It was in 1973 that British weekly music paper "Melody Maker" carried the following statement from one of their scribes, Tony Claxton: "One band who deserve to be called a bright hope are Camel. I have seen them quite a few times now and every time I see them the more enjoyment I get. They are so full of promise and one day they are going to reach a bigger audience -- and it won't be any hype or gimmick because their music is all they need." Prophetic and accurate to the Nth degree, for hypes and gimmicks found no place in the progressive success of Camel during their thirteen year existence. Imagination, solid musicianship and heavy touring schedules were the backbone of their achievements.
Originally formed in the spring of 1972, Camel's first line-up was the amalgamation of three musicians who had formerly played on the road together in a band named Brew between 1968 and '70, Andrew Latimer (Gtr., Flute), Doug Ferguson (Bass) and Andy Ward (Drums), with the much-travelled keyboard wizard Peter Bardens.
Bardens was a survivor of the pop industry, gaining his first professional experience back in 1964 with a group called The Cheynes, who also boasted a young Mick Fleetwood on drums in their personnel. Although this combo failed to break through to bigger things, Peter did when invited to augment the membership of Van Morrison's first successful band, Them.
That group proved an unstable environment, so his next project was to form his own ensemble -- Peter Bardens' Looners, a short-lived concept which made way for the rhythm and blues based Shotgun Express. This highly respected aggregation showcased many major future British talents during its lifetime, including old pal Mick Fleetwood, vocalist Rod Stewart and guitarist Peter Green.
Eventually tiring of this, Bardens then developed a trio, Village, which occupied his time for two and a half years until in 1970 the urge to attain solo status led to their demise. Pacting with Transatlantic Records, Peter released The Answer (TRA 222) that year, following up with Peter Bardens (TRA 243) a few months later. Amongst those contributing vocals to the first LP were former Love Affair singer Steve Ellis, and Linda Lewis.
At this point, Messrs. Latimer, Ferguson and Ward were working both live and in the studio with the underrated Philip Goodhand-Tait. They remained in his entourage until the end of '71 and a meeting with Bardens. The four discovered many mutual similarities in their musical preferences and aspirations; thus was Camel conceived.
The hard work ethic didn't take long to establish itself, and they were soon on the road undertaking major tours with Barclay James Harvest (November-December 1972) and in Spring '73, Stackridge. Their signing to the latter band's record company, MCA, promised a bright future, while a television appearance on BBC's influential musica show OLD GREY WHISTLE TEST, and several outings on radio's SOUNDS OF THE SEVENTIES, assisted a steadily increasing public awareness of their existence.
Although it didn't set the world alight at the time, that first set, simply named after the group, was a steady seller and no mean achievement. However, it was their signing with Decca's satellite production company, Gama Records, late in 1973 which heralded their widespread recognition.
First child born of this liaison was Mirage (Deram SML 1107) issued in March the following year, and produced by David Hitchcock. It collected complimentary reviews, in particular from "Sounds" and "Beat Instrumental", the latter affording it the accolade "Album of the Month" for May. British sales were healthy, but Stateside it fared better still, particularly on the West Coast.
Not wishing to squander the potential this breakthrough offered, the boys promptly toured the US for three months, meeting with good response. Obligations fulfilled, upon their return home Andy and Peter retired to Devon in West Country to sketch their next project. Explained Andy in 1981: "We hadn't got the idea of doing a concept album when we went down there, but after a week or so, we'd decided that a concept album it would be. Peter wanted to do Steppenwolf and I wanted to do The Snow Goose. Eventually, we agreed on Snow Goose and we worked hard on it and within two weeks had written the majority of it. It was a strange album in as much as we wrote the whole thing and practiced each piece, but never ever played it all the way through, so we had no real idea what the overall result would be. But when we heard the finished result, we were chuffed."
David Hitchcock again produced, and it proved to be the major breakthrough the group needed. The Snow Goose (Decca SKL-R 5207; May 1975) put Camel into the album charts for 13 weeks after entry on May 24th, reaching a peak at No. 22. Additionally, "Melody Maker" presented them with an award designated "Brightest Hope" and they performed the album's contents live at the Royal Albert Hall with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Bedford in October. A back-up tour won more fans over, but all this pleasure was somewhat marred when Paul Gallico, author of the novel which inspired the album, served a writ on the group alleging breach of copyright.
That notwithstanding, Camel had arrived. Wisely deciding that the followup disc needed to broaden their horizons, Moonmadness (Decca TXS-R 115; April 1976) was deliberately not a concept project, but placed greater emphasis on the vocal aspect of their work. Writing and rehearsal for this took about six weeks in total, and although Latimer later admitted a mild dissatisfaction with the finished result because they had to rush its preparation, it remains a very creditable LP which provided their greatest success in America. At home it crashed the listings on 17th April, reached No. 15 and was made welcome for 6 weeks.
Rain Dances (TXS-R 124; September 1977) saw the Camel evolution undertake a larger step than usual. The music had a jazzier feel and a first personnel change occurred with the departure of Doug Ferguson. His place was taken by Richard Sinclair, formerly of Caravan. Again the LP charted in its month of issue, this time on the 17th, reached No. 20 and troubled compilers for eight weeks.
Next followed the double album A Live Record (DBC-R 7-8; April 1978), an attempt to set out a musical life history to date, followed five months later by Breathless (TXS-R 132) which entered the UK Hit Parade at 26 on October 14th, but disappeared, never to return, seven days later. It was to be Peter Bardens' last new outing under Camel's banner. He and Andy had shared several differences of opinion at a musical level by the time they had reached the studios for both this and Rain Dances, so after completion of Breathless Peter amicably split for pastures new.
Ward and Sinclair threw in their lot with Latimer, and so the immediate problem was recruiting personnel for a forthcoming season on the road. Richard suggested his keyboard playing cousin David and also Jan Schelhaas, another master of the black and whites, who'd both played with Caravan.
The idea of twin keyboards appealed to Andy, but with the tour complete both temporary member Dave and Richard Sinclair decided to quit, in the latter case because of the hectic touring schedule proposed for the future.
Thus in came bassist Colin Bass and ex-Happy The Man ivories tinkler Kit Watkins to restore the complement to five. Rupert Hine assumed the producers role for I Can See Your House From Here (TXS- R 137; October 1979). Entering Brtitain's album charts on October 27th, it featured for three weeks and climbed to No. 45.
Next stop, Nude (Decca SKL 5323; January 1981). This highlighted the keyboard talents of Duncan Mackay, sice both Jan and Kit were involved in solo projects. Returning to the concept arena, it was based on Susan Hoover's original idea about a Japanese soldier marooned on an island after over thirty years, still believing the Second World War to be in progress. Saxophonist Mel Collins also played on this album, as he had done on previous sets since Rain Dances, whilst production duties fell upon the shoulders of Tony Clarke and Haydn Bendall. The famed Abbey Road Studios hosted recording during September 1980. Charting on the final day of its month of release, it occupied Britain's listings for seven weeks, hitting a high at No. 34.
1981, Camel's real 10th anniversary, was a memorable year: the members of the original band all received Gold Discs for sales of The Snow Goose; to celebrate their decade, a compilation, Chameleon - The Best of Camel (SKL 5325; September) hit the streets, but regrettably a serious hand injury to drummer Andy Ward sidelined him indefinitely from May.
Latimer thus set about 1982's release with yet another line-up, this time including the various talents of ex-Pilot front man David Paton (Bass, Vocals), Chris Rainbow (Vocals), variously drummers Simon Phillips, Dave Mattacks and Graham Jarvis and keyboard specialists Anthony Phillips and Francis Monkman. Studio and producers from Nude were retained, and as a bonus Peter Bardens re-appeared for one track, Sasquatch, on The Single Factor (SKL 5328) issued on 6th May. It charted nine days later, stayed for five weeks, halting at 57. For the obligatory tour commencing on May 16th in Liverpool, the line-up was Latimer, Paton, Rainbow, Watkins, ex-Vapour Trails guitarist Andy Dalby, plus one-time Pilot and 10 c.c. stick man Stuart Tosh.
With 13th April 1984 came Camel's final, to date at least, studio set Stationary Traveller (SKL 5334). A melodic and memorable disc, it deserved a better showing on the best sellers than its recorded four weeks after entry on April 21st and a high spot of 57. Personnel for the April/May UK and European tour were Andy, Chris (doubling keyboards), Colin Bass, drummer Paul Burgess and Dutch keyboard virtuoso Ton Scherpenzeel, a veteran of almost ten years with his native outfit, Kayak.
It was during that musical pilgrimage that Decca hired the Rolling Stones' mobile recording unit to capture Camel's live performance on May 11th at London's Hammersmith Odeon, the magificent result of which you hold in your hands. Supplemented further by a third keyboard player, Richie Close, Pressure Points (SKL 5338; November 1984), is preserved for posterity as a reminder of just how far Andy Latimer had taken his band since the early Seventies. Live samples from five previous albums are stored here: three each from Stationary Traveller (Pressure Points. West Berlin, Fingertips) and Nude (Drafted, Captured, Lies); a brace of Rhayader's from The Snow Goose and one each from The Single Factor (Sasquatch) and I Can See Your House From Here (Wait).
Camel are sorely missed by their world-wide legion of fans, this being their final recorded legacy as I write, but who can tell what will happen in the future? With the ubiquitous and talented Mr. Latimer, all things are possible.
© John Tracy London, 1987