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The Wilde Flowers
written by: Nigel Camilleri
update: 6 June 2001
A Brief History
Whenever one reads about the Canterbury musical scene from the late Sixties / early Seventies, one is bound to come across the name of a group called The Wilde Flowers. From within the ranks of this group there would emerge a core of musicians that would lead a number of bands that would be considered the cream of progressive rock such as Soft Machine, Caravan and Matching Mole just to mention a few. To add further to the myth of this infamous band, they never got down to recording an album! Finally in 1995, Voiceprint Records managed to get together a collection of recordings and demos that the group had made throughout their short history and release them on a single CD. Some other demos have been released on a series of compilations by the same record company.
The origins of the band date to June 1963, lasting for about four years. In that time the number of musicians that went in and out of the band was numerous,but the original line-up consisted of Brian Hopper (guitar,saxophone,flute, vocals), Hugh Hopper (bass), Robert Wyatt (drums, vocals), Richard Sinclair (guitar, vocals) and Kevin Ayers (vocals).
The roots of this group lay within a trio that had been formed at the Simon Langton School, attended by Wyatt, Hopper and Mike Ratledge. As Ian McDonald, then editor of the NME, said about the school in 1975, "an exclusive, private establishment for the sons of local intellectuals and artists. Very free, emphatically geared to the uninhibited development of self-expression. A hot-bed to teenage avant-garderie".
The three were jazz lovers and their idols included Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane. However it had to be an Australian beatnik by the name of Daevid Alllen who would lay the foundations for the formation of The Wilde Flowers.
A patron of The Beat Hotel which had residents as William Borroughs, Alan Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, Allen befriended Wyatt at Wellington House and together with Hugh Hopper formed the Daevid Allen Trio, with Hopper on bass and Wyatt on drums. Wellington House was a Georgian mansion owned by Wyatt's mother and was a form of converging point for musicians and artists in the area who dug avant-garde jazz, Dadaist art and poetry. He arrived at the house with 200 jazz records and a guitar having travelled via Melbourne, Paris and London. The first session he played with Wyatt, had Wyatt accompanying blues improvisations on the piano. But as friends Ayers and the Hopper brothers arrived, this developed further and Wyatt took over percussion. The percussion consisted of a broken typewriter, an old ammunitions box as well as a trumpet.
Though not a Canterbury resident, Allen would initiate these students in the excesses of sex, drugs and experimental music. Of further importance to Wyatt is the fact that his family sent him to recover from these excesses to family friend, poet Robert Blake in Deia (Majorca). There was also present American drummer George Niedorf who gave him his first drumming lessons.
The trio played together, often on Allen's houseboat and debuted at London's Establishment Club in 1963. This can be considered to be the first elements of free jazz that would become dominant in the Canterbury musical scene. In all honesty the musical scene at that time was too innocent to be able to welcome such a style which included free jazz improvisations coupled with beat poetry, and it is no surprise that the trio met little success. That year Allen left for Paris shortly after and continue experimenting with music, especially with Terry Riley (one of the pioneers of "musique concrete") and school friend Mike Ratledge (who had often jammed with the trio), helped forming The Wilde Flowers.
Many recordings from this era have been grouped together in a 4-series compilation called Canterburied Sounds, released on the Voiceprint label. These compilations include a series of sessions and demo recordings made by the various instigators of the Canterbury musical scene, in their early years. The tracks that will be mentioned here will just be those pertinent to The Wilde Flowers, though the compilation also includes various tracks by Wyatt, Ratledge and the Daevid Allen Trio prior to the formation of The Wilde Flowers.
As already mentioned the first lineup consisted of Wyatt, Hopper, Richard Sinclair, Brian Hopper and Kevin Ayers. Ayers is said to have been chosen due to his appearance and because he was the only youth in Canterbury with long hair! What is definite is that he also was instrumental in giving the group its name. Born in Malaysia, the son of a diplomat, he brought to the group a certain exotic flavour and added the "e" to Wild, in honour of the irreverent Oscar Wilde. Furthermore, Ayers did not play any instrument in the studio or on stage, but had started to learn to play the guitar and he wrote some basic tracks, some of which ended up in The Wilde Flowers repertoire, and some were used later on with Soft Machine (eg: Love Makes Sweet Music).
Initially the group played soul music with covers of bands such as Booker T And The M.G.'s as well of standards by Ray Charles and Chuck Berry (a cover of Almost Grown appears on the album). However the group slowly moved towards a jazz leaning introducing that Elvin Jones and John Coltrane touch into their music. Their first gig was at the Bear and Key Hotel and in Hugh Hopper's words "we played Chuck Berry, Beatles and a few originals." Their first recording was a demo made at Wout Steenhuls Studio, Broadstaris, Kent, on 16 March 1965.
The group's short history can de divided into five distinctive phases, characterised by the various line-ups that made the group. The first phase (and line-up) lasted till March of 1965, when Kevin Ayers left the band, fleeing to Ibiza (a movement that would be repeated often throughout his career!) with none other than Daevid Allen! Ayers would form part of the first incarnation of Soft Machine later on.
However, the first available recordings of the band come from a rehearsal in the summer of 1964 where the group play Your Really Got Me (The Kinks) and Thinking Of You Baby (Dave Clark). The line-up here consists of the initial line-up minus Richard Sinclair and was the first recording session with Kevin Ayers. Both tracks appear on the compilation album Canterburied Sounds Volume 1 (Voiceprint VP201 CD). Canterburied Sounds Volume 1V (Voiceprint VP 204 CD) has a recording from the same session of Johnny B Goode (Chuck Berry), though I have been unable to find any official confirmation of this recording having taken place.
The Broadstairs session has the group recording Parchman's Farm (Booker White), Memories (instrumental) (Hugh Hopper), She's Gone (Ayers) and the Chuck Berry track, Almost Grown, this time with Sinclair joining in.
Another session at Broadstairs, whose recordings are yet to be released, took place in April that year, with another recording of Memories and A Certain Kind. By this time, Ayers had already left the band and the vocals are sung by Wyatt.
For a short while, vocal duties would be taken up by Graham Flight. With Flight in the line-up, the band recorded at Selindge, Kent between June and July of 1965. The tracks recorded were Slow Walkin' Talk (Brian Hopper), He's Bad For You (Wyatt), Don't Try To Change Me (Hugh Hopper) and It's What I Feel (A Certain Kind) (Hugh Hopper). Even though Flight was the band's vocalist, Wyatt sings on his own composition. Graham Flight, however, would only last five months with the band before going onto form The Polite Force and The Music Doctors.
September 1965 also saw Sinclair leave for college. In time he would form Caravan. Meanwhile, Wyatt, who by now had also taken up vocal duties, was also toying with the idea of leaving the band and left a short while later to join Soft Machine. In came Richard Coughlan from the Stour Side Stompers on drums, together with Pye Hastings on guitars and vocals.
However, recordings exist from the time where Richard Coughlan played drums and Wyatt dedicated himself solely to vocal duties. The sessions took place in Spring 1966, and the following tracks were laid down: Memories (Hugh Hopper), Never Leave Me (Hugh Hopper), Time After Time (Hugh Hopper), Just Where I Want (Hugh Hopper), No Game When You Lose (Hugh Hopper), Those Words They Say (Brian Hopper) and Impotence (Hugh Hopper).
By mid-1966, it was Hugh Hopper who left the fold to join Soft Machine. Dave Lawrence took his place. The end of the official Wilde Flowers was nigh and by September / October 1967, the group had Brian Hopper, the last remaining original member, leaving to join Soft Machine while Coughlan, Hastings and Sinclair would move onto Caravan.
The CD pertaining to The Wilde Flowers also lists a number of tracks recorded at a session at Regent Sound Studios on the 6 August 1969, though by the time of their recording, the careers of Soft Machine and Caravan were already underway. However, they are of interest as they feature tracks recorded by Wyatt, Hugh Hopper and Pye Hastings: Impotence (Hopper / Wyatt), She Loves To Hurt (Hopper), and Memories (Hopper). A fourth track, The Big Show (Brian Hopper), also sees Brian Hopper joining in.
Thus one of progressive rock's most important bands came to an end with the formation of the Canterbury scene's most
popular groups, Soft Machine and Caravan. However, not all the memebrs that passed through the ranks
of The Wilde Flowers ended up in these two bands. Brian Hopper also formed the short-lived band Zobe, some of
whose recordings also appear on The Wilde Flowers album released by Voiceprint. Interestingly, one of the band members
who has taken long to surface, in musical terms, has been Graham Flight. In 1998, together with his group Happy
Accidents, they released their first studio release, also on Voiceprint. Their latest offering was also reviewed on DPRP.