It was The Snow Goose, Camel's third album, which really established the British band as a force to be reckoned with. Following their opening eponymously titled effort for MCA (UK: MUPS 473, February 1973) they'd signed to production company Gama Records, distributed throughout the world except North America and Canada by the mighty Decca/London corporation.
Added to the organisation's offshoot Deram label artists roster, Mirage (UK: SML 1107, March 1974) earned a lot of critical praise. Stateside this appeared under the Janus banner (7009), as would the next three LP's also, and thanks to enthusiastic response on the West Coast particularly, it cracker Billboard's Top 200 chart on November 30th '74. Remaining for very creditable 13 weeks, Mirage peaked at 149.
On the strength of this, Camel picked up a seven week tour of Uncle Sam as show openers for Wishbone Ash. When that itinerary completed its run in Miami during December, it was suggested to our boys by their management that they remain in America and go out on the road alone to maintain momentum. For the next three months they did just that.
Although returning home in the meantime, yet another top-billing pilgrimage reached fruition. Dominating a venue's stage for a week was the norm this time around, with two shows a night playing to packed houses. Repertoire though, dominated by boogie numbers apparently, was a far cry from that which was shortly to follow.
Back on English soil once more the foursome, Peter Bardens (Organ, Mini Moog, Electric Piano, Pipe Organ, Acoustic Piano, ARP Odyssey) Andrew Latimer (Electric, Acoustic and Slide Guitars, Flute, Vocals), Andy Ward (Drums, Vibes, Varispeed Percussion) and Doug Ferguson (Bass), were thinking along the lines of a concept album, an idea they'd been toying with off and on for a couple of years.
That the inspirational basis for this forthcoming endeavour would probably be an acclaimed literary piece was not a bone of contention. Which item it should be was. Steppen Wolf was favoured by Bardens, while Latimer and Ferguson registered a vote for Paul Gallico's Snow Goose.
The group's co-scribes, Andy and Peter, therefore retired to the solitude of a cottage in Devon to finalise plans. Our guitarists stated in 1981 that in fact it wasn't until a week into their sabbatical that the decision to make album number three of the concept variety was definitely agreed between them. Once bartering and bantering ceased through, the pair worked furiously, completing the bulk of writing within a fortnight. Andy Latimer takes up the story: "It was a strange album in as much as we wrote the whole thing and practised 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".
It was originally intended that a narrative thread through this instrumental pleasantry, and Gama's powers-that-be Geoff Jukes, Max Hole and Richard Thomas attempted negotiations with Mr. Gallico's book publishers in the hope of obtaining official blessing for their project, ideally having the author pen a sleeve note and possibly arrange a tie-in between the album and tome. Unfortunately for Camel, their overtures were declined, a similar deal being struck for use of composer/musician Ed Welch's handiwork featuring comedian/man-of-many-talents Spike Milligan in a storytelling role. To minimise conflict therefore, this tribute to our feathered friends had its title prefaced 'Music Inspired By' and remained wholly wordless.
The Island recording studios were booked, Mirage's producer, David Hitchcock prepared to reprise his role, and The Snow Goose was in the can by early 1975 following a few overdubs at 'The Supreme Record Company's' miked-up complex in West Hampstead. The band were transferred from Deram to the main Decca label, and SKL-R 5207 was unveiled for the public in April. May 24th happily saw it breach Britain's Top 50 long-playing best-sellers listing for the first of its 13 weeks on show, 22 becoming the uppermost ascent. The band's faithful and growing following across the pond ensured that Janus 7016 announced its arrival come July 19th, after which it pulled up at 162 during a 35 day stop over. Events were similar elsewhere, and the quartet's name became known to a considerably wider audience. They could certainly be said to have arrived.
Press reviews were not particularly kind to Fritha and Rhayader overally however, and radio play was hard to obtain - an unsyllabled concept album being viewed with apparent suspicion by writers and seemingly confounding programme controllers. Clearly strong, steady sales indicated eager listeners were not excessively influenced by the media's thumbs down attitude, but sensibly Decca culled a 45 on May 16th to support their investment. F-R 13581 coupled the commercial Flight of the Snow Goose with Rhayader. The group's inaugural single, it would be one of only four they would issue during their existence. It didn't trouble chart compilers, but served as the taster it was intended to be.
Next on the agenda came a promotional road crusade, and Camel decided Holland should be first to witness their new show. The assembled a two part concert programme, the latest epic occupying the entire first half. As it turned out, only part two really received a seal of approval from the fans, so wisely they returned home to examine possible reasons for the disinclination towards applause in Act One.
The concensus of opinion was that since Snow Goose utilized an orchestra on disc which was absent live, and thus amended arrangements of the work had been necessary, certain re-scoring would have to be effected to improve compensation of sound further than had thus far been achieved. Eventually satisfied with alterations, they scheduled a brief tour to try out this latest audio incarnation. It worked beautifully, and the welcome sounds of clapping hands returned to ring round auditoriums throughout the entire programme once more.
One ray of sunshine from the music press around this time found Britain's long-established weekly, the 'Melody Maker', awarding Camel their 1975 accolade for 'Brightest Hope', but a crowning achievement was just around the corner.
With David Bedford wielding a conductor's baton, The Snow Goose was performed on stage by the band to an accompaniment from The London Symphony Orchestra at London's prestigious Royal Albert Hall in October. It was an enormous success, and a terrific exercise in advertising which did much to further Camel's high profile amongst consumers. Another back-up tour followed, drawing yet more converts into the fold.
Not content to rest on their laurels, and eager to expand in yet another harmonic direction, guidelines were sketched for a follow-up twelve incher. That this new endeavour would feature throat emissions prominently was clearly paramount; Andy Latimer again recollects events of the period: "We decided to steer clear of conceptual albums and start to put more emphasis on the vocals. There was also outside pressure from the record companies, particularly in the US. I recall a meeting in New York where they were horrified to find that Snow Goose had no vocals. They freaked!"
Their wish was the boys command, as the saying goes. That fourth extravaganza would be Moonmadness, another chapter in the history of Camel, but no better finale to this episode could be imagined than that which subsequently occurred. The Snow Goose earned a silver replica of itself for sales in 1981, and has continued to wing skywards towards greater heights ever since. Who say's only Magpies and Jackdaws collect shiny metal objects to adorn their nests?...
© John Tracy London, 1988