[9 July 2007]
Considering the evidence, it’s not entirely difficult to see Hugh Hopper as the defining figure of that quintessentially English school of prog-jazz-rock, the Canterbury scene. He was there right at the beginning as a founder and member of the Wilde Flowers—the legendary mid-‘60s ‘beat group’ that spawned Canterbury’s two most important bands, Soft Machine and Caravan. He was Soft Machine’s road manager, putting in the hard work behind the scenes as the band toured the States with Jimi Hendrix in 1968, and, when Kevin Ayers left in 1969, Hopper stepped in and took up bass-playing duties—a position he held until he jettisoned from the band in 1973.
In fact, with the benefit of hindsight it’s even easier to see that, to a great extent, it was Hopper’s input that made prime Soft Machine such a powerfully explorative and original avant-garde group: he incorporated his fascination with Terry Riley-style tape-loops into recordings and performances; he wrote some of Soft Machine’s most enduring compositions, including most of 1971’s classic Fourth; and he contributed a key component to the band’s boiling sound—the monstrous fuzz-bass that became his trademark—an overdriven, all-the-way-up-to-eleven onslaught of blurred, blistering noise that had the ability to turn their energetic jams into coruscating audio paint stripper.
It’s unsurprising, then, that as the band slowly drifted into predictable jazz-rock noodlings, losing much of the psychedelic strangeness and Dadaist surrealism that originally made it such a unique outfit, Hopper became increasingly dissatisfied. Following drummer Robert Wyatt’s lead, Hopper left in 1973, just after the release of his first solo album, 1984—a darkly ominous mix of tape-loop experiments, tense Improv soundscapes, and creepy jazz based on Orwell’s bleak dystopian vision. In drawing together all of these disparate strands in a defiantly—even disastrously—uncommercial statement, 1984 was a forceful reminder of Hopper’s fierce creativity and fervent avant-garde tendencies. But it was with his second solo effort, 1977’s Hopper Tunity Box—now released on CD for the first time—that he really found his voice and established his identity as a key player in British experimental music.
First of all, there’s that album title: a typically twee, parochial, and disposable pun on ‘Opportunity Knocks’—a long-running, British prime-time TV talent contest. It’s about as Canterbury as it gets: resolutely un-American, unassuming, and unconcerned with coolness of any kind whatsoever. Likewise, the music itself is clearly the product of a very singular, determined, and self-contained imagination. All but one of the tracks were constructed around basslines, laid down by Hopper in isolation to a studio click track, and later fleshed out by a cadre of key Canterbury musicians including keyboardist Dave Stewart of Hatfield and the North, and saxophonist and ex-Soft Machine colleague Elton Dean. This ‘bottom-up’ approach to composition and recording allows Hopper’s personality and preoccupations to shine through, unclouded by the clutter of band ego and spontaneous interplay.
Hopper Tunity Box is, then, a chance for Hopper to let loose the avant-garde impulses he’d been forced to stifle. More specifically, he gets to tinker around in the studio. A lot. This album simply couldn’t have come into existence without the most up-to-date technology of the time, here fortuitously made available in the mobile studio of ‘70s mega-prog behemoth Yes. You can’t help imagining Hopper hunched alone and absorbed over tape-loops and analogue gadgetry late at night like a bearded technician or beatnik scientist. Sounds are sped up and slowed down: fuzz-bass solos played at double time, approximating the sound of an electric guitar or a strangely strangled church organ; drum patterns played at half time to create oddly languorous rhythm tracks. Bass-parts are multi-tracked and overdubbed, creating huge, lumbering, hydra-headed melodies. It’s unmistakably the sound of one man’s obsession.
But here’s the strange thing: it’s also kind of funky. Somehow, Hopper’s actual tunes shine through as light, accessible, joyful, infectious pieces of chunky, groove-based ‘70s jazz-rock that you can actually tap your foot to. Never mind the tricky time signatures and whole-tone harmonic peregrinations: it’s got a groove, there’s some juicy soloing from the assembled hired-hands, and—the ultimate compliment for any funk-related endeavour—it wouldn’t sound out of place as the soundtrack to a vintage skin-flick.
I’d probably go so far as to call that something for everyone. Or at least anyone I’d care to meet.