Thursday, February 2, 2023

Canterbury and the cuppa tea


Standing on a golf course dressed in PVC

I chanced upon a golf girl selling cups of tea

She asked me did I want one, asked me with a grin

For thruppence you can buy one full right to the brim

Well of course I had to have one – in fact I ordered three

So I could watch the golf girl, could see she fancied me

And later on the golf course after drinking tea

It started raining golf balls and she protected me

Her name was Pat

And we sat under a tree

She kissed me

We go for walks in fine weather

All together

On the golf course

We talk in Morse

Seems to be something of a thematic with your Canterbury Scene groups, these references to cups of tea.  Perhaps it's metonymy or associational drift across from that characteristic-Canterbury keyboard sound I always hear as "milky". More likely, it's part and parcel of the ever-so-slightly exaggerated Englishness that suffuses the genre. 

In truth, I've yet to think of third example (perhaps you can help me out?) but this second one,  Hatfield and the North's "Big Jobs No.2 (By Poo and the Wee Wees)",  is a goodie:  

Now through the medium of the Manor Mobile,

I would like to sing this song in the Hatfield style.

Thank all the mothers who made cups of tea 

if they hadn't cared for us, we wouldn't be here

to sing our songs and entertain.

Plug us in and turn on the mains!

We have to leave here tonight,

I hope that it will sound all right

but we're trying hard to make it sound nice

and hope that the music turns you on

while you're drinking your tea –

do have a laugh certainly!

The first verse seems to crystallise Canterbury's mildness and politeness: 

Took a trip through the night just to get here,

tried being myself recently;

but I try my best to make it sound nice

and hope that the music turns you on

like it's turning on me –

should be a laugh certainly.

Once that mildness would have bypassed me or actively aggravated me, but now -  older and homesick for the Home Counties where I grew up -  it seems charming and authentic. These bands are not pretending to be anything other than what they are:  nice middle-class South of England boys, educated and well-brought-up.  Mothers' boys, "soft male" members of the first generation to undergo permissive child-rearing practices (e.g. picking up the baby when it's crying). The first generation to grow up without the stiff upper lip implanted at birth (and who didn't have to do national service either - it ended around 1961). These lines strike me as especially indicative, a salute to a benign matriarchy: 

Thank all the mothers who made cups of tea 

if they hadn't cared for us, we wouldn't be here

to sing our songs and entertain.

There's also a class connection: this is a particular kind of  bourgeoisie - the professions rather than business.  Honor Wyatt, Robert's tolerant and encouraging mother, was a journalist and radio presenter. Canterbury has a superfluity of universities and colleges, the highest ratio of students to native residents of any town in the UK. Think of all the academia-related jobs and ancillary work that institutions like that support (book shops, theatres, cafes, etc) and how that changes the make-up and vibe of a place. 

Ambiently educated, imbibing liberalism with their mother's milk, these young men are finding ways to play the music they love (jazz, rhythm and blues, rock) but also be themselves. Hence the urge to complicate things... but also the puerile humor, the Anglo-surrealist whimsy, the Monty Python-ish elements.  An odd combo of sophistication and regression. 

Talking of the comedy connection... Here is  a surprisingly faithful cover of "Golf Girl" by Nigel Planer aka Neil the Hippy - except that he sounds a bit like Kermit the Frog. 

Neil's normal speaking voice in The Young Ones is like a more sadsack and Eeyore-droopy version of the Wyatt-ese that is the natural singing and speaking tone of  many of these  Canterbury boys. Middle-class aspiring to classless; mumbly and faltering, softened by self-deprecation.  In other words, evacuated of the confidence and entitlement that rings out clearly in the voices of the comfy-with-their-station haute-bourgeoisie. (This essay by Keith Waterhouse on what he calls the Polyocracy places the social milieu whence this accent emanates). 

In "Big Jobs No. 2 (By Poo and The Wee Wees)", it's the Hatfield's Richard Sinclair singing, it's just that he sounds a dead ringer for Mr. Matching Mole. All the more confusing because a little bit further into "Big Jobs" Wyatt does appear - but doing a little bit of guest scat. No pun intended (or did they intend it?).   

"We talk in Morse" - would be funny if this was true, the lovers conversing in dot dot dash, and not just a desperate ploy to find a rhyme for "golf course"... 

Another Canterbury hallmark - the meta-song, lyrics that narrate the construction of the song as it happens, or describe the life of a musician:

This is the first verse

This is the first verse

This is the first verse, the first, the first

And this is the first verse, verse, first verse

And this is the first verse, verse

This is the first verse

And this is the chorus

Or perhaps it's a bridge

Or just another part of the song that I'm singing

And this is the second verse

It could be the last verse

This is the second verse, second verse, second verse

It could be the last verse, last verse

And this is the second verse

But it's probably the last one

And this is the chorus

Or perhaps it's a bridge

Or just another key change

Never mind, it doesn't hurt

It only means that I lost faith in this song

'Cause it won't help me reach you

.And in "O Caroline" the meta-song and the heart-on-sleeve love song combine: 

David's on the piano and I may play on a drum

And we try to make the music 

We'll try try to have some fun

But I just can't help thinking that if you were

Here with me

I'd get all my thoughts in focus and play

More excitingly

I love you still Caroline

I want you still Caroline

I need you still Caroline

If you call this sentimental crap you'll make me mad

Because you know that I would not sing about

Some passing fad

And if my attempts of rhyming aren't convincing

To your ear

Then memory's betrayed you through the passing

Of the year

I love you still Caroline

I want you still Caroline

I need you still Caroline

You must think it doubtful but I mean the words I sing

Or that all attempts to reach you this way could not mean a thing

But you must admit we both thought we'd be man and wife

And that I could make you happy for the best part of your life


post-script 2/3/2023 

Ed in the comments mentions this Canterbury / tea connection I amazingly missed 

Which inevitably has engendered actual teapots you can brew tea in

Then, not exactly Canterbury but UK progressive, there's this group Tea & Symphony

An Asylum for the Musically Insane

In Jonathan Coe's wonderful 1970s novel The Rotters' Club, there's a section in which the main character, a teenage schoolboy, goes to see the NME/Virgin Crisis Tour of 1975 (incredibly cheap tickets for the inflation-challenged to see the likes of Henry Cow, Kevin Coyne, Lol Coxhill, and Hatfield and the North): 

"The music he heard that night was lucid, knowable, full of intelligence and humour, wistfulness and energy and hope. He would never understand the world, but he would always love this music. He listened to this music, with God by his side, and knew that he had found a home".

Here's Coe talking about the Canterbury inspiration: 

"Maybe I should start from the title which is the title of an album by Hatfield and the North released in 1975 and fairly typical of the kind of music I was listening to at the time. This makes you realise what a strange teenager I was because I had very out-of-the-way and esoteric tastes in music. Hatfield and the North belonged to a musical movement in England, which was called The Canterbury Scene and was characterised by quirkiness, humour, irony, experimentalism, great formal complexity in the musical compositions. You can see a clear overlap between the kind of music I was listening to as a kid and the kind of books I ended up writing. So maybe that album was the starting point."

The lead character Benjamin typifies this breed of musician (and indeed makes music himself exactly in the mold of that breed). A dreamer, a bit wishy-washy and ineffectual , helplessly middle class but neither proud nor embarrassed about that fact...  This was a whole micro-generation that got swept away by punk (but then elements of the sensibility crept back in again with postpunk - Green's singing voice in early Scritti is the resurrection of Wyatt-ese - and John Peel of course presides over it all). 

In the years before writing The Rotters' Club, Coe would review these type of Canterbury-and-adjacent bands in The Wire, loyally following their activities deep into the 1990s. 

postscript 2/ 5 / 2023

This compilation from a few years back by Bob Stanley & Pete Wiggs taps the milky sweet tea on a drizzly day vibe of early 70s Britrock and features at least three Canterbury-aligned acts: Caravan with "Love Song With Flutre", Daevid Allen with "Wise Man In your Heart", and Matching Mole with "O Caroline"

Now here's an odd thing - "O Caroline" is not to be found on YouTube or any streamer. I assume this is because co-writer David Sinclair doesn't want his tunes on there. The first two Caravan albums, where he was a co-writer,  for instance aren't on Spotify or Tidal either. But then those tunes can be found on YouTube. Puzzling.  Perhaps there's another reason. But yeah, all you can find of "O Caroline" out there is various manky cover versions.

Well, this version is all right I s'pose. 

Yes, this is the only Wyatt song on YouTube I could find  with the word "Caroline" in it

Carla is Carla Bley and Marsha is Marsha Hunt. Caroline is Caroline Coon, so it's said. (Also the inamorata of "O Caroline").

Pretty much the whole of End of an Ear appears to be titled as nods to his contemporaries, mostly but not exclusively musicians, and a lot of them Canterbury chaps. 

This one is a salute to Caravan

This one is to Daevid Allen and Gilli Smyth

From Gilli to Gil E - this is a cover of a Gil Evans piece, rendered rather Goons-adelic 

Ministry of Silly Warps (allegedly this is a tribute to the Whole World, Kevin Ayers's band)

This is titled for "progressive rock trombonist" Nick Evans, who played in Soft Machine (briefly) and  Keith Tippett's mega-band Centipede among many others. 

This one's for Bridget St John (the singer-songwriter that John Peel and Clive Selwood formed Dandelion Records to release her music via) 

Here's Bridget duetting with Kevin Ayers, backed by The Whole World 

Talking of Kevin Ayers, I was listening to Whatevershebringswesing the other day and all I could think was, I wish "she" had brought some better tunes.  "Song from the Bottom of a Well" is astounding, the first piece is fine,  but as for the rest.... (Why oh why did they chuck away the exhilarating, almost T-Rex-level song "Stars" as a B-side to the album's duff single "Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes"?).  Easily my least loved of those first four wonderful KA albums. But apparently it's some fans's favorite....


  1. There’s also Flying Teapot by Gong, who I think could definitely be classed as honorary members of the Canterbury Scene.

    As well as the Englishness, there is clearly something appealing about the use of dried leaves to achieve altered states of consciousness. Much more mellow than coffee, which is in effect a kind of socially sanctioned speed, fueling aggression, ambition and effort in a competitive market economy.

    It always seems connected to Lewis Carroll, too: the Mad Hatter’s tea party. That sense of whimsical - again very English - surrealism.

    1. And Pink Floyd - more fellow-travelers with the Canterbury scene - used to describe their performances at the Marquee in 1966-67 as “the Mad Hatter’s tea party”.

    2. Ah, and “tea” was Beatnik slang for cannabis. It’s used in On The Road.

      Cf The Beatles: “Lovely Rita, meter maid, may I inquire discretely: would you be free to take some tea with me.”

  2. Gong's Flying Teapot - it was standing right there in front of me and I didn't see it! Doesn't the illustration of it feature a tea cosey as well?

    Yes Daevid Allen is totally part of the Canterbury / Soft Machine diaspora. And Steve Hillage joined. Plus he'd already been in a couple of Canterbury-adjacent groups, right? Khan, Arzachel, he played also on an Egg,record.

    Ah that's a good point about the druggy double-entendre of "tea".

    Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, that whole line of Anglo-surrealism...

    You're right about caffeine, it seems like an alien import, whereas tea- while obviously coming from India, Ceylon etc, fruit of empire just like the national dish of curry - it feels somehow more like the English tempo, a mild, gentle sustained buzz rather than the manic spike of coffee. You have to drink gallons of tea before you had that shaky, cranked sensation that one too many cups of coffee gives you.

    1. It would be fun to do a comparison of tea songs and coffee songs. Black Flag have a song on Slip It In called Black Coffee that is an absolutely self-parodic wired-and-clenched late period performance. The lyrics are something like “drinkin’ black coffee, staring at the wall”, delivered by Rollins in his most vein-bulging snarl.

      Coffee and TV by Blur is scratchy and angsty.

      But then Black Coffee by All Saints, a William Orbit production, is their career peak: a rather lovely song about a domestic epiphany. So it’s not all bad vibes.

  3. I always took the teapot iconography of Gong as related to magic mushrooms. Boiling magic mushrooms and making tea with the infused water is a common way of imbibing them. I can vouch for its efficacy.

    I think this is also the meaning of the Caravan song. She offers the tea with a (knowing) grin and pretty soon the song's protagonist starts tripping.

  4. In the comments to his Barrett/Hitchcock post, you mentioned Kevin Ayers as more reflective of where the former was heading before his breakdown than his solo albums, and I think that's a core fact of the Canterbury diaspora as a whole - on at least one level, it's simply UK psychedelic pop further on down the line, matured and deepened beyond the initial flush of childhood revisited but still keeping wry little reminders of it (the tea invocations, etc.)

    Sinclair definitely shares a lot of DNA with Wyatt, but Wyatt himself actually provided another piece of it in an interview for Mike Barnes' recent-ish prog book: 'He listened to Nat Cole in the early seventies, when nobody was listening to Nat Cole.' Something that pretty clearly sets Canterbury groups apart from their contemporaries, particularly in prog, is their romance - they wrote a significant percentage of unembarrassed love songs, right alongside and intertwined with their love of filth (also rare for prog, though not for UK rock as a whole), a unique balance that speaks of deeper roots to 70s R&B than most of their white peers


    1. That is fascinating about Nat King Cole as a vocal influence. I remember reading an interview with Wyatt where he claimed that the biggest influence on his singing was Dionne Warwick - initially disorienting and then it makes total sense. And later he would cover that gorgeous Chic ballad. I once compared Wyatt to Peter Skellern, this 1970s Northern balladeer who had specialized in out-of-time pre-rock vocal stylings, kind of meant to be an incongruous comparison but it's actually a genuine affinity I think.

      Yes they did do the romantic love songs, but often shot through with English bathos - I'm thinking of "O Caroline" or the song ("Calyx" I think) where he croons "close inspection reveals you're in perfect nick".

    2. That is fascinating. It also helps make sense of one of my favorite songs: Material’s version of Memories, from the One Down album. It’s the first appearance of Whitney Houston on record, and she is absolutely fantastic: overwhelmingly expressive and powerful, but also supremely controlled. It’s no surprise at all that she went on to become a megastar. Also a beautifully restrained sax solo from Archie Shepp, very unlike a lot of his work in the 60s.

      I had loved the song for many years, and was amazed to discover it had been written by Hugh Hopper, Canterbury stalwart and Soft Machine bass player. His world and Houston’s seem unimaginably distant from each other.

      All credit to Bill Laswell, I suppose: I think he was Material’s guiding spirit at the time. His standard procedure of convening incongruous collaborators often misfires, but here it sparks spectacularly. And perhaps the reason is that he was responding to some deep affinities and allegiances. Whitney Houston was Dionne Warwick’s cousin.

  5. Whoa going down the Wikipedia rabbit hole on Material is a trip… Did you know that they - Laswell, Michael Beinhorn and Fred Maher - played as Daevid Allen’s backing band in NYC, under the name New York Gong?

    Also with producer / engineer Martin Bisi, whose credits include Swans, Live Skull and Herbie Hancock’s Rockit.

    Obviously the fertility and diversity of the New York music scene in the 70s and early 80s is a very familiar historical fact. But every now and then there is something about it that can still impress me.

    1. Yes Material were effectively Gong for a season and so belong to the Canterbury diaspora!

      Then they worked with Eno on the early stages of On Land.

  6. one funny thing about the canterbury scene is its Brit surrealism referenced a kind of crude marxism and Maoism within it, whereas punk's aesthetics were entirely that of a largely petit-bourgeois anarchism. I don't listen to music for political purposes so this doesn't particularly concern me as such but it does put a spanner in the theory that prog was the gentrification of rock — I don't think it's that simple.

    Although, of course, this might have just been a trend thing. The last people you want to go to for astute political consciousness are artists! But the (de)politicisation of critical punk discourse would be a welcome development to me, then we could actually not be hamstrung by a culture war which was even archaic at the time.

    Caravan I don't really listen to much nowadays, would rather listen to some Chick Corea or early Lenny White. But Henry Cow are probably my favourite brit rock band from that era, maybe with the exception of Gentle Giant. Robert Wyatt of course a geezer.

    Although there's an interesting case to be made that jazz fusion and soul jazz was the prog rock of the proto-nuum, to be proceeded by disco and electroboogie, instead of punk. Which, needless to say, places the prog mythos in a slightly different light.

    1. Well Matching Mole had the Maoist references but I wonder how serious they were. Feels like maybe they were just being whimsical. I don't know when exactly Robert Wyatt became a proper full-bore Communist (even doing a cover of "Stalin Wasn't Stalling", a WW2 pro-Joe ditty in support of our Soviet allies) but I wonder if it was post-accident. Certainly before that his main mode seemed to be playful.

      There's a scholarly book that argues for progressive music as the true expression of working class and lower middle class radicalism but I haven't found the time to look it over -

    2. A quote from its conclusion: "he English
      counterculture between 1965-1975 understood and practiced something of this in its combined and uncertain traversing and disassembling of the song-form inherited from bourgeois, radical-movementist, and modernist and avant-garde musical traditions. This defines its historical singularity, and its extensive formal achievements, from Robin Williamson
      and Van Morrison’s vocal sonorities, Peter Hammill and Van Der Graaf Generator’s literary-scenic song-cycles, and Nick Drake’s stark modernist subjectivity, to Robert Wyatt’s lamentations and Henry Cow and Dagmar Krause’s avant-garde movementism"


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