Camel History

Although messrs Latimer, Ward and Ferguson had been together previously in their own band Brew and had briefly backed Philip Goodhand-Tait, Camel itself was formed in 1971 In early '71 the trio met Pete Bardens, a young and instrument-less veteran of the legendary Them and auditioned him on a friends Hammond. The 'friend' had hoped to nab the gig Bardens was after, but (as if it need be said) Bardens got the job. Unable to come up with a suitable name, they did a few gigs around Ireland under the name of On, the name of one of Pete's old bands, and acquired their exotic handle in November '71. The first 'Camel' gig was supporting the then-up and coming Wishbone Ash at Walthamstow Polytechnic later that year.

An eccentric EMI producer who had given the original trio regular sessions (but who refused to hire Pete - he didn't like organists!) introduced the band to brothers Mickie and Dave Most, who in turn introduced them to Geoff jukes, a humble booker at Buffalo Agency. When Jukes split from Buffalo to form his own Gemini Agency, he took Camel with him, booking them out from Gemini, and soon became their manager.

Through steady small-time gigging, Camel accrued enough of a following to attract the attention of various labels, finally signing to MCA to record their eponymous debut album in mid-'72.

Andy Latimer summarises the recording of the first album as "a bloody nightmare". With an inexperienced producer producing an inexperienced band, the recording took "ages' and is remembered by the band for mainly historical/nostalgic reasons. Although it sold a reasonable 5,000 in its first year and has now become something of a collector's item, MCA didn't take up their contractual option on the next Camel album.

Favourable press and public reception to the 'Camel' album got them on the road supporting Barclay James Harvest (who, Andy Latimer says tongue-in-cheekily, were shown up by their support !). This lead to a successful and lovingly-remembered British tour with the redoubtable Stackridge (Camel took their own dustbin-lids).

Along with Richard Thomas and Max Hole, Jukes had by now formed Gama Records, to whom Camel were duly signed. Their first album for Gama was 'Mirage', the recording of which remains something of a haze. It was now Spring 1974 and although they had yet to headline their own British tour, 'Mirage' went down so well in America that they copped a 7-week tour in the States supporting Wishbone Ash. 'Mirage' having found itself a place in the hearts and charts of America, Camel found themselves giving 45 minutes of hard and fast boogie (they confess to having slightly tailored their set for the Americans) to rapturous audiences. And they were only the support!

The American tour ended in Miami during December '74. Instead of returning to England, Jukes persuaded them to hole up in Miami for the winter and to continue touring on their own in the new year. The tour went on to become a 3-month slog, they reckon, through almost every state in the Union.

When they returned to the States for their next (headlining) tour, still before the 'Snow Goose' project, they found concentrations of fans on the West-Coast and elsewhere who would come to every show, sometimes the same people jamming out twice-nightly shows at clubs where the band were playing a week's residency.

A 'literary' piece had been hatching in their minds for about two years before they began to consider the project seriously. Pete had wanted to try Herman Hesse's 'Siddhartha', but it was Doug who suggested-to unanimous agreement-Paul Gallico's 'Snow Goose'. Bardens and Latimer went to a cottage in Devon to work out the bones of the piece and, finding the muse out to lunch, roamed over the moors for an afternoon and argued, bribed and bargained the basis of 'The Snow Goose' out of each other. It was originally intended to have a narrator, but the idea was later dropped.

As production went ahead, Gama were trying to persuade Gallico's publishers to get him to write a brief sleeve-note and also to discuss the idea of releasing both book and album as a package. The publishers refused outright and, furthermore, threatened to slap a court injunction on the album for infringement of copyright. It was thus released as 'Music inspired by The Snow Goose' (to avoid copyright problems); Camel losing the chance to meet the admired Gallico and Gallico losing the chance to spread the word about his feathery allegory. As their co-operation on the spectacularly disastrous Ed Welch album on the same theme shows, aesthetic considerations were not uppermost in the publisher's minds.

Released in April 1975, 'Snow Goose' charted as high as 25 before declining. The media's phobia about the demon concept album meant it wasn't too kindly received by them and it fared similarly in America, where its length and lack of lyrics proved unwieldy for all-important airplay.

Camel premiered the live 'Snow Goose' in Holland, featuring it as the first half of a two-set concert. The general audience reaction in Holland was that they thought little of the first ('Goose) set, but that the second set was rilly fab...

Deciding the lukewarm Dutch reaction was due to the new arrangements necessitated by the absence of an orchestra on the road, they returned to England, re-arranged 'Snow Goose' and tried it out on a short tour. It wend down a storm.

Although realised to its full extent on album, the next logical step was a live 'Snow Goose' complete with orchestra. Plans were therefore laid for the Royal Albert Ilall extravaganza of October 1975. The London Symphony Orchestra were drafted in, along with conductor David Bedford. Andy Latimer describes the RAH concert as "pretty disastrous".

Camel had hired an enormous p.a. to push the 'Goose out to the farthest recesses of the cavernous Albert Hall, only to find at the final soundcheck (when the orchestra were present) that Andy Ward's bass drum alone drowned out the orchestra. When Camel were in full flight (gallop ?), the orchestra might just as well eat its sandwiches.

So it was that the sell-out audience at the RAH couldn't, for the most part, hear the LSO sawing and tooting away at Camel's magnum opus. The majesty of the event, however, ensured that the audience enjoyed the occasion itself.

'Snow Goose' marked a minor slump in Camel's popularity, notably in the States. Some thought they had gone over the top while others wondered what on earth they could do to follow the enormity of the 'Goose.

Similar qualms beset the Camel train. Contractual obligations and the necessity of keeping the band in motion demanded a new album, and one that would take them a step beyond 'Snow Goose'.

'Moonmadness' was recorded under a certain amount of pressure. They were out of practice in writing songs and lyrics and the album had to be ready for a previously- arranged tour. Although mildly received by the press, the live performances which followed its March '76 release swiftly pushed it up to 15 in the charts.

'Moonmadness' re-established their considerable popularity in America. It also marked the beginning of their relationship with saxophonist Mel Collins, introduced as a part-time Camel on Doug's suggestion.

Doug had been feeling less and less at home within the band and had found his interests branching off from those of the rest of the band. Camel had been writing and preparing 'Rain Dances' since the beginning of 1977 and when the time came to take the album into the studio, Doug decided to go his own way. With the band virtually on the eve of recording 'Rain Dances' and without a bassist, some body-snatching was required. Richard Sinclair, Canterbury stalwart and an old friend of the group, was conscripted onto the bass stool. With both the album and tour hanging over his head, Richard coped admirably, filling in for the departed Doug on all but two of the songs (Andy Latimer played bass on 'Tell Me' and 'Skylines').

The '77 'Rain Dances' Tour was a sell-out. The first date of the tour, Manchester Free Trade Hall, was jammed to the rafters, with fans literally draping themselves over the balcony of the Circle. A successful European tour and polite but reserved notices from the rock press charted 'Rain Dances' up to 20.

A lay-off period followed the exhaustive European 'Rain Dances' tour. An American tour had been pencilled in for the beginning of '78 but was later cancelled.

Late '77 and early '78 was a low-point for Camel in general. The 'A Live Record' double was put together and scheduled for release while most of the band were out of the country. Its final release in April '78 was met with mixed reaction from the press, most of which was not entirely unjustified according to Andy Latimer.

They had started work on the groundwork for 'Breathless' in February '78. Andy Latimer and Pete Bardens had gone to Cornwall to write the songs for the album and it was during this time that Pete decided to part company with the band. The opposition of lovehate forces between Pete and Andy had grown to the stage where it was no longer constructive. The amiable friction that had produced some of the most memorable songs in the Camel repertoire had pushed them apart, musically-speaking.

Andy came back to London and finished writing the album. The group rehearsed the album, with Pete remaining for the duration of recording, and took it into Threshold Studios. Pete severed his professional ties with the group after the recording of 'Breathless'.

Bereft of one of the most inimitable parts of the group sound, they began casting around for a replacement for Pete. Two people whose complementing work had impressed them in the past, Jan Schelhaas and Dave Sinclair (cousin to Richard) came to mind. Both were free, so they disappeared into the wilds of Suffolk with the rest of Camel to rehearse for the 'Breathless' tour. During the recording and rehearsal of 'Breathless', Mel Collins decided that he wanted to become a full-time member of Camel, and the 'Breathless' tour will see Camel as a six-piece for the first time ever.

So here we are, eight years on and with Camel still undergoing a constant rejuvenation/evolution. Two of the original quartet have departed and the remaining two are outnumbered by what fans (always the last to re-adjust to line-up changes) probably see as interlopers.

'Breathless' marks a peak in the waveform of Camel's career; an injection of new talent and a new direction to avoid any possibility of stagnation. It also marks their entry into a new territory; the 'Breathless' tour will be taking them to Japan in early '79, a territory that has always shown its appreciation of their releases but had not seemed a viable proposition as far as touring was concerned.

This is by no means a flattering history, as Camel are the last ones to flatter themselves. Just the life of a band whose career has had the slumps and peaks all bands pass through. They are an amiable group of professionals who constantly outwit the dismissive trendsetters by proving their considerable worth before rapturous capacity audiences. The word is always slave to the action and any assessment of their worth must be found in the audiences who sell out their concerts and buy their albums. The history of Camel (which is by no means finished) waits to be concluded by the band themselves.

John Gill

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