Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Caravan - The Album

Caravan
The Album


Released 1980 on Kingdom
Reviewed by Fitter Stoke, 06/06/2015ce


Any perception you may hold of Caravan as a great British prog rock band would be immediately shattered by a hearing of ‘The Album’. For this, probably the band’s least known record, is essentially a sporadically sublime collection of unashamed POP music, pure and simple. Caught at the onset of the 80’s after three years of public and media indifference, Canterbury’s finest discarded what little trace of prog complexity that remained in their sound and threw themselves into making a whole album of sharp, punchy and tuneful songs largely devoid of complex time signatures or lengthy instrumental breaks. In truth, any one of ‘The Album’s nine tracks would’ve made a great single, notwithstanding the sad fact that the one that did, bombed completely - as did, sadly, its parent album. In the wake of post-punk, Two-Tone, new wave and slick US bland rock, no-one seemed to give a toss about the shoddily packaged efforts of five fine musicians like Caravan, no matter how far removed from the land of grey and pink they now found themselves. It was sad - in the traditional sense of that word.

So why have I chosen to pen a few words about this record? After all, it is very much of its time, if thankfully devoid of the searingly dated "big" synth and drum sound that was soon to ruin pretty much every other rock band’s oeuvre in the ensuing decade. Well, here's the thing. Whenever I play ‘The Album’, which is often, I’m knocked out by its summery vibe, its clear as daylight production, its upbeat songs and staggeringly slick playing, which never fail to lift me if I'm feeling a bit low. Isn’t that what great pop music is supposed to do? I think so, however cheesy that may sound. Much as I love Joy Division, Nick Drake or Lou Reed, I don’t want to immerse myself in misery all of the time. ‘The Album’ is the complete antithesis - in every way, right down to its dull, cheap sleeve* - of something like the contemporary ‘Closer’, for example, but every bit as essential and valid in my book.

Take that failed 45, ‘Heartbreaker’, for example. As an album opener, it states its purpose and achieves it effortlessly: one of those superbly melodic, catchy and memorable songs that its composer seems to be able to churn out at will. How Pye Hastings has received neither the commercial nor critical acclaim of the likes of Wilson, Davies or McCartney is beyond me, because for me he’s every bit their match with his ability to mate great tunes, memorable choruses and wry, heartfelt lyrics. On ‘The Album’, he contributes just three songs, but they’re all pearlers. ‘Heartbreaker’, on the face of it as cliched as its overused title (I can think of at least five other songs bearing its name, as I’m sure can you), doesn’t thrill on first hearing - far from it - but when it comes around again (in a different mix) as a bonus track on the Esoteric CD issue it starts to gnaw away at the psyche. By the third play it’s got you, believe me - unless of course you’re entirely wrapped up in post-punk blackness. How it didn’t hit the Radio 1 playlists of the time I can’t understand: Tony Blackburn would’ve loved it. But hey, what am I saying - I’m trying to big up this record, not put you off it!

Pye’s distinctive alto voice achieves almost Brothers Gibb pitch on ‘Bright Shiny Day’, a near-epic, awesomely uplifting song with possibly the biggest and best chorus in his portfolio - and my, is that saying something. It has one of those staggering chord sequences that make life worth living, perfectly complimenting the consolatory optimism of its lyric. I’m playing it right now, and thinking how it might just be my favourite Pye Hastings song ever. But then, I have a tendency to think that when I hear so many of his songs, not least the mighty, hard rocking track that ends the original LP release with a bang. Blessed - like so much of ‘The Album’ - with the hitherto rarely heard, jaw-dropping lead guitar of multi instrumentalist Geoff Richardson, ‘Keeping Up De Fences’**rocks like no other Caravan song before or since, and is as far removed from earlier pastoral, psychedelic gems like ‘Place Of My Own’ as it’s possible to imagine. That’s not a criticism. ‘De Fences’ is driving rock at its best, dripping with razor sharp riffing and syncopation, propelled by drummer Richard Coughlan at the very top of his game. If you get to hear no other track from ‘The Album’, you’d do well to make time for this, if only to hear a side of the Canterbury Scene that you may never have imagined.

Another diversion from the Canterbury norm - whatever that may be - is ‘Clear Blue Sky’, a bass-heavy Geoff Richardson tune exploiting the white reggae vibe so big at the time. Unlike many better known contemporary examples, it’s not as embarrassing as you might think: in fact it’s quite seriously addictive, especially the staccato scat singing and guitar duet near the end of the song. Richardson’s other composition, ‘Corner Of Me Eye’, is even more overtly commercial, rhyming “dancing” with “romancing” much like a famous Nolans single. In fact, so insanely catchy is its chorus that it’s very easy to imagine the Blackpool babes covering it themselves. It’s followed by David Sinclair’s ‘Watcha Gonna Tell Me’, another real toe-tapper of a ditty, ably sung by bassist Dek Messecar and boasting the best instrumental sequences on the album, including a lovely minor-to-major flute solo in the middle and a superb duel between synth and guitar at the close. Don’t go thinking it’s another side long suite like ’Nine Feet Underground’, mind - far from it. ‘Watcha Gonna Tell Me’ has been and gone in less than six marvellous minutes.

Sinclair’s other fine contributions are the beautifully emotive ‘Piano Player’ (a co-write with John Murphy with a great vocal performance from Pye) and ‘Make Yourself At Home’, where Caravan - and especially Richardson - sound like they’re having a real party in the studio. Once heard, you’ll be singing the tune for a week. Which leaves just ‘Golden Mile’, a disco-fuelled composition by Geoff’s erstwhile bandmate Jim Atkinson which is the nearest thing to a clunker on the record but which, somehow, stands up - probably thanks to Richardson’s enthusiastic delivery and Coughlan’s rock-solid rhythm. It even includes a four letter word, though you’ll struggle to make it out.

Incidentally, the Esoteric CD edition of ‘The Album’ is graced by the additional track ‘It’s Never Too Late’ (originally the flip of the 'Heartbreaker' 45), an absolute jewel of a song that pretty much epitomises everything I’ve said about Pye Hastings’ songwriting genius both here and elsewhere. I’d swear I heard a very similar chorus tune in a much later Robbie Williams’ 45, though I don’t want to admit it…and I doubt that Port Vale's most famous supporter would have been aware of obscure Caravan 'B' sides anyway. See what you think.

Dear discerning friends, I am not trying to convince you that the record under scrutiny here is on the level of Caravan’s near faultless first five LPs or most of their remaining 70’s output, let alone some more than decent recent releases***. The uninitiated should start with ‘Caravan’, ‘If I Could Do It All Again, I’d Do It All Over You’, ‘In The Land Of Grey And Pink’ and ‘For Girls Who Grow Plump In The Night’, all great albums which define the band’s unique blend of prog brilliance, double-entendre whimsy and unforgettable melodies, and the reason why I fell in love with Caravan in the first place. But even the lesser releases of a band as good as this deserve far more attention than they received at the time. ‘The Album’ is undoubtedly one such record, but it’s still bursting at the seams with fine tunes, impeccable musicianship and a really joyous groove that enriches nearly every track. I can imagine no finer soundtrack for any summer than this.



Footnotes:

* The sleeve pictured above is the original UK one, bearing no lyrics, illustrations or band shots: in fact, a genuine contender for the worst cover design in my entire collection. When expertly remastered and reissued by Esoteric in 2004, a revised, slightly better design was used: look for the red cover with the same Caravan logo that graced the great ‘Blind Dog At St Dunstans’ of 1976.

** Both the Kingdom and Esoteric CD editions of ‘The Album’ contain an edited version of ‘Keepin’ Up De Fences’ that rather clumsily glues the masterful, choppy riff from the middle of the track onto its intro. While it hardly affects what remains a fabulous song, I much prefer the unmolested Kingdom LP original. If Eclectic or some other enterprising label ever get around to issuing ’The Album’ again, I hope the unadorned ‘De Fences’ is used (hint, hint). There was an edited 45 version around as well, I believe - but I don’t know whether it ever received a UK release: if it did, it flopped!

*** I’m thinking in particular of Caravan’s current release ‘Paradise Filter’, a fine record whose title track bears exactly the same verse tune as ‘Bright Shiny Day’ above. Hey, self parody is no crime, especially with a melody as good as this!


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