It was while he was still at school in the mid-Sixties that aspiring drummer Andy Ward became associated with two former members of John's Children, pre-Marc Bolan: Geoff McClelland (Guitar, Vocals) and Chris Dawsett (Keyboards). This trio, aided and abetted by singing bassist Joey Barnes, gigged under the name of Misty, or indeed any other identity which on occasions might take their fancy.
Barnes soon tired of this activity, however, and was replaced by Doug Ferguson; the membership being simultaneously expanded to five with the recruitment of vocalist Wendy Hoyle.
Work wasn't always easy to come by, but they secured a few playing dates at local girls schools, supplementing these with infrequent bookings at a young-set hangout of their locale, The Chuck Wagon in Leatherhead, Surrey. Although a far cry from the Camel we would all know and love, at least two of its founder members had made each other's acquaintance. When Misty finally evaporated, Ward and Ferguson stayed in touch.
At around the same time in nearby Guildford, 1949-born native Andrew Latimer (Guitar, Flute, Vocals) was occupying his time as one quarter of The Phantom Four, a harmony/blues aggregation completed by Andy's brother Ian (Bass, Vocals); Alan Butcher (Drums) and Graham Cooper (Keyboards, Vocals).
It was Ferguson's move to Guildford which provided the opportunity for history to ensure we would all ultimately be refreshed by a musical ship of the desert though, and during 1967 Doug and Andy crossed paths.
Both blues fans, their personalities matched as well as their harmonic tastes, and so as Andrew was assembling a group to knock out the rhythms he liked, an invitation to supply the lower four-string register was soon forthcoming to Doug. Ferguson made only one proviso: that his friend Andy Ward handled the percussion department. Since the ex-Phantom hadn't actually contacted anyone else about his projected endeavour, Ward was wecomed with open arms. Collectively they christened themselves Brew.
This outfit worked hard, perfomed as often as anyone offered them employment, and like a million others before and since cut demonstration discs of their own handiwork. They once recollected that an album's worth of material was taped for an enthusiastic German produce, but failed to see the light of day.
Undismayed Brew continued towards hoped-for recognition, and early in 1971 were contacted by the Dick James Organization who'd been impressed by material received. DJM suggested a liaison with a writer/performer contracted to the, Phillip Goodhand-Tait. The idea appealed to both parties, so that season they backed the one-time front man of the Stormsville Shakers for both live and studio work.
In the latter category Phillip's long-player I THINK I'LL WRITE A SONG (U.K.: DJLPS 416, Released: September 1971) resulted, but being a long-term backing group was hardly utopia for three such talented performers. They reviewed their ambitions and possibilities constantly, not knowing that change was just around the corner.
Purveyor of entertainment by means of black and white ivories, Peter Bardens initially expressed himself in 1962 via Hamilton King's Blues Messengers. A brief flirtation with a triumvirate of his own was followed by 'professional' status with The Cheynes (July 1963-April 1965) - where Mick Fleetwood could be observed rattling the traps. Van Morrison's brainchild, Them, was next on the agenda, being superseded by the purely instrumental Peter B's Looners in February 1966. A British answer to America's Booker T. (Jones) & The M.G.'s, they were absorbed a few months later into Shotgun Express. This hotbed of future superstars included Fleetwood, Peter Green and Rod Stewart in its personnel, but by February '67 that party was over. Bardens then augmented numerous outfits until constructing another trio of his own design, Village, in May 1968. A couple of years later Peter decided he could develop more positively as a solo artist, evacuated the hamlet and, signing with Transatlantic Records, issued a pair of LP's. THE ANSWER (TRA 222, September 1970) was pursued by a self-named package a few months later (TRA 243, July 1971).
To ply his trade on the road Peter had cobbled together a group he christened On, but failing to make much impact he discontinued the experiment and plotted a move to the States. Dame good fortune ensured that before any ship sailed or aeroplane flew, however, his eye would light upon an advertisement in the weekly music publication, Melody Maker.
Having split from Mr. Goodhand-Tait, Brew had decided the addition of a keyboard operator would broaden their melodic possibilities and so placed a few lines in the 'Musicians Wanted' columns.
Peter auditioned on a Hammond organ the boys had borrowed from a mutual friend, who was actually co-operating in the hope of filling their vacancy himself. It was not to be; the prospective paymasters immediately struck up a rapport on every level with Bardens and he was invited to part the stool.
It was the tail-end of 1971 and all concluded that new chapter might best be heralded by a change of name. Clearly they would be progressing musically too, so each man concentrated on thinking up a snappy billing nomenclature. In the meantime our quartet crossed the Irish Sea as On to fulfil Peter's outstanding contractual obligations extant from his last incarnation. That it presented a chance to get their latest act together was a bonus.
Back home again, November witnessed agreement between our protagonists that they should henceforth be known as Camel, and soon afterwards they celebrated the event when Walthamstow Polytechnic in London hosted their 'official' set as support to rock band Wishbone Ash.
All four musicians were highly proficient and they'd supplemented their earnings from evenings on the boards through session work, courtesty of an E.M.I. staff producer who used them often. Well, three of them anyway. Peter was by-passed because this gentleman didn't care for organists. Nobody knows why. That notwithstanding, he introduced the boys to brothers Mickie and Dave Most - multi-faceted entrepreneurs to the industry.
In turn they pointed Camel towards the Buffalo Agency's booker, Geoff Jukes, who was currently preparing his own enterprise. He signed them to his fledgling Gemini Company who found them work, and Geoff was asked to become the band's manager.
Gigging day in, day out our heroes quietly collected a growing legion of admirers, including Artistes & Repertoire representatives from several record companies into the bargain. MCA won the race, so that by mid-1972 Camel were in the studio committing their debut album to tape.
Unfortunately, completion took far longer than anyone wanted or expected. The band lacked experience within microphoned portals, as did their rookie producer, Dave Williams. In between they kept up a gruelling date diary, earning their stripes as warm-up for Barclay James Harvest during November and December. Reviews were favourable.
Their eponymously-titled twelve incher finally hit the streets of Britain in February '73 (MCA MUPS 473), while the band promoted their handiwork on the road during February and March by opening for labelmates, Stackridge.
Although Camel retailed over 5,000 within twelve months - and would probably have sold more had the stateside giant not switched U.K. distributors towards year's end - the Music Corporation of America's British arm declined to take up their option.
By now Jukes had formed Gama Records with Richard Thomas and Max Hole. Camel inked the dotted line direct to the production company and the business of taping a second album began. David Hitchcock filled the producer's role, his pedigree already including LP's for Genesis and the Canterbury, Kent group, Caravan, some of whose members whould form alliances with Camel in years to come, but those are stories for other days . . .
Gama sought an outlet for their projects and quickly signed a long-term deal with Decca/London's off-shoot label, Deram, for the world except Canada and North America where Janus Records held sway. The first fruits of this partnership was to be the vinyl ancestor of the package you now hold in your hand, Mirage. Issued at home as SML 1107 on March 1st 1974, no singles from it were envisaged, nor did it breach the listings, but general media response to the finished article was extremely promising.
'Sounds' for March 30th opened their appreciation by stating, 'You don't listen to a band like Camel for quick thrills. You really do have to hear them a few times before the music begins to register - all those long an delicately arranged instrumental passages burn slowly, but once the melodies are in your head, they don't rub out easily.' Most tracks were essentially devoid of lyrics, and their reviewer was quick to praise the ability and feel for their art of those taking part. Ward and Ferguson were described as a 'well oiled machine.' Camel themselves were meanwhile preparing for a pilgrimage to France and Germany throughout April and May.
Back home the latter month's 'Beat Instrumental' magazine went one better than Sounds, according Mirage 'Album Of The Month' status, selecting a few choice adjectives and encouraging would-be purchasers by closing, 'the musicianship is excellent, and Camel seem to be one of the few bands who get the best out of each other and put it into strong and tight music.' High praise indeed.
Whatever disappointment all concerned may have felt at their failure to dent the LP barometer upon this sceptred isle, or at the lack of radio airplay from largely singles-orientated broadcasters, spirits were definitely lifted when on November 30th Janus 7009 entered Uncle Sam's Billboard Top 200. There Mirage remained visible for a creditable 13 weeks, peaking at 149. Greatest support for the disc was evident on the West Coast, although nobody has ever been able to ascertain exactly why that area above all the others.
Camel returned the compliment our cousins paid by packing their bags and heading towards the nation where Liberty waits to greet newcomers. Booked for a 7 weeks crusade, again with their old friends Wishbone Ash headlining, Camel's act was aimed fairly and squarely at the audiences who'd pay to watch with 45 minutes of hard rocking boogie. It went down like a storm.
Scheduled to wind up in Miami during December, Geoff Jukes advised the foursome to stay put and a tour of their own was mapped out. Lasting 3 months, they played almost every state before making the return Atlantic crossing for a well-earned break. Behind them, large numbers of devotees who'd packed the clubs they played night after night.
Once home the band discussed at length where their direction lay and what their third set might consist of. A specific 'concept' idea had been in their minds and was soon given the final thumbs-up by all and sundry. Andy Latimer and Peter Bardens thus disappeared to a remote Devon cottage for the purpose of deciding upon subject matter, and then sketching a cleffed framework.
Very different in texture to Mirage, that endeavour would be The Snow Goose. Its 1975 unveiling would make Camel an internationally known name, rewarding at llast all those years of struggle . . .
© John Tracy London, 1989