Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Caravan - Back To Front

Back To Front

Released 1982 on Kingdom
Reviewed by Fitter Stoke, 11/07/2006ce

The last years of the 70's were dark days indeed for most of those unfortunate British musical talents who had emerged in the fertile years between psychedelia and glam rock, particularly those of the laughably wide "File under Progressive: Pop Groups" category that had signified artists as disperate as Jethro Tull, Soft Machine and Uriah Heep, to name but three. The back-to-basics musical revolution had consigned many such acts (sometimes justifiably) to indifference or oblivion, beloved of a suddenly-ageing generation whose waistlines and domestic commitments were (rainbow) rising as the wa-wa-wild youth of the punk movement looked to younger, sharper innovators for its teenage kicks. Those of us lucky enough to live our immediate post-school lives through that vital period were prone to the right-on brainwashing of the NME and the distainful comments of punk's principal protagonists who'd have us all believe that they'd never worn flared trousers nor grooved to anyone other than the Velvets, the Stooges and the Dolls. As such, the laws of cool ensnared us to a policy of consigning those long-hairs we'd dug so deliciously up to 1976 to the backs of our LP cabinets, if not the vinyl exchange shops, and keeping any straggling affection for the likes of 'Fragile' or 'Larks Tongues In Aspic' a guilty secret. Speaking as someone who part-exchanged four Zep albums to buy the appalling second Lurkers' LP, that's just the way things went...for your shamed scribe at least.

Who suffered?

Well ME, if that Lurkers' episode is anything to go by, but - far, far more - fine bands like Caravan, whose commercial standing - never in the mega-league even at their peak - dropped like a stone when Rotten and Strummer nabbed the shop shelves and column inches. And thus were delightful, pure-pop-for-prog-people gems like 'Better By Far' (Arista, 1977), 'The Album' (Kingdom, 1980) and the record under scrutiny here, truly UNSUNG in the fullest sense of the word. Dropped by Arista after just one album, Caravan - by now unequivocally led by the prestigiously-gifted tunesmith Pye Hastings - were reduced to signing to a tiny, parochial record label where the sumptuous gatefold sleeves enjoyed by previous epics like 'In The Land Of Grey And Pink' and 'For Girls Who Grow Plump In The Night' were an unattainable luxury: indeed, the sleeves for 'The Album' and 'Back To Front' were almost tragically cheapo and sparse, bearing no inserts, band photos or printed lyrics. The two albums released on Kingdom, (alongside a later compilation of both, 'The Canterbury Collection') were, moreover, given virtually zero promotion, resulting in very poor sales. Both were good enough to deserve far better, especially 'Back To Front', which boasted a return to the classic original line up of Pye Hastings (guitar and vocals), Richard Coughlan (drums) and - hallelujah - the divinely talented Sinclair cousins David (keyboards and vocals) and Richard (bass and vocals). A reformation such as this would have garnered headlines in the rock weeklies before 1977: alas, by 1982, few seemed to care, forcing the band into an eight year sabbatical. A great shame.

So, long and rambling historical context over, I'd like to humbly state my case for 'Back To Front's' inclusion in the UNSUNG hall of non-fame. First off, as I've already hinted, there's far more pure pop feel in evidence here than anything "progressive", especially if we're talking "progressive" in the Genesis or ELP sense. Anyone remotely familiar with the better-known early Caravan LP's such as 'If I Could Do It All Over Again, I'd Do It All Over You' will be aware that a neat way with a catchy ditty or three was always a vital element of the band's universe, but as the 70's moved on, so did Pye Hastings' acute sense of melody and commerciality, to the extent that on 'Better By Far' he was crafting an entire album's worth of potential singles. So much for "File under Progressive"! 'The Album' was more of the same, augmented by David Sinclair and (the soon-to-depart) Geoff Richardson's not dissimilar harmonic gifts. The return of Richard Sinclair - complete with his patent, blatantly English, post-voicebreak choir boy vocals and cheeky lyrical touch (not to mention godlike musicianship) - made 'Back To Front' better still, with not a hint of prog pomposity in sight (well, almost...see below). Indeed, there's not a single track on 'Back To Front' that couldn't have been a 45, and had the trash-obsessed national radio stations of the time been broad-minded enough to be interested, there'd be twice-remastered, deluxe editions of this mighty collection sitting on the shelves of Woolworths with a "Featuring the hit singles..." sticker on each. But they weren't. And there are not.

The waves of surf that emerge from the speakers at the start of the album represent waves of pure pleasure to me, and form one of those unique opening moments (like the crowd sound at the start of 'Roxy Music', or the coughs that commence 'Master Of Reality') that have filled my thrill-pores ever since I first unwrapped this yellow-sleeved platter 24 years ago. 'Back To Herne Bay Front' is the first song, and it's a stunner. Magnanimous as it was for Pye Hastings to give the newly-returned Richard Sinclair the LP's opening shot, there really was no better way to get the record underway. Tentative, unresolved keyboard and guitar chords rise over the wind, waves and seagull sounds, melting into the song proper: a 'Moon In June'-esque resume of the processes of recording in a past-its-best seaside town described in such charmingly graphic terms that you can just taste the Old Peculier and eels and liquor pies. Richard's enunciation is even more un-American than usual ("It's not Hotel California, but the electric bar fires warm YOU") and if political correctness wasn't quite his strong point ("There's not a lot of crumpet...") well what the hell - it was 1982. And incidentally, the recording of the album in Herne Bay represents a lovely full circle for the Sinclair cousins, whose fathers had played the (still standing) bandstand there during their sons' youth.

Next up is Pye Hastings' achingly infectious 'Bet You Wanna Take It All'/'Hold On, Hold On' medley, an admirably self-confessional ode to the temptations and libido of a man's early middle age. We've all been there: "You know a bar where the drinks are cold / and they don't look at you like you are old", and aside from the calmer, slowed down "Hold On, Hold On" section (featuring the long-absent and perfectly-complimented vocal interplay between Pye's alto and Richard's tenor larynxes), the tune bounces irresistably along on a similar note of age denial. It's a terrific pop song, no more and no less, driven along by an almost motorik beat from the ever-impressive Richard Coughlan.

Richard Sinclair's second showcase, 'A.A. Man', bears a childishly simple "A.A., A.A Man" chorus that sounds suspiciously akin to Tommy Vance's old "Rock on, Saturday" jingle...and all the better for it. In common with much of the album, it's subject concerns an all-too everyday issue, that of breaking down on the motorway. "Where's my member's handbook, Patricia darling?" intones the archbishop of the Canterbury Scene, before surprising us all with an original and distinctive lead guitar solo, thus revealing yet another aspect to his criminally undervalued talents. He also adds a perfect lead vocal to the side's final track, David Sinclair's wonderfully melodious 'Videos Of Hollywood', a charming serenade to films of a bygone age. The beautiful centre section, where Richard plays the lovely verse tune on his trusty Jazz Bass, is one of the high points of the whole album.

Another David Sinclair composition, 'Sally Don't Change It', opens the record's second side. Although on the face of it a fairly standard love song, the fragility of its composer's lead vocal (his first, by the way) gives a welcome edge of poignancy which really adds to its appeal. It is completely contrasted by his third and final contribution to the album, the closing 'Proper Job'/'Back To Front', which is the nearest Caravan come to recreating the prog epics of their early years. In fitting with the times, however, this time the music is much simpler in concept, and every bit as foot-tapping as so much of the preceeding album has been. There are no complex time changes (nor what Pip Pyle would come to describe as "tricky dicky chords") here, just a tongue-in-cheek rags to riches and back to rags subject (featuring hilarious "old dad" spoken intrusions by Coughlan), a jaunty sax solo from the redoubtable session man Mel Collins, and a relentlessly repetitive (and very Man-like) ascending refrain taking the album to an atypically prog-like close.

In between come a brace of classic Pye Hastings' songs, starting with the dreamlike 'All Aboard', which features one of those tremendously uplifting choruses that had been his trademark since the first album's opening 'Place Of My Own'. It's a tune that will conquer your mind and stay there all day, or at least until you've played the even more addictive song that follows. Without doubt the most shamelessly commercial song to emerge from the Canterbury canon, 'Taken My Breath Away' is pure disco-driven tosh, and yet I've never been able to resist it. I swear that had Pye the good sense to pass the tune on to the Nolan Sisters, he would have had a million seller on his hands, it's THAT disposable yet, yet...wonderful, and helped in no small way by more of those perfectly complimented Hastings/Sinclair vocal harmonies on the chorus. Gorgeous stuff.

Taken as a whole, 'Back To Front' is, like the two albums before it, a brave and satisfying endeavour to break free of the weird time signatures and atonalities that the changed era now deemed so unnecessary - not that Caravan had ever really offended in those terms anyway. Of course, Genesis followed much the same path with much greater success, but never achieved anything like the same warmth and humanity in their music that their humbler Canterbury contemporaries could muster up at will, as here. For where the likes of 'Abacab' and 'Invisible Touch' are cold, technical, studio-bound big productions, 'Back To Front' feels like it's come from deep within the hearts of everyone concerned, with a unique vibe of sheer joy running right through it. Last year it was re-released on the Canterbury-based Eclectic label and in its remastered form it sounds better than ever before. I respectfully urge anyone who ever loved Caravan in their more successful period - or indeed anyone with a sense of fun - to check it out.

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