Hatfied & the North: The Rotter’s Club LP (Virgin, 1975)
I was on a house call where this guy had an amazing collection. His entire basement was full of packed shelves of CDs, vinyl, and books, and even as someone who has spent a lot of time looking at people’s music collections, it was impressive. When I got back to the store, I told Dominic it looked like the guy had bought just about every reissue reviewed in Mojo and Ugly Things since the 80s. We were chatting about our favorite records, and he told me his all-time favorite record is Soft Machine’s Third, and that he was a big fan of the Canterbury scene, including bands like Soft Machine, Caravan, and Hatfield & the North. I know a little about that music, but not a lot. I wrote about Caravan’s In the Land of Grey and Pink as my staff pick a few years ago after hearing a track on the BBC 6 program The Freak Zone (actually, I swear that I did, but now I can’t find the post to link it), but Canterbury is a world I’ve brushed up against, not dove into. Anyway, when someone who has 20,000 records in their basement tells you what his favorite record is, the smart thing to do is to listen to that record, so I listened to Soft Machine’s Third. It is excellent, and you shouldn’t be surprised if I write about it for my staff pick somewhere down the road.
I was looking at that collection on a Saturday, then on Monday I got to work and started getting settled in, and Jeff sends me a message that someone called the shop about selling some records and that it sounded promising. I had a moment, so I called the guy back, and since my next few days looked pretty busy and he was available, I went straight out to look at his records. It turns out the guy had a killer collection full of experimental music from the 70s and 80s, including a lot of UK imports, and you’ll see those records popping up on our Friday Instagram posts over the next several weeks. Oddly, this collection included many of the records I had just been talking about at the other guy’s house two days earlier… many of them records I’ve never seen or seen only once or twice. This happens a lot… I’ll buy two collections at more or less the same time and think to myself, “these two people should be friends.” I’ve never actually made a record love connection, but when the universe rings me up I try to answer, so I skimmed copies of Soft Machine’s Third and Hatfield & the North’s The Rotter’s Club off the top of that buy and brought them home.
For whatever reason, The Rotter’s Club is the record I keep coming back to. I think this might be a signal that I’m developing a taste for Canterbury. I may be speaking out of turn here because I’m a neophyte rather than an expert in Canterbury, but here’s a quick rundown. The scene gets its name because it was centered near the English town of Canterbury (the same Canterbury from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales). Scene fulcrum Robert Wyatt’s mother owned a 15-bedroom Georgian mansion near Canterbury, and many of his musician friends rented rooms there. Musical connections formed, people came and went, projects formed and splintered… it’s a whole long story I’m not qualified to tell, so look it up if you’re interested.
To my ears, Canterbury music brings together three musical styles: whimsical, often absurdist pop; sophisticated classical composition; and incantatory psychedelic improvisation. Those elements were all in the air in late 60s and early 70s Europe, but they didn’t come together anywhere in quite the same way they did in Canterbury. Critics often compare the whimsical pop element to Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, but Floyd were contemporaries of the Canterbury scene, not influences on it, and the Soft Machine often played the UFO Club alongside Floyd in both bands’ early days. The playful lyrics, filled with absurdities in the vein of Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll butting heads with low-brow jokes and puns, often garner comparisons to Monty Python. However, these playful passages sit, perhaps slightly awkwardly, next to complex, classical-influenced compositions that would coalesce into prog (many of the Canterbury bands formed before prog stalwarts like Yes and King Crimson had released anything). And even these proto-prog passages might drift away from the tight compositions and arrangements and do some free-form psych improvising for a few minutes. It’s a mixed bag, and it makes it harder to find your way into this stuff because if you’re interested in only one or two of those elements, the others may grate on your nerves.
The Rotter’s Club is a prototypical mix of these elements. I’m still not sure I’m 100% sold on the opening track, “Share It,” but from there I’m on board. And who can’t get behind song titles like “(Big) John Wayne Socks Psychology On The Jaw” and “Your Majesty Is Like A Cream Donut?” Actually, there are probably a lot of you out there who can’t, and if that’s the case, then you can ignore this whole corner of music history. The same goes if you hate early Yes and Crimson, or you can’t stand German progressive rock (aka “Krautrock”). I guess you have to have a pretty open mind to like this Canterbury stuff, or maybe you just need to be a middle-aged Anglophile who spends way too much time and money on music. Either way, they got me.