Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Caravan - Caravan

Caravan


Released 1968 on Verve
Reviewed by Fitter Stoke, 02/02/2003ce


First of all, a confession. I am guilty of having underrated this tremendous record for best part of three decades, not least because my vinyl copy, housed in a dreadful pseudo-forties graphic sleeve on MGM (home of the Osmonds, pop pickers), bears a transfer so lacking in lustre that The Singing Nun sounds like Slayer next to it. Consequently 'Caravan' was the last of the excellent Decca/Deram reissues of last year that I bought. And, like WOW. What a revelation the new remastering has proven to be, not because it includes both the mono and stereo mixes of the album - with the former being surprisingly the more vivid - but because it brings what I always felt to be an understated and unremarkable set of songs into pure daylight. To be sure, the 2002 reissue of Caravan's 1968 debut album is a tribute to that rare art of effective CD remastering, and a staunch argument against those hi-fi traditionalists (like myself) who insist that vinyl is best. Song titles, erroneously listed on the aforementioned MGM travesty as 'Cecil RUNS' and 'Where But For Caravan Would I BE' have been corrected. And they've even reinstated the original Verve sleeve design, with our four heroes posing like stone(d) statues atop marble pillars - the perfect visual for this unashamed period piece of psychedelic pop delights.

Why do I love Caravan? Well, I've said this before, but at their best - as here - they have an unrivalled ability to merge the most dexterous, muso-pleasing rock with killer songwriting. Above all else, Messrs. Hastings, Sinclair and company can magic the most hypnotic, life-enhancing chord changes and time signatures into sublime songs that can stand comparison with Brian Wilson, Ray Davies and any number of far more acknowledged pop songsmiths. There are brief passages, licks and motifs within their songs, sometimes teasingly played only once or twice, that would make superb tracks in themselves. And an otherworldly, sardonic yet friendly atmosphere permeates all of their best songs. This is great rock music with emotion, a sense of humour and a heart of gold.

There is no better example of these qualities than the opening track on Caravan's first album. 'Place Of My Own', a tragically unsuccessful 45 at the time, starts with a powerful tom-tom intro and a sad, yearning, Farfisa-dominated motif after which the fragile, almost childlike vocal of Pye Hastings intones a lyric and melody of the most heartfelt beauty. The chorus ("I've got this place of my own where I can go when I feel I'm coming down/We'll do our best to ensure you'll feel secure if you come") is a major-keyed gust of strawberry scented air in the pinky mist of the rest of the song. There is an instrumental passage at the song's heart that features what just might be the most glorious organ solo on record. Then - the song's masterstroke: that perfect chorus again, quieter and more subdued, with a beyond perfect bridge into a louder reprise. Absolutely marvellous. Roll over Arthur Lee, and tell Franz Schubert the news.

'Ride' comes next, built around a very 1968 eastern-inspired melody line interspersed with loud instrumental breaks in which Richard Sinclair shows, for the first time on record, what a bass legend he truly is. His even more pronounced vocal talent is featured on 'Policeman', an early example of his perky, charming and very English compositional style that would grace future records by Caravan, Hatfield And The North, Camel and more. Here the Archbishop of the Canterbury Scene derides the legal invasion of what sounds like a very acid-drenched party. Oh to have been there. Cousin Dave shines, as always, on his mighty Farfisa.

'Love Song With Flute' is another glorious Pye Hastings song, very much in the style of the faultless sequence of tracks that would make side one of 'If I Could Do It All Over Again, I'd Do It All Over You' so mesmeric. It has the hallmarks of Caravan's best songs: a slow, minor-keyed intro, a simple and divine vocal melody, building up to a satisfying, resolving chorus (with gospel-like vocal harmonies) and big, ever so slightly dischordant, crescendi. The track then moves into bossa nova mode - not, I assure you, as horrendous as that may sound - with a lovely flute solo by perennial guest star Jimmy Hastings (last heard on Radiohead's 'Life In A Glasshouse', trivia buffs).

'Cecil Rons' is the album's most overtly lysergic track. Beginning in free-form, it evolves into a tom-tom and bass driven, one-in-a-bar verse that alternates a nursery rhyme-like lick ("Cecil runs the mill in the gar-ar-den") with manic, Floyd-like "Cecil RONS" exclamations and an atypically atonal vocal line from Pye. But Caravan can never resist the big chorus, and here it's an absolutely perfect contrast with the chaos around it: "Oh what a beautiful scene/Playing underneath my dream/Oh what a beautiful scene I see"). A waltz coda from totally different world closes the track, the like of which Caravan never attempted again. Easily their most stoned song ever. I love it.

'Magic Man' is a delicious, simple song in waltz time with a chorus you will never forget. It makes an amiable lyric reference to Canterbury buddies Soft Machine, and features Dave Sinclair at his very best. It's succeeded by Richard Sinclair's second showcase, 'Grandma's Lawn', a big propulsive gem of a track in a similar vein to Syd Barrett's unreleased classic 'Vegetable Man'. The echo effect on the vocal is just right for the cavernous feel of the song.

So far, so very good. But you ain't heard nothing yet.

If I had just ten minutes to show someone why I feel the immediate post-Pepper period of British rock and roll to be the most compulsive, inventive and satisfying of all, I'd play them 'Where But For Caravan Would I', the epic closing track of Caravan's first album. It encapsulates all that is great about acid-drenched English rock. If I tell you that the bulk of the song is in 11/8 time, you'd quite justifiably either yawn or run a mile. But I tell you - you've never heard a lovelier tune in your life than Pye Hastings' here, and the time signature fits like a glove, not least because it's played in a quasi-waltz like way (123-123-12345) that really sugar coats this never bitter pill. The quiet verse melody is glorious. The brief, played only once, (cough and you'll miss it) middle-eight ("Soon you will see all the stars..") even better - in fact it's the best tune on the whole album. Two and a half minutes in, the song explodes into a amazingly androit, pre-Van der Graaf riff over which Dave Sinclair rocks and grooves like no one before or since. On and on that massive, lumbering riff goes, crushing all beneath it, until monumental tom-toms bring it to a head and big, new and buxom organ chords - again all too briefly - herald the next sequence of the track. The mood lightens, and Richard Sinclair takes over; his faultless, choirboy like singing enhancing another tune that Brian Wilson would die for (and over a chord sequence that sounds suspiciously similar to one from the following year's 'Abbey Road'). The harmony vocals at the end of each verse take the tune even further past sublimity. Finally, the mental riff returns - faster, then slower - and the song ends on jarring, repeated guitar dischords and a massive crash on Richard Coughlan's ever awesome drums. Unremittingly complex yet bursting with infectious melody, 'Where But For Caravan Would I' is the sound of a great unsung British rock and roll band at the height of its powers.


'Caravan' is thirty five minutes and twenty seconds of 1968 compressed into a time capsule and left there, with no thought to how it might be perceived to a jaded world two generations on. 'Hangmans Beautiful Daughter' aside, I know of no other record that is so time locked in the year of its making. It is Steed and Tara , Aztec bars, Mandrax and Major Matt Mason crushed and blended into a thick, viscous sauce and poured over a Dinky SPV. And it's delightful. Don't, like me, take thirty years to get into it.


Reviews Index