Strange gathering at Wyndham’s Theatre

The topic has just come up again on the Canterbury Scene FB group, and I thought it deserved a blog post, which also seemed a good opportunity to take this blog into 2017 at last since, due to other work taking precedence, there have been no updates since late last year. Rest assured there’s plenty more coming, hopefully before the Summer.

Many readers will be familiar with the photograph below from the late Michael King’s seminal book Wrong Movements. It features assorted members of such notable Canterbury bands as Soft Machine, Matching Mole and Gong.

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Daevid Allen, Karl Jenkins, John Marshall, Bill MacCormick, Mike Ratledge, Robert Wyatt, Elton Dean and Francis Monkman

The caption in the book stated that the photo had been taken in Paris – which as we’ll see would turn out not to have been the case. The confusion was probably due to the photo making its first appearance in a French music monthly, Best, in its January 1973 issue. This particular issue had lengthy interviews with Mike Ratledge, Hugh Hopper (interestingly missing from the photo) and Robert Wyatt, which were said to have been conducted in London (and in Hugh’s case, in his houseboat on the Thames estuary) in June 1972.

There are several things about this photo which are puzzling. The presence of Karl Jenkins places the scene in the second half of 1972, as he had joined Soft Machine in June. On the other hand Francis Monkman, a founding member of Curved Air, joined forces with Robert Wyatt for a Peel session in December, and when I interviewed him for the booklet to Robert’s Solar Flares Burn For You CD, which contained this session, his recollection was that Robert had called him out of the blue to record it, so I was inclined to place the scene in December 1972, still believing the photo to have been taken in Paris. This would have made some sense, as Soft Machine were in Paris for a TV appearance on Pierre Lattès’ Rockenstock programme that month. This was also roughly when Bill MacCormick was briefly a member of Gong, staying at their hunting lodge in Sens for a few days until he decided not to join, and when Robert Wyatt came to Paris for yet another Rockenstock shoot as a guest with Hatfield and the North. Still, in this context I could not think of a reason why Elton Dean would also have been present.

Queries to the various musicians appearing on the photograph returned no memories of how or why such a gathering would have taken place. Robert Wyatt is seen in cheerful mood alongside Mike Ratledge and Elton Dean, both of whom he would later blame for his ousting from Soft Machine, when the atmosphere during the joint Softs/Mole tour of Benelux in September 1972 has been described as rather tense. And seeing Daevid Allen alongside Karl Jenkins and John Marshall, from a very different Soft Machine to the band he’d helped form back in 1966, is an almost surreal sight.

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Inside Wyndham’s Theatre

An interesting clue came with the photo’s appearance in the booklet for the 2007 reissue of Soft Machine’s Fifth. The caption mentioned that the photo had actually been taken at London’s Wyndham’s Theatre, near Leicester Square. This makes much more sense, since there were two special joint CBS-sponsored concerts with a triple-bill of Soft Machine, Matching Mole and Elton Dean’s Just Us in London (King’s Cross Cinema) and Oxford in July 1972. This photoshoot could conceivably have been arranged with a view to promoting them – although why the results would only have appeared some six months later in a French magazine seems strange, unless the shoot was arranged specifically for it. This may seem unlikely, except that the author of said article, Hervé Muller, mentioned in the introduction that his original intention was to write an overview of the entire Canterbury scene, only to find his interviews with Ratledge, Hopper and Wyatt so interesting that he chose to make them the sole focus of his piece. The ‘all-star’ photo would have made perfect sense in the context of Muller’s original idea, though.

CBSflyerAnyway, the logical conclusion would be that this was shot sometime around late June 1972, either for the Best article or to promote the upcoming joint gigs. Francis Monkman, although he had yet to undertake any musical collaboration with Robert at that point (he was still in Curved Air until the autumn, and indeed was to tour North America with them during July, returning to the UK in August to headline the Reading Festival), had been a friend and supporter of Soft Machine since 1969. As for Daevid Allen, there was little Gong activity during the second half of June, which also happens to be when Charles Hayward replaced Mac Poole on drums, so he may have been in London for auditions.

An interesting footnote is that Best ran another photo from the same shoot, which is less commonly shown. Here it is below. This raises an additional mystery, as there is a 9th person in this one – presumably the one on the top left corner, assuming the top right one to be Daevid Allen. Could this possibly be Hugh Hopper ? Yes, it definitely does look like it could be him… So he was there after all !

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