Am I crazy to compare them with Yes? This massive career retrospective of these mellow and oh-so-English proggers has plenty of highlights.
Time/tracks: Far too long to calculate...
Releasing such a huge amount of material in one go is a brave affair: the fans will already have a lot of the best albums, while those who do not know the band are unlikely to splash out several hundred pounds to buy it.
Caravan have always been seen as second-tier band, not in the same league as Yes, Pink Floyd and Genesis – but any fan of those bands should also love Caravan. They all shared a mix of melodic power, instrumental brilliance, and an innovative approach that refuses to blindly follow the paths of others.
That bold attitude came from a scene in Canterbury, UK in the late ‘60s that saw a band called the Wilde Flowers split into Soft Machine, Robert Wyatt and Caravan (amongst others). Jazz was a significant influence, not least, according to vocalist, guitarist and main creator Pye Hastings, for extending solos when you don’t have enough material to fill a set.
My first listen to the band (BBC Radio One in Concert) had me hooked immediately, thanks to their unique sound. Forging its mellowness were Hastings’ gentle vocals, Geoff Richardson’s viola and flute and the wonderful tones that Dave Sinclair got from his keys, where organ and synth seemed to morph into each other.
I was surprised recently to see read Hastings distancing himself from the term ‘prog’, when their music has all the relevant characteristics – extended instrumentals, eschewing standard song formats, occasional interesting time signatures and an eclectic approach that borrows from wherever it can.
Maybe they were never elevated to rock’s Premier league because of their humour, which shows them with their feet on the ground, rather than their noses in the air. Prog and classic rock have often taken themselves too seriously, and tracks like the whimsical “Golf Girl” don’t fit such pretentiousness:
“Standing on a golf course dressed in PVC
I chanced upon a golf girl selling cups of tea
She asked me did I want one, asked me with a grin
For thruppence you can buy one full right to the brim.”
Instrumental tracks were fertile ground for adolescent humour to break into the song titles: “Dance of the Seven Paper Hankies”, “Hold Grandad by the Nose” and “Derek’s Long Thing” are three examples that could have been joined by “He Who Smelt It dealt It,” had it not become “Memory Lain (Hugh)”, one of the band’s most enduring set openers.
And they haven’t grown out of it either; 2013’s Paradise Filter has a track called “Pain in the Arse” and the title track to 2003’s The Unauthorised Breakfast Item recounts a near fracas on the road after someone allegedly consumed an extra fried tomato without paying for it.
Looking at the tracklist for the early albums, it is striking how consistently classic tracks appear. The début’s opener “A Place of my Own” has never lost its appeal; the follow up If I Could Do It All Over Again, I’d Do It All Over You contains the perennial favourite “For Richard,” while third album In the Land of Grey and Pink – one of their most popular releases and one that Stephen Wilson has given new stereo and 5.1 mixes for this set – likewise features the lengthy “Nine Feet Underground”. Even the fourth album Waterloo Lily – an oddball release due to Dave Sinclair leaving, replaced by a keys player heavily into a different style – still managed to produce “The Love in your Eye,” another of these umteen-minute works, which are the main anchor that hooks fans to the band.
1973’s For Girls Who Grow Plump in the Night is the other essential album (alongside Grey and Pink) and the one that ‘fixed’ the essence of the band’s classic sound, due to Geoff Richardson joining them with his viola and Dave Sinclair returning on a session basis.
So with the core sound and set tracklist established, key albums include that year’s Caravan and the New Symphonia and 1974’s wonderful Live at Fairfield Halls – now joined by Nottingham Polytechnic December 5th 1975, one of the seven previously unreleased live shows featured in this box set.
That “For Richard” appears over a dozen times in this collection is one of Caravan’s great appeals. Because the line-up kept changing, because of the improvisational spirit of the band, and because of their longevity, each version is recognisably “For Richard,” but still retains its own fresh feel. That goes too for the other lengthy pieces; they never get boring.
By the end of the seventies, punk was putting severe pressure on any band who played songs that lasted more than 150 seconds and a lot of those in Caravan’s position were unsure how to address the situation – cut songs down and re-invent themselves like After the Fire, plod on regardless like very few dared, or just quietly give up?
While the band struggled to maintain their early form, they were able to keep going because their music was still firmly based on melody. Later albums had fewer classics, but tracks like “Smoking Gun” from the Breakfast album and “I’m on my Way” (with some Knopfler-like guitar) from Paradise Filter showed that they could at times produce punchier songs that still retain the classic Caravan mood, while the latter album’s hymn/folk styled “Travelling Ways” was one example of a track that complements it.
But it’s not just the music. As well as discs mentioned above, the box set extras to the sixteen remastered studio albums and four official live sets include a DVD of live shows from around Europe, a fan club mini-book, a signed photo, posters, a replica tour programme and a 144-page hardback coffee table book. It is worth noting that this doesn’t include everything that Caravan have released, probably due to contractual reasons. Neither the Live at the BBC compilation from 2007 nor 2012’s Live at the Metropole Union Square release are here.
So why the Yes comparison? Plainly both bands shared a creative spirit, forming new sounds before facing the post-punk struggle to re-find their identity; both managed a significant turnover of members, while retaining (for the most part) distinctive vocalists; both featured a melodic heart to their instrumentals; and both had success based on the enduring popularity of their longer 70’s tracks. And they appeal to a similar demographic (there is a reason why Caravan and Camel shared a bassist and keys player at some points).
Caravan never had a combo as world-beating as Chris Squire and Rick Wakeman, but ask me whether I’d prefer a 37 disc box set of Yes or of Caravan and I’d have to think a long time before reaching a verdict – but I think it quite likely that I’d go for Caravan.