The Wilde Flowers
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.
Line-up The Wilde Flowers: Robert Wyatt (drums, voice) (tracks 1-16, 20-22), Hugh Hopper (bass) (tracks 1-16, 20-22), Brian Hopper (guitar, backing vocals) (tracks 2-19, 21), Kevin Ayers (vocals) (tracks 5-7), Richard Coughlan (drums) (tracks 2, 3, 12-16), Graham Flight (vocals) (tracks 1, 9), Richard Sinclair (guitar) (tracks 4, 5, 7-11), Pye Hastings (guitar) (tracks 1, 20); line-up Zobe (tracks 17-19): Dave Lawrence (voice, bass), Bob Gilleson (drums), John Lawrence (guitar, backing vocals)
All tracks were composed by Hugh Hopper, except for Impotence (music Hugh Hopper, lyrics Robert Wyatt), Those Words They Say (Brian Hoper), Parchman Farm (Booker White), Almost Grown (Chuck Berry), She's Gone (Kevin Ayers), Slow Walkin' Talk (Brian Hopper), He's Bad For You (Robert Wyatt), The Big Show (Brian Hopper); all Zobe tracks composed by Brian Hopper.
The only commercially available collection of recordings from this seminal band are gathered on this compilation. The CD features tracks from all the phases of the band's short history, as well as a couple of recordings that former members made together following the demise of the group, and three recordings from Brian Hopper's band Zobe (another Forgotten Sons tale!). There are a couple of tracks available on the compilations called Canterburied Sounds (Volumes I - IV) (also available from Voiceprint), that are not included on this CD.
The best way to approach the album is by separating the tracks into different contexts, according to the phase in the band's history in which they were recorded. The first set of recordings presented on this album are taken from a session on 16 March 1965, which took place at Wout Steenhuls Studio, Broadstairs, Kent. There are four tracks from that session present here: Parchman Farm, Almost Grown, She's Gone and Memories (Instrumental). Of these tracks, two are cover versions (Parchman Farm by Booker White and Almost Grown by Chuck Berry), She's Gone is a Kevin Ayers composition while the instrumental version of Impotence allows an insight into one of the most curious tracks on the album. Impotence appears in no less than three versions, each taken from a different phase of The Wilde Flowers' history and each has been treated differently.
The inclusion of these two particular cover versions is a clear example that although the band members had a love for jazz music, their musical roots lay well within that of other similar sixties beat groups with Chuck Berry being the notable influence. Though the cover versions are pretty straight forward, one cannot but sense that the group still approached the tracks in a different method than routine cover bands. Even the Beatles-esque She's Gone, penned by Kevin Ayers, is interesting when one looks at how he developed musically. Especially when compared to the first tracks he wrote with Soft Machine, which possess a somewhat similar musical style to this particular track.
The instrumental version of Memories, in my opinion, should have opened the album. Throughout the album we are regaled with three versions of this song, which at this stage still had no lyrics and shows the jazz influences slowly creeping into the band's music.
The second batch of recordings comes from a session in Summer / Autumn of 1965, once again at Wout Steenhuls Studios. By this time the line-up of the band had changed. Kevin Ayers had left the band to be replaced by Graham Flight. The tracks from that session are Don't Try To Change Me, Slow Wakin' Talk, He's Bad For You and It's What I Feel (A Certain Kind). Flight's voice is slightly higher pitched than Wyatt's and has more strength in it, resulting in the tracks he sings having a harder and harsher sound. Don't Try To Change Me has that Sixties beat feel to it, while Slow Walkin' Talk has more of a blues influence.
Penned by Robert Wyatt, He's Bad For You has Wyatt joining in with Flight for the vocals. The two duet on a track that shows Wyatt's different musical approach to the Hopper brothers, who composed the majority of The Wilde Flowers' tracks. Rhythmically, the track is more complex with the saxophone playing a prominent role in the musical structure while the guitars are relegated to a rhythmic backing.
It's What I Feel (A Certain Kind) has Richard Sinclair taking over lead vocals, a glimpse of the future Caravan founder taking the limelight. Once again, the track though not commercial in terms of being ear-friendly, still lacks the quirkiness that Wyatt manages to infuse into the tracks he penned.
The last official Wilde Flowers recording session that is represented on this collection comes from a session in Spring 1966, again at Wout Steenhuls Studios. Graham Flight had left the band by now with Robert Wyatt taking over the vocals and Richard Coughlan replacing Wyatt on the drums. This recording session has the group at its most prolific stage, as no less than seven tracks from this compilation are from that very session. The tracks are: Those Words They Say, Memories, Never Leave Me, Time After Time, Just Where I Want, No Game When You Lose, and Impotence. Wyatt's percussive background is evident even though he was not playing the drums. He was unable to contain himself from lending a percussive hand. The majority of these tracks has the added sound of a tambourine, played by Wyatt.
Musically, the band seemed to have remained in a rut. Their musical dimension don't seem to have progressed too much, as the tracks retain a similar style and structure to much of what was played on previously recorded tracks. Having heard these tracks, one can imagine the frustration of a creative mind as Wyatt's, who was deeply in love with jazz music. With these tracks he was being limited in the ways he could express himself and it is no wonder that shortly after these recordings he left the band.
Of interest are the recordings of Memories and Impotence. Memories has lyrics added to it, while Impotence is another track that would be re-recorded a few years later. Also worth noting about these recordings is that in the previous session's recordings the band utilised Brian Hopper's saxophone playing, which added another dimension to the band's music. This time around, the saxophone is conspicuously absent. The end result is a bland sound with the group only really managing to shine on Impotence.
No recordings exist (as yet) of the lineup of The Wilde Flowers that had Dave Lawrence joining instead of Hugh Hopper. In fact, one could say that The Wilde Flowers were effectively over by mid-1966. The CD offers two batches of added recordings that have a link to The Wilde Flowers.
The first set of recordings are three tracks laid down in 1968 by Zobe, the band that Brian Hopper had formed. Also involved in the band was Dave Lawrence, a member of the final line-up of The Wilde Flowers. Zobe never released an album though these demo-tracks show that the group had a sound and style that was very similar to The Wilde Flowers. On the other hand, the sound is slightly more folk-orientated, especially with the clean guitar strumming, coupled with the occasional flute playing by Brian Hopper (Summer Spirit).
On 6 August 1969, Hugh Hopper and Robert Wyatt got together for a recording session at the Regent Sound Studios in London. Together they laid down four tracks, aided by Pye Hastings, Brian Hopper and Mike Ratledge. She Loves To Hurt and The Big Show are the only "new" tracks. (Whether they are new tracks or simply old tracks from the Wilde Flowers repertoire is unknown. One also wonders if these recordings where just done for the fun of reviving old memories or whether there was renewed interest in The Wilde Flowers recordings.
She Loves To Hurt has Pye Hastings singing while The Big Show has Wyatt on vocals. What is definite is that the maturity of these musicians, as well as their progression in the world of music with Caravan and Soft Machine, shines through these two tracks. The tracks show a broader musical diversity and complexity than all of what The Wilde Flowers had perviously accomplished. Impotence and Memories are revived and revamped giving them that more "modern" and progressive touch, something they lacked on their previous recordings.
Of note is the inclusion of Mike Ratledge in this last set of recordings. Ratledge was never a member of The Wilde Flowers, but his influence on Wyatt and Hopper was instrumental in kick-starting their musical careers and it is only fitting that the earliest recording of the band, Memories, is also included in this 1969 recording with just the trio of Robert Wyatt, Hugh Hopper and Mike Ratledge playing.
There is no official The Wilde Flowers website, but the most authorative site (in my opinion!) related to the Canterbury Progressive rock scene is the Calyx Website.
Should you have any further information regarding The Wilde Flowers that could be added to the site, do not hesitate to contact me.