Hugh C. Hopper was perhaps the central figure of the whole famous Canterbury scene. In a career spanning forty years, he played with litterally everyone : Robert Wyatt, Daevid Allen, Richard Sinclair, Elton Dean, Mike Ratledge, Phil Miller, Dave Stewart, Pip Pyle…
Hopper was of course one the founder members of the seminal Wilde Flowers in 1964. During the 60’s, he also worked in an experimental context with guitarist Daevid Allen (who later founded or co-founded Soft Machine and Gong). After leaving the Wilde Flowers, he became Soft Machine’s roadie, and when Kevin Ayers departed for a solo career, he swapped roles and moved to the role of bass player, remaining in the band until 1973 and playing on most of Soft Machine’s classic albums.
In the early days of Soft Machine, Hopper was a prolific songwriter (his song “Memories” became a standard, even covered by Whitney Houston!), but when the Softs opted for an instrumental format, he kept the same level of inspiration, providing compositions full of unusual yet catchy riffs, and experiments with sounds (Hopper was a pioneer in the use of ‘tape loops’), for instance on the groundbreaking Third album, which featured his own “Facelift”, one of the Canterbury ‘hymns’ alongside “Nan True’s Hole” and “Calyx”. Although he provided the bulk of the material for Fourth (1971), his creative input sadly decreased over the next couple of years, contributing short and rather minimal pieces to 5 and Six.
Hopper left Soft Machine in May 1973, shortly after the release of his first solo album, 1984, which had good jazz-rock instrumentals on one side, and a long experimental and partly improvised composition/collage on the other. “1984 is obviously the title of a book by George Orwell, about a possible Stalinist regime ruling Britain. I called my LP after it because it is a book that impressed me greatly when I first read it. The titles on the album – “Miniluv”, “Minitrue”, etc. – are the names in the book of the four ministries which control the country”. Then followed five years of intense activity, both as a leader (or co-leader) and support/session musician.
Firstly, he joined East Wind, the band led by Japanese percussion prodigy Stomu Yamash’ta, staying about six months. Also in that line-up were guitarist Gary Boyle and drummer Nigel Morris, both hailing from the fusion band Isotope. It was only logical that when Isotope’s bass player, Jeff Clyne, left in May 1974, Hopper should replace him. That incarnation (completed by Laurence Scott on keyboards) toured Europe and the United States, and recorded the album Illusion (1974), which featured future Hopper classics like “Sliding Dogs”, “Golden Section” and “Lily Kong”.
In the meantime, Hopper also formed his own touring band, with former Softs cohort Elton Dean, drummer Mike Travis from Gilgamesh (whom Hopper had introduced to Yamash’ta to replace Nigel Morris in his band), and two musicians from the French band Contrepoint (one of them being Jean-Pierre Weiller, who founded the Europa label in the early 80’s), with whom he had toured France the previous year. Recordings made during that tour resurfaced five years later (!) as one side of the Monster Band album.
Hopper left Isotope during the sessions for the band’s third and final album, Deep End (1976), to start work on a new solo project, Hoppertunity Box, for which he enlisted the help of many friends and former associates, among whom Elton Dean, Dave Stewart, Marc Charig, Gary Windo, Nigel Morris and Mike Travis. This featured a remake of “Miniluv” from 1984, a cover of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman”, and the future live favourite “Spanish Knee”.
In the autumn of 1976, Hopper was involved in a short-lived project (one week for a radio jazz meeting) with Carla Bley in Germany, known as the ‘Baden-Baden Workshop’; he also formed an experimental jazz quartet with Elton Dean, pianist Keith Tippett and drummer/synthesizer player Joe Gallivan. That line-up toured Europe in 1977 and released the album Cruel But Fair, which featured Hugh’s minimalist “Seven Drones”.
During that period, he also contributed to saxophonist Gary Windo’s unfinished Steam Radio Tapes project (which eventually saw the light of day as part of a posthumous Windo CD of various unreleased recordings, His Master’s Bones). And in the summer of 1977, Hopper worked again with Carla Bley (this time with Elton Dean also involved), touring European jazz festivals for three weeks and recording the (unappropriately titled) studio album “European Tour”.
In January 1978, he was a founding member of Soft Heap, alongside Elton Dean, Alan Gowen (keyboards, ex-Gilgamesh and National Health) and Pip Pyle (drums, ex-Hatfield and the North, concurrently involved in National Health). A debut European tour (with Dave Sheen replacing Pyle who had other commitments) resulted in the superb live album Rogue Element (Ogun Records), which contained a new version of “Seven Drones”. Later that year, a follow-up studio album was recorded in London, with Pyle back in the line-up. This was unfortunately to mark the end of Hopper’s involvement in that band. In later tours, he was replaced by John Greaves.
Hopper’s fruitful musical collaboration with Alan Gowen resulted in his involvement in the recording of Gilgamesh’s second album, Another Fine Tune You’ve Got Me Into. Gilgamesh didn’t exist as a band at all at that time – Gowen just reformed the band to do another album of his material.
By the end of 1978, as a matter of fact, Hopper had stopped playing (he didn’t even take his bass out of its case for over a year!). During the next few years, he played very little music, and spent most of his time writing, both as a journalist and a novelist. For a few months, he even earned his living driving a taxi cab in Canterbury! His only recorded output between 1979 and 1984 was a couple of duo albums (one with Alan Gowen in 1980, another with Richard Sinclair in 1983), a gig and session for Gilli Smyth’s Mother Gong, and a demo recording (“Iron Lady”) by the short-lived North and South, featuring Mike Travis (vocals), Rick Biddulph (guitar and vocals) – another track was recorded with Amanda Parsons on backing vocals.
The following events are recounted by Hopper himself : “Around 1984, after a couple of years of not playing at all, I had a sudden attack of joining anything that moved. I joined Pip Pyle’s Equip’Out, Phil Miller’s In Cahoots, played countless pub gigs around Canterbury with Perry White, toured and recorded in France with Patrice Meyer’s band and also with Anaid. There were one-off gigs with old heroes like Lol Coxhill, Keith Tippett, Mark Hewins and others, some more successful musically than financially, that’s for sure…”.
1985 also witnessed the birth of Hopper’s own band. It was first called Hopper Goes Dutch, then changed names to Hugh Hopper’s Franglodutch Band when French guitarist Patrice Meyer joined in 1989. The only remaining founding member in 1996, apart from Hopper, is saxophonist Frank van der Kooij. Another longtime member was keyboard player Dionys Breukers. Several recordings were issued : Alive (1987) (tape only, later reissued on CD with bonus tracks), Mecano Pelorus (1992) and the mostly studio efforts Hooligan Romantics (1994) and Carousel (1995).
Hopper’s involvement with Equip’Out and In Cahoots ended in 1988 (having recorded one album with each), but he collaborated again with Phil Miller and Pip Pyle in Short Wave, an all-star band founded in 1991 (under the name ‘Hugh Hopper and Special Friends’) with also Didier Malherbe on sax and flute. He also reunited with Richard Sinclair in the short-lived Going Going, the precursor to Caravan Of Dreams, which played three gigs in the autumn of 1990.
Several other collaborative efforts followed : the Hopper/Kramer and Hopper/Hewins albums, the Caveman Hughscore album with American band Caveman Shoestore, and involvements with US band Conglomerate and local Canterbury progsters Gizmo (for a cover of Van der Graaf Generator’s “House With No Door” on a tribute album !). In addition to the ongoing Franglodutch Band, Hopper was also involved in yet another project with guitarist Mark Hewins : Mashu, a trio which united them with Shyamal Maitra, an Indian percussionist who has previously worked with Daevid Allen and Didier Malherbe in various projects. This resulted in the 1997 release Elephants In Your Head, and several European tours. Another addition to the Canterbury family tree was Brainville, a band consisting of Hopper, Daevid Allen, Pip Pyle and Mark Kramer, which toured the UK and US in 1998, releasing the album The Children’s Crusade. It was revived in 2006-08 with Chris Cutler on drums.
Hopper was also reunited with Elton Dean (for the first time since the Mashu gig in Paris in April 1995) on the Voiceprint release The Mind In The Trees, a quartet recording also featuring Frances Knight (keyboards and accordion) and Vince Clarke (drums). Since then there have been regular collaborations – Soft Machine reunions with John Marshall and guitarists Allan Holdsworth (in SoftWorks, 2002-04) and John Etheridge (Soft Machine Legacy), as well as the French-based Soft Bounds with Sophia Domancich and Simon Goubert.
In addition to those, Hopper kept gigging (at the pace of one or two gigs a year) with his own group, now called the Franglo Band as it consists only of French musicians apart from Hopper himself – the ever-faithful Patrice Meyer, sax player Pierre-Olivier Govin (from the PolySoft project of Soft Machine covers which existed from 1998 to 2003) and drummer François Verly (occasionally replaced by Manuel Denizet).
His Dutch-based quartet with Frank van der Kooij on sax turned into a new project led by the latter – NDIO, involving other FrangloDutch veterans like British trombonist Robert Jarvis and Dutch drummer Pieter Bast. In 2003 he released a CD with Nick Didkovsky (guitarist and leader of Doctor Nerve) and Forever Einstein drummer John Roulat as Bone, and in 2004 joined forces with avant stars Lol Coxhill and Charles Hayward in a new quartet, Clear Frame, which appeared at the London Jazz Festival and recorded a session for the BBC in early 2005.
In June 2008, Hopper had to cancel a tour of Japan due to severe back pain. A few weeks later he was diagnosed with leukaemia and began treatment. In December 2008 two benefit concerts were held in Whitstable and London to raise money for his treatment. Sadly, after he had seemed to get better in early 2009, the illness took a turn for the worse, and after fighting bravely for several months, Hugh was finally and sadly defeated on June 7, 2009. He was 64.
What was planned as a benefit concert at Le Triton in Paris on June 27th, sadly became a memorial event.