland- played a central role in the US Jazz fusion movement, and influenced a particular set of emerging UK guitarists and electric bassists. Allen, Wyatt, Elton Dean and others were immensely inspired by the “free” periods of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler. Phil Miller’s inspiration for “Underdubs” was the intricate and complex melodic invention of Charlie Parker themes like ‘Donna Lee.
There was a strong and demonstrable influence on these players (and on the musical ‘authors’ such as Allen, Wyatt, Ratledge, Richard Sinclair, Phil Miller, Pip Pyle) from American Jazz. Some names are mentioned- obviously Miles Davis, for example. But I know that Pyle was greatly inspired by Tony Williams…that Miles albums like “In a silent way” and “Bitches’ Brew”, and others by Chick Corea or Herbie Hancock can be heard reflected in moods, grooves and textures in passages from “Third”, “Matching Mole”, “Hatfield and the North.” To be fair, in one of the later chapters journalist Steve Lake is quoted pointing out the crucial influence of Tony Williams’ “Lifetime” and other seminal US jazz figures- but here, Leroy is relying on prominent Music critics, not his own knowledge of Jazz.
At the same time, there was an equally important strand of ‘Canterbury’ drawing on “Classical” sources and Art Music of the 20th century. The influence of Stravinsky looms large if we listen, but also read first-hand accounts of Wyatt and Pyle’s youthful listening (in my conversations with Phil Miller, he cited his deep interest in Bartok and Bach), but there are only a few references to Stravinsky et al in Leroy’s commentary. This can be forgiven if we consider that much has already been written on the general subject of UK “Prog Rock” and its use of classical models of deep structure, arrangements and instrumentation- for example, “Rocking The Classics” by Edward Macan details such appropriations by Genesis and Yes, but also cites Egg and Dave Stewart.
Richard Sinclair was a cathedral chorister, and Mike Ratledge was an organ scholar- but the subliminal influences of world-renowned British choral and organ music traditions are not discussed, even though many commentators have felt a certain ecclesiastical flavour in “Canterburian” music (however, those distinctly Baroque inflexions also occur throughout UK Prog Rock.) Via the music of Egg, Mont Campbell (who was himself studying formal composition and was the grandson of British composer Martin Shaw) was something of a mentor to Dave Stewart, whose writing and arrangements brought a wealth of complex ideas into the early 1970’s sound stage and of course into the Canterbury canon via Hatfield & the North and National Health. It is worth noting that Martin Shaw had an involvement in the restoration of Purcell’s repertoire to public performance in the early 20th century and its renewed popularity- and was also a professional church organist.
My own instinct as a musicologist is to compare certain miniature choral interludes within Hatfield & The North’s pieces with the lyricism of Vaughan-Williams’ “On Wenlock Edge”- suffused as that work is by a Ravel-inspired modal harmonic texture that we now characterise also as “Jazzy.”
If I have any other complaints these might include a few sins of omission in placing some of the music and lyrical material within a broader cultural context of the UK that I remember growing up in (that being the period during which most of the work was released.) This placing of a musical trajectory within contemporary social and political contexts is accomplished particularly well in “Out-Bloody-Rageous”, Graham Bennet’s 2005 biography of The Soft Machine. I would have liked more commentary on the correspondences to the acid surrealism of Terry Gilliam and various references via lyrics and song titles to Monty Python sketches…not to mention the kaleidoscope of other icons or objects of scorn referenced within the Joycean stream of consciousness that is Pip Pyle’s “Fitter Stoke has a bath.”
There is a lack of discussion of the nurturing role of the major British poet and novelist Robert Graves, whose home in Deya, Majorca, played an important role in these Canterbury Tales- early on, when the young Robert Ellidge stayed there (Wyatt’s parents were personal friends)…and where Daevid Allen also formed a part of that unconventional Balearic “salon”…in that Mediterranean setting, we can well surmise that Allen and Graves would have shared enthusiastic dialogue on the subject of pagan mythologies, Gods and specially Goddesses. Deya was where Allen retreated when “Gong went wrong”, and spawned his beautiful but melancholy solo album,”Good Morning.” And finally, after the Hatfield & the North split in 1975, Richard Sinclair went to Daevid’s place in Deya to hide and recuperate.
The events and developments described are covered across a time period of almost 20 years. The assembly of all the material must have posed a formidable task. Leroy chooses to organise it in a chronological way; this is perfectly logical and provides the reader with a narrative to follow. This is such a wide-ranging and ambitious project in both concept and execution that any further complaint seems churlish- HOWEVER!- the book as a work of reference is somewhat “clunky”. There isn’t a thematic overview or a way of easily browsing the content via “categorical” headings- rather, the chapters simply cover the events of the years onward from 1960. There is no easy way to view what each chapter deals with, other than refer to the indexes at the end of the book (Bands, Musicians and Albums are indexed, by name.)
This musical commentary and collective biography is the beginning of a process of evaluation of Canterbury Music. There are a lot of themes still to be examined, in formats that have a much more open architecture and adopt more lateral terms of reference than the work presented here by Mr Leroy. That said, we cannot take him to task for omissions: the book as published runs to over 700 pages with appendices. Had Aymeric cast his net any wider, we would be dealing with a huge two-volume tome. Unquestionably, thanks to his dogged research, meticulous archiving and sheer hard work and persistence (knowing full well that writing a book on a subject like this cannot possibly generate an appropriate financial reward for the amount of time involved) the foundations of future appreciation and scholarship are now in place. Bravo, Aymeric- formidable!
4 thoughts on “‘L’École de Canterbury’ by Aymeric Leroy – a review by Marc Hadley”
Excellent review of a book I wasn’t aware of, but now interested in — though good content in the review itself. To find such a well-researched, detailed book (700 pages — amazing!) 50 years after the initial beginnings of the Canterbury scene, indicates that this music is timeless — much like any other “classical” music. Thanks for the review, and thanks for your blog which I wouldn’t have discovered if not for this review. Keep up the great work!
Really an in-depth review. Very Good. Just one note: in Italy we used to call «scuola di Canterbury» (meaning, of course, «Canterbury school») the Canterbury scene. Only when more people had the chance to read more about that (thanks to the internet etc.), less and less journalists and fans talked and wrote about «la scuola di Canterbury» and more and more about «la scena di Canterbury».