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9 January 2019

The story of musician Phil Miller, king of the Canterbury scene

As a talented improvising guitarist Miller stood out in an unusual scene, but he was even more distinguished as a composer.

By Jonathan Coe

The guitarist and composer Phil Miller, who died just over a year ago, would have turned 70 last Sunday, and to mark that occasion an extraordinary line-up of musicians convened at the Vortex jazz club in London for two marathon tribute concerts. These gigs, organised by Miller’s widow, featured veteran players from his bands Delivery, Hatfield and the North, National Health and In Cahoots: pillars of the so-called Canterbury scene of the 1970s and beyond, a movement with which Miller was always identified even though he came from Barnet and lived in London all his adult life.

The nature and history of Canterbury music have been thoroughly documented in a 700-page French tome called L’Ecole du Canterbury by the musicologist Aymeric Leroy (who acted as the benignly lugubrious MC on Sunday night). It is hard to categorise: sometimes misleadingly bracketed with prog, its focus is on complex, jazzy instrumentals overlaid with a wry, somewhat Dadaist take-it-or-leave-it attitude. Caravan and Soft Machine are its best-remembered exponents. Tricky time signatures and dense chords abound; charismatic lead singers and big emotional gestures are in short supply. The Canterbury bands never achieved more than cult appeal, although the loyalty of their devotees is unshakeable; and while the movement was swept rudely aside by the punk revolution, its aesthetic arguably had more in common with punk than did the corporate megaliths like Genesis and Pink Floyd who somehow survived.

Canterbury music was unusual for its emphasis on keyboards and wind instruments rather than guitars and vocals. As a talented improvising guitarist (known for his gurning facial contortions during solos) Miller stood out, but he was even more distinguished as a composer. Sunday’s gigs kicked off with two of his earliest tunes, “Fools’ Meeting” and “Miserable Man”, written for the short-lived band Delivery, which reminded us that his often cerebral music was in fact rooted firmly in blues. We then moved on to the Hatfield and the North tune “Underdub”, composed just four years later, and the leap forward in terms of sophistication was astonishing. With a tune so elaborate that it had to be performed here by two guitars and two flutes, “Underdub” is underpinned by a lilting bossa nova-like beat which might lull its audience into expectations of blandness. Instead, the listener gets presented with a melody which spirals for bar after bar without any repetition or any promise of reaching its conclusion. Each individual phrase is tuneful and appealing; each links to the next; but the melodic and harmonic logic of the whole piece is deliciously twisted and complicated, so that every new idea defies expectations.

In my novel Middle England, the main character Benjamin Trotter, a Canterbury music fan, explains to an interviewer how Phil Miller’s methods inspired his own practice as a writer: he loves the fact that “there was this combination of freshness – originality – complete rethinking of form – while the music was very easy to listen to, it really invited the listener in”. The pieces performed on Sunday night demonstrated this: never more so than in Miller’s masterpiece “Above and Below” from the early 1980s. It begins with a marching rhythm over which another of his epic, seemingly never-ending melodies unrolls, but just as it appears to have reached its climax, eerie guitar chords announce a gentle middle section which creates space for a lyrical guitar solo in 5/4. (For these musicians, improvisation in 5/4 is as simple as playing “If You’re Happy and You Know It Clap Your Hands”.) The contrast is exquisitely judged.

With up to a dozen musicians crammed on to the Vortex’s tiny stage, some of the arrangements felt too densely textured, but John Greaves’s solo performance of the classic “God Song” (to lyrics by Robert Wyatt) provided an oasis of heartfelt simplicity. We were left with a slightly awestruck sense of the versatility of this too-little-known composer. If you want to find out for yourself what you may have missed, nearly all his music is streaming freely at philmillerthelegacy.com

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Phil Miller: A Life in Music
The Vortex, London N16

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This article appears in the 09 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit Showdown