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Caravan – 1975 – Cunning Stunts


Cunning stunts

(Decca 1975)

  1. The Show of Our Lives
  2. Stuck in a Hole
  3. Lover
  4. No Backstage Pass
  5. Welcome the Day
  6. The Dabsong Conshirtoe
    • The mad dabsong
    • Ben Karratt rides again
    • Pro’s and con’s
    • Wraiks and ladders
    • Sneaking out the Bare Square
    • All sorts of unmemorable things
  7. The Fear and Loathing in Tollington Park

I’m well aware that this is where a lot of fans lose interest in Caravan but I really don’t see how that could be explained judged strictly from the music on “Cunning stunts” (allegedly a wordplay on “stunning c u n t s”, something they had proved themselves rather fond of. Wordplays, I mean. What did you think?). You see, I’m gonna skip ahead here and state that I really dig this album and claim that it’s not an iota worse than, say, their debut or “If I could screw you all over again, I would”. (Hey, don’t blame me! They started it!). Maybe it has something to do with prog starting to decline or maybe it’s their overall turn towards lush pop, but I don’t buy that. See, the structuring of this record doesn’t really differ from any previous Caravan album and they still manage to deliver a lengthy epic towards the end, and as for the decline of prog, well, that doesn’t explain the popularity of such records as “Going for the one”. No, allow me to speculate that it’s basically ignorance that keeps even fans away from this, and it was indeed released in the shadows of both the marvellous predecessor two years earlier, as well as their concerto performance that followed so it’s understandable that it couldn’t live up to the expectations. But it deserves a chance and you should grant it, or else I’ll be forced to dock off a point from my rating of you and we’ll see how fun that is!

It opens on a really grand note with “The show of our lives” that almost manages to out-Queen Queen. That ascending chorus is really something, and newcomer Mike Wedgewood does an outstanding job in contributing the vocals. Yes, forgot to tell you; Since the last time he replaced John G. Perry on bass guitar and occasional vocals, as on this one. The grand piano and all those ethereal gospel stunts (cunning stunts indeed!) make for an almost celestial atmosphere. I can picture the song ascending and spreading out like a giant feathery cloud in the sky, can you? It’s followed by the bouncy pop-rocker “Stuck in a hole” which isn’t brilliant but a good McCartney-like relief in the process. “Lover” however, is a duffer and this is all Wedgewood’s fault. He seized his chance to slip in some stuff himself, one of which is this sugary soul ballad. It’s not suitable for Caravan at all, and I’d even say that it’s not suitable for anyone. It sounds like something Glenn Hughes would sneak onto a contemporary Purple record. (This is the second time I’m forced to mention him in a Caravan review! Why won’t he leave me alone? Get that bastard out of here! He’s a criminal! He kills good bands for no reason!)

Anyway, it’s followed by another highlight in “No backstage pass” in which Pye shows off just about everything; His ever-growing songwriting skills, likewise growing singing abilities and tasteful guitarworks. This is probably one of his best guitar solos, reminding of both Steve Hackett and Andy Latimer, the latter especially thanks to the scat singing that joins in halfway through. And the main melody is top-notch, soothed by his tender vocals. Then it’s time for another Wedgewood-penned thingie, this time better though, being a chugging funk sendup (and yes, I know what I’ve said about funk but this one at least has a decent melody) named “Welcome the day”. Nothing special but a nice breather before the main course is served.

Yeah, you guessed it. They were still not through with side-long multipart epics, although they would be after this one. “The dabsong conshirtoe” ends that grandiose tradition on a really high note, I say. Basically it’s a bunch of half-baked songs stitched together, but then again, what Caravan epic isn’t? No part overstays its welcome which means the song never has the chance of becoming boring. It begins as a lightweight, almost Hollywoodish, ballad that soon gets mixed up with a rocking brass-driven section during which Pye really shines as a singer. It kinda reminds me of late-period Beatles (which is one of the finest awards you can get), and we all know how the second half of “Abbey Road” was put together, right? Half-baked songs hastily glued together, and if it worked for them, why wouldn’t it work for anyone else? Because everyone else are inferior, that’s why. But Caravan proved to be talented enough to pull it off. After a brief orchestral break it then finds its way into the obligatory flute passage, probably one of their absolute best and most melodic ever. And the good thing is that it returns after the jazzy solo passage, which by the way is really nicely executed too. It all comes to a conclusion with a lengthy riff-fest dissolving into a total cacaphony of snippets taken from just about everywhere. Kinda like the coda of “I am the walrus” or something. Do you think Beatles would have made a good Canterbury band? Man, this is my number one bet for the best Caravan epic ever, and this alone is a reason not to disregard the album. Oh yeah, the album ends with a minute of instrumental country-rag which is nice and all, but not terribly worthy of being written about more than this.

So, you see, the race wasn’t run for the band even in the steadily darkening mid-70’s, not yet. The tendency to streamline the sound to the more accessible genres of the time was starting to make itself visible, and I’m not talking about the orchestrated lush pop here, rather the sugary ballads and soul/funk/disco/whatever influences. But they were still brave enough to hang on to their own standards and besides, Pye’s songwriting was definitely on a roll, and anyone who can apply to the formula of generic pop and still come out with winners, is definitely worthy of praise.

Caravan – 1973 – For Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night

For girls who grow plump in the night

(Deram 1973)

  1. Memory Lain, Hugh / Headloss
  2. Hoedown
  3. Surprise, surprise
  4. C’thlu thlu
  5. The dog, the dog, he’s at it again
  6. Be alright / Chance of a lifetime
  7. L’auberge du Sanglier / A hunting we shall go / Pengola / Backwards / A hunting we shall go (reprise)

Remember what I said in my introduction, about Caravan being a nice bunch of meek and nerdy dudes, not at all aspiring on getting between the sheets? Well, scratch that! If the album name and cover, making us voyeuringan innocent sleeping girl in progress of pregnancy, alone won’t convince you, then perhaps the knowledge of the original intent of her being nude will. And at least one of the songs is approaching almost Zappaesque heights of naughtiness. Have I intrigued you enough? Good!

By this time things started to move about in the Caravan camp; Our old friend Richard Sinclair decided to quit and explore the depths of the Canterbury sound in Hatfield & The North and became replaced by some bearded hipster named John G. Perry on da bass. Plus, they expanded the lineup with a viola handled by Geoff Richardson, and guess what: Dave Sinclair is back! The scene is set, how about that!

But it’s not really the change of personell that makes this record stand out. It’s that Pye has really seized his chance to prove himself a worthy guitar player. The whole record reeks of catchy, occasionally even heavy, riffs and tasteful solos on courtesy of himself, sometimes intertwined with Richardson’s viola, all of which make for a truly intriguing listen. It becomes obvious from the very start with “Memory Lain, Hugh” greeting us with a really tricky guitar riff over a thumping rythm on which they harmonize an airy melody in the best Caravan tradition. The flute break thereafter is really memorable, as is the transition into “Headloss” which suddenly creeps up just as you think the song is about to end. Now the whole thing transforms into a bouncy shuffle with a looping structure very similar to Yes’s “All good people”, expanding the track into being the best opener on a Caravan album ever. It rules! The following “Hoedown” is the weakest track on here though, being a very rushed exercise in pseudo-country in 7/8 which just sounds forced. Thankfully it’s also the shortest so it doesn’t manage to do much harm.

But then we’re back on track again with “Surprise, surprise”. A laid back folksy groove peppered with great harmonies once again, and what seems to be a pedal steel that makes it sound almost like Zeppelin in folk-mode. “Suddenly sunshine” they sing, and indeed it is. It simply rules! Then we switch gears completely with “C’thlu thlu”, boasting really heavy riffs, that Pye obviously nicked from Robert Fripp’s backpack during recession. Watch out for that guitar break after the second chorus, very much in the style of “Larks’ tounge in aspic”-era Crimson. The creeping, almost gothic, verses with their theatrical atmosphere reminding of early Alice Cooper, are juxtaposed with strangely upbeat and jolly choruses in a way that in the hands of a less talented band would just sound out of place. But here, it rules! “The dog, the dog, he’s at it again” is yet another typical Caravan popster that makes remarkably good use of its looping chord sequence on which they build catchy and clever melodies that toward the climactic ending climb upon each other in an ingenious way. And David really shines on that sci-fi synthesizer break in the middle. And oh, this is the one with the infamous lyrics, celebrating the joy of copulation in such a filthy way it’s just pure fun! Have you seen them perform this? With Pye completely straight-faced announcing that “he’s got something that he’d like you to hold”? How the h*ll did he manage to pull that off without cracking up? Or could he have been so desperate in trying to get laid that he actually was serious? I don’t know and I don’t care. It’s a true pop masterpiece and I needn’t tell you that it rules!

Off we are to “Be alright/Chance of a lifetime” in which that Perry dude proves himself to be a very good successor to Sinclair not only on bass but in taking the lead vocals as well. It’s built on a great guitar/viola interplay culminating in a catchy descending chorus line which all make it sound a lot like Kansas, except that it’s better. After all, Caravan wasn’t Kansas which is always an advantage and besides, Kansas was yet to be formed. Only to let you know who were first and who were just a bunch of rednecky copycats. And Kansas surely couldn’t have pulled off such a beautiful and contemplative second part as on here. Did I mention yet that it rules? And we’re still to be blown away by the grand finale “A hunting we shall go”. Yet another viola/guitar assault that shakes the house down, albeit even more profound this time. Now they’re reaching almost Gentle Giantish heights of dexterity, trading solos over the looping riff as if to convince you of the very origins of prog metal. Then it all dies down with a slowly emerging orchestral suite, constantly building up to a symphonic climax that segues into a reprise of the main part in which each and every instrument play in unison until it all ends with a bang (literally). It freakin’ ru – wait for it – les!

Now, I know I said that Caravan isn’t really designed to blow you away, but if there is anywhere to look for that kind of thing then this is your best bet. “For girls who grow plump in the night” is the album that finally and firmly places Caravan among the league of prog supermen. Of course, the saga isn’t over yet, but it’s quite obvious that it just had to go downward from here, even if ever so slightly.

Caravan – 1972 – Waterloo Lily

Waterloo Lily

(Deram 1972)

  1. Waterloo Lily
  2. Nothing at all /It’s coming soon / Nothing at all (reprise)
  3. Songs and signs
  4. Aristocracy
  5. The love in your eye / To catch me a brother / Subsultus / Debouchement / Tilbury kecks
  6. The world is yours

Caravan goes m3t4lzzz!!1!11 OMG!! WTF!!1!11!112233

No, of course they aren’t, that would be crazy! But nonetheless, this here album greets you with one of their heaviest tracks ever, with a mean descending riff that in the hands of a much more caveman-like band, keen on ledding zeppelins and blacking sabbaths rather than caravanning through Picadilly, would turn into a potential metal feast. What actually happened on this album was that David Sinclair left the group to be replaced by Steve Miller (no, not that Steve Miller) which steered the band in a somewhat different direction. He obviously preferred electric piano over the trusty organ and there is a much stronger funk/jazz-fusion influence on here than on the previous albums. Some may like it because of that but me, I don’t really care too much for it. You know what happens when white dudes try their hands on funk, don’t you? “Come taste the band”, that’s what happens! Get me Glenn Hughes for personal execution!

Okay, it’s not that Miller managed to ruin the experience or anything. Some of these tracks not only managed to carry on the Caravan tradition of meek baroque pop, but also expand on it and in the process Pye Hastings really started to make good use of his voice, thin as it may be. The lead-in title track, if we may get back to that one, already betrays said funkster tendencies with a bouncy singing part that continues the tradition of “Golf girl” only to give way for a tricky, almost Crimsonian, riff passage. Best album opener since their debut, says I. Have you noticed how peculiar the bass guitar sounds on this album, by the way? That punchy attack working almost entirely in the middle range rather than the bottom. Maybe that helps boosting the funk experience which is carried on to the following track “Nothing at all” which is basically a blues jam and little more. Improvised solo passages abound and it’s probably competent and all that but it doesn’t do much for me. Neither do “Songs and signs” which is just an uninspired pop shuffle.

“Aristocracy” works better though, since it’s built on an airy scat-sung melody that’s reminiscent of the “If I could do it all over again…” vibe, but over an almost proto-disco rythm this time around. Could and should have been a radio hit! But it is the closing “The world is yours” that claims the prize for being the best compact pop tune on the album. The melody, intelligently weaved into the slightly prolonged chorus measure, is so simple but oh so effective! Pye shuffles his way through the song with really catchy and rythmic chord-riffs and no funk anywhere to be found!

And finally we’ve got the by now obligatory epic that precedes it, “The love in your eye”, which begins on a really humble note with the quiet but pretty verse lines, but soon picks up steam and emerges into an string-peppered bridge that gives it an almost ELO-like feel. Off we go into a dexterous flute solo, interspersed with orchestral breaks, and then some keyboard solos stacked on top of each other. It all concludes with a reprise of the verse and a – once again – funky, albeit obviously inspired and playful piano/wahwah guitar interplay. The first part of the track is arguably the best, as it’s slowly starting to betray the lush pop tendencies of late-period Caravan, but taken as a whole it’s not really worse than “Nine feet underground”. Especially since it’s ten minutes shorter and thus maybe more digestible for those not prepared for yet another onslaught of keyboard noodling.

My final verdict is that “Waterloo Lily” is much of a transitional album for Caravan. Not bad by any means, but overall somewhat let down by the excursions in terrains they were not very well suited for (and that were not very good in the first place, but that’s a personal opinion). Thankfully, Miller left right after this album which again left the ivories vacant. Read on to find out for whom!

Caravan – 1971 – In the Land of Grey and Pink

In the Land of Grey and Pink

(Deram 1971)

  1. Golf girl (5:05)
  2. Winter wine (7:46)
  3. Love to love you (and tonight pigs will fly) (3:06)
  4. In the land of grey and pink (4:51)
  5. Nine feet underground (22:40)
    • 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

This may or may not be Caravan’s finest hour and it is indeed regarded as such among the general fanbase. I have to admit that I have an ever so tiny issue with it that prevents me from subscribing to that statement, but it is by far their greatest effort up until then and a lot of the mistakes on “If I could…” are corrected on here. Five tracks, all of which rule in one way or another, and all of which paints a colourful picture of a land far away where people play golf, drink wine and watch pigs fly while avoiding pink hippopotamuses. Swell, eh?

It all starts rather homely, with “Golf girl” depicting a victorian backdrop, not unlike what Ray Davies was preoccupied with on “Village green”, with the protagonist’s encounter with a golf girl selling cups of tea. A rather silly sitting-in-a-tree kind of story that nonetheless fully manages to capture the laid back sunny afternoon atmosphere. In that respect I give it two thumbs up, but as a song I feel the melody is rather tentative and even if it is a slight improvement over “If I could…”, I still feel that their early brand of quirky pop is not that great at the end of the day. Maybe it’s the trumpet; I played it as a child and it may have resulted in mental scars which I cannot disregard.

The other two tracks in the same vein, “Love to love you” and “In the land of grey and pink” works better. The first one succeeds completely in its bouncy Beatlesque melody and shows Pye in the process of becoming a true popmeister. The title track is in the same style as “Golf girl” but with a better melody that doesn’t seem as forced. The atmosphere has more of a grey (no kidding) and wintery touch and I can’t help but feel a slight scent of burning firewood from it. It’s really cozy and nice. That feeling is effectively carried over from one of the more epic tracks on the album, “Winter wine” with an even more vivid frosty atmosphere. Never have I encountered such a beautiful ode to beverage-induced escapism during wintertime. I am a swede, I can relate! Please let me relate! It’s simply one of Caravan’s best songs ever, with its driving pace and romantic mood, underlined by the subtle climaxes concluding each verse. Simply breathtaking. Cheers!

After all this, we’re still left with their second attempt at creating a true epic, and might I say they learned their lesson and studied hard for this exam! First of all it incorporates a couple of sung passages this time around, both of which rank among the most gorgeous moments on the album, especially the tear-jerking “Disassociation”. But even the instrumental passages, and there’s a lot of them, are well thought over this time from the very beginning. With no further ado they crash into one of the main themes, once again organ-driven, stretching out in a terrain of intelligent chord changes not just conjured out of the air, spiced with inspired soloing from various instruments. Well, I won’t go over every passage here, but let me sum things up with saying that it is very intelligently put together with actual melodies succeeding one another, in contrast to its elder brother “For Richard”, and even if it still has its amounts of noodling it has to be ranked as one of their better epics.

So, do indulge! They would never become as consistent in concept-making as on this record.

Caravan – 1970 – If I could do it again, I’d do it all over you

If I could do it all over again, I’d do it all over you

(Decca 1970)

  1. If I could do it all over again, I’d do it all over you
  2. And I wish I were stoned – Don’t worry
  3. As I feel I die
  4. With an ear to the ground you can make it / Martinian / Only cox / Reprise
  5. Hello Hello
  6. Asforteri 25
  7. Can’t be long now / Françoise / For Richard / Warlock
  8. Limits

Now we’re talking! Full frontal prog, with song lengths setting a standard that in 1970 was still to be assimilated by the prog community. Of course, song length is not a value in itself and if you can’t justify it with good melodies and/or intriguing instrumental passages then it’s just grating. Thankfully, Caravan at least partly succeeded in this respect from the very beginning although I feel that the closing suite consists too much of uninspired jamming and little actual songwriting, but up until then we’re sorted.

The overall atmosphere is somewhat lighter than on the debut, despite the even more bombastic approach with all the multi-part suites because basically every song on here is built upon melodies lighter than a feather. Kinda reflective of the forest grove on the cover with all the ‘foresty’ organs and flutes abound. This atmosphere is especially present on “And I wish I were stoned”, “As I feel I die” and “With an ear to the ground you can make it”. Well, there’s half the album already! However, it all begins with Caravan’s already established brand of quirky pop in “If I could do it all over again, I’d make the title even longer”, but I honestly don’t think that it’s very good. The looping melody with interweaving harmonies is inventive for sure, but I don’t really care for the actual song.

But then we’re going places, supposedly into that aforementioned forest. “And I wish I were stoned” is one of my favourite tracks on here, essentially just two oh-so-obvious pop ditties merged together with some tasteful organ-led passages and what is actually the first real guitar solo from Hastings. Then, still in the forest, we have “As I feel I die” beginning as a slow, almost unbearably quiet melody (that nonetheless rule) building up tension, only to suddenly shift gears and tipping its hat to their jazz-tinged legacy. Can’t you imagine the elves skipping around in the morning sun finding its way down through the green foilage? Or yourself, for that matter.

But then we are ever so slightly running into trouble. The, once again, multi-part “With an ear to the ground” begins on a similarily quiet note, then gradually picks up steam but its first part (reprised at the end) doesn’t really cut it. It gets better in the mid-section though, and as it slows down we are greeted with lush harmonies and a lovely flute solo so all in all it qualifies. “Hello hello” continues the line of the title track, although in a minor key this time and noticeably better. But then we have that closing suite which just seems to go nowhere. There are a few moments which approaches ‘decent’, like the reocurring organ theme that concludes the measures in the second part about four minutes in and onward, as well as after the sax/flute solos. I also like the part which follows, with that four-chord organ swirl adding at least some power to an otherwise lame exercise in pointless noodling. Why couldn’t they make a proper song out of these neat little ideas instead of trying to one-up the… oh wait! This piece is actually breaking some new ground. Like I said, the side-long prog suites were still to be taken up by contemporaries like Genesis, King Crimson, Jethro Tull and Yes (who at the time hadn’t even released “The Yes album” which even there didn’t boast anything longer than ten minutes. “For Richard” is over fourteen).

So that somewhat ruins the experience since it takes up way too much of the overall running length. Too bad, since some of the other tracks manages to surpass the quality of the debut. Their best work was yet to come.

Caravan – 1968 – Caravan


Caravan

(Decca/Verve 1968)

  1. Place of my Own
  2. Ride
  3. Policeman
  4. Love Song with Flute
  5. Cecil Rons
  6. Magic Man
  7. Grandma’s Lawn
  8. Where but for Caravan Would I?

Somewhere around 1967 after the Wilde Flowers had withered, half of the crew proceeded to invent a soft machine in order to explore the depths of the London underground. When the other half heard about their venture they decided to scrap together yet another band and dub it Caravan, and listening to this debut sure makes you feel that the very name is sensed in the music. It’s nothing short of a caravan of massive sounds stately and steadily proceeding through your speakers and into your subconsciousness. That statement may seem somewhat exaggerated now but consider that this was 1968, before all the crimson kings and armadillo tanks and ready suppers and all that. The closest equivalent I can think of at this point is Procol Harum, but they were still sporting a more soulish brand of baroque-tinged rock whereas Caravan went down the majestic route as well as spicing it up with playful folk-jazz passages, like in “Love song with flute”, one of the best tracks on here.

You might as well already get adjusted to the weak singing voice of Pye Hastings (very weak actually, in places sounding like on the verge of cracking, carefully balancing on the right note) which would get better over the ensuing albums, but personally I don’t really mind (I’ve heard much worse, especially considering the swedish indie scene) as it suits the songs well. He’s occasionally assisted by Richard Sinclair who technically has got a better voice but there’s something about it that ever so slightly annoys me. It’s a bit meek and syrupy, but I’m not really complaining as it works as a good counterpart to Pye’s whiney falsetto.

The songs cook however, and it starts off with a true highlight in “Place on my own” where the aforementioned grandness, emphasized by the echoey production and the somewhat foreboding intro/verse parts and the organ-led interlude make for a great contrast with the uplifting chorus. “Love song” is, like I said, another favourite with its wonderfully sharp transition into the chorus, as well as the closing “Where but for Caravanwould I” showing the first signs of true prog dexterity, not least in its multi-part structure. “Magic man” is also a highlight, effectively working its way through three looping chords on which they weave several different melodies.

Out of the rest of the tracks I feel “Grandma’s lawn” and “Policeman” to be a bit iffy even if the latter sports an obvious nod to Beatles in its McCartneyesque melody. (And it’s always fun to bash the law enforcements every now and then). “Cecil Rons” is a lot of fun though, with a faux-scary organ arrangement underpinning a nursery rhyme not unlike The Who’s “Silas Stingy”. Finally there’s the conga-driven mantra “Ride” that surely conjures the feeling of a caravan making its way out from Canterbury to wherever they ended up. Or more figuratively, from the humble beginnings of artrock into the vast and yet unknown terrain of progressive rock. Groovy!