Romantic Warriors 2 – About Rock in Opposition arrived at a time in my life when quite a lot of things were changing for me. I had just finished my first year at college and had been a fan of classic progressive rock pretty much my entire life. In June of 2012, I discovered that the world of progressive rock was bigger and more vibrant then I’d ever dreamed it to be when I went to the North East Art Rock Festival (NEARfest) in Bethlehem, PA to see Van der Graaf Generator and left a fan of bands I’d never heard of before such as Aranis, Anglagard, and Gosta Berlings Saga.
During the course of the festival, I met filmmakers Adele Schmidt and Jose Zegarra Holder who had just released the second film in the Romantic Warriors documentary film series. I had heard of Rock in Opposition and had owned a handful of albums by people like Univers Zero, Henry Cow, and Magma, but not much more, so I purchased it not quite knowing what to expect. When I saw this documentary, the very human story at its core – the struggle of the idealistic musician vs. the music business machine – ignited a passion for this little known and under-appreciated subgenre that has lasted through this very day.
Fast forward to 2014. I remember hearing rumor around the time of the previous film that Schmidt and Zegarra Holder were working on the third film in the series and the subject would be the Canterbury scene. Now, for those of you who don’t know what the Canterbury scene was, it essentially was a group of exceptionally talented musicians in and around the city of Canterbury, Kent who, though various ways of networking, managed to form, break up, and reform a number of crazily creative bands from about 1967 through 1978.
The Canterbury sound seems to stem from a love of jazz, folk, rock, and experimentation, with an honest attempt to write good old fashioned pop songs. Perhaps the most defining feature of the Canterbury sound is the ‘fuzz’ organ sound – essentially a organ run through a distortion pedal – that was invented by Mike Rateledge of The Soft Machine and borrowed by bands such as Egg, Hatfield and the North, National Health, Moving Gelatine Plates, and Supersister.
I was never particularly a big fan of the so-called Canterbury scene until recently, though I did own a couple of Caravan, Soft Machine, Gong, and Hatfield and the North albums from the period of my life when I decided to collect anything that could be considered remotely progressive rock. When the film was announced, I immediately went back to my collection and relistened to most of the Canterbury albums I owned already and even went ahead and bought some new ones. So, I’ve been acquiring the taste for the genre, or subgenre, over the course of the past 12 months or so. Needless to say, I was ready for this documentary and – unlike the previous two Romantic Warriors films, I was already pretty passionate about a few key bands and albums that I’ve really grown to love in recent months.
The DVD arrived after a long day of classes and I eagerly tore open the package to get a look at the beautiful cover art designed by Spencer Keala Bowden, which is as vibrant as the music itself. It was fairly late and I popped the disc in, thinking “I’ll watch a bit of this until I get tired and watch the rest tomorrow”. Two hours later, the credits were rolling. The whole thing was gone in a flash – it was that captivating.
The film starts simply with the beginnings of The Wilde Flowers – the first Canterbury group proper, which featured key protagonists such as Hugh Hopper, Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers, Richard Sinclair, and Pye Hastings to name a few. The band never released any studio recordings at the time, however, the group soon splintered into the Soft Machine and Caravan and the Canterbury family tree became more and more complex from there when Daevid Allen was prevented re-entry into England and formed the legendary (and personal favorite) band, Gong.
I won’t get too in-depth with the history (you need to see the film for more of that), but what immediately impressed me is the historical importance of this documentary. What we get here is the final interview of Daevid Allen (who sadly passed away from cancer all too recently), who is firing on all cylinders. Yes, he’s ill, and yes it’s incredibly depressing to see him in this state, but none of his wit, humor, or intelligence is diminished by his disease. Every scene he is featured in is totally captivating, funny, and sad all at once. He is the heart of this documentary and he steals the show – if nothing else, buy it for him.
Another thing I would like to mention is just how great Adele Schmidt and Jose Zegarra Holder are at storytelling. What we have here is a story which starts off in a place of innocence and fun and we see that innocence lost when Robert Wyatt falls from a window and is paralyzed for the rest of his life. From here, the documentary takes a bit of a tragic turn and we see how Wyatt’s injury affected the scene as a whole and halted the reformation of his post Softs band, Matching Mole and led to perhaps his most revered solo work, Rock Bottom. This ultimately pays off toward the conclusion when we hear it, in Daevid Allen’s own words, that he has retired from Gong, but the band will continue without him, led by Kavus Torabi (Knifeworld, Guapo, Cardiacs). Chilling, sad, but the message is – the music will ultimately prevail in the end.
With these positive comments, I do have a few criticisms to offer. For one, the documentary moves really, really fast. This makes for a captivating viewing experience, however a lot of information is thrown at you in succession and I think that perhaps the film might’ve benefited from at least 30 minutes added to the run time. Yes, two hours is a lengthy documentary already in the iPhone age, but the material deserves some breathing room. Unfortunately, with this breakneck pace, a lot of important albums are glossed over. For instance, Caravan’s seminal In The Land of Grey and Pink is barely mentioned. Yes, we finally find out just what “Nine Feet Underground” is a reference to (I won’t spoil it), but I feel that an all-time progressive rock classic deserves more than just a few seconds of coverage.
Also, the second Hatfield and the North and National Health albums are glossed over pretty quickly. I realize that a theoretical analysis of “The Yes / No Interlude” would get tedious, but a mere mention and some background info on The Rotter’s Club title (but not the music) left me wanting more. Speaking of National Health, I really enjoyed learning what the origins of National Health were (again, this is a relatively spoiler free review), but their all time classic “Tenemos Roads” wasn’t even mentioned, which left me a bit confused. Hopefully, we’ll get a bonus features disc like we got with the RIO documentary – that would make me a happy progger. One last thing – I find it perplexing that the soundtrack used is mostly live tracks and bootlegs, whereas some of the promotional footage used studio cuts. I wonder why?
Anyway, I’ve now begun nitpicking and it’s time to stop. Despite its flaws, it truly is a great piece of work and a testament to this phenomenal music scene. I enjoyed it so much, I immediately wanted to go grab all of my Canterbury discs and listen to them again – it’s that good. If you are any kind of progressive music fan, you will want to have this.