Audion #55 (February 2009) A4, 40pp
CARAVAN (Canterbury Scene, part 2)
out of print / sold out!
CARAVAN - Canterbury Scene pioneers 2 written byAlan Freeman
first article on "The Canterbury Scene" was in Audion #54. That concentrated on Soft Machine, arguably the key band of the scene. Soft Machine were certainly the most experimental, innovative, influential and prolific of English progressive rock and fusion outfits. Yet they were not that easy to classify, and throughout their history they covered a lot of ground. It was Caravan that really went on to define the key characteristics of the "Canterbury sound" with a series of four landmark albums 1969-1972.
My introduction to Caravan was somewhat belated. I think it was down to reading articles in the "NME Book Of Rock" which got my interest, as I'd started to check-out anyone related to Soft Machine. Circa 1975 the only early Caravan that was readily available cheap was a 2LP sampler called CANTERBURY TALES (The Best Of Caravan), which intrigued me with track titles like If I Could Do It All Over Again, I'd Do It All Over You, Hold Grandad By The Nose or Virgin On The Ridiculous - they were sure to be fun, if nothing else. I was, I guess, both pleasantly surprised and disappointed, as the music was all quite excellent, yet the expected humour was not so obvious, being a more underlying wittiness in the lyrics (another of those unique characters of Canterbury scene prog) and cleverness in the composition.
Wilde Flower years
I talked about The Wilde Flowers in relation to roots of Soft Machine previously. In their later years, when joined by Richard Sinclair and Richard Coughlan, a fragmentation occurred with the two Richard's joining up with members of another local band becoming Caravan in January 1968, with the line-up: Pye Hastings (guitar, vocals), Dave Sinclair (keyboards), Richard Sinclair (bass, vocals) and Richard Coughlan (drums). According to a Caravan fan site "The four had previously played at various times with a local band, The Wilde Flowers" although evidence and documentation is scant. On the historical collection CD issued by Voiceprint, tracks feature: Richard Coughlan (drums, on tracks 2, 3, 12-16), Richard Sinclair (guitar, on tracks 4, 5, 7-11) and Pye Hastings (guitar, on tracks 1, 20). Yes, none of them at the same time, and no sign of Dave Sinclair. Much of the material heard is kind of rock 'n' roll meets jazz, with a fair amount of pop beat, and the quality is very variable, even dodgy, so it's hard to really judge. The one track that features Richard Sinclair singing does hint at Caravan a little.
Birth of Caravan
Okay, first - who were Caravan? Well, basically over the years they were the constant core of Pye Hastings (lead singer and rhythm guitar) and Richard Coughlan (drums), usually with Dave Sinclair (keyboards), and occasionally (in that he left in the early-1970's, but has featured in a number of reformations) Dave's cousin Richard Sinclair (bass and also lead singer), along with a number of others that passed through the ranks, notably Pye's brother Jimmy Hastings (on flutes and saxophones) who has often featured as a special guest.
Quite how the four got together is not documented anywhere that I can find, nor how they all ended up in Canterbury. You see Pye Hastings (full name Julian Frederick Gordon Hastings, born 21 January 1947) actually originated from the northern Grampian region in Scotland, Taminavoulin, Banffshire, to be precise (although I cannot find any reference to such a place), and his brother Jimmy (James Brian Gordon Hastings) nine years his senior was born in Aberdeen. No doubt they moved down to the south-east of England when they were young, as Pye has no trace of a Scottish accent that I could detect when I've heard him speak. Looking through the various CD booklets I have, I find out that Pye was raised in Lydden, Kent, and also I found some more info on how Caravan got together, be it all at best muddled! David Sinclair (born 24 November 1947) came from Herne Bay, Kent (a coastal town north of Canterbury) as did Richard Coughlan (born 2 September 1947). Richard Sinclair (born 6 June 1948) is the only born and bred in Canterbury of the band.
The earliest documentation of Caravan as a unit is that they shared a rented house in the coastal town of Whitstable (5 miles north of Canterbury, and west of Herne Bay) where they remained until July 1968 when they were forced to move due to complaints from their neighbours, who weren't at all keen on Caravan's noisy band rehearsals! After that they moved to the more remote village of Graveny (2½ miles south-west) using an old church hall for rehearsals and camping in its grounds throughout most of the summer. It was no doubt their living together that made them so tight a unit. But I'm jumping ahead here! Rewind to April, and their debut performance, on 6 April 1968 at the Beehive Club in Canterbury. It was obviously an impressive set, as they got a favourable review in the local Kentish Gazette, and they got invited back for further gigs a few weeks later. At this time Caravan are credited as having played "original compositions, Soft Machine numbers and Hugh Hopper songs".
Almost instantly they were a local cult hit, which boosted their confidence enough to invest in recording a demo. After contacting various record labels, Island Records seemed the most promising, so they sent the demo tape to them. On the 28th of June they embark on their first trek to London, playing support to Fairport Convention at Middle Earth club. Apparently they were pretty nervous and excited, but created enough of a buzz for producer Tony Cox to get them a deal with Verve Records. And, only a few months later, in September they start to record their debut single and album at Advision Studios in London. As Autumn sets in, they give up camping in Graveny and decide to move to London whilst recording the album, but mostly end up sleeping in their van! In December they relocate to Canterbury.
After a gig at the Mothers Club in Birmingham, they get invited by John Peel to record a session for his Top Gear show. Recorded on New Years Eve (and broadcast on 5 January 1969) it comprised of Green Bottles For Marjorie (a Wilde Flowers number, so it seems), Feelin' Reelin' Squeelin' (yes, the Soft Machine song) and two numbers that were to be their debut single: Place Of My Own and Ride. Good timing, such free promotion, but despite a further BBC appearance (broadcast 3 February) the Caravan idea of a single proved too offbeat for the singles market and failed to chart at all! The debut LP also went unnoticed by many, however with new manager Terry King they are soon playing more and more gigs, in London (Speakeasy and Marquee clubs), and further afield as support to the likes of Yes, Groundhogs, Blossom Toes, etc. Other prestigious dates of note include: 15 March, appearing on "Colour Me Pop" on BBC2, and 23 June they go to Bremen, Germany for a "Beat Club" set.
The debut LP
I personally didn't get to hear the Caravan debut until the mid-1990's. It had long been on my "wants list". But, as some sources quoted it as much more of a pop album, I wasn't going to fork-out a lot of money for an original (it was already going for very high prices in the
late-1970's, in places like Record & Tape Exchange in London). You see, Verve shut down their operations in the UK only a few months after the LP's release, and it soon became an obscure collectable. Only much later when MGM (owners of Verve) became part of the Polydor group (now Universal) did the LP get a reissue in the UK, albeit in budget series with a different cover! Finding that second-hand and cheap, it came as quite a revelation. Okay, it seemed to be rather badly recorded, and surprisingly dated, but had a great charm that shone through. I knew that this was something special that was sure to be a grower! Of course the LP wasn't badly recorded, but something had gone awry with the mastering somewhere. It was apparently a sore point and a bugbear that wasn't resolved until the HTD CD reissue in 1997. You can read a review of that in Audion #37 (intro by myself, and actual review by Alan Terrill).
Ten years on I think it's time for me to review the debut LP properly. The opening tracks are also the debut single, and set the scene with a song style and feel that sits somewhere between the Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd songs and Kevin Ayers era Soft Machine. Good choices for a single, and a bright way to open the album, yet I've always thought that track 3 Policeman had more of a pop feel. It's so jolly and catchy it lurks in the back-brain well after listening through the whole album. After that the mood changes somewhat, first with Love Song With Flute featuring Jimmy Hastings on the said instrument, and then the wonderfully psychedelic and whimsically witty Cecil Rons, which flies off in a trippy haze. Side 2's opener Magic Man seems to be recorded in a zero gravity echo chamber - it's that light and resonant, with the vocals cascading within the musical fabric. Grandma's Lawn follows contrasting with Richard on vocals, going through a sequence of unrelated rhyming phrases, leading to a rather understated chorus, and a wig-out with organ. It's pretty close to the sound that Egg were going to explore some months later. Finally, the album bows out with the first of many Caravan extravaganzas, the bizarrely titled Where But For Caravan Would I? a 9 minute trek from zero to blow-out, it runs through many phases, a slow lament opening, with Pye at his most restrained, changing quite abruptly at 2½ minutes, becoming an organ-fronted surging instrumental with a very odd time signature (seven-time, I think), after which Richard takes the lead, joined by Pye for a majestic "anthem" and final freak-out. It's one of those endings that almost leaves you gasping!
All the unique characteristics "hallmarks" of the Caravan sound are firmly established here, especially the unusual balance of instruments, with the keyboards often taking the role of lead solo instrument. Conversely Pye Hastings plays rhythm guitar mostly, adopting the role usually taken by the keyboards, although he does occasionally break-out with a solo. Dave Sinclair had obviously got the idea of modifying his organ from Mike Ratledge in Soft Machine, putting it through an effects unit (adding distortion and modulation), which was to become another key factor of the "Canterbury sound". Also, there are the two very different lead singer's, mostly Pye Hastings here with his fragile thin voice, quite different to Richard Sinclair's deeper, and much more eloquent voice. Caravan lyrics are often an oddity too, Pye seemingly infatuated with girls, love, sex and bizarre fetishes even! Richard's lyrics often rely more on clever absurdity, word-play and oblique observations. Unique to the Caravan debut though is the way that the drums are recorded, as if in a cave, under the music. It seems that Caravan never wanted to do anything in a conventional way!
The Decca years
Caravan now embark on a busy schedule of gigs around the UK, including another BBC Top Gear appearance (broadcast 14 September 1969) and at the Amougies festival in Belgium (26 October), organised by Jean Karakos of Byg Records, alongside the likes of Soft Machine, Gong, and others, with Frank Zappa acted a compere. Apparently Frank also jammed with Caravan!
Without a record contract the future of Caravan was uncertain for a while, until one David Hitchcock managed to talk Decca bosses into signing them up. It still meant a big gap before the band would get to record their second album. The hiatus meant they'd had plenty of time to come up with a strong set of new material, which they'd refined and honed to perfection after constant rehearsal and dozens of gigs. Recorded in February and March 1970, the wonderfully titled IF I COULD DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN, I'D DO IT ALL OVER YOU appeared in the shops in September. With quite a big change, dropping almost all the psychedelia for a more complex fusion of styles, drawing-in classical and jazzy elements, and a host of other new original ideas, one could define it as the quintessential Caravan. The sound is more clean and defined, and another new aspect (only ever featured on this album) is that much of the vocal work is handled by both Pye and Richard in tandem, either singing different parts of the song or one backing the other. The opening If I Could Do It All Over Again, I'd Do It All Over You starts this with Richard chanting "Who do you think you are?..." as Pye lay's the song on top, a very strange opening, the song then gives way to a groove topped by a wonderful distorted organ solo. Such schizophrenic invention continues through further tracks, like majestic laid-back almost folky And I Wish I Were Stoned and the Pink Floyd flavoured As I Feel I Die. The 9 minute opus: With An Ear To The Ground You Can Make It / Martinian / Only Cox / Reprise kind of feels like a hybrid of the Beach Boys and Egg in parts, and notably features a really nice flute solo. It's easy to see why Hello Hello was issued on a single, as it's so damn catchy. Much of the rest of the second side is taken up by Can't Be Long Now / Francoise / For Richard / Warlock more commonly known as just For Richard, another of those excursions that runs the whole gamut of Caravan styles, from the sedate opening song through to a furiously brilliant instrumental section topped by freaky organ.
Popular with the BBC Caravan were featured "In Concert" in October, and then John Peel invited them for another session on his Top Gear show in November. Already Caravan were writing music for their third LP, with Golf Girl premiered along with two IF I COULD DO IT... selections For Richard and Hello Hello.
With an average of a dozen or so concerts a month from now on, Caravan were going from strength to strength, further developing their sound and becoming more and more ambitious as composers. Recorded December 1970 and January 1971, and released in April, the third Caravan album IN THE LAND OF GREY AND PINK is quoted by many as the finest of all Caravan albums. Yet, whilst it does contain the most extraordinary 22½ minute opus Nine Feet Underground, I've always considered it as a mite mis-balanced, not least in that I just can't stand the third track Love to Love You (And Tonight Pigs Will Fly) - a nauseating song, if you ask me. So I'd have to disagree with those that claim it is "faultless". All the best songs here are penned and sung by Richard Sinclair, the whimsical Golf Girl, the surprising schizophrenic ballad Winter Wine, and In The Land Of Grey And Pink itself. Then, turning over to side two, it's "pull out all the stops" time with: Nine Feet Underground / Nigel Blows A Tune / Love's A Friend / Make It 76 / Dance Of The Seven Paper Hankies / Hold Grandad By The Nose / Honest I Did! / Disassociation / 100% Proof, afterwards commonly known as just Nine Feet Underground, a work that goes through so many phases and kicks up such a storm and frenzy that it's quite breath-taking. I find it quite amazing really that anyone can compose such an opus of intricate complexity and then manage to perform it live, but they did, and even went on to extend it further. The album version is one of the biggest pieces to feature Jimmy Hastings (on flute and saxophone) quite extensively, and has some of their biggest instrumental drives.
In August 1971 Dave Sinclair decides to leave to pursue other projects. According to one interview, Pye explains that he thinks Dave was feeling stifled, especially as "other bands of dubious talent getting greater financial reward" which doesn't really make sense as Caravan were getting busier and busier. More logically it was that he jumped at the opportunity to work with former Wilde Flowers colleague Robert Wyatt in his new band Matching Mole! Promptly drafted in as a replacement was Steve Miller. Steve is not to be confused with numerous other musicians with the same name! Prior to joining Caravan he was in Carol Grimes' band Delivery, who also featured Steve's brother, guitarist Phil Miller. And it was Phil who suggested Steve as a replacement in Caravan.
So, here we have another pause and a side-step/change in style. Recorded during two weeks in November 1971 and released in May 1972 is album number four WATERLOO LILY. In many ways I would rate this as my favourite Caravan album, not least in that it is the most instrumental overall, and there's a fresh new edge of daring that isn't heard on any other Caravan album. Form what I've read this one tends to split fans, as it's a lot more jazzy than prog fans can cope with! That's largely down to Steve Miller's jazz roots, and that he also brought in fellow Delivery sax player Lol Coxhill as a featured guest. Again many of the songs are penned by Richard Sinclair, starting with the opening Waterloo Lily itself, another of those variants on the Golf Girl style. It's all well-balanced too, with songs and instrumentals logically placed for the utmost variety, with the shortest two songs by Pye, an instrumental jazz-fusion diversion from Steve Miller, and two big segued opus treks Nothing At All / It's Coming Soon / Nothing At All (Reprise) which covers quite a lot of ground, and The Love In Your Eye / To Catch Me A Brother / Subsultus / Debouchement / Tilbury Kecks one of Pye Hastings' greatest staples of Caravan live to come. Okay, with WATERLOO LILY we are missing a key facet of the patent Caravan sound: Dave Sinclair's distinctive organ, but that's all the more made up for by everything else.
After a pretty hectic four months on the road, with gigs in Holland, France and around the UK, Steve Miller leaves in July, soon followed by Richard Sinclair, marking the end of what I'd class as the classic Caravan era. Although Caravan would continue to release more excellent material, and be consistently excellent live through to the mid-1970's, losing such a key player Richard Sinclair was a big blow. Yet Pye Hastings and Richard Coughlan keep on, and draft in a new cast of musicians: Geoffrey Richardson (on viola) from Spirogyra, along with one Stuart Evans (bass) and Derek Austin (keyboards) from the Keef Hartley Band. This line-up existed for some six months, toured Europe and played in Australia, but never made an album. A couple of tracks, however, can be found as bonus material on the 2001 CD reissue of the next Caravan album FOR GIRLS WHO GROW PLUMP IN THE NIGHT. But, getting back into chronology, after Caravan returned from Australia Evans and Austin quit the band, causing Pye to cancel sessions for the ongoing new album and start again. In comes John G. Perry (bass) and Pye manages to talk David Sinclair into coming back to Caravan. Promptly, they embark on French and UK tours, and during a couple of spare weeks in April and June they go back into the studio again and record FOR GIRLS WHO GROW PLUMP IN THE NIGHT, which pretty much turned out to be Pye Hastings show, with the notable big change being Geoff Richardson's viola, and a wider range of keyboards, and the absence of Richard Sinclair (he was now with Hatfield And The North). Although a nice album, and one that I kept for many years, FOR GIRLS... never really satisfied like its predecessors, although it does open with the excellent Memory Lain, Hugh / Headloss and ends with another Caravan segue/suite, no duff tracks, but I suppose NME's review "Superior pop music, full of taste, craftsmanship and hard work" gives a clue to the more song oriented aspect of much of the album. Also, it was well over-produced with 12 guests and a symphony orchestra!
I think by this time Caravan were getting ahead of themselves, and they let their ambition get the better of them with CARAVAN AND THE NEW SYMPHONIA recorded live at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London on 28 October 1973, featuring a number of Caravan classics embellished with orchestration and almost ruined in parts by seven guest backing vocalists. Whatever possessed them to do that, I don't know, yet some of the instrumental parts work well. In all, it's not my idea of a fun Caravan album.
A hectic touring schedule again, with gigs in Europe, and a few disasters, with Dave Sinclair losing his passport in Spain, and then the band's equipment is stolen in Paris. The end of the tour is then cancelled and planned gigs in the USA are postponed. Amidst this turmoil, John G. Perry leaves in July 1974, and is replaced by Mike Wedgewood from Curved Air. After UK and European tours, Caravan eventually play their first north American tour, starting in Canada in late September and US dates throughout November and December. Apparently, upon returning from the USA, the UK Customs impound Caravan's equipment. David Sinclair makes good use of this time composing The Dabsong Conshirtoe, which was to take up most of the second side of the next album. The first album proper that I bought by Caravan CUNNING STUNTS was obviously designed on the model of IN THE LAND OF GREY AND PINK, as a collection of varied tracks on the first side and a grand opus on the flip-side. The album opens with the majestic The Show of Our Lives followed by the infectiously catchy Stuck in a Hole, one of just two songs on the album penned by Pye Hastings. After that it wavers a little, particularly with the dreadful ballad Lover. Side two's The Dabsong Conshirtoe however is something else, largely instrumental and devilishly complex, it runs through so many phases that it's impossible to really describe it all. With Geoffrey Richardson adding electric guitar and flute to his instrumentation as well, it means a big sound, which gets even bigger in the finalé section All Sorts Of Unmentioinable Things which features a plethora of special effects, and massed studio trickery, and one of the greatest highs achieved in any Caravan composition.
Caravan were still a remarkable live band can be found on the CD release BBC
RADIO 1 LIVE IN CONCERT recorded the very next day after they finished their
second leg of studio work on CUNNING STUNTS. Basically it's three of their
big classics: Love In Your Eye (15'42"), For Richard (17'21") and The
Dab Song Concerto (18'58") all rendered brilliantly, with the extra
icing added by the expanded instrumentation, all nicely wound-up by the
jovial Hoedown at the end. That, however, was the end of an era.
Success & compromise
With CUNNING STUNTS Caravan had moved to a new management company: BTM. After their Decca contract expired they moved to BTM's new independent label, then the home of Curved Air and Renaissance. Caravan were now playing 20 or so dates a month, with a big UK tour followed by dates in Holland, Germany and France. Returning to England Dave Sinclair announces that he wants to quit, but agrees to stay until the end of June, leaving after a John Peel Show session, on the 26th of June comprising Show Of Our Lives, Stuck In A Hole and Dabsong Conshirtoe. In the interim Caravan had sought out a replacement, and drafted-in Jan Schelhaas, previously of the National Head Band (a rather unimpressive hard-rock band if I recall correctly) and after only a months hiatus they were touring all over Europe, and then two months in the USA and Canada, followed by more gigs in the UK, four in France along with Ash Ra Tempel, and... Phew, they must have been exhausted after all that!
Sessions in January and February 1976 resulted in the album BLIND DOG AT ST. DUNSTANS, issued quite speedily in April. A major disappointment to me after buying CUNNING STUNTS, it did have moments that shone, however I don't think I've listened to it properly again over the last thirty years. So, how about quoting Melody Maker 'This is a distinguished work, with Coughlan's driving drums revealing his painstaking craftsmanship. Caravan possess all the attributes: good musicianship, strong songs, an imaginative stage show. They remain one of our most competent bands..." - hmmm, a bit vague and evasive, so how about a web review I encountered "This album has a lighter feel than Caravan's previous releases, shifting toward shorter 'poppier' songs. This is in part because Pye Hastings became the major force on the album, writing and singing on 8 out of 9 songs and also because Jan Schelhaas replaced Dave Sinclair on keyboards, moving away from lengthy organ-based instrumentals toward piano and synthesizer" which tells you more than I could!
Realising how successful Caravan were becoming, Decca issue the double LP compilation CANTERBURY TALES, and to promote it Dave Sinclair returns to Caravan temporarily for a number of concerts playing alongside Jan Schelhaas. In December Mike Wedgewood leaves, and is replaced in January 1977 by Dek Messecar from Darryl Way's Wolf. This line-up went on to record the mis-named BETTER BY FAR, which sounded more like a run-of-the-mill pop band trying to sound like Caravan to these ears. A sad but inevitable plummet to mediocrity, I can't recall what 1980's THE ALBUM was like! But Caravan were still busy on the road, they'd played in Japan, the USA again, in Germany, and a lot in France.
But, I guess most people, like myself, had given up on them. After further line-up changes the band eventually calls it a day in December 1980.
That wasn't the end though. In the meantime Richard Sinclair had been in Camel. I remember their excellent gig here in Leicester at De Montfort Hall, shortly before their RAIN DANCES album was released, sometimes it was like the ghost of old Caravan had been reborn in a new band. The albums that Camel came up with after that though didn't really satisfy me. And I think Richard felt increasingly marginalised. In Autumn 1981 the original Caravan got back together again to try and reignite the old Caravan spirit. The resultant album BACK TO FRONT again had its moments, notably because of Richard Sinclair, but with ten mostly song-based tracks it was never more than a polite shadow of their former glories.
Well, that was it as far as most of us knew. Caravan did get back together for a series of gigs celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Marquee Club, 28-29 July 1983, with the line-up of: Pye Hastings, Geoff Richardson, Jan Schelhaas, Richard Sinclair and Richard Coughlan. They also did a one-off on the 7th of October 1984 in Canterbury. But that was it, until we learned of a special reformation gig to be filmed at Nottingham's Central TV studios. It was to be the original Caravan, with Jimmy Hastings on winds, performing a set of early classics, and it was free - so we'd have been fools to miss it! It was a privilege to be there and witness a living time capsule, and an almost flawless set, including Head Loss, a storming 19 minute Nine Feet Underground, Winter Wine, and a sizzling For Richard.
Later in 1990 and in 1991 Caravan do a few more select gigs, but then other projects take over, like Richard Sinclair's "Caravan Of Dreams" and the hybrid ex-Camel/Caravan project Mirage. And since then Pye has reformed Caravan a number of times, with some pleasant albums, one being a re-recordings of old songs, but nothing that's really impressed me. I'm assured though that they've continued to be excellent live, as one friend assured me after seeing them at the Baja Prog Festival, in Mexico, in March 2005. I somehow missed them though when they played here in Leicester, 13 May 2005 - just around the corner from the UT shop at the Y Theatre!
It would seem that Caravan are now retired, after Richard Coughlan became unwell.