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Music Review: The Canterbury Scene Re-Issues Featuring National Health And Soft Heap

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The Canterbury Scene of the late 60s and early 70s marked a remarkable period in the history of British progressive rock music and, most notably, the development of jazz fusion. It was rich with names such as Kevin Ayers (Soft Machine), Daevid Allen (Gong), Fred Frith and Robert Wyatt (Henry Cow), and National Health’s Dave Stewart among many others.

Despite being originally a geographic term, as many of the bands heralded from the Kent cathedral city, it is now used to capture the style of the vibrant musical experiments of its main exponents of the time. These two superb examples from the mid 70s have been re-issued and provide the perfect illustration of the wealth of material now available again.

National Health – Of Queues And Cures (ECLEC 2130)
Dave Stewart had already been an inspirational part of Uriel, a band that had included Steve Hillage later of Gong and The Orb, Egg, Hillage’s Khan, and Hatfield And The North. In fact any family tree of the Canterbury Scene would provide a mass of links of membership from one band to another with the lines of connection spreading far and wide and becoming ever more intricate.

When Stewart formed National Health in 1975 he brought in Hatfield And The North pair, drummer Pip Pyle, who replaced Bill Bruford (later of King Crimson and Yes), and guitarist Phil Miller. Keyboard player Alan Gowen of Gilgamesh, Phil Lee and ex-Egg bass player Mont Campbell completed the original line-up.

Named after Dave Stewart's round-rimmed National Health glasses (the type previously made famous in the mid 60s by John Lennon) they played a gloriously rich fusion of lengthy and highly complex compositions that remain as vibrant and absorbing today as when they were first heard over thirty years ago.

Their first self-titled album, recorded in March 1977, arrived in the midst of the ongoing punk revolution. The second, Of Queues And Cures, was recorded in Yes singer Jon Anderson’s mobile studio at Ridge Farm near Dorking in Surrey. The title had been aptly taken from a newspaper article bemoaning the state of the National Health Service and in particular the length of hospital waiting queues.

Of Queues And Cures has now been re-released, having been re-mastered and re-packaged with additional photographs and informative album notes. The complex individual musical characters within the band are illustrated by the wealth of compositions contained on the album.

It opens with Dave Stewart's vibrant and highly absorbing pair “The Bryden 2-Step” and “The Collapso”, a track built upon an all but dissected Caribbean structure. For the first of these tracks, producer Mike Dunne heard the song of a nearby wren, and after a lengthy chase, set about recording it, and included it in the opening sequence. For the second, he included the smashing of the glass in the windows of a greenhouse.

Bass player John Greaves follows these with “Squarer For Maud”. This was a piece that included the voice of Peter Blegvad of Henry Cow who read from a pamphlet that revealed that Maud was in fact, a computer programme designed to measure numinosity. The excellent “Dreams Wide Awake” was written by guitarist Phil Miller and opens with a near possessed organ solo from Dave Stewart, before easing back to reveal a typically intricate piece lavishly full of trademark quality musicianship.

Pip Pyle adds the next two tracks, the huge, sprawling, ambitious and yet compelling “Binoculars”, sung by John Greaves, and “Phlakaton” which is cleverly layered upon his drum prowess. This is a remarkably accomplished album from a band who could have, if the circumstances been more favorable, gone on to produce even more of this quality.

Soft Heap – Soft Heap (ECLEC 2131)
Formed in the front room of a house in Tooting, South London in January 1978 Soft Heap was another amalgam of musicians from the Canterbury Scene style of jazz fusion.

They consisted of bass player Hugh Hopper, saxophonist Elton Dean both of Soft Machine and ex-National Health pair Alan Gowen on keys, and drummer Pip Pyle. The ‘Heap’ part of the name came from the initials of their first names.

This, their only studio album is now available as a re-release. It was originally released in 1979 following a brief spell touring as Soft Head a period that produced Rogue Element a live album that saw Dave Sheen on drums (hence Head not Heap).

Having reconvened as Soft Heap the bands four elements contrived to create an album that, despite being largely unrecognized by the general record buying public, remains a sought after and highly regarded example of the Canterbury Scene.

The influence of the ex-Soft Machine sax player Elton Dean runs stridently throughout the album and leaves us with a timeless reminder of his undoubted place within the Canterbury Scene. However, it is the understanding between bass player Hugh Hopper and Pip Pyle, who together deal with an intricate web of time changes and free-form experimentalism, that really underpins the whole project.

The album opens with Hopper’s evocative “Circle Line” and the improvised “A.W.O.L.” a track that showcases this extraordinary combination of musical vision and innovation perfectly. The gorgeously sensual “Petit 3’s”, written by Alan Gowen, leads beautifully into “Terra Nova” and “Fara”. Both of these came from the pen of the extraordinarily talented saxophonist Elton Dean.

The album ends with perhaps the most revealing of all of the tracks on offer, “Short Hand”. Frantically intertwining around its revolving core it highlights exactly why this band and this album remain so highly regarded when followers of the 'Scene' discuss times past.

Sadly, Alan Gowen, Pip Pyle and Elton Dean have all since passed away but this exceptional album captures them at the very peak of their creative best and leaves us with an album to treasure.

Both of these albums are available, along with a wealth of other re-released gems, on the Esoteric Recordings Label website. The label have done a wonderful job bringing the albums of the Canterbury Scene to the notice of latter day music lovers by re-releasing a host of material.

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About Jeff Perkins

  • http://img101.imageshack.us/img101/385/obamunismxm4.jpg Dave (in MA)

    Nice review. Regret to inform you that we’ve lost Hugh Hopper as well.

  • Jeff Perkins

    Thanks Dave – I’m sorry to hear about Hugh, I didn’t know – sorry that I didn’t make reference to his passing in the article. This album certainly serves his memory very well indeed.
    Thanks for taking the time to read it, very much appreciated. Jeff (in France)