Random Vinyl Play: This 1969 debut is an unheralded classic

April 24, 2024
6 mins read
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In a new column, GARY STEEL dips into his vinyl racks. Today it’s the tasty debut by UK psychedelic band Caravan.

When I finally got my feverish hands on the self-titled 1969 debut by Canterbury (UK) band Caravan in 1973, my hopes were dashed the minute needle hit the grooves. To my progressive rock-satiated sensibilities, it sounded musty and old. Compared to the entertainingly outrageous conceit of Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick or Emerson Lake & Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery with its laser-cut synths and leading-edge technology or even the spooky repetitions of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, this Caravan album felt prehistoric.

Except that its sheer oddness soon had me going back for repeat sessions. It definitely wasn’t progressive rock and it lacked the virtuosic flurries associated with the genre. What got me was the band’s willingness to combine sweet, intimate and melodic passages with trippy psychedelia and their tendency to cap it all off with some killer riffing.

In fact, even that description doesn’t quite contain them, because around the edges of this first Caravan album are moments of haunted folk and even some nods towards jazz.

Where the group would define their sound over the next few years with minor classics like In The Land Of The Grey And Pink and If I Could Do It I’d Do It All Over You, their first album, as flawed as it is, comes at the listener with an adventurous and courageous spirit that makes it one of the more charismatic listening engagements of 1969.

The surviving members of the group probably look back at the sessions with horror. Certainly, there’s the feeling that something’s not quite right about the recording in places, with the voices placed too low in the mix or stereo-panned hard left or right. Luckily, the dominant instruments – drums and organ – are fabulous, and listening to the vinyl for the first time in maybe 40 years I was surprised at just how full frequency it sounded, and how the bass and drums blossomed on my stereo system.

Caravan doesn’t appear to have been issued in New Zealand in its original Verve Forecast manifestation, only making it here as a budget reissue (Price Code B) on Polygram via Germany in 1972. The NZ pressing sounds remarkably good, although the usual cover compromises appear to have been made, with the back reproduced in black and white only.

On that back cover is a remnant of earlier days: liner notes by “Miles” (Barry Miles, icon of ‘60s London through his Indica book store and association with underground newspaper International Times, and a friend to The Beatles) which wax rather embarrassingly about the group in the manner of someone whose impression of the music is very much coloured by the LSD trip they probably took before listening to it.

“The flute-playing Sahara bird-flight solos hovering over the camel-train, earth magic, soft machine and sky,” he raves. “One night H came over and we sat down and I played him The Beatles album, in mono only because the stereo hadn’t been pressed yet, then we played a couple of Hendrix tracks then we put on the acetate of CARAVAN which Tony sent over. I think CARAVAN like Hendrix. ‘They’re a very together group’, said H. It’s true: they work in the Airplane direction of overall sound, John Coltrane’s ‘sheets of sound’”… etcetera, etcetera.

As so often with liner notes, they say more about the times than about the music, which was recorded at Advision Studios in October 1968 and released, at least in the UK, in January 1969. It’s said that to record the album, the band had to borrow gear from their mates, fellow Cantabrians Soft Machine while they were on tour with Jimi Hendrix in the US. The producer is named Tony Cox (a newbie who scored the band their record contract, but had no prior production experience).

I don’t know why it wasn’t obvious to me when I was first listening to Caravan, but in 2024 the influence of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd is obvious, from Richard Coughlan’s unshowy but effective drumming echoing those of Nick Mason to the naïve but somehow wondrous psychedelic effects on some songs, not to mention the dominant instrument, Dave Sinclair’s organ, which is somewhere between Richard Wright’s dreamy watercolour sound pictures and the distinctive, reedy sound of Soft Machine’s Mike Ratledge.

Inimitably English and only a few steps removed from the sensibility of eccentric rock-jazz fusion groups like Matching Mole and Hatfield & The North, Caravan are, however, considerably more song-oriented and inclined towards sweet vocals (sometimes in harmony) and melodious interludes. That’s perhaps less than surprising, given the group’s origins in Wilde Flowers, the same group that spawned Soft Machine and Gong and the off-and-on-again career of Kevin Ayers.

But if you want comparisons, try this one out: Pye Hastings’ thin, underpowered but consequently affecting vocals remind me of none other than NZ group Sneaky Feelings’ Matthew Bannister.

This observation raises an interesting issue. None of the more sensitive or down-to-earth Flying Nun bands ever seemed to deviate from the song at hand, leaving the riffing to slightly later groups like Straitjacket Fits. Admittedly, the Carter/Brough songwriting partnership did usher forth a few classic tracks that combined gorgeous tunes with riff firepower, but generally, alt-rock never allowed itself to go there.

There is something more to this comparison of Caravan and Sneaky Feelings, though. When you listen to the latter group’s debut mini-album, Send You, it’s partly the sense that at any moment the whole thing could fall apart, a hesitancy that keeps you tuned in and engaged; the feeling that the whole thing is under-rehearsed and probably played in a less than perfect studio or with an engineer who doesn’t fucking understand. Caravan’s debut feels like that, too.

‘Place Of My Own’ gets things going with a sweet vocal from Hastings and like many of the group’s songs it feels like a warm embrace, a promise of safety before the inevitable psych flights of fancy. ‘Ride’ has more of an ethnic thing going on, clearly influenced by George Harrison’s Indian leanings, although bongos rather than tabla. It starts out nicely and suddenly lurches into what would be a gigantic riff cycle had the group more instrumental firepower. As it is, organ and drums have to point their way to the kind of orchestrated heaviosity they must have wanted, but couldn’t quite achieve without screaming guitar. “I’ve got this place I can go when I feel I’m coming down,” they sing, possibly about LSD.

Next is a slice of anti-authority rhetoric in the very Floydish ‘Policeman’, where the vocals are echoed and entirely in the left channel. Organ carries the day. ‘Love Song With Flute’ is a ridiculous name for a piece that’s actually quite good, featuring as it does a brief bit of flute-tomfoolery by Pye’s brother Jimmy. The song has vocal harmonies reminiscent of CS&N and it’s memorably yearning before it goes into a riffy jazz-oriented passage that’s more The Peddlers than Weather Report.

‘Cecil Rons’ (whatever that means) ends the first side with a slice of peak psychedelia that’s entertainingly odd and very trippy, and features lyrics like “Oh what a beautiful scene, playing underneath my dream.” Uh-huh?

Another real cracker opens Side 2. ‘Magic Man’ starts out with churchy organ and those spooky left-channel vocals (handled by Richard Sinclair), then another lovely wimpy vocal with the lines: “I’m lazy I know but I do anything I want to do/Fly into my arms and feel your fantasies coming true.” I mean, did the guy think he was a stoned hippy Barry White or something?

‘Grandma’s Lawn’ is another piece of early Floyd-like psychedelia with mysterious vocals buried deep in the mix, some enjoyable wah-wah organ and a charming way with shiver-down-your-back minor chord changes. It’s one of my favourite endings on any record anywhere.

Finally, it’s time for the inevitable nine-minute epic to end the record. ‘Where But For Caravan Would I?’ starts out laconic and low-key but that’s a trick, of course. There’s a sweet melody which lulls you into a dreamy mood before suddenly lurching into a riff that, in a live context, probably coincided with freakout time. On record, it’s not as heavy as it should be, but I still love it to death; and especially, the way the group returns to the melodic section before heading off on another rifftastic section with a different time signature. In many ways, this anticipates the kind of riffing that King Crimson would make their deadly mark with the ’72-’74 band and the likes of ‘Larks Tongue In Aspic’, ‘Fracture’ and ‘Starless’.

There is a remastered compact disc of the album featuring both the mono and stereo versions with a tacked-on single, ‘Hello Hello’, (actually from sessions for the following album) which of course is available to listen to on the usual streaming services (go on, subscribe to Qobuz for better sound quality and a little bit more going to the artists). The engineer is credited as Gerald Chevin, a bit of a legend who had worked with The Who, Idle Race and The Move, amongst many others. According to Pye Hastings, producer Tony Cox is responsible for the “big, echoey” sound of the album, which wasn’t representative of the live band. He wouldn’t let them near the desk at mixing time. Cox’s subsequent career in music seems to have involved more performing than producing.

Caravan would carry on, seemingly forever, with an evolving lineup that’s still helmed by Pye Hastings.

 

GARY STEEL has been collecting vinyl LPs since the late 1960s, many of them not played for decades. In Random Vinyl Play, he closes his eyes, randomly selects an album and gives it an aural examination.  

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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