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Sunday, September 14, 2008
  My Desert Islands Discs 4

I am a long term fan of the so-called Canterbury music scene, initially through strange coincidental personal connections. Back in ’69 I moved into a flat in London rented by an ex-pupil of Simon Langton School, which was the alma mater of various luminaries of that scene.

I replaced a guy whose then girlfriend became my second wife six years later (and mother of Son No.1), though I didn’t meet her then. The drummer of Soft Machine, Robert Wyatt, went to her first wedding and she knew nearly everybody in those early days.

I had always been a jazz fan, long before I encountered this ‘progressive’ music, so I was ready, especially as substances from war zones were there to be rolled into Rizlas to enhance my musical horizons.

Frequent visitors to the flat included Caravan’s keyboard player, Dave Sinclair, and Robert Wyatt. I also met many of the other musos including the wonderful Kevin Ayres, "one of the great voices in British music".

So I went to loads of gigs. I may even have contributed to some of their music. I can’t really remember ~ which may prove something ~ that I really banged on a beer bottle or something at a Kevin recording, alongside Caravan et al, at the Roundhouse recording studio in 69/70.

Caravan were more rock-orientated. Admittedly their songs often had trite lyrics, albeit sung with good clear British accents, but these were combined with the sheer orgasmic power of tight musicianship for suites which lasted for a whole side of a vinyl album. Music to groove to whilst skinning up; the soundtrack of my initial bachelor days. And now there's talk of a 41st Anniversary tour.

Soft Machine were support group on Jimi Hendrix’s first tour of the States and bootlegs of their musical meetings have recently surfaced, officially. They were also the first (only?) group to play a prestigious Prom, and alumni have continued to release albums, particularly on MoonJune Records, currently under the name Soft Machine Legacy.

And the gigs. These were family get-togethers. There is a Yahoo group which has sudden eruptions of “Do you remember when…?” And I do. I remember spliffs being passed round at gigs like chain letters: you’d get more back than you sent out. It was family. In spite of a few gigs which seemed to anticipate superstardom with untold riches to cascade, somehow it never quite happened. Kevin Ayres said "he'd rather go fishing" and 'musical differences' sent members spinning off in different directions and making loads of friends while they're at it..

And we fans have followed.

I have over 100 albums plus around 50 bootlegs of concerts and demo recordings related to the Canterbury scene, and most get played regularly, depending on my 'need'.

On Saturdays, when I need an orgasmic rush, I'll play Caravan’s early albums such as Land of Grey and Pink or For Girls Who Grow Plump In The Night. On Sundays, I'll play minimalist tracks by Soft Machine, alongside albums by Eno, Terry Riley or Philip Glass. On weekdays, I'll sing along with Robert Wyatt or, in an eccentric poppier vein, Kevin Ayres.

And if I have to choose just one album as a reminder of good times ........

It could be live recording rather than one with super-duper fidelity. I may have been in the audience* or may have seen the band on that particular tour^.
Soft Machine - At the Proms Hatfield & The North in Paris Sept. 25 1973^
Caravan & The New Symphonia ('74)*
Caravan - Live at the Fairfield Halls 1974*
Robert Wyatt & Friends in Concert - Sunday 8th September 1974*

Or maybe a tribute album would be in order.

For example, there's Polysoft's Tribute to Soft Machine. (Paris live in 2002 with Hugh Hopper, and Elton Dean guesting) which captures my favourite era of the band, SM 2 - 6.
There are tributes to Robert Wyatt too, notably Annie Whitehead's SoupSongs and Cpt. Kirk & The More Extended Versions - Round About Wyatt.

Ah, decisions, decisions.

On a 'tropical island' there is the ambient music of the waves, of the wind rustling palm leaves, of the scattering of sand grains. There is also the music of the body, of heart beats, foot tapping and finger clicking.

Given this notional image of tranquility, I'll plump for Delta Sax 4tet - Dedicated to Soft Machine, an interplay of four saxophonists taking Soft Machine's music into new realms, and thus demonstrating how crucial Soft Machine was, is and continues to be.

(Strange to think that considering its importance through most of my life, I've never actually been to Canterbury, but merely passed through on my way to foreign shores.)

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