Robert Wyatt interview

UK legend talks about The Canterbury Scene and the influential The Wilde Flowers

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Robert Wyatt interview

The Canterbury Scene was not just the place where Paul Messenger (mis)spent his youth, it was a musical movement of the 1960s that resulted in some of the most original British bands of the era. We would not have had Gong, Caravan, Hatfield and the North, or Soft Machine without the Canterbury scene, and The Wilde Flowers were its most fertile breeding ground. The people involved came together in the early sixties but the ‘official’ formation occurred in 1964. It consisted of Robert Wyatt, Brian and Hugh Hopper, Richard Sinclair, and Kevin Ayers, all of whom practised at the Hopper family home near Canterbury. At this point Wyatt played drums, Brian was on sax, Hugh played bass, while Ayers and Sinclair played guitar and sang. Of the group, Kevin Ayres was the star turn: he was already considered a “pop musician” and “lived the lifestyle”, according to Brian Hopper.

Unlike more mainstream acts at the time, their influences were largely jazz: Wyatt was already well-versed in what was then called ‘modern jazz’, but rather than emulating their idols, The Wilde Flowers fused that jazz influence with the rhythm and blues sound that was popular at the time. Brian Hopper had spent a lot of time with Mike Ratledge (later with Soft Machine) prior to joining The Wilde Flowers and developed a free-form improvised style that he brought to the band, so the music they made was quite distinctive. They didn’t release anything at the time, but made several recordings that have been gathered on a new eponymous double CD by Floating World. This features the 22 tracks released in 1994 as The Tales of Canterbury and adds 12 more, including ‘The Pieman Cometh’ and ‘Hope For Happiness’, both recorded by Robert Wyatt and Brian Hopper in 2003, while the rest are from the early 1960s. These older cuts include a version of ‘That’s Alright Mama’ from 1962, which is barely recognisable as anything Elvis would have ever produced, and all the more refreshing for it.

As Brian puts it in the extensive history of the band included with the release, they were “trying consciously to break new ground”, and although the influences are detectable and mainly of blues and R’n’B varieties they were successful in their efforts. The Wilde Flowers gained the ‘e’ in their name thanks to Oscar Wilde (as beatniks, the band were heavily into poetry). They played their first gig at the Bear and Key in Whitstable and with further live work developed the knack of playing continuously for “anything up to an hour” – anyone looking for the grass roots of progressive rock, take note! They recorded their first session with Wout Steenhuis in Broadstairs, which included original compositions and tunes by Booker White and Chuck Berry, including the latter’s ‘Almost Grown’: again a very different sounding version thanks to Wyatt’s distinctive vocal style.

Kevin Ayers left after the session and was replaced by Graham Flight, a singer and blues harp player bearing some resemblance to Steve Winwood. His version of ‘Slow Walkin’ Talk’ is on the first disc and, like most of the material on this compilation, comes from tapes that Brian Hopper made of the acetates they produced. This combined with the relatively crude nature of the originals means that sound quality is not in the front league by any means, all of which contributes to the ‘art rock’ feel of the work.

The next chapter in The Wilde Flowers story involved Robert Wyatt vacating the drum stool to concentrate on vocals, a move that meant another drummer had to be found. In his place came Richard Coughlan, who was playing in a Canterbury dance band at the time. Coughlan also worked six days a week as a dental technician, something that conflicted with a gig the band had playing at the local cinema between children’s films: apparently he sneaked out of work for the 20 minute sets. This band recorded with Steenhuis in the Spring of 1966, and many of these songs were later adapted for Soft Machine by Wyatt, who left The Wilde Flowers to start Soft Machine with Kevin Ayers later the same year. Wyatt was replaced by Julian ‘Pye’ Hastings on vocals and guitar, and the band was augmented by organ player Dave Sinclair. This formation continued into 1967 but when Hugh Hopper left to join Soft Machine it gradually petered out albeit regrouping for various sessions including a demo recording for Hugh in ’69.

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